I’ve lately gotten many inquiries about exploring Johannesburg and whether it is safe to do so.
While I don’t want to be responsible for you getting mugged – something, I might point out, that can happen to you in any big city – I can tell you that in 3 years of living in Johannesburg I never encountered any trouble. And it’s not because I stayed locked up behind the walls and fences of our security estate in the Northern suburbs. I took many trips into Soweto and Alexandra in my own car, I delivered firewood for women in Diepsloot, and I walked the streets of the inner city hunting for perfect pictures of jacarandas, graffiti, and the occasional This-Is-Africa worthy situation.
(You might also take heart in learning that Joburg is Africa’s most visited city, ahead of Cape Town which is a distant second. So you won’t be alone in exploring it.)
What I do recommend for those new to Johannesburg and concerned about safety is taking a tour as part of a group. It’s more fun that way in any case.
Here is a list of what I’ve put together using my own experience, as well as that of Heather who blogs at www.2summers.net. She has become an expat’s expert on Joburg few of us can hope to emulate in terms of her detailed knowledge of the city, and many of the links below are to her articles.
1. Walking tours with Past Experiences
I met Jo Buitendach, who runs Past Experiences, when I participated in one of her Graffiti tours of Braamfontein. It was fabulous. Jo’s knowledge of the city is remarkable, she and her partner are a lot of fun, and the pictures I took that day were some of my favorite of all of my time in Johannesburg. See here for yourself.
It’s a great way to explore Johannesburg on foot, but not alone. Plus, they’ll get you to the best picture spots in town, as most of the photowalkers are photography enthusiasts. You might learn a thing or two from them about your camera too, if, like me, you find all those buttons a bit of a mystery. My walk was during jacaranda season and I was very happy with Purple Explosion, the resulting photo essay. It’s that time of year again, so join their next walk if you can!
This was recommended to me by a reader and I don’t have personal experience with any of their tours. However, their website is an excellent resource for all things Johannesburg, and the tour offerings look very interesting and unique, such as the Mosques and Minarets tour. Jacaranda tours are offered here as well – make sure you don’t miss the chance while they are in bloom. For more insight into one of their tours, see Heather’s excellent blog post From Mansions to Muti Shops: Exploring Johannesburg’s Heritage.
It didn’t exist yet when I lived there, but I’ve heard good things about Joburg City Sightseeing or Joburg Red Bus for short. City sightseeing has been in Cape Town for ages, but has newly arrived in Johannesburg, offering bus tours to the CBD as well as Soweto. Read about Heather’s experience of a day on the Red Bus to get an idea of what it might look like. I also see that they offer free walking tours.
According to Heather, one of Gerald Garner’s tours is a must for anyone wanting to understand Johannesburg’s history and how it came to be the city it is today. It’s also a must if you like to visit rooftops – and trust me, you will want to, as the photo opportunities are incredible. See What I didn’t Know About Joburg for an excellent blog post on one of his tours.
If you really want to get into the thick of things, “hit the streets of Hillbrow and discover the truth about one of the city’s most notorious and misunderstood suburbs,” starting out in the iconic building of Ponte City. If that sounds too gritty for you, try their “Taste of Yeoville” tour for a culinary experience. If you tell any South African that you’re planning to go into Hillbrow, they will shudder and tell you you’re crazy. It wasn’t that long ago that Hillbrow resembled a war zone that no one in their right mind would venture into, at least not unarmed. But things are changing rapidly in Johannesburg, particularly the inner city which has been vigorously rejuvenated over the past few years, so I think even Hillbrow is well worth a visit if you’ve got an adventurous spirit and the will to experience the real South Africa.
For a slightly different perspective of Johannesburg, try their Underground Pub Crawl, a nighttime tour to places you’d likely never get to on your own. Just make sure you have a taxi ride home lined up so that you can enjoy the drinks included in the tour without worry. MainStreetWalks also offers daytime tours with a slightly different twist, like their coveted picnic at the top of Carlton Centre.
I found them via a link from the Red Bus website so can’t personally vouch for them, but yet another outfit offering free walking tours. If you follow the maxim of “You get what you pay for” a free tour might not be your first choice, but I didn’t want to withhold the information. Personally, I can highly recommend Past Experiences.
This one was a late entry meaning you get 9 for the price of 8! The historical suburb of Sophiatown (it was one of the racially mixed suburbs that was dismantled and whose residents for forcibly relocated during Apartheid) offers walking tours and a small museum. You can also go to one of their monthly live jazz events or community encounters – the next Jazz Fest is coming up this November 19th, and it’s free!
There are some other options out there for exploring the city, such as Voice Map, a podcast-type app where you download walking tour audio onto your phone, or simply Uber. We used Uber on our recent trip to South Africa for our airport transfers, and it worked like a charm. Under 5 min waiting times, clean cars, good drivers, and incredibly affordable compared to U.S. prices.
Oh, and here is a seasonal tour that sounds like a lot of fun, put on by Joburg.co.za, another website you should bookmark: A Mystery Ghost Tour! I can’t wait for one of you to go on that one and tell me all about it.
I hope this has given you a good overview of the many options of exploring Johannesburg, on foot or by bus. I’d love to hear about your adventures, or if you’ve found any new tours not mentioned here!