Johannesburg is the starting point for many travellers arriving in South Africa and I expect not many stay more than a few hours due to the city’s unsavoury reputation. But if you do happen to stay for a few days here are a few ideas for things to do in Johannesburg and Pretoria.
Just to explain, South Africa’s administrative capital Pretoria is around 50 kilometres north of Johannesburg but urban sprawl has led to them merging geographically. I’d always advise staying in Pretoria rather than Johannesburg – it’s pretty and feels a lot safer.
The air here is dry, thin, cool. Johannesburg and Pretoria are on the Highveld, a plateau that rises 1,753 metres or 5,751 feet in the east of South Africa.
1. The Jacaranda City
The first thing to note is to visit in springtime (September/October in the southern hemisphere) to see the ‘Jacaranda City’ turn purple. There are thousands of these gorgeous trees planted in its streets, parks and gardens. The sight and the scent is heavenly. Feet crunch blossoms walking through the gracious streets of affluent suburbs, filling the air with a purple haze as the sun glints off green bullet-proof glass and razor wire. Up in the palatial area of Waterkloof you can see rare white Jacaranda trees on Herbert Baker Street.
2. The Apartheid Museum
The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg sets out to illustrate the history of apartheid in South Africa. It was built and is owned by a wealthy Casino consortium, which sits uncomfortably with me but I did find it informative, impacting and very detailed. It is set in a building that is designed to be harshly institutional in style with concrete towers shooting up to the sky shouting Freedom, Diversity, Reconciliation.
3. Klapperkop fort and the Voortrekker Monument
The hills above Pretoria are topped by fortifications in varying states of decay, and the massive, block-shape of the Voortrekker Monument. This was completed in 1949 and meant to honour the Voortrekkers who left the Cape in the 1830s and 40s, suffering great hardships as they travelled inland to escape British control. The Klapperkop fort was built in the closing years of the 19th century by the Boers anticipating the outbreak of the second Anglo-Boer war. Both offer great views over the city and country.
Soweto is an acronym of “South-western Townships” and during the height of the apartheid regime was racially separated from Johannesburg. Home to around a Million people it has a rich history of political activism and is a melting pot of South African cultures. Tours of Soweto run regularly and you can get a good view over Soweto from the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. I have to admit to being war of township tours after my experience on one in Cape Town but you have to make up your own mind on that.
5. The Union Buildings and Pretoria’s government buildings
Pretoria is the administrative (or executive) headquarters of the South African government and the Union Buildings are at the heart of this. Set in green, formal gardens at a high point in the city, the graceful curving shape of the Union Buildings are worth a wander. In Church Square (central Pretoria) are the more historic (Boer-era) public buildings, including the clock-towered Town Hall guarded by the squat, top-hatted figure of Paul Kruger. Africans sit around on the grass in the square, taking their ease next to one of the architects of their bondage.
So that’s my list of things to do in Johannesburg and Pretoria, just make sure you get out and see the rest of South Africa before listening to the daily discussion of violent crime and Phil Collins on the radio gets you down 😉
By Natasha von Geldern
Can you add anything to my list of things to do in Johannesburg and Pretoria? Find more information about visiting Johannesburg here.