You haven't really experienced life in South Africa until you've visited a township, and Soweto, to the south-west of Johannesburg, is the largest of them all. This area is also famous for its role in the struggle against apartheid, and there are now many sites of historical significance. The easiest way to visit Soweto is on an official township tour, and you can make the trip as long or short as you like.

Did you know?

The present-day Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto was originally built for convalescing British and Commonwealth soldiers.

A tour of Soweto (short for South-Western Townships) is a must for any visitor keen to get a taste of the vibrant and gritty street life this township is renowned for.

By rights more of a city in modern-day South Africa than just a traditional township, Soweto has its roots in the gold mines that drew migrant workers to Johannesburg at the turn of the 20th century.

After the National Party was voted into power in 1948, Soweto grew rapidly as apartheid tightened its grip on the country and squeezed black people out of white areas.

Today a township tour of this sprawling area will take you to see many of the highlights of the country's political history.

These include a stop at Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown, where South Africa's Freedom Charter (a document used to help draft the country's Constitution) was signed in 1955.

Another important landmark is the Hector Pieterson memorial and museum, the site of the famous Soweto uprising of 16 June 1976, which saw school pupils take to the streets to protest against the use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools. The iconic news photograph of a dying 13-year-old Pieterson, cradled in the arms of a fellow school pupil after being shot by the police, drew attention to South Africa’s oppressive racial policies.

And then there’s the famous Vilakazi Street, once home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners, namely former president Nelson Mandela and Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. Here visitors can linger over a glass of beer or a meal in one of several taverns or restaurants lining the street.

Other Soweto highlights include the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, listed by Guinness World Records in 1997 as the largest hospital in the world, as well as the brightly coloured Orlando Towers, where the more adventurous can opt for an urban bungee jump.

As a visitor, the easiest and safest way to experience Soweto is to go on a township tour, which could last anything from a whistle-stop two hours to a whole day or an overnight stay.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

City Sightseeing Jo'burg Taxi to Soweto Tour
Tel: 0861 733 287

Soweto Outdoor Adventures
Tel: +27 (0)72 692 8159

Soweto Hotel & Conference Centre
Corner Union Avenue and Main Road, Kliptown
Tel: +27 (0)11 527 7300
Email: reservations@sowetohotel.co.za

Best time to visit

All year.

Tours to do

Sign up with an official tour for ease of access.

What will it cost

The quickest and most affordable way is with Jo'burg's City Sightseeing Bus. For R400 you get a full city tour and a two-hour Soweto tour in a traditional township taxi.

Length of stay

Spend a morning, a day, or arrange an overnight visit.

What to pack

Walking shoes, camera, cash for tips.

Where to stay

The Soweto Hotel on the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication in Kliptown is the first four-star hotel to have been opened in Soweto.

What to eat

Try some traditional township food like umngqusho (samp and beans) with ujeqe (steamed bread).

What's happening

Vilakazi Street is a popular gathering point for its numerous eateries and activity outside former president Nelson Mandela's old house.

Best buys

Buy traditional crafts from a street stallholder at the market adjacent to the Hector Pieterson memorial and museum.