In attempting to plan a trip to Zimbabwe, I learned that it’s MUCH better to fly round-trip from the USA to South Africa, and then book a separate round-trip flight from South Africa to Zimbabwe. Not only will it save you money, but it’ll also give you flexibility and options.
I had been to South Africa once before, but spent the vast majority of my time partying in Cape Town on that trip… so I figured, this is the perfect opportunity to explore Johannesburg. Specifically, I wanted to see Soweto and experience some of the city’s culture. Not to mention, I had been chatting with a beaaaauuuuutiful South African Airways flight attendant who I connected with while I was in Ghana, and… well, that’ll be a story for another time.
So, on to the good stuff: Johannesburg for one day. Where to stay? How to get around? What to do?
First things first: let’s start by calling the city “Jozi,” since that’s how it’s fondly known by the locals.
Just like any major city, Jozi covers a lot of territory and has within it many different neighborhoods. From the airport (O.R. Tambo), they have a train which takes you to most of the major areas such as Sandton and Rosebank. The “Gautrain” (as they call it) is super nice and affordable too. I took it, and encourage you to as well – cabs can be pricy, since the airport is pretty far out from town. You can even use your credit card to buy the train ticket, so there’s no need to exchange your dollars for rand at the airport. The train ride cost me about $11 or $12 equivalent in USD.
I chose to stay at the “Reef Hotel” in an area called Marshalltown – and that worked out great. I had read some good reviews about it and decided to see for myself; and after staying there, I would recommend it as well. To get to the hotel, I took the Gautrain to Sandton and then grabbed a quick Uber ride from there. The Reef Hotel is clean, modern, and safe – the only thing that could have been a bit better was the wifi, but that’s not a big deal. The wifi was free, so I can’t really complain – but it would randomly drop out and disconnect, as if the signal wasn’t really that reliable.
On the first floor of the building, there’s a cool cafe with food and drinks – and during check-in, the hotel gave me a coupon for a free coffee there. So… I can get over the wifi. My stay was awesome. Reef Hotel on Anderson Street, Marshalltown gets the A.K. stamp of approval.
I checked in that first evening after arriving, tried to sleep off the jet lag (with minimal success), and prepped to make the most of my one full day in town.
My friend’s cousin came to meet up with me in the morning and show me the ropes. The Reef Hotel is walking distance from a plaza called Gandhi Square, where he took me to try a local food known as “Kota” for a late breakfast/early lunch. The spot I got mine from was called Kota Joe, but you can find different shops all over the place. Make sure to try that – it’s delicious!
From there, we walked across the Mandela Bridge and over to an area called Braamfontein, which is home to some university campus buildings and everything you’d expect to come along with that – coffee shops, hip restaurants, etc. Despite Johannesburg’s reputation for being dangerous, it never felt that way to me. There’s hustle and bustle with a twist of mild chaos in some of the busy areas, but no different than New York City. I wouldn’t go roam around Johannesburg aimlessly atmidnight, but… you shouldn’t really be doing that in ANY city.
After a thorough walking tour of the neighborhoods, I went back to my hotel to get ready for the main event: Soweto. The house of Nelson Mandela, and the area which most of the freedom fighters hailed from. Soweto is an area with a fierce reputation and a heavy history, so of course – I had to go there.
Another friend came to scoop me up and take me, but even if you don’t have a local connect like I did, you can easily grab a taxi or an Uber. We went to Vilakazi Street, where they’ve turned Mandela’s house into a museum and you can grab some traditional foods at the restaurants.
The street was smaller than I expected and the atmosphere much more relaxed – I think its notorious reputation must be from years past, or deeper into other neighborhoods. Aside from a few random beggars asking for donations, Vilakazi Street was super chill and borderline commercialized. We saw other foreigners strolling around too, so it’s not just me saying this. The street has become a tourist attraction and I suppose what comes along with that is development of infrastructure, and safety.
Along the roads going to and from Vilakazi Street, you’ll see some shanty-shack looking areas but there’s no real reason to go into those places. My friend described them as “informal settlements” which I guess embody the poverty that one would imagine in residential slums – but, the places with historical significance (like Mandela’s house) are built up and safe to visit.
As the sun set over Soweto, we headed out and I got an awesome nightcap of a meal from my beloved Chicken Licken, which I had indulged in on my visit to Cape Town years ago. If you go to South Africa, you MUST get an order of spicy wings from Chicken Licken. That meal will change your life!
Other spots worth hitting in Jozi if you have the time are Sandton City (a square with shopping, dining, and a massive statue of Nelson Mandela) and the Rosebank Mall.
My day in Johannesburg was well-spent. The following morning, I was heading back to the airport and off to Zimbabwe – but in a matter of 24 hours, I was able to check Soweto off my life list of places to see.
If you have any questions or need any travel tips for your own day in Johannesburg… OR, if you want to hear the story surrounding this photo below… feel free to hit the comments section!