Things to do in Johannesburg and Pretoria
Africa City Break Travel Ideas South Africa

South Africa: Things to do in Johannesburg and Pretoria

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

Things to do in Johannesburg and Pretoria

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

Things to do in Johannesburg and Pretoria
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.

Things to do in Johannesburg and Pretoria

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.
Things to do in Johannesburg and Pretoria

4. Soweto

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

Things to do in Johannesburg and Pretoria

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.

Things to do in Johannesburg and Pretoria

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.

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  1. All great tips, Natasha! Long time since I’ve been, but I remember the night zoo in Pretoria was quite good. And visiting the Cullinan Diamond mine was interesting, too.

  2. It’s been a long time since I visited Jo’burg, but I remember never feeling very safe when I was there. Also, it was a lot colder than I expected! Great round up of things to do though, if I make it back 😀

  3. Wow the Union building pictured at the end is beautiful…

  4. Great post – I havn’t been to South Africa but it seems like an interesting place – would be concerned about safety though

  5. This would be fascinating – I always think of the animals and forget what an intense history the country has.

  6. I would love to see those trees, wow. Just gorgeous.

  7. Those purple trees look so amazing. Walking along that street seems like it would be so peaceful!

  8. We stayed right in Jo-burg and enjoyed the city but Cape Town really stole my heart!

  9. Well, I’ve learned something today… I never knew that’s what Soweto stood for. Would love to visit the Apartheid Museum. Bet it’s an eye opener!

  10. Thanks for the list. We’re heading to South Africa in January, so this is going to come in handy. The last time we were in South Africa we cycled down the Western Cape and didn’t get to this part of the country. Once we were done cycling, we just relaxed in Cape Town and then went to Stellenbosch to drink wine and eat a lot of food. After four months of cycling, we were pretty lazy. I’m excited to go back and really explore the country.

    • Wow that cycle trip sounds awesome and there’s nothing wrong with Stellenbosch and Cape Town 🙂 I did quite a lot while I was there but would love to go back and do some hiking in the Drakensberg Mountains.

    • Hey Deb. If you need any SA tips for your upcoming trip, let me know. Would be great to meet you when you’re here.

  11. I love South Africa although I haven’t spent much time in and around Joburg. The problem is there is so much to see in SA, its impossible to get to everything.

    BTW – I love the Jacaranda Trees. The colours are stunning.

    • The Jacarandas are just finished their flowering here in Melbourne now but they don’t have whole streets lined with them as in Pretoria – really very special. I love the way the colour almost glows even in overcast conditions.

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