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Johannesburg/Pretoria, South Africa

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Did You Know … ?

  • The world’s largest diamond (3,106 carats) was found outside of Pretoria (1905).
  • Johannesburg has produced about 40% of the world’s gold.
  • Pretoria’s founders considered several names for the city, including Pretoriusdorp, Pretorium and Pretoriusstad.
  • The world’s first jet service operated between London and Johannesburg (British Airways/1952).
  • George Harrison, whose 1886 gold claim launched a gold rush, sold his rights for £10.

Of gold, diamonds and humankind

Johannesburg is South Africa’s largest city, also the most modern and most business-oriented. It’s only 30 miles away from Pretoria, which is South Africa’s administrative and official capital.

As a result, Johannesburg’s international airport delivers arriving passengers to the country’s busiest and most crowded urban region. If those visitors are North American tourists, they are generally the venturesome type, partly because of the distance from home, but also because crime is a serious problem in South Africa’s cities. Taking reasonable precautions can create a safe trip, but not every traveler is willing to plan a holiday with crime so much in mind.

Those who make the trip are attracted for several reasons. Soweto, the community most identified with the fight to end apartheid, is a popular Johannesburg sightseeing destination. Also, Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum and Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial provide important perspective.

Johannesburg was born in a gold rush (1886). Today, Gold Reef City — the last of the mines to close — offers a theme park and a tour of a real mine. Sightseeing also may include some of the mansions that the gold built in Johannesburg.

Pretoria was founded in 1855 by Boers in the wake of their Great Trek inland from the Cape to get away from British colonials. The impressive Voortrekker Monument, on a hill overlooking Pretoria, commemorates that event. Pretoria’s visitors also admire monumental buildings associated with history and government and may head east to visit the Premier Diamond Mine in Cullinan.

Both cities offer after-dark entertainment, whether in theaters and hotel bars or clubs and other hangouts. Nightspots are clustered in Pretoria’s Hatfield area which facilities a pub crawl. In addition, Johannesburg is noted for its monthlong Arts Alive festival.

Within or near either city, visitors can observe (and occasionally touch) some of Africa’s fascinating wildlife. The nearby animal reserves are especially appealing if there is no time for a multiday safari.

And not least, nearly 1,000 hominid fossils have been uncovered at the roughly 1,800-square-mile area called the Cradle of Humankind. Now a UNESCO site, the area, 25 miles northwest of Johannesburg, is still another reason to visit the region.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Head to entertainment spots in Johannesburg (aka Jo’burg) to hear jazz and rock groups. Also, look and listen for kwaito music, a kind of township hip-hop/rap. Also, Hatfield Square in Pretoria is a good match for the youngest barhoppers.
  • Choose a guided Soweto tour that includes lunch at a traditional shebeen — meaning a township bar — specializing in African cuisine and a visit to a community center. Or, participate in a voluntourism program. Or, at Orlando Towers, bungee jump from a bridge suspended between two cooling towers of an old power station.
  • Jog or cycle in Johannesburg’s larger parks. Do that with binoculars at hand, and you can be a bird-watcher anywhere because of the city’s millions of trees.
  • Gain insights, or refresh your memory, with a thoughtful visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.
  • Schedule a trip to the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (in reality, several sites) where almost 1,000 hominid fossils have been unearthed. Descend the 119 steps into the Sterkfontein Caves and climb the 109 steps out, then take a hot-air balloon ride over the area.
  • See the work of up-and-coming South African actors, directors and writers at the Market Theater Company, which is indeed accommodated in Johannesburg’s old fruit and vegetable market.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Come to town in September for the Arts Alive cultural festival. See its street carnival, hear jazz, shop at its crafts fair and more. Or, at another time, see a cultural program featuring South African songs and dances at the Lesedi Cultural Village or at other popular tourist sites.
  • Shop for authentic craft items from many African countries at the African Craft Market in Jo’burg’s Rosebank. On Sunday and holidays, cross the street to look for local arts and crafts items at the Rosebank Rooftop Market, which is literally on top of a shopping center.
  • Drive east of Pretoria for a tour of the Premier Diamond Mine in Cullinan, where the world’s largest diamond was found. The diamond was presented to Britain’s King Edward VII.
  • See wildlife. One option, accessible from either city, is the De Wildt Cheetah Research Centre, where daily tours are available. You may get to pet a cub.You also may be able to cuddle (gingerly) a lion cub at the 500-acre Lion Park.
  • Or ride an elephant at the Elephant Sanctuary.
  • Tour South African Breweries (SAB) World of Beer in Johannesburg, then taste the product after. SAB owns Miller Breweries in the U.S.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Take a walking tour of some of Jo’burg’s mansions built decades ago for the magnates who made millions from the area’s gold mines.
  • Plan an October (springtime) visit to Pretoria in order to see the blazing colors of the jacaranda trees in its gardens and parks and lining the streets.
  • Shop for gold or diamonds in either city. And, if leaving by air, get to the Johannesburg airport early for the great souvenir shopping there.
  • Hear the powerful Soweto Gospel Choir.
  • Escort the kids to Gold Reef City Theme Park where, among other diversions, they (and you) can watch a gold bar being poured.
  • Take a guided tour of Pretoria. It will include the impressiveVoortrekker Monument, which recognizes the story of the Boers. These tours are available from Johannesburg if you use the larger city as your base.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult South Africa Tourism at