Why Johannesburg? Because the capital city of South Africa has become a trendy destination nowadays, with plenty of things to do and places to visit. Tourists from different parts of the world spend one or two days in the capital city and then head to Kruger National Park or south to the ocean and drive the famous Garden Route. The metropolis has a diverse range of historical attractions, modern shopping malls, lively nightlife, and fantastic cuisine. If you only have one day in Johannesburg, you can still get a glimpse of the best places!
The capital of South Africa was the epic end of our two-week road trip through the country. We flew from Europe to Cape Town, drove the famous Garden Route, and flew back home from Johannesburg at a very reasonable price. Being on a tight schedule, we spent only one day in Johannesburg, but we managed to visit the best places in town. If you’re unsure whether to give it a chance, read the article to find out how to see the best of Johannesburg in one day!
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Useful Info for Your One Day in Johannesburg Itinerary
How to get to Johannesburg
Johannesburg O.R.Tambo International Airport is the busiest airport in Africa, with international flights from all over the world. You can find amazing flight deals from Europe and the United States. However, Johannesburg is often overlooked, and most tourists only get to the capital on transit, on their way to Kruger National Park or Cape Town.
Getting to Johannesburg from Cape Town, Port Elisabeth, Durban, or George is easy and cheap most of the time, with many flights at various times. Mango, South African Airways, FlySafair, and British Airways operate these routes. However, considering the long distances in South Africa, a domestic flight remains the best option to travel fast and efficiently.
Note. We paid for a domestic flight from Port Elisabeth to Johannesburg 50 EUR (55 USD)/person/one way.
How to get to downtown Johannesburg
O.R.Tambo International Airport lies 25 km east of the city center. Gautrain train takes you to downtown Johannesburg from 04:50 until 21:04, with stations at Sandton, Rosebank, and Park Station. Some say it is dangerous to travel by train; some tourists are pretty confident about it. We don’t know since we rented a car from the airport.
You’ll reach Sandton in less than 30 minutes if you rent a car. If not, you can schedule an Uber for minimum stress.
Renting a Car in Johannesburg
The best way to visit Johannesburg is in a rented car from the airport. You get the freedom to make your plan, drive where you want, and spend as much time as you want, with no stress or other limitations. The traffic is more substantial than in Cape Town but manageable; simply avoid peak travel times.
We found Johannesburg a safe town for tourists with a rented car, which we saw a lot. Finding a parking place is not a problem, although sometimes you will be approached by some guys offering their services to protect the car during your stay for a few bucks. It is up to you if you choose to pay them or not.
How to get around in Johannesburg if I don’t rent a car?
An excellent idea to discover the city would be hopping on a Hop On Hop Off double-decker bus. With over 16 stops, you can see over 20 of Johannesburg’s top attractions. Hop On Hop Off Johannesburg has many options: one day ticket, one day bus+ Soweto ticket, one Sunday sizzler ticket, or a two-day ticket if you spend more than one day in Johannesburg.
There are two routes you can choose from.
Green Tour Route: Rosebank – Zoo Lake – Johannesburg Zoo – Military Museum – Constitution Hill
Red Tour Route: Constitution Hill – Mining District – Carlton Centre – James Hall Transport Museum – Gold Reef City Casino Hotel – Apartheid Museum – New Town – Braamfontein
Where to stay in Johannesburg
ROSEBANK and MELROSE are considered the safest areas of the city so many choose to stay here. The neighborhoods are always alive since there are plenty of vintage stores, restaurants, cafes, shops, and bars. It’s easy to walk around so you’ll see many tourists in the area.
SANDTON is the most important financial district in the country, making the area very safe. There are many restaurants, parks, shopping malls, and hotels. We chose to stay here for the short stay in Johannesburg, at a hotel near Nelson Mandela Square.
MELVILLE is a university area frequented by students from all over the country. The neighborhood is fresh and lively due to the significant number of restaurants and nightclubs.
Is Johannesburg SAFE?
This question hit my mind for sure. Crime, street violence, and robbery are among the concerns for travelers coming to Johannesburg. Luckily, the city is much safer than it used to be in the past. Just be vigilant, don’t walk or drive at night, and keep your valuables safe. If you’re renting a car, don’t stop for hitchhikers. If you don’t want to drive, use Uber or the Hop On Hop Off buses for transportation, or join organized group travels.
I chose for you some of the best tours of Johannesburg, with great reviews and value for money, so feel free to check them out:
#1. Tour Johannesburg at your own pace on a double-decker tourist bus and see the city’s best sights from a preferential point of view. BOOK YOUR TICKETS HERE
#2. One day in Johannesburg: Soweto, Apartheid Museum & City Tour. BOOK YOUR TICKETS HERE
#3. Johannesburg and Soweto: Half Day Tour. BOOK YOUR TICKETS HERE
We rented a car from the airport, so we visited many places and drove to different locations; however, we never felt threatened or unsafe.
One Day in Johannesburg Itinerary. What to do in Johannesburg for a Day
Nelson Mandela Square
Start your day with a coffee at Nelson Mandela Square. Situated in the Sandton neighborhood, it is a popular attraction for tourists and locals alike, with almost one million people per month visiting the place.
In the heart of this open-air square, you will find the iconic symbol of freedom, a six-meter-high statue of Nelson Mandela.
Following the square is the Sandton City Shopping Center, packed with fine dining restaurants, luxury shops, modern offices, and a triple-story library.
Apartheid Museum should be high on your list if you want to learn more about South Africa’s history. To set the atmosphere of the place, you’ll get a glimpse of racial segregation right upon arrival when you receive an entry ticket to classify you and your companions as white or non-white.
The Apartheid museum takes you through the history of South Africa, from 1910 when Apartheid started until 1994 when the country faced the first democratic elections. Opened in 2001, the gallery is a massive exhibition of documents, photos, films, and artifacts so plan at least two to three hours for a visit.
Everyone visiting this place gets a vision of the struggles and discriminations South Africans endured for decades therefore the whole experience can be painful and emotional. Take it slow, and try to assimilate all the information.
Opening Hours: from 9:00 to 5:00 pm, Thursday to Sunday.
Optional. If you have more than one day in Johannesburg and are looking for some fun, stop at Gold Reef City. Situated next to Apartheid Museum, the amusement park is a great way to raise the adrenalin for a few hours.
Also known as Soccer City or Calabash (an African pot), FNB Stadium is a football and rugby stadium near the Soweto area. The 60 to 90 minutes guided tours cover the changing rooms and players’ tunnel, VIP, and the stadium’s mixed areas.
If you don’t intend to visit the stadium, you will still bump into it on your way to/from downtown Johannesburg.
On your way from/ to downtown Johannesburg, you will discover another beautiful and bright landmark of the capital: the Orlando Towers.
The huge towers are painted in vibrant colors reflecting the happy South African spirit. They are built on a coal-fired power station and came alive only in 2009. Now the place is famous for bungee and base jumping, rock climbing, zip-lining, and abseiling.
The next thing on your one day in Johannesburg’s list is driving to Soweto. Soweto’s short name for South Western Townships was established in 1904 to reside migrant workers operating in the gold mines. As time went by, many people of color were relocated to this area as the city center was reserved for whites only.
However, some things changed in 1994 due to Nelson Mandela, although it remained a separate municipality until 2002. Soweto has a rich history of fighting against the Apartheid regime.
Now the people living here have a university and a mall. With a population of 1.4 million, many still live in corrugated houses. You will also bump into one-story houses and notice the red bricks almost everywhere.
HECTOR PIETERSON Memorial&Museum
“I saw a child fall down. Under a shower of bullets, I rushed forward and went for the picture. It had been a peaceful march; the children were told to disperse, they started singing Nkosi Sikelele. The police were ordered to shoot.” – the statement of Sam Nzima, talking about the events that took place on June 16, 1976, in Soweto.
The memorial and museum are a national heritage site, named after Hector Pieterson; a young boy killed during a march through Soweto when students protested against Apartheid. You’ll walk along a series of photos taken on June 16, 1976, so you’ll get to learn more about this awful day in South Africa’s history.
Photo: Mbuyisa Makhubo picked up Hector Pieterson and, together with Hector’s sister, Antoinette, ran towards the only photographer in the area.
Just across the Hector Pieterson Memorial & Museum is a souvenir alley. The vendors are friendly and lovely, not too demanding, so if you are looking for some souvenirs to take back home, there is plenty to choose from. You will find souvenirs on Vilakazi Street, but the area is too crowded with too many vendors, so they tend to be quite aggressive.
Vilakazi Street in Soweto
The street was named after Dr. Benedict Wallet Vilakazi, a scholar who first published poetry in the Zulu language. It’s also the street where you will find Nelson Mandela’s house and plenty of restaurants and souvenir stalls.
As we were trying to find a parking place, we bumped into numerous men seeking to stop our car by standing in front of the vehicle. They told us to park at a specific location to protect the car during our visit. At some point, the police arrived, and suddenly everyone disappeared. I have to be honest; the street was a big disappointment as we felt like being hunted. As a tip, don’t get scared, be vigilant, and let them be.
If you get hungry, you will find numerous restaurants in the area, or you can stop for a cold drink. Before visiting Nelson Mandela House, take a quick look at the former home of Desmond Tutu.
NELSON MANDELA House
At number 8115 on Vilakazi Street, you will find the small red brick house where Nelson Mandela lived before his arrest: a lovely authentic home with many objects and information on display. The visit takes no more than 10 to 15 minutes, and you get a glimpse of how the Mandela family used to live.
Unfortunately, this area also tends to be crowded as they let too many people go inside. But I still feel Nelson Mandela House is one of the places you must visit while in Johannesburg.
The last stop of the day is Constitution Hill. The site is a former jail and military fort that imprisoned many known men and women fighting for freedom like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Fatima Meer, or Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
During its 100-year history, the site incarcerated men, women, and children of all ages and races. On a guided tour, you’ll get to understand and learn more about the place.
In 1994, when South Africa transited to democracy, the site became the country’s Constitutional Court. Entry to the Court is free; still, entrance fees are charged for the museums.
Note. You can leave your car in the secure underground parking, found on levels C and D coming from Joubert Street, for only a few rands.
Finish your one day in Johannesburg with a delicious Dinner
Depending on where you are staying, pamper yourself with a proper dinner at a restaurant near your hotel! We drove almost 75km in only one day and ended our journey at Nelson Mandela Square, as we stayed in the Sandton area. We’ve seen beautiful places and experienced contradictory feelings! The impact of what we saw was and still is enormous!
Although we are not big fans of restaurant chains, we bumped into the Ocean Basket Restaurant at Sandton Mall. We only ate fresh fish and seafood for the last two weeks, and since we were flying home back to Europe, we decided to end this epic journey with a seafood plate. Not a clever idea, you would say, since Johannesburg is so far from the ocean. But we had a pleasant surprise, as the dish was so delicious!
Interactive Map of the Best Places to Visit in Johannesburg in One Day
Underneath, you’ll find a customized map that includes all the locations mentioned in this article. Just open up this article on your phone and click on the frame in the upper right corner of this map. Google Maps app will open up and you can check all the details. I hope it helps!
We drove almost 75km on our day in Johannesburg, from the Sandton area, down south to Apartheid Museum, the Soweto area, and Constitution Hill, then back to Sandton. But, the distance will be shorter if you stay in Rosebank.