Johannesburg is a city of complexities. The skyscrapers are surrounded by shacks, the people are from many different backgrounds, and the never-ending activity  here tends to dominate one’s experience. Many people have a love/hate relationship with Johannesburg for these reasons, yet it continues to attract millions of people. 

As the largest city of the first country that constitutionalized protection of LGBTQ rights, Johannesburg offers an exhilarating journey.

MAJOR ATTRACTIONS

Johannesburg has great symbolic importance for the country’s history, as it was an active anti-apartheid center and home to many political figures of that era. The Apartheid Museum here gives a thought-provoking ride into this dark era of South African history, where non-white people were denied many rights. Other important landmarks of the apartheid era are found in Soweto township, the only place where you can see the houses of two Nobel laureates on one street. Besides Nelson Mandela’s former house and Desmond Tutu’s current house, the township is home to Hector Pieterson Memorial and Freedom Square, all symbolizing the country’s liberation. Finally, visit Constitution Hill to see the site of apartheid’s most notorious prison, where activists like Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Joe Slovo were detained for a time.

lgbtq guide to johannesburg
Photo by Yassine Khalfalli.

Of course, the cultural and historical legacy of Johannesburg stretches back to long before the modern era and includes everything from sites of anthropological significance to those of African artistic expression. The Wits Art Museum, belonging to one of several universities in Joburg, is home to everything from ancient rock-carvings by the San people (the first nations people of South Africa, whose territories span many surrounding countries, too) to various contemporary artworks by African artists. To truly come face-to-face with history, head about 24 miles out of town to the Cradle of Humankind found in Sterkfontein Cave. The area boasts unique geology as well as fossils, rock art, and the footprints of the first people of Africa. 

Finally, Johannesburg is the closest metropolitan area to Kruger National Park, regarded as one of the finest places on the continent for big-five game viewing (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and Cape buffalo). Although it requires a six-hour journey by car to reach, it’s one of the finest adventures available anywhere and worth the time if you plan to stay awhile in Joburg. Otherwise, you can check out the much closer alternative of Pilanesburg Nature Reserve, which is smaller but pristinely located in an ancient volcanic crater and home to much of the same wildlife as Kruger. 

RESTAURANTS and BARS

lgbtq guide to johannesburg
Photo by David East.

Unlike Cape Town, where LGBTQ nightlife is clustered in certain neighborhoods, Johannesburg’s gay scene is much more spread out. Another thing to keep in mind is that many bars or restaurants can close while new ones open quickly.

Sandton is one of the most affluent districts of Johannesburg and the bar Babylon fits the sophisticated atmosphere with its artsy design and decoration. As soon as the sun sets, Babylon turns into a pumping night-club with the hottest DJs playing deep house.

Melville’s most popular gay bar, Ratz, is ideal for socializing and pre-drinks. Their music collection of 1980s disco anthems will prepare you for the rest of the night. Many buildings in Johannesburg are run down, but sometimes they are used for a good cause. The Factory’s venue was an actual factory before it was renovated into the city’s prime cruising place. With its many private corners, relaxing rooms, dance floors, and mazes, The Factory’s adventurous atmosphere is unrivaled.

Beefcakes offers an extraordinary drag dining experience right out yesteryear, imitating the performance styles of Miami’s South Beach in the 1950s. The praise-worthy drag shows are coupled with some of the best burgers in the city. On a side note, don’t forget to check out its locations in Pretoria and Cape Town.

There is sadly just one gay sauna in Johannesburg, but The Rec Room’s owners made pretty sure that it is perfect in every way. The visitors prefer it for its thorough hygiene measures and efforts to provide both safety and fun. Check out the incredible collection of drinks from its fully-licensed bar while trying out its luxurious facilities such as a large steam room, a spa, video lounges, and private cubicles. Keep an eye on the venue’s schedule for themed parties and functions.

lgbtq guide to johannesburg
Photo by Clodagh da Paixao.

EVENTS

The ever-growing LGBTQ community in Johannesburg celebrates pride every year in October. As a multicultural city that attracts people from many other African nations, Johannesburg’s pride holds a huge responsibility to create a welcoming atmosphere. Last year’s theme was “Authentically You,” which helped people from different backgrounds feel included. They even created a flag that had layers of 54 African countries. The event consists not only of a massive parade and concerts but also speeches and symposiums about hate crime and transphobia. It will be held on October 26th this year.

Johannesburg is a huge city with many scattered neighborhoods and townships. With over a million residents, the Soweto township is even more crowded than a lot of South African cities. It shouldn’t be surprising that such a large crowd had to organize their own pride. Soweto’s pride takes place in September every year. Their schedule is similar to the Johannesburg pride with a march, political program, DJ performances, and an additional large swimming pool. They also organize a massive after-party to raise funds for the next year’s Soweto Pride.

Other areas of note

The LGBTQ-friendly church of Die Kapel is found in Melville district and it is known for providing emotional support for the members of the LGBTQ community from a Christian point of view. The church not only welcomes them but also aims to inform people of all genders and races about the issues LGBTQ people face. There are regular seminars and talks about the relationship between religion and sexual orientation. We highly recommend that you pay a visit regardless of your beliefs.

Only 43 miles from Johannesburg lays an oasis in the bush. The Die Windpomp Guest House is a gay men-only private resort that offers a tranquil retreat in nature. The friendly staff is always there to help you while you enjoy the mouth-watering homemade meals, clean and cozy rooms, and campsites. The resort has its private pub and nightclub that hosts a whole range of special events.

Any recommendations for LGBTQ travelers headed to Joburg?

Header photo by Keenan Constance.

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Anxious Expat
In July 2017, I found myself on a plane to Cape Town with a one-way ticket to pursue my dream job in cancer research. I am currently doing my Ph.D. in Computational Systems Biology at the University of Cape Town. In my spare time (believe me, I still have some of that!), I am doing my best to explore every inch of amazing South Africa by going hiking, going on road trips, attending festivals and more. I plan to explore the rest of entire Southern Africa in the next three years.