Joburg. Jozi. Joni. eGoli. Johannesburg, the second largest city in Africa, is a sprawling metropolis with many nicknames. Along with its reputation as an economic and cultural hub in southern Africa, Joburg is also notorious for its crime rates. Trying to figure out the lay of the land seemed complicated, and we too did worry about Johannesburg safety. We opted to take an afternoon Johannesburg city tour arranged by Yellow Zebra Safaris on our first day in the city. A Johannesburg city sightseeing tour would give us an overview of the destination and focus us on where we wanted to explore further.
Why Visit Johannesburg?
Joburg is the largest city in the world nowhere near a body of water because this city became a megalopolis for one reason only … gold.
The Boers of Cape Town got sick of the British being up in their business and moved eastward in South Africa. With the discovery in 1886 of gold on a farm in what is now Johannesburg though, the British came for a look-see. And more conquering. Obvs.
In the late 19th century, Paul Kruger built the Old Fort on Constitutional Hill to defend against those pesky British but to no avail. The British took over the fort and turned it into a prison. Now, it is a fantastic prison museum and next door to the Supreme Court of South Africa.
From a gold rush town of 100,000 people, Joburg is now the largest city in South Africa. As a major transit hub in southern Africa, you may find yourself in Joburg at some point even if you are only passing through to other destinations in South Africa itself (Cape Town, Kruger National Park etc) or other Southern African countries (Namibia, Etosha National Park).
Is Johannesburg Safe?
Generally yes, but it depends on which of the Johannesburg neighbourhoods you are in. Joburg is spread across 335 square meters (about a 129 square miles) so that’s a whole lot of different Johannesburg neighbourhoods.
Although widely known that Johannesburg has a high crime rate, is it so much worse than Cape Town? No. Cape Town and Johannesburg have similar levels of crime.
Why is Cape Town perceived to be safer? One theory we were told is that it is all about marketing. Post-Apartheid, there was white flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town. It fits the white narrative better if Cape Town is perceived as safe and Johannesburg safety downplayed.
As you can see from the tag on the photo above, we went to Urbanology, a super cool restaurant in the central business district of Johannesburg. Nelson showed Urbanology to us on our daytime Joburg city tour and told us the area around it was safe but not to venture too far on our own that evening.
Joburg safety does require you to be street smart. Don’t flash your cash and keep an eye on your belongings. Don’t wander around neighbourhoods you don’t know at night alone. Keep your car doors locked and belongings out of sight. You know the drill – it’s the same for most major cities.
Johannesburg City Sightseeing
We made several stops during our Johannesburg city tour including visiting the museums on Constitutional Hill. Our lovely Johannesburg private tour guide, Nelson, even went through a drive-through for food because the children were hungry!
The main stops for our city tour of Johannesburg were the museums of Constitutional Hill, the Nelson Mandela mansion at Houghton and the shopping area of trendy Maboneng. Although there is a lot more to Johannesburg city sightseeing, these stops were a good introduction.
Since the city tour was private, we were able to stop when and where we wanted as well. For example, in addition to a pitstop for snacks on our Johannesburg half day tour we stopped for cool street art along the way.
Our Johannesburg City Tour Guide
Our Johannesburg private tour guide Nelson was charming and informative. My kids ranked him as their favourite guide from the whole of our South Africa trip.
It was only a couple of hours into our tour that we realised that Nelson’s English was entirely self-taught! A little more digging revealed that Nelson was originally from the north of South Africa near the Zimbabwe border.
Like so many of the immigrants, Nelson came to Johannesburg for the opportunity of a better life. He started off by selling tomatoes on the street from a shopping trolley – 10 tomatoes for one Rand. He had to hustle to sell them rapidly because they were perishable items.
After teaching himself English, Nelson became a tour guide because he loves history and knew the city well. How impressive is that??
A Selection of Johannesburg Neighborhoods
The neighbourhood of Maboneng was just my scene so we wound up returning to it later on our own. Maboneng is a creative buzzy neighbourhood of old warehouse conversions full of sweet artistanal shops and great restaurants.
Rosebank is an older luxury neighbourhood which has managed to stay hip and current. On the Sunday, we went to the famous Rosebank Market which is held on the rooftop of a local Johannesburg mall. There’s kids activities, food stalls and a fantastic arts and crafts market.
The beautiful home of Nelson Mandela (post imprisonment in 1992) in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton will soon be converted into a boutique hotels. Houghton has a lot of huge homes which were abandoned by whites fleeing the area after the fall of Apartheid. Some of these houses are being turned into chic boutique hotels (including the boutique hotel we stayed at, Houghton Hotel).
We felt Sandton Ciy Johannesburg could be anywhere in the world – London, New York, Singapore etc. It’s called the richest square mile in Africa and you can see it in the gleaming steel and glass buildings, expensive restaurants and multinational hotel chains.
The townships like Soweto where you can visit the Mandela National House (the former Nelson Mandela’s township home) is also part of Johannesburg. Soweto was not part of our half day tour in Johannesburg because we wanted to do a full day visit.
Why Take A Joburg City Tour?
Call it what you will. Joburg, Jozi, Joni … is a super cool place to visit.
Take a Joburg city tour and see ALL the different parts of this vibrant city from the inner city to the outer surburbs: the markets selling traditional medicine, the immigrants trying to eke out a living, the traders from other Southern African countries who come to stock up on supplies, the street art and hip markets, the glitzy buildings of Sandton, the imposing walls that guard enormous mansions, the townships.
Some of the places we went to on our Johannesburg half day tour we would not have ventured without a local tour guide who knew what he was doing.
On our city tour of Johannesburg, Nelson knew where to stop and where there had been issues before. For example, we saw some tourists stopping on a hill which provided an amazing vantage point over the city. Nelson decline to stop explaining to me that the place was known for muggings.
What did we do on our Johannesburg sightseeing tour that was most definitely helped by having a private tour guide?
On the way to Constitutional Hill, we passed through Hillbrow, one of the poorest parts of the city.
Hillbrow used to be a rich whites-only area (and hence, the Hillbrow Tower being the tallest building in Africa). With the end of Apartheid, the whites moved out to the suburbs and Sandton. The area is now populated with migrants from the townships and also the rest of Africa – people from Nigeria, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe etc.
Hillbrow was NOT the place to stop. When someone saw me with a phone camera he started yelling but Nelson drove calmly away. Nelson explained later that people were antsy in case we were police informants come to rat them out for whatever they were doing.
In Hillsbrow people came to buy and to sell fruit and vegetables — and the occasional live chickens. Traders from other Southern African countries would come with their vans and tows to haul back goods to their own homelands.
Another fascinating place we went to had market stalls lined with African traditional medicines and muti shops.
Would I want to explore these places further without a private tour guide – Johannesburg in all of its contradictory glory? No. When people are desperate and poor, they will do anything. Johannesburg safety issues are real.
Johannesburg city tours will let you catch a glimpse into the side of South Africa that is still a work in progress.
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We received a complimentary Johannesburg city tour from Yellow Zebra Safaris which did not in any way affect the opinions given in this article. We did not otherwise receive compensation of any form, monetary or otherwise, from any of the products, services, hotels etc mentioned in this article.
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