One of the best things about being an aunt (and presumably a parent, too) is that it gives you an excuse to indulge in all the kiddy things that adults on their own don’t usually find themselves doing. When my two-year old nephew was here last week, we got to swing on swings, ride on a see-saws, and do all kinds of other fun stuff that we hadn’t done in years.
I also discovered that Johannesburg is actually a great place to visit with small children. The majority of restaurants, parks, and even gas stations have playgrounds for the little ones. The outdoor spaces and wildlife are great fun, and there are plenty of educational museums that are neat for kids and their adults. Plus, all the traffic in Joburg provides lots of good opportunities for car naps.
Most families visiting South Africa probably pass through Johannesburg, assuming that it’s not particularly kid-friendly. In reality, this city is chock full of attractions that kids will love. Here is a list of some of the best spots for visitors to check out if they find themselves in Johannesburg with a small person in tow.
The Lion Park is touted as the #1 tourist attraction in Gauteng, and it’s easy to see why. Not only do you get to see lions, cheetahs and wild dogs up close from the comfort of your car, you also get to interact directly with the animals. The park has a big play area, enclosures with all kinds of native animals in their cages, and a petting area that includes a deck to allow for kids (and short adults like me) to get up close with giraffes. All of that is free; guests only pay to drive around in the safari park or have an encounter with baby lions or cheetahs. Which leads me to my one caveat for the Lion Park: children as young as four are allowed into the cat encounters, but I would NOT recommend taking anyone that young in. As adorable as the little cubs were, they also already had big, sharp claws and teeth, and were quite playful. Both my sister and I left with significant scratches. Instead, do a quick self-drive around the safari park, where you can drive right up close to a pride of lions.
Just down the road from the Lion park is Croc City. Though small, this attraction is pretty neat. After peering into the enclosures at the big crocs, a guide takes some of the smaller reptiles out of their cages for guests to meet. Go early on a weekday, and you might be treated to a private tour, which may entail snuggling with a boa constrictor. Tots can touch the far safer tortoises and lizards. There is a playground, zipline, and picnic tables.
Sci-Bono Discovery Centre
If your kid is the hands-on type, Johannesburg’s science museum is the place to go. There are tons of engaging exhibits for all ages, on mechanics, trains, electricity, mind games, and more. There is a play area geared just for little ones, and more advanced exhibits for bigger kids. Once your kid is tuckered out, stroll through the incredibly interesting BodyWorlds exhibit.
Toddlers and long car rides are usually not a good combo, which means a long safari can be tricky with a little one. Instead ,take them to the surprisingly nice Joburg Zoo. The Zoo features all of the big five and then some, with enclosures that allow visitors to get quite close to the animals. There are also great playgrounds scattered around the big, leafy park. It is a great place to get outside and stroll around for a day. Word of advice: go early on a weekday to beat the rambunctious crowds of school-kids.
Montecasino Bird Gardens
Birds may not sound very exciting, but the Montecasino Bird Gardens make for quite a nice day out. Set outside the faux-Italian village of the casino, the Bird Park is full of beautiful and exotic species of birds. There is a fun daily show geared towards children, and a huge covered aviary that allows you to walk amongst the birds and monkeys and other creatures. And of course, there is a playground!
The number one spot to take your small child in Johannesburg isn’t actually an attraction, it’s a restaurant. But Bambanani in Melville is 100% parent approved. Drop your kid off at the 4 story covered climbing gym, where child-minders will keep a close eye on them. Then, find a table inside our out on the deck, and enjoy your meal without being interrupted or worrying about your kid causing a scene. I’ve already been twice with my nephew in tow, and am scheming up excuses to go back sans kid just for the delicious food.