Is it worth it to spend a day in Soweto when you visit Johannesburg South Africa? After our Soweto tour, we say YES.
For a Gen Xer like me, going to Soweto revived memories of South African racial injustice that haunted the days of my youth, of music that entertained me with its heart throbbing Mbaqanga beat, of leaders like Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela that inspired me by possessing the awesome courage to change the world.
I can still remember attending a show on Paul Simon’s Graceland tour (with my mother – probably the only large rock concert I’ve ever attended with her) and swinging to the sounds of Simon along with his band of South African all-stars like guitarist Ray Phiri, bassist Bakithi Kumalo along with legendary singer Miriam Makeba and hornist Hugh Masekela.
We chanted the word ‘Amandla’ without truly understanding its meaning (Amandla, a famous apartheid rallying cry, means “power” in Zulu and Xhosa), we swayed our hips to the incessant bass drum beat, we swooned to the choral sounds of the suddenly world-famous Ladysmith Black Mambazo as they hypnotized an audience of over 15,000 concertgoers.
The memory has stayed with me for decades. It was one of those “I was there” concerts.
Fast forward to this year, when Mindi and I made the fateful decision to jet to South Africa, I immediately scoured YouTube for tracks from the record The Indestructible Beat of Soweto. I danced around our Naples apartment, excited by the prospect of experiencing the South Africa that I had seen and read about up close.
In that sense, despite all the beautiful beaches we traipsed down and vistas we viewed in the Western Cape and The Garden Route, the wonderful food and wine we enjoyed in the Cape Winelands and the thrill we experienced in seeing big five animals on safari, my South African journey would be woefully incomplete without a Johannesburg day trip to Soweto.
The irony is that in the years since Apartheid, Soweto has risen from its notorious collection of tin shacks to become, not just a thriving Black African community, but also a massive tourist hub with museums, postcard shops and all too frequent bus tours. Soweto even has cafes serving cappuccinos decorated with coffee art.
What to Do During a Soweto Tour
Our first view of Soweto was through van windows; however, we soon experienced the scope of Soweto, a huge ‘township’, maybe one of the largest in South Africa. Once in the center of town, we found a vital middle-class suburb with nice homes, green parks and welcoming people.
We soon traded the van for a more unconventional vehicle – a horse-drawn carriage. And with that, our Soweto day trip began in earnest.
We have read and heard people recommend against visiting Soweto, claiming that taking a Soweto township tour is gratuitous and inappropriate. We couldn’t disagree more. In fact, our visit to Soweto was one of our favorite things to do in Johannesburg. Of course, all travelers need to make personal decisions regarding ethical travel dilemmas like this one.
Based on our positive experience, we recommend that you plan a full day in the bustling township with some or all of the following activities.
Ride a Horse-Drawn Carriage
After entering the green grassy fields of Enos Mafokate’s Soweto Equestrian Centre, we observed children playing and enjoying various field games and activities (think bean bag races.) Instead of joining the kids, we climbed onto a carriage with rubber tires reminiscent of the hayrides of our youth.
Traveling by horse seems like an odd way to see the city, but the slow and relaxed ride provided us with the ideal pace for relaxation and exploration.
Mafokate, the first black South African showjumper, has a stable of 20 horses and 5 carts that whisk visitors around the historic township. To us, viewing Soweto without windowed barriers and at a leisurely, friendly pace was the ideal way to travel and was far superior to any Soweto tour bus.
“You can’t leave your neighbors hungry while you’re eating.”
Tour guide Mzwakhe Nhlapo introduced us to his neighbors as Lollipop galloped us through central township neighborhoods, showing us a close-knit community of food shacks, playgrounds and surprisingly upscale residences. Residents greeted us with friendly waves and hand signs of peace.
We acknowledge that not all of Soweto is quite as ‘well off’, with many nearby neighborhoods marked by tin shacks and dirt roads. But riding through this section of Soweto warmed us with its sense of optimism and harmony creating a new faith in the future of South Africa, especially our last stop – the Regina Mundi Catholic Church.
We recommend hiring a professional guide for your township tour. The guide will make sure that you see all of the important sites and avoid any areas that are unsafe for tourists.
Get Inspired at Regina Mundi Catholic Church
At first glance, we weren’t so impressed by Regina Mundi’s simple, modern, almost ugly A-frame structure built during the architecturally utilitarian 1960s. On the surface, Soweto’s famous church did not compare favorably to powerful religious monuments we’ve visited around the world.
During our travels, we’ve marveled at brilliant, gothic gargoyles in churches like Paris‘ Notre Dame and the Cologne Cathedral. We’ve also stood in awe by the infinite pudgy faces that adorn temples like Angkor Tom and the Jigsaw puzzle of buildings in Ta Prom in Cambodia.
However, everything changed once we entered through the church’s metal doors to encounter the heavenly, cacophonous, Afrophonic chanting of church congregants.
Yes, Regina Mundi may look simple compared to those other religious monuments, but its presence is no less powerful. This is the church where the world-famous Desmond Tutu led the peaceful mission against South Africa’s oppressive apartheid laws.
Not a monument to the past, this church is a vibrant part of the Soweto community today. After warmly greeting us, Palesa Maroblea gracefully directed us away from the joyful service to the upstairs exhibit.
Once we reached the church’s upstairs balcony, we gazed at an intriguing collection of historic photos that transported us through Soweto’s historic struggle against the demonic forces of Apartheid. Viewing the moving photos of protest and liberation as bellowing chords of Amazing Grace sung in native Sotho wafted from the downstairs choir was an experience that moved us to tears.
Soweto and monuments like Regina Mundi are where history lives and breathes as a reminder of how far the world has come and how far it has to go in the fight for equality.
Go Green at Thokoza Park
Just steps away from the Regina Mundi Catholic Church, the 4.5-hectare Thokoza Park serves as a recreational space for current residents and a worthy stop for tourists. While locals flock to the park to relax and play in the urban oasis, tourists (like us) can check out the tree planted in honor of Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday.
Not a simple tree, this one tree represents 90,000 trees planted on this auspicious birthday. The park was relatively quiet during our visit, but we hear that it comes alive on weekends with locals enjoying braai barbecues, picnics, sports, music and even weddings.
Fill Your Stomach on Vilakazi Street
All tours to Soweto eventually hit Vilakazi Street, making it a great spot for lunch. Not only is the central Soweto street filled with tourists, colorful street art (see above) and postcards shops, but it’s also the street where both Tutu and Mandela resided when they lived in Soweto. Without a doubt, this street is the epicenter for Soweto tourism.
During our Soweto day trip, we ate a buffet-style lunch at Sakhumzi Restaurant, an eatery with a plethora of local, village-based South African food. The restaurant’s buffet includes traditional specialties like mutton, stewed chicken, samp (stewed potato and corn) as well as starchy cooked beans.
We appreciated the food for its diversity and wholesomeness, though for reasons unknown, South Africans seem to have an aversion to salting their food. We wanted to love the hearty flavors of the beans, the distinct starchy flavor of the corn and the unique gamy flavor of the mutton but, without salt, the local African food we ate lacked the flavor pop that our western palates craved.
In a way, eating local South African food was a humbling experience for us. Who are we, with our flavor pulverized tastebuds, to judge those of other countries and cultures? That being said, it wouldn’t hurt for the cooks of Soweto to season their food a bit more.
Expand Your Brain at the Nelson Mandela House
Located on the same street as the touristic restaurants and shops, the Nelson Mandela House is one of the top places to visit in Soweto. The museum is literally the house where Nelson Mandela lived for 15 years before he was sent to prison in the early 1960s.
Now a National Heritage Site, the house is filled with the Mandela family’s memorabilia as well as gifts from dignitaries, like the boxing belt from Sugar Ray Leonard. Little known fact: Nelson Mandela was a professional boxer.
Make sure you check out the museum’s tree. The family buried umbilical cords here, making it a special memorial to the Mandela babies born here.
Shop and Chill at the Box Shop
Just a five-minute walk from the Mandela Museum, the Box Shop is a cool space with a lifestyle shop on the lower level and a cafe serving proper coffee on the upper level.
Owned and operated by Soweta locals, Kofi Africa serves coffee drinks and cafe fare in an open-air setting along with free Wi-Fi and stellar views of Vilakazi Street.
Get Inspired at Walter Sisulu Square
We ended our Johannesburg day trip to Soweto at Walter Sisulu Square, a Kliptown entertainment center lots of history. In addition to being a vibrant center today, the square is the site where the 1955 Congress of the People adopted the Freedom Charter, the precursor of South Africa’s 1996 Constitution.
Stopping here and reflecting while we viewed the statues looming high in the sky was a fitting ending to our Soweto tour.
Check Out Other Soweto Attractions
One day is not enough to hit all of the Soweto tourist attractions. If we had more time, we would have done the following additional activities:
About the Author
Daryl Hirsch is obsessed with food. His quest to taste the world has taken him to over 30 countries so far. The award-winning Food & Travel writer lives in Lisbon with his partner Mindi.