For some reason, Johannesburg never features in South African travel itineraries, and trust me, I get it. It’s seen as the big dangerous, dirty city of South Africa. But growing up in Johannesburg and living most of my life there, Johannesburg is way more than that. It is vibrant, diverse and special. And there is no more perfect way to discover that than by doing City Sightseeing South Africa’s Red Bus Tour of Johannesburg. This hop on and hop off double-decker red bus is the perfect way to discover my hometown of Johannesburg. It has an audio commentary in 15 different languages (with a special channel just for kids), and visits many of the most important stops in my unique city. So as a guest of City Sightseeing, I joined the Red Bus with the Soweto combo on a gorgeous, albeit windy, Johannesburg morning.
Johannesburg was settled after the discovery of gold in 1886. Gold hunters from around the world flocked to South Africa and the Witwatersrand (the Johannesburg area) looking to get rich. This influx of people has set the foundations for what makes Johannesburg a truly diverse and vibrant city, as nationalities and cultures from around the world called South Africa home. Johannesburg has grown to become the second largest city on the African continent, and is home to over 4 million people, stretching from the bustling inner city out towards the surrounding suburbs and metropolis areas. Johannesburg is the most powerful commercial center on the African continent; our greater metropolis area is similar in size to that of Los Angeles, making it a larger city than New York. Its surrounding suburbs, called “The South, The North, The West, The East” by locals, are all different in character. But the South is by far the prettiest (my personal opinion, which is correct, based on 25 years of living in the south of Johannesburg). Johannesburg is also home to multiple townships, including Soweto.
Soweto is a large and sprawling township located in the South of Johannesburg. Its name is actually an abbreviation for South Western Townships. Soweto’s history is intimately linked to that of Johannesburg, beginning with the discovery of gold in 1886 as well. After the discovery, thousands flocked to the Johannesburg area, and settled on this land. The racist minded government was threatened by the mixing of all nationalities and races in these areas, and sought to segregate the people. Despite laying out new suburbs in the area demarcated for different races, the area remained multiracial for a number of years until the Bubonic Plague scare in the early 1900s. The fire department burned down thousands of shacks and shops in response, and the area was redeveloped. By the 1930s, and for the next several years, the segregationist and later Apartheid government sought to segregate the races living throughout Johannesburg, often forcibly removing them from their existing homes. The township areas became the epicenter for many protests and riots against the racist Apartheid regime, including the student riots of 1976. Soweto has since grown into a large and multiracial part of Johannesburg, and as we realized on the tour, captures the unique essence that is Johannesburg: a symbol for the “New” still evolving South Africa, a city caught between the poor conditions of poverty for many South Africans and the upward mobility and prosperity of some South Africans. A juxtaposition of a city trying to move forward with its scars from Apartheid, and the vibrancy and development of a developed and prosperous city full of possibilities. One could say that this is the face of South Africa now, coming to terms with the scars of its past, attempting to unite diverse people previously forcibly separated, and uplifting those still not enjoying the supposed bounty of democracy.
The Soweto Tour
My best friend and I headed to Gold Reef City with the idea to join the first Soweto bus tour of the day. On the Soweto tour, your bus is a mini van, rather than the double decker bus of the Johannesburg Hop on Hop off. Climbing aboard, we met our tour guide “King” Phiwe Khumalo and our driver, Captain Vincent.
Now these guides are CLASS! The King was full of fun, laughs and jokes the moment we climbed aboard. As we headed over to our first stop, Soccer City (FNB Stadium), the site of the opening and closing ceremonies and games of the 2010 FIFA WORLD CUP, King informed us that he would be giving each of us an African name for the tour.
This made me beyond excited.
Living in the States, many of the students I work with ask me if I have an African name, and I always, sadly, respond “No, I don’t”. This was all about to change and I was pumped. Even though King branded me as a traitor for being the South African who left and moved overseas, he gave me the beautiful name of Naledi.
In the video below, he explains what the name Naledi means.
FNB Stadium, or "Soccer City" is the sight of the opening and final games of the FIFA Soccer World Cup in 2010, one of the countries most prestigous events that it has held, and one of the most incredible periods of time in South Africa. I was lucky enough to attend the opening game against Mexico, and while we drew 1-1, the atmosphere was electric. The stadium itself is built like a calabash, an African pot made from a "bottle gourd". It is the home stadium of the Kaizer Chiefs, one of the two main and most popular teams in Soweto.
After a quick stop at FNB Stadium, and the Welcome to Soweto sign, we continued into Soweto, through Diepkloof, a very unique and diverse neighborhood, and past Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, known as Bara to us locals. Little known fact, but Bara is the world’s third largest hospital! Afterwards we passed the Bara Taxi Rank, the largest taxi rank in Johannesburg, we finally hopped off the bus at the Orlando Towers. This popular landmark is where adrenalin addicts can bungee, base jump and abseil. Maybe not so much for me hey.
The Orlando Towers
The Orlando Towers form part of a decommissioned coal-fired power station in Soweto. Now, visitors can bungee jump, base jump and bungee swing from the top. The western tower has been painted to reflect traditional scenes of township life, as well as famous people from Soweto. The other tower is used as an advertisement billboard. It is believed to be one of the largest murals in South Africa, and visitors who take part in the adrenalin fueling activities will also be treated to an amazing view of Soweto and Johannesburg. I also have no pictures to prove this because I am way too chicken to partake in any of these activities.
After the Orlando towers we continue through Orlando and drive by the other stadium in Orlando, the Orlando Stadium, before continuing to the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Orlando West. Here we stopped for twenty minutes to hear more about this important part of history in South Africa.
The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum
The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum commemorates one of the darkest days in South African history, and the role of students and the youth in the struggle against the Apartheid regime, particularly the student protests of 1976. On June 16th, 1976, Soweto high school students began a peaceful protest against the use of Afrikaans as language of instruction. A violent confrontation ensued with the police, where students threw stones and police fired shots. One of the first students to be killed by police was 12 year old Hector Pieterson. A newspaper photographer, Sam Nzima, captured the iconic image of Hector's body being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo with his sister, Antoinette Sithole, running alongside him. The picture became an iconic image around the world demonstrating the brutality of the apartheid regime. To commemorate this day and the others who died or were injured, the memorial and a museum was opened. The museum provides a collection of oral testimonies, pictures and historical documents that are related to the 1976 events. The youth's involvement in politics remains a strong force in South African society to this day.
8115 Vilakazi St - Mandela House
After the Hector Pieterson Memorial, we continued to Vilakazi Street, which is the only street in the world in which two Nobel Prize Winners have lived – Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the late Nelson Mandela. While this street is known around the world for this acolade, what I think makes this truly a great street is knowing that ordinary people live and work in and around this area every single day. In other words, out of the most simple of places, greatness can also be made. The Nelson Mandela House at 8115 Vilakazi St is now a museum that commemorates the life, heritage and legacy of Mandela and his family. On the Soweto portion of the tour you can stop here and enter the museum, and the bus will pick you up again later.
Before finishing the tour, we drove by the Kliptown Open Air Museum in Walter Sisulu Square which houses more important parts of South African history – something I never would have known without doing this tour. On the 25th and 26th of June 1955, thousands of people descended on this site to adopt the Freedom Charter, a document which laid the foundation for the country's existing Constitution and Bill of Rights. Post 1994, this area fell into derelict, but seeing as it is a hugely significant area in South African history, historically an area that was seen as multi-racial, and the site of the adoption of the Freedom Charter, this area was developed and a museum, square, and hotel was built. I would never have even known about this important piece of South African history if it weren't for this tour - and I studied the Freedom Charter in depth in my history classes at school. Crazy!
The Soweto Combo Experience
I truly loved every second of my Soweto tour experience. Our guide and driver were amazing. Growing up in Johannesburg, I had often been warned to stay away from Soweto, but now as an adult, I want to be able to explore the parts of my country that many people call home. Soweto is a thriving, unique and fascinating part of South Africa. I must make a note of one of my feelings that I had on this tour however. Below is an image of some of the areas in Soweto (and other townships across South Africa) where people live in shacks, with no running water or electricity. I don't necessarily approve of "poverty pictures". I think they can be dehumanizing. Soweto is a fascinating and evolving township and there is more to it than the pockets of poverty. However, I have put this image up here for a reason. I have been gone from South Africa 3.5 years. This situation below hasn't changed. Apartheid ended over 20 years ago. This situation below hasn't changed. Our government however, holds fancy parties, drives luxurious cars, eat at expensive restaurants, and take lavish international trips. This situation below hasn't changed. Seeing how a great deal of people STILL live in South Africa while its rulers line their pockets with money, infuriates me. However, on a positive note, I arrived in South Africa a week after our municipal elections, where, shockingly and incredibly, Johannesburg, and many other large cities, now have the opposition party as mayor. Maybe change will finally be on its way - I sure hope so. The people of South Africa deserve better than corrupt governments. Moving on!
Red Bus Johannesburg
After a wonderful morning in Soweto, we hopped onto our next bus, the City Red Bus tour. The Red Bus tour is a circular route running at regular intervals, and quite timeously, considering how horrific JHB traffic can be. There are 11 stops in total, and you can get on and off at any of them. The total tour, without getting off at any stops takes two hours, and tickets can be bought at any stop, though most people start from Gold Reef City or Park Station, where the tour’s operating offices are. This tour is not guided by a person, but rather an audio tour.
From the Gautrain Park Station stop, the tour continues to the Carlton Centre, the James Hall Museum of Transport, Gold Reef City Casino, the Apartheid Museum, the Mining District Walk, Newtown Precinct, Newtown Junction Mall, the Origins Center, the Grove, and Constitution Hill.
While all of these stops are interesting to visit in their own right, it is impossible to see all of them to their maximum enjoyment, so it is worthwhile buying the two day option if you want to. There is plenty to see and do in Johannesburg, and many of these stops require at least 30 minutes to 3 hours to fully experience them. To find out about more of these that I visited while on my trip, click on them, otherwise these are the ones that I would say are worth most peoples time.
- Carlton Centre - for incredible views of Johannesburg
- Gold Reef City Casino - for lunch, to enjoy a spot of gambling, or if you enjoy theme parks
- The Apartheid Museum - a must for any visitor to South Africa to understand our unique, dark, but encouraging history
- Newtown & SAB - A great spot to stop for lunch, drinks, shopping and to wonder around a busy part of Jo'burg
- Constitution Hill - a must visit like the Apartheid Museum
Because we only had one day passes, we only stopped at the Newtown Junction Mall for a spot of lunch. We planned to visit the Apartheid museum later on in the week, as well as the Carlton Centre. Unfortunately, I never got round to the Carlton Centre. It is quite difficult to fit in everything you want to see with the one-day ticket including Soweto. However, it is well worth the stops, especially if you are interested in South Africa’s history – which you should be!
Advice for the City Sightseeing Johannesburg Hop on Hop off bus
Purchase a two-day ticket
It is not possible to visit all of the stops on these tours and really experience them all, not that you would want to necessarily. However I would suggest purchasing the two-day option if you can. This way, when you use the tour bus you can hop off at some of the important Museums and sights like the Apartheid Museum and Constitution Hill, enjoy the discounted entry, and have the benefit of transport to and from them. To do this though, you need to do the two-day ticket.
Check the hours of the sights you want to see
Be sure to check the opening times of the sights you do want to see – for example, on Mondays the Apartheid Museum is closed. Entry is not included to every stop.
Do the Soweto tour first
The Soweto tour is guided in a smaller bus with a guide and driver. There is no freedom to do your own thing on this part of the tour. I would do this first, in the morning, and spend the rest of the day on tour, or experiencing the stops you do want to get off at like Vilakazi Street.
Overall Opinion of Johannesburg Red City Tour and Soweto Combo
Overall, I had an amazing time exploring my home city with City Sightseeing. So did my friend! It is a great way to see the city if you don't have a lot of time. I think if you are looking for a super in-depth experience of Jo'burg, this is not your tour. However, that is usually said for most hop on hop off tours around the world. I would rather recommend a walking tour for something more in-depth. If you are in town for only a couple days and want to get a sampling for my diverse and incredible city, this tour is definitely the perfect option. Exploring Soweto with "The King" was also a fun and wonderful experience. I learnt a lot about this fascinating part of Johannesburg that I had always been warned about, and I was thrilled to get my African name. The tour is also well-organized, and surprisingly on time, considering how bad JHB traffic can be. It was truly a fantastic day learning more about the exciting city I have called home for 25 years.
The Traveling Ginger was a guest of City Sightseeing South Africa.
My opinions are, as always, my own.
Have you done this tour before? What was your experience? Have you travelled to Johannesburg? What did you think? Would you travel there? Have you tried any other hop on hop off buses around the rest of the world? Let me know in the comments below.