7 Must-Visit Stops on Your First Trip to Johannesburg, South Africa
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7 Must-Visit Stops on Your First Trip to Johannesburg, South Africa

Written by Stephan Horbelt on January 10, 2020
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Johannesburg has everything I want out of a city on my travel itinerary. Its ‘big city feel’ is effortless (Joburg is, after all, the largest city in South Africa), its people are fun-loving and friendly, the city is steeped in both history and culture, and all the finer things in life, from stellar restaurants to luxe accommodations, are at any travelers’ fingertips. I recently embarked on my maiden voyage to South Africa, my first stop being an exploration of what gay Johannesburg has to offer — which is to say, as a gay traveler, what sights, sounds and experiences the city has to offer my fellow LGBTQ world travelers.

From the moment I touched down in Johannesburg following nearly a full day of air travel from Los Angeles, and thanks to an unparalleled opportunity offered to me by LGBTQ travel specialists Ntsako Travel Africa, I was immersed in the city’s welcoming vibe and air of friendliness. Welcomed to South Africa as part of the national tourism board’s first-ever courting of LGBTQ tourists, I was set to traverse the city alongside a handful of other queer journalists and global influencers.

Photo: Getty Images

After my week spent scouting gay Johannesburg, I’ve crafted a list of seven itinerary musts for first-time visitors, particularly for my fellow LGBTQ tourists. They range from cultural and historical day trips to late-night party options and hotel recommendations, with the hope that those who take my advice will be so lucky as to recreate the truly amazing trip Joburg was kind enough to bestow on me.

But first, a few things to know before being shipped off to gay Johannesburg. If where you call home is in the northern hemisphere, don’t forget that seasons in South Africa will be reversed from what you’re used to. I visited during the month of November and was lucky to experience a week of perfectly golden days around 75ºF (24ºC).

Photo: Getty Images

The country’s currency is the South African Rand, and coming from the States I was able to avail my wallet of an advantageous exchange rate. While you’ll no doubt need to use cash around town — while souvenir shopping and in some restaurants, no doubt — most places will gladly accept plastic, though as always, it’s best to know before your trip whether your card charges international fees.

Lastly, I found upon my return to the States that most people echoed the same sentiment, couched as a question: “But did you, like, feel safe there??” And, yeah, it seems that when many people think of Johannesburg — and perhaps even more so gay Johannesburg — their first thought is of steep crime rates and a lack of safety for tourists. To that I’d say that like any major city, Joburg has its share of crime, but as many would agree, this part of the world isn’t nearly as dangerous as portrayed. Also, much of the city’s crime occurs in parts of the city you aren’t likely to see while exploring gay Johannesburg.

Now let’s build your itinerary.

Here are my 7 itinerary musts for a first-time exploration of gay Johannesburg:

1. Spend half a day immersed in the history of Constitution Hill.

Did you know South Africa’s constitution was the very first in the world to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination on the basis of orientation and identity? But the country’s journey to democracy was harrowing, and Constitution Hill acts as a monument to that trek. Formerly a military fort and prison of brutal, demeaning conditions (Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi both served time here), today it’s home to the country’s Constitutional Court — the supreme court of South Africa — a shining example of overcoming oppression and endurance of the human spirit. Touring the grounds will take you from the prison’s group housing and isolation cells into the courtroom, itself constructed from the bricks of a since-demolished wing of the prison.

2. Party, shop and eat like the locals at The Neighbourgoods Market.

On a warm, sunny Saturday, your best bet for interacting with locals, indulging in great food, cocktails and live music, and shopping for special one-of-a-kind items is The Neighbourgoods Market, an open-air marketplace serving up everything that makes the weekends great. Open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. one day each week, the market puts food of every culture and ethnicity in your grasp, with outdoor and indoor communal tables for enjoying it. Small businesses are also on-site selling their wares, which makes this a great place to purchase all your souvenirs for friends back home in one go.

3. Take in the ultimate South African history class at the Apartheid Museum.

Photo: Apartheid Museum

Yes, it’s another master class in South African history, but the Apartheid Museum truly is a must for any itinerary, quite literally the equivalent of an entire college course under one roof. Inside the complex — the only downside of which is that it’s too expansive for anything short of a several-hour visit — you’ll walk through the country’s complex history with race relations and dehumanizing persecution via multimedia exhibits. During my visit, a temporary exhibit dedicated to the life of Nelson Mandela was also particularly moving. Following my one-time visit, I’d say this museum is on my short list of the world’s very best.

4. Explore the nightlife of gay Johannesburg.

Photo: babylonbar.co.za

As much fun as gay Johannesburg has to offer, you can’t exactly call it the gay capital of South Africa, a title that goes to Cape Town. And while you won’t find a ‘gayborhood’ comparable to what you’d find in other major cities, nonetheless, Joburg offers options to the LGBTQ traveler looking to cut loose at night with a beer or cocktail. Among the city’s most popular gay bars is Babylon, located in Sandton, with its shirtless bartenders, live drag performances, TVs with raunchy visuals and rentable VIP booths for the group of friends looking to really cut loose. You’ll hear more local music and find a mostly QPOC crowd (and not just men) on Liquid Blue‘s lively dance floor. And Beefcakes is kinda like Joburg’s equivalent to Hamburger Mary’s (for those Americans and world travelers who are familiar), offering nightly drag shows and campy cabaret and comedy numbers in addition to a full menu of burgers and bar food.

5. Answer your own questions about the history of man at Maropeng, the Cradle of Humankind.

Photo: Mafuta / Getty Images

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Maropeng boasts that you’re able to “travel through time” while learning about the history of the planet and humankind. This area of the world (about a 90-minute drive from Joburg’s city center) is where around 40% of known human ancestor fossils were first uncovered, including the famous finds of “Mrs. Ples” and “Little Foot”), and its caves are renowned for having preserved millions of years of human evolution. The Maropeng Visitor Center, while probably most suitable for younger audiences, is dedicated to explaining our human history with a few cheap thrills and a sense of humor.

6. Relax like you’ve never relaxed before at Mount Grace Country House & Spa.

Photo: Marriott

This spot requires a bit of a trek to reach its secluded grounds (though it’s not far from Maropeng), though once you’ve arrived you probably won’t want to leave. Mount Grace, part of the Marriott group, is a stunning retreat far removed from the bustling city. A great opportunity to recharge amidst the rolling greenery of the Magaliesburg Mountains, even if you aren’t staying on-site you can partake in the spa services here. All the treatments here, from facials and body scrubs to massages, are nature-inspired, and I was especially intrigued by the fully enclosed salt water flotation pool.

7. Take a tour of Soweto, the city’s largest township.

Photo: Thomas Janisch / Getty Images

With its rich political history, Soweto was home to political campaigns aimed at overturning Apartheid. The country’s and city’s largest township, sightseeing options here include the Nelson Mandela National Museum on Vilakazi Street, commonly called Mandela House, where he lived from 1946 to 1962 and visited following his release from prison, available for in-depth guided tours; Vilakazi Street itself, the city’s most popular street and the only one home to multiple Nobel Prize winners (Mandela and Reverend Desmond Tutu); the Orlando Towers, a colorful focal point of the township that now houses extreme sports like bungee jumping, zip-lining and SCAD freefalling (because who doesn’t want to freefall inside a former powerplant?); and Soweto Brewing Company, home of local beer Soweto Gold, with a beer garden allowing visitors to sample the company’s six different beers (I was partial to the apple and cherry-flavored ales).

Where to Stay in Joburg

Photo: Bristol Hotel

My first trip to gay Johannesburg found me staying at two of the city’s local hotels, each of different vibes and price points. I spent my first few days at Bristol Hotel ($$$$$), nestled in the leafy suburban quiet of Rosebank, a smartly appointed, modern property with everything a traveler needs. I found a spacious room with treetop views, a rooftop deck and swimming pool that was perfect on summer nights, an adorable “resident rescue dog” who roamed the grounds seeking ear-scratches from pet-loving guests, and a sophisticated-casual sitting area on the ground floor where every morning I was able to order a delicious hot breakfast from the on-site staff and enjoy it in front of the morning news. I couldn’t ask for more from my stay here, and highly recommend it for first-time travelers.

Photo: Houghton Hotel

And I was nothing short of wowed by my time spent at Houghton Hotel ($$$$$), which no doubt offers some of the city’s most luxe accommodations. Many of the rooms here overlook the hotel’s 168 acres of private parkland, which includes jogging trails and multiple pools. In addition to all the amenities you’d expect during a five-star stay, the rooms themselves are open-concept, with walk-in bathrooms offering both a spacious tub and rain shower. On-site you’ll also find a full-service spa and mutliple dining options, including a deli that serves up pre-packaged quick bites and an elegant sit-down restaurant where you’ll enjoy your complimentary breakfast and an international menu for lunch and dinner.

Is there anything you think this look at gay Johannesburg, South Africa, is missing? Have you spent time in the “City of Gold”?

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