While it will surely be Cape Town and its mountainous backdrop which most captures visitors’ imaginations as the 2021 British & Irish Lions Tour rolls across South Africa, it will be Johannesburg where most of the key sporting action takes place. The country’s largest city – home to a population of nine million people – will stage two of the three Tests against the World Champions.
The First Test will scrum down at the First National Bank Stadium – the football arena, on the outskirts of Soweto, affectionately known as “The Calabash”; the Third and concluding Test will see battle-lines drawn at Emirates Airline Park, the spiritual home of South African rugby, where the Springboks triumphed on home soil at the 1995 World Cup. Lions fans will hope that the latter match will be the scene of a Series-clinching victory – if Cape Town hasn’t already had this honour in the Second Test.
The upshot, of course, is that travelling supporters will spend a good deal of time in this giant metropolis – a happy consequence, as Johannesburg provides a snapshot of South African life that is arguably unrivalled elsewhere. Admittedly, it does not always do so through the brightest of lens. Opened in 2001, the Apartheid Museum gazes back at the system of racial segregation which held the country in its grip during the second half of the 20th century. Obviously, this makes for uncomfortable viewing, but the museum is as essential and unmissable a part of the “Jo’burg” experience as a visit to Soweto – the township on the south-west side of the conurbation, where the little house on Vilakazi Street where Nelson Mandela lived from 1946 to 1962 is open to the public as a museum.
That said, there is a lot more to Johannesburg than the most notorious chapter in South Africa’s past. The South African National Museum of Military History analyses conflicts as varied as the Boer War and the Second World War. Johannesburg Art Gallery is the largest such museum on the continent, packed with works by African and European artists. And the Origins Centre pulls the South African story back far beyond the last 100 years, displaying examples of rock art that shine a light on humankind’s earliest footsteps.
Outside the museums, you can indulge your shopping urges in the malls of Rosebank and Sandton, while there are excellent restaurants in Parkhurst and Parkview – and there is a lively bar scene on Seventh Street in Melville. And if you want to peer down at all of it from an elevated perspective, a ride to the roof of the Carlton Centre is a must. This 50-storey behemoth of a building rises to a height of 223m (732ft) in the Central Business District (CBD). Its uppermost floor, marketed as the “Top Of Africa”, deals in epic views.