Often neglected on the South African tourist trail, Johannesburg is a cultural goldmine says South Africa expert and regular contributor Lucy Corne. Here’s her authoritative guide to the City of Gold’s intriguing museums…
Open your eyes
If you were to judge a city’s personality by its museums then Johannesburg would most likely be labelled schizophrenic – poignant, chaotic, thought-provoking, hilarious, emotional and bizarre, sometimes all at the same time. Thinking about it, this might not be a bad way to gauge this city. But there’s one word that sums up the City of Gold better than any other: overlooked. Too many travellers make the mistake of leaving the city after the briefest of glimpses – or sometimes without ever leaving the airport.
Since you’re going against the grain of South African tourism, you might as well begin precisely in the area that most Jozi jaunts avoid – the city centre. Known as the CBD (Central Business District), downtown Johannesburg is surprisingly hectic considering that many businesses have moved out to suburban malls.
Street traders and suited businessmen cross paths to a soundtrack of reggae music belted out by the minibus taxis that sidle by in search of passengers. You soon forget tales that Jo’burg has become a deserted shell of its former self and realise that the striking thing here is that the city is, well, normal. It also has more than its fair share of attractions – above all an eclectic bevy of museums.
Incarceration and intoxication
The best way to approach the museums is to start in serious mode and lighten up as the day progresses, making Constitution Hill the ideal place to get started. Originally a Boer War fort and later a prison, the 19th century building’s current incarnation is as a superlative museum attached to the country’s constitutional court. The chilling exhibits in Number Four, the wing of the prison where Nelson Mandela began his incarceration, offer a grim look at the harsh realities of the apartheid system.
So what about the light relief? Well you won’t find anything lighter than the World of Beer, the perfect antidote to an intense and solemn morning. Not just another brewery tour, the World of Beer is a quirky, interactive, utterly unique and borderline ridiculous homage to the amber nectar. By the time you reach the complimentary bar at the end of the tour, you’ll be well versed in the rites of African beer ceremonies, know why shebeens (illegal drinking dens) popped up all over apartheid South Africa and understand the entire brewing process from picking the hops to sipping a cold pint of Castle with your biltong.
Downtown Johannesburg does many things well but for accommodation you’re better off retiring to the suburbs for the night before heading for the city’s top attraction the next morning. Lying southwest of the city, the Apartheid Museum is hardly a barrel of laughs and some of the exhibits are not ideal for little ones, but it’s a superbly laid out, detailed look at every aspect of the regime that ruled over South Africa for almost 50 years.
In a spot of town planning that seems highly apt for this paradoxical city, those seeking an immediate pick-me-up are quickly rewarded: the Apartheid Museum is based in the same complex as Gold Reef City, a scream-inducing theme park based on the site of a 19th century goldmine.
The gold rush
Back in the CBD, other attractions delve deeper into Jo’burg’s beginnings and how it gained its moniker as the City of Gold. The city’s origins are best explained at the wonderfully haphazard Museum Africa back in Newtown: a sprawling collection of everything that’s ever happened in the city, housed in the former fruit and veg market.
If it all gets too much you can take refuge in one of the smaller and more focused museums – the Absa Money Museum with its collection of cash spanning hundreds of years and almost as many countries, or the Dynamite Museum out in Modderfontein which details the dynamite boom (!) that inevitably followed the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand.
On familiar ground
Having spent more time in the CBD than many Jo’burg residents, you might want to end your stay seeing the other side of the city – the sprawling malls filled with gourmet restaurants and fast food joints, chain stores and curio markets and every entertainment option you could think of from ice rinks and cinemas to nightclubs, theatres and casinos.
When you step back and survey the city you will realise that whether you see Johannesburg as exciting or daunting, vibrant or crowded, one thing no-one can claim is that the City of Gold is ever dull.
Check out Lucy’s other features on how to get up close and personal with South Africa’s incredible wildlife, and dining in style in the Cape Winelands.
Thanks to Flickr photographer Mister E for the header shot.
Virgin Atlantic operate daily flights to South Africa from London Heathrow. Got any Johannesburg tips to share? Let us know in the comments below.