Why A Johannesburg City Tour Is The Best Way To See The City For The First Time

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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.

city of gold mural
One of the many nicknames for Joburg is City of Gold where many continue to come to seek their fortunes.

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.

Note The Constitutional Hill prison was a  notorious prison during the Apartheid years imprisoning thousands of men, women and children.
a photo of Nelson and Mandela
Among the famous prisoners of Constitutional Hill prison were Gandhi and Mandela.
NB It’s only the magic of post-processing that created this image of Gandhi and Mandela together. They were not at Constitutional Hill at the same time.

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).

Hillbrow Tower Johannesburg
The Hillbrow Tower is a local landmark which is the tallest tower in Africa.

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.

Jozi carjacker drink
When the question is asked if Johannesburg is safe, the many carjackings come to mind.

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.

Top Tip!  We were told by everyone including our hotel to use an Uber to get around if you are not driving. Yes, getting into a stranger’s car is safer than getting into a taxi in Johannesburg.
We did notice in Johannesburg that a lot of the street lights weren’t working and we wondered if that was a preventive measure against carjacking. A stopped car is a lot easier to carjack. There is also A LOT of CCTV cameras everywhere.
In addition to the city tour of Johannesburg arranged for us by Yellow Zebra Safaris, we also drove around the city ourselves in our rental car and in the evening we took Ubers to go out on the town.
The Rosebank Mall
Johannesburg neighbourhoods are so different you can spend time in the city without ever going somewhere in the least dodgy. But where’s the fun in that?

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.

stones outside of the Nelson Mandela Houghton mansion
Johannesburg city sightseeing tours will take you to see the Houghton mansion house that supporters of Nelson Mandela bought for him once he was released from Robben Island.

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.

monopoly man street art in Johannesburg
On a city tour Johannesburg provided plenty of street art for photo backdrops.

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.

A banner in the Maboneng neighbourhood
On a city tour Johannesburg shows you all its different aspects from trendy Maboneng to historic Constitutional Hill.

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.

colorful juju hats
Colorful Juju hats for sale at the Rosebank Sunday market. Yes, Reader, I bought one.

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 modern buildings of Sandton
Sandton is known as the richest square mile in Africa.

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.

an orange seller
A Johannesburg city tour showed how ordinary citizens scrabble to make living in this metropolis, such as this orange seller.

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.

Chickens or eggs on sale
One of the most surprising things we saw on our Johannesburg sightseeing tour were live chickens for sale on the street.

Another fascinating place we went to had market stalls lined with African traditional medicines and muti shops.

a poster for back street medical practices
On our Johannesburg half day tour we saw lots of advertisements for traditional African medicines (from the amusing 100% increase guaranteed here to the disturbing advertisements for back-room abortions).

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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sightseeing tour of Joburg South Africa
Why you should take a city tour of Johannesburg South Africa to get to know this city
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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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