12 Unusual Things to Do in Johannesburg

by - September 15, 2022

 Every time I visit Johannesburg (now that I no longer live here and I have become a tourist), I google “strange and unusual things to do” or “unique experiences to have”. And every time, I find lists of the most obvious, well-known, conventional tourist attractions. It’s quite disappointing. Well, here is a list of properly unusual things to do and unique experiences to have in and around Johannesburg:

Collage of strange and unusual things to do in Johannesburg

1. Dinner in the Sky

Why dine inside one of Johannesburg’s many many restaurants sprinkled throughout our many shopping malls or conventional indoor settings when you can have dinner strapped to a chair that’s connected to a table that’s literally suspended from a crane? 

I had Dinner in the Sky when it was based at the Indaba Hotel on the edge of the city. Now that it’s moved to St. Stithians, I imagine that the city lights are more spectacular. 

Dinner table suspended by crane at night
Photo credit: Sergio Souza / Pexels

Full disclosure: This is a stock photo. As soon as I find the pics from my own experience I will post them.

2. Tour the Lindfield House Museum

The Lindfield House Museum is a Victorian house museum in Aukland Park. It is to houses what Mary Poppin’s carpet bag is to handbags in that it doesn’t look that massive from the outside but the inside is a maze of interleading rooms filled with impressive and varied treasures. It would be an awesome place to play sardines. (Sardines — for anyone who I haven’t subjected to a game — is like hide and seek except only one person hides and when the rest find them they join them)!

Antique decor at Victorian house museum

It is run by a lady named Katharine who is the third generation to have lived in the residence. After the passing of her mother, she opened the home as a Victorian museum, displaying a vast collection of late 19th / early 20th century items.

Apparently, she usually dresses in Victorian attire for her tours but on the day we went, she didn’t. She still showed us her crinoline, though. As one does. She was incredibly knowledgeable and educated us on visiting etiquette, calling cards, how (little) Victorian people parented their children and many other things. 

The doll’s house was particularly fascinating, as was the surprisingly large (and somewhat creepy) cabinet of curiosities. (Not photographed.) 

Antique dolls house at Lindfield House Museum


Tea is served on the verandah after the tour. 
Sometimes personalised tours like this sound a bit daunting, especially considering that Katherine lives here herself and is personally connected to this house and the many fascinating items within it. (I almost feel bad poking fun at the creepy dolls. Oh, I haven’t done that yet!…)

Victorian era dolls at Lindfield House Museum
Yikes!

But there is something quite special about this house and its owner. The Lindfield House museum is definitely worth checking out. 


Selfie in the reflection of an antique mirror

3. Learn about eccentric locals at the Northwards House tour 

While we’re talking about house tours, Northwards House is another house that’s worth a visit. 

Exterior of Northwards House, Johannesburg

Microadventure Tours offers tours of this 1904, 52-room, Herbert Baker mansion.
While much of the house is now used for office space, the withdrawing room, dining room, billiards room and impressive ballroom — complete with a musician gallery and a Steinway piano — remains intact. Hanging above the mantle piece is an oversized oil painting of the former lady of the house Jose Dale Lace. 

Ballroom of Northwards House, Johannesburg

Neil, our tour guide, takes care of the property and is everything you could want in a host for an attraction like this. He explains Herbert Baker’s architectural style, the history of the building and the stories of the people who lived here.

Portrait of Jose Dale Lace at Northwards House

The stories about former resident Jose Dale Lace are part of what makes this tour so interesting and unusual as Neil recounts the legend of an eccentric lady who rose through the ranks of society, had a number of elicit relationships, had an acting career, married the same man twice, had a zebra-drawn carriage and possibly even had an affair with a bridge-playing king. Why a Netflix series hasn’t been made about her life yet, I do not know.

After the Northwards House tour, visitors are invited to picnic in the home’s beautifully manicured gardens.

4. Bungee jump from the Orlando Towers

A visit to Soweto is a somewhat conventional but awesome experience to have. In the past, I have described the Orlando Towers (or Soweto Towers) as the mismatched socks on the feet of Johannesburg. 

While you can visit them and dine on shisa nyama (a distinctly South African version of the barbecue for my international readers), if you are more daring, you can actually bungee jump from the bridge between them. (Well, you can but I won't.) You used to be able to do a swing that looked less daunting but it doesn't seem to be available anymore so maybe I will just stick to the shisa nyama.

Soweto Towers in Orlando, Johannesburg

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5. Explore the Sterkfontein Caves

The Sterkfontein Caves in Cradle of Humankind are limestone caves that are of special interest to paleo-anthropologists. They are an official World Heritage Site and also, they look cool. Various hominin remains (belonging to some variation of ape / early man) have been found here, including Mrs. Ples, the nickname assigned to the remains of South Africa’s most complete Australopithecus africanus species (a pre-human race) skull. She is believed to be 3.4-3.7 million years old. 

Sterkfontein Caves

Excavations started in the 1890s and continue to this day. Sterkfontein is considered to be one of the richest sites in the world for early hominid remains.  The site is quite unusual and are unlike anything I have ever experienced in the 57 countries I have visited. AND you even get to wear a cool hard hat just in case a stalactite falls on your head! 

Tourists explore Sterkfontein Caves near Johannesburg

6. Visit the Cradle of Humankind / Maropeng Visitor Centre

Okay, so this one's on the list along with the Apartheid Museum, the Lion Park and the Hop-on-hop-off bus for the most conventional of Johannesburg tourist attractions but there are a couple of things that make it a bit odd:

While you’re in the Cradle of Humankind, after you have seen sort of where Mrs. Ples came from, you can go visit him at the Maropeng Visitor Centre. Yup, the most complete skull of one of the earliest remains of early man was originally thought to be female (hence the name) but is now actually considered by scientists to have been a dude. (There! Humankind seems to have been gender-confused from the very beginning!) 

Mrs. Ples at the Maropeng Visitor Centre

(I’m not actually sure if he/she/they is still based here but he/she/they was several years ago when a much skinnier version of myself visited him/her/them.)

Secondly, the museum is actually based in a grass-covered mound that looks a bit like telly tubby land. 

Telly Tubby Land vs. Maropeng / Cradle of Humankind
Telly Tubby Land vs. Maropeng

...except the sun is not as cute and, actually, the whole experience leaves you questioning whether or not there’s hope for humankind and our planet. 
But in a good way?  

Depressing photo op at Maropeng / Cradle of Humankind
"Is humanity doomed?"
 
Apart from that, it’s super educational and they really worked hard on their displays. 

educational display at Maropeng visitor centre
Me learning stuff


7. Frolic among the art at Nirox Sculpture Park

While you’re near the Cradle of Humankind, why not check out the Nirox Sculpture Park?
They do make for the inspiration for some fun poses. (None of this frolicking in a lavender field bull-poop!)  If you do want to see some strange and unusual sculptures sprinkled throughout a beautiful park and reach your step-goal for the day, this is the place for you!

Art at Nirox Sculpture Park

Oversized man at Nirox Sculpture Park

Posing with art at Nirox Sculpture Park

8. Talk to a robot at the Hotel Sky

Technically, I haven’t experienced the Hotel Sky here in Joburg, only the one in Cape Town, but I happen to know that the one here has robots that you can talk to as well. 
If you see Mika’s cousin tell her I say hi and definitely ask her something challenging. 



9. Shop at the shipping container mall 27 Boxes

Johannesburg is a city obsessed with shopping malls. There are four large shopping malls within a 7km radius of my old house. And that’s not counting other supermarkets and shopping centres! I have done a lot of travelling, and I have never encountered a city with so many malls. Considering how common they are, adding any shopping centre to this list seems a bit daft, however, 27 Boxes in Melville is a shopping centre made up of shipping containers.
 
Some of the shops there offer items as novel as the architecture (like cronuts - a mix between a croissant and a doughnut. Mind blowing, I know!) 

27 Boxes, Melville, Johannesburg

27 Boxes, Melville, Johannesburg

10. Visit the hipsters at the Neighbourgoods Market

The Joburg CBD is notorious for, well, crime.
A while ago, when hipsters were still very much a thing (not that they’re not anymore, I’m just not sure what we call them now), they took over the Maboneng precinct and gentrified the poo out of it. 

If you want to go into a dodgy part of a crime-ridden city, you can find a number of gentrified hipster-ridden experiences to discover but an underground parking lot (literally) full of hipsters selling vegan street food and way overpriced macrame pot holders under fairy lights and bunting, is quite the experience!

Neighbourgoods Market, Johannesburg

Interior view of Neighbourgoods Market, Johannesburg

11. Use the most OTT bathroom in the city 

While dining at Razor Charlie in Sandton, I discovered the most over-the-top restaurant / event venue bathroom in the city. I do love a good restaurant bathroom and this one certainly delivers! The art photography was breathtaking in its own right but then to group that with an ornamental motorbike, a canoe light fitting thing suspended from the ceiling and 2D tiles that are made to look 3D?  And all to celebrate the moment when waste products evacuate your body? Wow, what an experience!

Click the right arrow for the full slide show:


Razor Charlie, a Latin-everything inspired restaurant, is great too and if you’re going through a mid-life crisis and you’re looking for love, Sir James Van Der Merve (in the same building) is the name of a club where you can meet your next ex-husband.
(We didn’t stay.)

12. Visit a Tuscan Village in the heart of South Africa

I think the average South African living in the north of Johannesburg has become so familiar with Montecasino that they have forgotten how completely absurd it is that there is an elaborate Tuscan village-themed casino in Africa. But for foreigners, as awkward as it is, I recommend a visit.

Fake Tuscan facade at Montecasino, Johannesburg

It’s a little bit embarrassing to admit this, but South Africa went through quite a phase in the early 2000s when we were obsessed with Tuscan-style architecture. Even real estate housing developments were built in “Tuscan style” (or our version of it). But when it comes to Montecasino, we really went all out! 

When I visited Florence (which is literally in Tuscany), my South African travel mate commented on how disappointed she was that it didn’t look more like Montecasino. I have another friend who was equally disappointed by Rome. ROME?! 


Once you’re done ogling the architecture, the suspended laundry hanging between fake facades, the surprisingly convincing clouds painted on the ceiling and the fact that I think there are even fake ducks bobbing in a fake stream, there’s a wealth of entertainment and dining facilities on offer, including a bird park (with real birds this time, just FYI). 

If I forgot anything, please let me know in the comments below?

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