South Africa on the Rise: Why You Should Visit Johannesburg Right Now

by  Roni Weiss | Jan 15, 2014
Johannesburg / Ryan_Fire_Starter_James/iStock

In South Africa, Johannesburg is frequently treated as a stopover on the way to Cape Town or a safari. But don't be fooled: Joburg is more than just a hub. With an influx of creative, passionate South Africans and expats – not to mention accessible public transportation – Johannesburg is revitalizing itself after the decades of segregation caused by apartheid. Here’s how you can see it for yourself – at the right cost, at the right time.

As a city in transition, Johannesburg currently allows you to experience the energy of a major destination that's figuring itself out – before it hits its full global stride. Enclaves like  MabonengNewtownBraamfonteinMelville, and 44 Stanley all have their own distinct vibes, with boutique shops, one-off restaurants, and welcoming cafes. The township of Soweto (the one-time home of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu) is another option for adventures you wouldn't find north of the Equator, including their famous shebeen alternative pubs. Shopaholics can head directly to Sandton City for high-end stores – and a photo opp with a nearly 20-foot-tall statue of Nelson Mandela.

Another reason to visit now is the favorable exchange rate for U.S. travelers. Recent headlines like "Rand Weaker vs. Dollar" will tell you that $1 USD gets you about 10 South African Rand. While prices might be higher than in other parts of Africa, you'll also find better travel infrastructure than you would in other parts of the continent. And you'll certainly pay less than you would in North America for similar services. For example, a ticket to the Apartheid Museum runs you 65 Rand ($6) and a meal at an inexpensive restaurant could run you between 60 and 100 Rand ($5.50 and $9).

If you're interested in South African history, the Apartheid MuseumLiliesleafNelson Mandela House,Hector Pieterson MuseumConstitution Hill, and Regina Mundi Catholic Church (especially with a tour by entertaining guide Danny Dube) will get you a sense of where the country came from, and how it got to where it is today. Again, general admission is usually less than $6, and tours are just a couple of dollars more.

For a budget taste of the city, don't miss the Neighbourgoods Market, which takes place in Braamfontein every Saturday. The market has a friendly vibe, and many of the vendors will be more than happy to talk to you about their wares, or offer you a sample with no pressure to purchase. Interested in public art? Head from Braamfontein to Newtown – downtown Johannesburg is very walkable – and see its 560 carved wooden heads and other sculptures without having to pull out your wallet. The area by the M1 highway near Museum Africa also boasts some fantastic street art.

To get around Joburg, public Rea Vaya buses can get you to some of the major sites with fares based on journey length (starting at 5.50 Rand, or about $0.50). Alternatively, though it might be a little cheesy, the CitySightseeing Hop On – Hop Off bus bus hits many popular sites and provides free wifi as well as commentary. Prices start at 99 Rand (about $9) if purchased online and 130 Rand (about $12) on spot.

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