Take advantage of the strong dollar to visit Johannesburg for its fascinating Apartheid Museum, the inspiring Constitutional Court, great restaurants, shopping for both luxury goods and for traditional South African crafts, and the chance to see a traditional African medicine shop. Johannesburg is a city of stark contrasts, both glittering upscale malls and townships of people living in striking poverty, which you can visit with a guide.

Johannesburg, South Africa is a City of Contrasts

The secret meeting place of anti-apartheid leaders in Johannesburg (Photo Philadelphia TMOM Sarah Ricks)

Johannesburg, South Africa has both upscale shopping and shocking poverty, both inspiring current history and a tragic past of racial apartheid. Exploring this fascinating city of contrasts is more affordable now than last year because of the strong U.S. dollar in 2016. For safety reasons, we explored Johannesburg with guides.

Upscale and Funky Restaurants in Johannesburg

Picture a traditional fancy steakhouse. Add excellent South African red wine and great service. Now imagine it is all inexpensive – because the dollar is strong in South Africa. That’s the experience you can expect at Trumps Grillhouse and Butchery, which has been serving up steaks on Nelson Mandela Square in Johannesburg for 21 years. My son and I each got filet mignon and sides, plus I had a glass of red wine – all for $38, including tip, because the dollar is currently worth 16 rand. South Africa is cheaper now than in 2015.

For a completely different food experience in Johannesburg, visit the funky modern shopping building, 27 Boxes, a collection of small shops created from 27 industrial shipping containers. Choose from a few options – curries, cheeseburgers, a bakery, a coffee house – for an inexpensive but delicious and filling lunch.

Apartheid Museum

This is an emotionally tough place to visit, but well worth the trip. The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg is one of the best museums I’ve ever visited. It shows the rise and fall of apartheid, the system in place from 1948-1994 in South Africa to keep the races separate, and to keep blacks and mixed race people subordinate to whites. Using video, photos, and the stories of individual people, the museum tries to show the reality of lives under a government that violently enforced racial apartheid laws.

Entering the museum, your ticket assigns you a race. Which entrance you use depends on the ticket. I was assigned to the “non-white” entrance, and it was startling to see my teenaged son assigned to a “white” entrance, separate and several feet above me. The museum displays several actual public signs that directed different races to use different public facilities. These signs are museum pieces now but dictated life for generations of South Africans.

Johannesburg, South Africa is a City of Contrasts

Real signs displayed in the Apartheid Museum (Photo Philadelphia TMOM Sarah Ricks)

Constitutional Court in Johannesburg

South Africa’s Constitutional Court is similar to our U.S. Supreme Court. But unlike the design of our American court – built to intimidate by looking like a white marble Greek temple – the Constitutional Court is built to feel welcoming and accessible.

The Constitutional Court is a glass building with windows to the outside world. The idea is to show justice is transparent. African wood throughout the court invokes the tradition of settling differences with tribal elders beneath a tree. As a hat tip to the same tribal tradition beneath a tree, the floor covering resembles the shadows cast by tree branches. Towering wooden doors illustrate the 27 principles of the new country’s founding document, all carved in African wood.

Most importantly, the court is built on the site of a notorious political prison used by the apartheid government and, earlier, by the colonial government. The prison was ripped down and its bricks recycled to build the new court. You can tour the remains of the old political prison – a horrible place with open latrines, overcrowded cells, and tiny spaces for solitary confinement. You can learn about conditions of prisoners held there, including both Nelson Mandela and, much earlier, Mahatma Gandhi.

Johannesburg, South Africa is a City of Contrasts

Windows and wood inside the court in Johannesburg (Photo Philadelphia TMOM Sarah Ricks)

Nelson Mandela’s Safe House in Johannesburg

Lilliesleaf Farm is a lush green farm where the anti-apartheid leaders had a safe house for secret strategy meetings in the 1960’s. Nelson Mandela hid here in plain sight, by dressing as a garden worker. Twelve leaders of the anti-apartheid movement were betrayed and arrested here in 1963, then prosecuted for plotting against the government. Lilliesleaf Farm is now a museum. After the self-guided tour, you can stop by the café for delicious scones and hot chocolate.

Soweto Township

Soweto Township is a poor neighborhood in Johannesburg. Soweto began as a squatters’ camp for migrants from rural South Africa who could not find housing in the overcrowded city of Johannesburg. Residents used to live mostly in makeshift shacks, built from scrap metal. Parts of Soweto now have built brick houses, stores, playgrounds, an arts center, and even a Toyota dealership. Yet some people still live in shacks without plumbing, in the shadow of Johannesburg’s glittering high rises and luxury malls.

Two Nobel Peace Prize winners lived on one Soweto street – Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. In Soweto, we also visited an open air market selling paintings, souvenirs, often with images of Mandela, the African continent, or animals found in the wildlife preserves.

Johannesburg, South Africa is a City of Contrasts

Market in Soweto in Johannesburg (Photo Philadelphia TMOM Sarah Ricks)

The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum is devoted to the history of the 1976 anti-apartheid student protests which took place in Soweto. Students peacefully protested against being taught in the Afrikaans language. The apartheid government reacted violently, which brought international attention to the plight of black South Africans. The museum is named for a boy killed in the riot, carried in the photo by his school friend.

To visit the different faces of Soweto, you’ll want to think about how to deal with the experience of seeing people living in such poverty. I recommend going with a guide. We had an excellent tour of Soweto arranged by a travel organization, Tribal Meetings. (Here’s another TMOM’s take on visiting a South African township.)

Traditional Medicine Shop

Tribal Meetings, the travel company, can also arrange a visit to a traditional medicine shop in Johannesburg. We visited a shop with an entire wall full of dried plants and animal parts used as treatments, plus spears (for what, I don’t know), sandals made from recycled goods, jewelry, and drums created from old paint cans.

For another TMOM’s take on why visiting South Africa was a life-changing experience, see here. To explore beautiful Cape Town, South Africa in photos, here. For why else South Africa belongs on your bucket list, here.

Do you hope to visit South Africa one day, or have you been? Tell us about it in the comments. 

Johannesburg, South Africa is a City of Contrasts

Johannesburg, South Africa has inspiring current history, a tragic past, upscale shopping, and extreme poverty. Visiting this city of contrasts is more affordable with the strong dollar in 2016.