Johannesburg is found in the northeast of South Africa and is home to the country’s main international airport. With a sprawling urban area that stretches for miles, it’s the most populated city in South Africa. Even so, it’s not one of the country’s three capital cities. Unusually for such a large city, once the extensive suburbs and townships end, there is nothing except open plains and beautiful countryside. Despite this, Johannesburg is often avoided by tourists visiting South Africa because of its reputation for crime.
But this is largely overstated, and rarely impacts visitors to the city. The reality is that Johannesburg is the cultural heart of modern South Africa. All in all, Jo’burg is the perfect base from which to explore the many national parks and game reserves found in the area. It’s also the ideal place to see the best of South Africa’s contemporary culture. Down the road is the historic city of Pretoria, where you can learn more about the divided history of this country. Not too much further away, Sun City offers amusement and water parks for those looking for a different kind of escape from Johannesburg. In other words, there are many great day trips to be done from Johannesburg, and these are the very best.
Below you’ll find my top picks for attractions easily reached from Johannesburg. Having traveled extensively across South Africa more than once, I know first-hand what’s worth your hard earned time, and what isn’t.
1. Kruger National Park
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Kruger National Park is perhaps South Africa’s most famous national park.
It’s also one of South Africa’s largest, covering an enormous area of almost 8000 square miles. Johannesburg acts as an ideal gateway for international travelers to South Africa looking to visit the park.
From Johannesburg, a multitude of companies offer day tours to the fringes of Kruger. Here you can get a taste for the wild nature of South Africa’s savannas and see the icons of African wildlife, including the Big Five game animals.
It can be tricky to see all five species (lions, elephants, rhinos, Cape buffaloes, and leopards) in a single day.
However, it’s not impossible with an experienced guide, and there are plenty of other animals to keep you open-mouthed, from giraffes to hyenas.
With such an expanse of wilderness to explore, you’re sure to find yourself wanting to return again and again. After all, no two days at Kruger National Park are ever the same.
Recommended tour: Kruger National Park 3-Day Safari
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Soweto is found on the outskirts of Johannesburg’s city centre. Although now considered part of the city itself, for a long time this area was very, very separate.
It makes for an incredibly interesting day trip, as Soweto was the largest township in South Africa during the dark days of Apartheid.
The name of the area means simply South Western Townships, and a tour here will give you a glimpse of the Johannesburg beyond its glittering central office blocks.
You can learn about the turbulent history of the township but also experience the vibrant lifestyles that are lived here. The modern symbol of Soweto, the muraled cooling towers of Orlando Power Station, are a sign of this.
A must for any visit to Soweto is the Apartheid Museum. It’s galleries are dedicated to detailing the horrors of South Africa’s policies of racial division. But there’s a lot more to see besides.
The Orlando area was home to Nelson Mandela before his imprisonment on Robben Island. Now a museum and national monument, the tiny red brick building where he lived still holds the bullet holes and burn marks caused by petrol bombs, alongside much of its original contents.
Tours also include time learning about the Soweto Uprising, an event that led to the deaths of several school children protesting against the use of Afrikaans in Soweto schools.
Together attractions make Soweto an intriguing place to visit, and one of the best day trips to make from Johannesburg.
Available tour: Johannesburg and Soweto Apartheid Full Day Tour
3. Sun City
After a heavy dose of history and politics in Soweto, you may be looking for something a little more light-hearted and relaxing when it comes to taking your next day trip from Johannesburg.
Sun City is essentially one big holiday resort. South Africa’s most famous getaway, it’s an excellent place to visit if you are looking for relaxation, fun, and amusement parks.
Think Las Vegas, and you’ve got Sun City pretty much sussed. You can find everything from spas and water parks, to bars and even a casino. In short, fun for all the family.
Kitsch it definitely is. Yet at the same time, Sun City has an allure like nowhere else in South Africa, and certainly nowhere within proximity to Johannesburg.
Sun City is a two-hour drive away from Johannesburg, meaning that while there are plenty of hotels tempting you to stay the night, it makes for a great day trip too.
What’s more, trips to Sun City are often combined with a tour of Pilanesberg National Park, my next pick.
Available tour: Pilanesberg Full-Day Shared Safari with Sun City Visit
4. Pilanesberg National Park
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Pilanesberg National Park is located right next to Sun City, but it’s an entirely different world to explore.
Being so close to Johannesburg, Pilanesberg makes for an excellent place to visit to experience the wild nature of South Africa without needing to spend days in the bushveld.
The park takes its name from an enormous mountain, formed from a now extinct volcano. But most people visit for the chance to see the huge variety of wildlife that lives within its boundaries.
You can spot all of the Big Five animals, as well as almost every species which calls South Africa home.
The volcanic landscape is simply breathtaking, especially around the Mankwe Dam area of the park.
To get a real overview of all the park’s magnificent landscapes, ascending to the skies in a hot air balloon is a fabulous idea.
Source: Felix Lipov / shutterstock
Pretoria is found just an hour to the north of Johannesburg’s city center and is one of South Africa’s three capital cities (alongside Cape Town and Bloemfontein).
As a result, it’s home to a host of administrative offices, many beautiful pieces of architecture in their own right.
There’s also a great deal of history, connected not only with the Afrikaaners who founded the city, but also the nomadic tribes who roamed the plains of the area before them.
To get a feel of what the city’s all about, a good place to start is the impressive Voortrekker Monument.
It’s a grand legacy built to commerorate the hardships faced by Afrikaaners forced to move north to escape British colonisation.
For a full lowdown of the history of this time, head to Pretoria Forts, built to protect against British advances.
Then visit the Union Buildings on Meintjieskop hill. The seat of the South African government, the buildings were designed by British architect Sir Herbert Baker, who was also partially responsible for New Delhi.
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Magaliesberg is a formidable mountain range found to the north of Johannesburg and an area that makes for a wild escape from the confines of the city. The scenery is absolutely beautiful.
It’s rugged, mountainous and full of wildlife, and there are plenty of opportunities to explore the nature, to hike to waterfalls, and to climb its peaks.
Alternatively, grab a ticket for the Hartbeesport Aerial Cableway, which will take you to the top of the Magaliesberg Mountains without any effort.
Elsewhere in the area you can find many farms and wildlife reserves, giving visitors the opportunity to explore local life in this secluded part of South Africa just a short hop from the country’s biggest city.
Rustenburg is a city located two hours away from Johannesburg, and it’s found in beautiful surroundings in the foothills of the Magaliesberg Mountains.
Meaning ‘place of rest’ in Afrikaans, it’s a phrase which still perfectly describes the town.
It’s really the gateway to exploring the entire region, but the town itself offers visitors a look at Afrikaaner history in the area.
There is a great museum explaining the town’s importance, and there are many battlefields nearby which were the scene of fighting during the Anglo-Boer War.
Also found in the foothills of the Magaliesburg Mountains is the town of Hartbeespoort.
This lakeside community is a charming place to visit and is the site of the Hartbeespoort Dam.
It’s an excellent place to wind down and to enjoy boating trips or cruises across the scenic lake.
That said, Hartbeespoort has also become a center for adrenaline sports.
White water rafting on the Crocodile River (no crocs present) is becoming increasingly popular, while divers have the unusual opportunity of delving into what was once a chrome mine.
Meanwhile, big cat lovers should head to the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Center, a sanctuary committed to protecting these superb creatures.
9. Maropeng Visitor Centre
The Maropeng Visitor Centre, found within the Cradle of Humankind UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an incredible learning center and exhibition space located close to Magaliesburg.
The center showcases the rich discoveries that have been made in the area by archaeologists uncovering human fossils and remains and piecing together the early years of humanity.
It’s a great insight into the importance of southern Africa to the evolution of humankind as a whole. Its exhibits include stone tools thought to be a million years old, predating our own species by around 700,000 years.
10. Sterkfontein Caves
The Sterkfontein Caves are located close to the Maropeng Visitor Centre and can be visited on the same day trip from Johannesburg.
Ten to 15 minutes apart, it’s well worth ensuring any tour you go on includes a shuttle between the two attractions.
The caves are part of the broader Cradle of Humankind UNESCO World Heritage Site because it was within these caves that many of the most important discoveries have been made.
These include the unearthing of many, very early human species, such as Australopithicus bones dated to around 3 million years ago.
The most famous example is probably Little Foot, a near complete skeleton 3.5 million years old. Little Foot was only discovered in 1994, and had enough of the ankle remaining to show he or she walked upright.
Source: Shiraz Chakera / Flickr
Krugersdorp is predominantly a mining town, built to take advantage of the huge deposits of gold and minerals that were discovered in the Witwatersrand area close to Johannesburg.
The town itself may not have much to offer tourists, but the surrounding area is rich in beautiful scenery and many underground cave systems that can be explored.
A favourite place to visit is the aptly named Wonder Cave. One of South Africa’s largest caves, it drops 22 meters below ground.
Visitors are able to reach the bottom thanks to 87 steps, from where the range of stalagtites, stalagmites and cave pearls are best viewed.
A second top Krugersdorp attraction is the Bothongo Lion and Rhino Reserve, which has game drives in open-sided vehicles departing multiple times a day.
Source: PretoriaTravel / Wikimedia
Cullinan is another mining town found close to Johannesburg, and this town is very much of interest to those wanting to learn more about the history of the region, and the mining opportunities that brought many settlers here.
Many of the buildings date back to the early 20th century, when the town was first established. Walking through the streets is almost like taking a step back in time.
The town contains several small museums worth popping into, while horse rides and zip-lining are available in the surrounding countryside.
13. Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve
The Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve is an unusual nature reserve, in that it’s located less than ten miles from Johannesburg city center.
Being so close to the city, it’s surprising to find so much wildlife and beautiful scenery right on the doorstep, and makes for an easy escape, as well as a great look at the nature of the region.
So although Klipriviersberg might not meet the stature of either Kruger or Pilanesberg national parks, it still makes for a superb day out from Johannesburg.
The reserve has healthy populations of many ungulates and antelopes, including zebra, wildebeest, and red haartbeest. But Klipriversberg is best known as a birding destination, with 230 bird species identified in the reserve.
Skeerport is a quaint little town that’s found close to the Hartebeesport Dam, not far from Johannesburg.
This small town is set in glorious surroundings and is known as one of the area’s best hot air ballooning spots.
Take to the skies as the sun rises and enjoy the incredible scenery from the air. If you can manage the early morning departure from Johannesburg that is!
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Bloemfontein makes for a long day trip from Johannesburg, but it’s worth the drive to see South Africa’s judicial capital in all its glory.
The city center is awash with lawyers rushing from attractive building to attractive building.
Among them are several interesting museums, including a detailed Boer War Museum.
The city’s Loch Logan Waterfront complex is a nice place to do some shopping, before relaxing on the lake edge with a drink as the sun descends on another day in paradise.