Top 7 historical sites to visit in Johannesburg

by Alice

Johannesburg, the vibrant and bustling metropolis known as the “City of Gold,” is not only South Africa’s economic powerhouse but also a city rich in history and culture. The city’s past is intricately woven with the threads of colonialism, apartheid, and the struggle for freedom, making it a compelling destination for history enthusiasts. Here, we explore the top seven historical sites in Johannesburg that offer a glimpse into its complex and fascinating history.

1. The Apartheid Museum

The Apartheid Museum, situated in the southern part of Johannesburg, is a powerful testament to the country’s tumultuous past under apartheid rule. Opened in 2001, the museum is a comprehensive and moving exploration of South Africa’s journey from the dark days of racial segregation to the dawn of democracy.


The museum’s exhibits include photographs, artifacts, newspaper clippings, and personal testimonies that chronicle the rise and fall of apartheid. Visitors can walk through a series of exhibits that detail the implementation of apartheid laws, the struggles of the anti-apartheid movement, and the eventual liberation led by iconic figures such as Nelson Mandela. One of the most poignant sections is the “Hall of Pillars,” where 121 nooses hang from the ceiling, representing the political prisoners executed during the apartheid era.


A visit to the Apartheid Museum is not just a history lesson but an emotional journey that leaves a lasting impact. It is an essential stop for anyone wanting to understand the socio-political landscape of Johannesburg and South Africa.


2. Constitution Hill

Constitution Hill is another significant historical site in Johannesburg, offering insight into South Africa’s transition from oppression to democracy. This former prison complex, located near the city center, now houses the Constitutional Court, the highest court in South Africa on constitutional matters.

The site encompasses the Old Fort, the Women’s Jail, and Number Four, a notorious section where many political prisoners, including Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, were once detained. These areas have been preserved as museums, providing a stark reminder of the harsh realities faced by those who fought against apartheid.

The Constitutional Court itself is a symbol of hope and justice, incorporating elements from the past into its design, such as bricks from the demolished Awaiting Trial Block. Visitors can attend court sessions, explore the art gallery within the court, and reflect on the country’s legal and social evolution. Constitution Hill, therefore, stands as a powerful representation of Johannesburg’s journey from oppression to freedom.

3. Soweto and the Hector Pieterson Memorial

Soweto, short for South Western Townships, is perhaps the most famous township in Johannesburg, known worldwide for its role in the anti-apartheid struggle. One of the most poignant sites in Soweto is the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, dedicated to the memory of the students who lost their lives during the Soweto Uprising on June 16, 1976.

Hector Pieterson, a 13-year-old student, became an iconic symbol of the uprising when a photograph of his lifeless body being carried by a fellow student was published worldwide. The museum, located close to where he was shot, provides a detailed account of the events leading up to the uprising, the brutal crackdown by police, and the aftermath.

Soweto itself offers a rich tapestry of history and culture, with landmarks such as Vilakazi Street, home to both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, and the Regina Mundi Church, which served as a sanctuary for activists during the apartheid years. A tour of Soweto provides a deeper understanding of Johannesburg’s social history and the enduring spirit of its people.

4. Gold Reef City

Gold Reef City is a unique historical and entertainment complex located on an old gold mine, offering a glimpse into Johannesburg’s origins as a mining town. The discovery of gold in 1886 led to the rapid growth and development of Johannesburg, and Gold Reef City captures this era with its themed amusement park, replica mining village, and underground mine tours.

Visitors can take a trip down a real gold mine shaft, where they can see the conditions in which miners worked and learn about the mining techniques used during the late 19th century. The park also features a museum with artifacts and exhibits related to the gold rush, providing historical context to Johannesburg’s rise as a major economic center.

Beyond its historical attractions, Gold Reef City offers a variety of entertainment options, including roller coasters, live performances, and restaurants, making it a popular destination for families and tourists. This blend of history and fun makes Gold Reef City a must-visit site in Johannesburg.

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5. The Johannesburg Art Gallery

The Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) is the largest art gallery on the African continent and a treasure trove of artistic and historical significance. Located in Joubert Park, the gallery was established in 1910 and houses an extensive collection of South African and international art, including works by renowned artists such as Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, and Gerard Sekoto.

JAG’s collection spans various periods and styles, providing insight into the cultural and historical evolution of Johannesburg and South Africa. The gallery also features a significant collection of contemporary African art, reflecting the vibrant and diverse artistic expressions of the continent.

The building itself, designed by British architect Edward Lutyens, is a historical landmark. The gallery’s exhibitions often explore themes related to Johannesburg’s social and political history, making it a place where art and history intersect. A visit to JAG offers a deeper appreciation of Johannesburg’s cultural heritage and its place in the global art scene.

6. The Mandela House

The Mandela House, located on Vilakazi Street in Soweto, is a modest, four-roomed house where Nelson Mandela lived from 1946 to 1962. Today, it serves as a museum dedicated to the life and legacy of the former South African president and global icon.

The house contains many original furnishings and personal items that belonged to Mandela and his family, providing an intimate look at his life before his imprisonment. Exhibits include photographs, documents, and memorabilia that tell the story of Mandela’s early years, his role in the anti-apartheid struggle, and his enduring impact on South Africa and the world.

Visiting the Mandela House offers a unique opportunity to walk in the footsteps of one of history’s most revered figures. The museum’s location in Soweto also provides a broader context for understanding Mandela’s life and the community that shaped his values and activism. It is a poignant and inspirational site in Johannesburg.

7. Liliesleaf Farm

Liliesleaf Farm, located in the northern suburb of Rivonia, is a key historical site in Johannesburg that played a pivotal role in the anti-apartheid movement. In the early 1960s, the farm served as the secret headquarters of the African National Congress (ANC) and the site where many leaders, including Nelson Mandela, formulated their plans to overthrow the apartheid regime.

In 1963, Liliesleaf was raided by the police, leading to the arrest of several key ANC leaders and the subsequent Rivonia Trial, where Mandela and others were sentenced to life imprisonment. Today, Liliesleaf Farm is a museum and heritage site that offers a detailed account of these events and the broader struggle against apartheid.

The museum features interactive exhibits, audio-visual displays, and historical artifacts that bring to life the story of the liberation movement. Visitors can explore the various buildings on the farm, including the farmhouse and outbuildings where the activists lived and worked in secrecy. Liliesleaf Farm provides a compelling and immersive experience of Johannesburg’s political history and the courage of those who fought for freedom.


Johannesburg, with its rich tapestry of history and culture, offers a multitude of sites that chronicle its journey from a mining camp to a global city. The top seven historical sites in Johannesburg—The Apartheid Museum, Constitution Hill, Soweto and the Hector Pieterson Memorial, Gold Reef City, The Johannesburg Art Gallery, The Mandela House, and Liliesleaf Farm—each offer unique insights into the city’s past and its role in shaping modern South Africa.

A visit to these sites provides a deeper understanding of the challenges and triumphs that have defined Johannesburg. Whether you are a history buff, a cultural enthusiast, or a curious traveler, exploring these landmarks will enrich your appreciation of this dynamic and resilient city. Johannesburg’s historical sites are not just relics of the past; they are living testimonies to the enduring spirit of its people and their quest for justice and equality.



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