Exploring a new city doesn’t have to be expensive — in fact, it can cost little to nothing. Of course, Johannesburg is already a vacation bargain due to favorable foreign exchange rates, but that doesn’t mean it would hurt to save even more by taking advantage of the many free activities, restaurants, malls and sightseeing spots around the city. Here are the top free things to do in Johannesburg — that are all totally fun.
Browse a bookstore
If you’re a book-lover you’re in luck, as Jozi has a number of amazing bookstores. Whether new or second-hand, these stores are often set up as quasi-libraries, with comfy sofas and calming atmospheres (check out the franchise called Exclusive Books; the stores are usually located in major shopping malls — although you may need to pay for parking to access them, but not always). Top second-hand dealers include the mind-boggling Collectors Treasury in the city centre (244 Commissioner Street), which houses more than two million books; Bookdealers (7th Street, Melville); Love Books (53 Rustenburg Road, also in Melville); and the hard-to-find Kalahari Books (2 Dunottar Street, Orange Grove).
See Constitution Hill
This popular tourist spot, located in the city centre in Braamfontein, is free to enter. It houses a lot of dark history, and consists of the Old Fort, Women’s Gaol, the Number 4 Prison Block, and the Constitutional Court. The Court itself is an active one (and its judges continue to uphold one of the most progressive constitutions in the world); it’s also open to the public during court hearings.
Although it’s become a bit derelict in recent years, the inner city’s Newtown precinct still has a number of great (and free) places of interest. Spend a day visiting Museum Afrika (as well as checking out the amazing graffiti nearby under the highway bridge), pop into some of the art studios in the area (Two By Two and Assemblage), and people-watch at Gandhi Square.
For art-lovers, a fascinating place to go to is the Johannesburg Art Gallery (also known as JAG), located close to Hillbrow (corner of Klein and King George Streets, Joubert Park). Don’t let the area’s horror stories deter you — a visit to this gallery is a must, and there is safe parking. Entrance is, of course, free, and it houses an extensive and impressive collection — over 9,000 artworks, from 15th century European art to contemporary African work — as well as regular exhibitions. The gallery’s collection is so huge that it can only exhibit 10% of the art at one time. The building itself is a beautiful piece of colonial architecture, which dates back to 1910.
See muti at the Mai Mai market
Also located in central Joburg, the Mai Mai Market (Cnr Anderson and Berea streets) is where people go to fix their maladies. Also known as the “place of healers”, this market boasts dried animal skins, muti (traditional African medicine), herbs and artifacts. It’s not for the squeamish and a guide is recommended — but if you’re very brave you can explore it on your own. Just be keep your valuables close and be aware at all times — it’s a very crowded place and ideal for pick-pockets.
Enjoy a Maboneng meander
Located towards the east of the city centre you’ll find Maboneng (“the place of light”). Here you can wander around on-foot, stopping by at galleries, browsing boutique stores, and taking in street art. On a Sunday you can visit the Arts on Main market — you don’t have to actually buy anything (although enjoying a coffee or craft beer is a bonus), but it’s nice to just take in the lively vibe and browse the numerous stalls.
Have a spiritual experience
If it’s Sunday and you want to experience the sublime, head to Yeoville (also east of the city centre) to a hilltop called Yeoville Ridge (also known as “God’s Land”). It’s a bit tricky to find and fairly unknown, but the hunt is worth it — with spectacular views of the city below and a pulsating atmosphere of Zionist worshippers singing and chanting. Always be respectful if you decide to take photos because, even though its outdoors, it’s a place of worship.
A walk along Cyrildene’s Derrick Avenue will allow you to experience a piece of Asia — in Africa. Spend a couple of hours taking in the eastern atmosphere by hitting the Chinese supermarkets, the street-side Asian produce stalls, the tea shops, and the Chinese medicine stores. Although the emphasis is on free, a visit to Chinatown just isn’t complete without eating at one of its authentic Chinese restaurants (it’s cheap, and portions are huge).
Go to the “art strip”
Another free treat for art-lovers is located a little north in the leafy suburb of Parkwood. Here you can find a “strip” of art galleries that can easily be explored on-foot. You’ll find the world-class Goodman Gallery (which hosts major exhibitions regularly), Res Gallery, Lizamore & Associates, and the David Krut Bookstore, among others.
Take a stroll in Kensington
East of the city lies Kensington: an old-world suburb with colonial houses and tree-lined streets. One of its most popular streets (although not so tree-lined) is Queen Street. A number of cute eateries and quaint coffee shops can be found here — and its main drawcard are the antique stores. Queen Street is the ideal spot for lazy Sunday antique browsing — from art to furniture to decor.
Picnic at Emmarentia Dam
For an inexpensive outing, head to the Emmarentia Dam, located in the west of the city. It’s the perfect place to unwind and experience nature — the park itself is massive and well-maintained, with people walking dogs, jogging, or just chilling on a blanket on the grass. Entrance is free.
Hang out at Zoo Lake
Another nature escape can be found at Zoo Lake — its beautiful and expansive grounds are popular with joggers and dog-walkers, and you can even take a row boat out onto the lake. And if you do have a few rand to spare, the quirky and colonial Zoo Lake Bowls Club is a great place to grab a really cheap drink and pub grub.
Hike the Melville Koppies
To the west of the city lies the Melville Koppies — a gorgeous nature reserve with amazing views of Joburg and traces of the Stone Age. Most people join walking groups to explore the reserve but you can easily visit it on your own (but make sure that you don’t walk alone, go with at least one other person — or a big dog).
Chill out in Delta Park
Towards the north of the city you’ll find the Delta Environmental Centre (Cnr Road No. 3 and Craighall Road, Victory Park). This massive park has bird-viewing hides, and even a path for the visually impaired (called a sensory trail).
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