The images of Soweto in most people’s mind is that of suffering, hardship and poverty. Many imagine lives of squalor in shacks when they think of Soweto. It’s not until one arrives in Soweto and is awestruck by how it shatters every preconceived notion one had of it beforehand.
Get to know Soweto
Soweto was created in 1904 when black South Africans were forcefully relocated from the inner city slums of Johannesburg after an outbreak of bubonic plague. An acronym for South Western Townships, Soweto has come a long way since the 1980’s and the height of apartheid - a system of racial segregation enforced by political legislation. Now, Soweto is a very safe place for tourists to visit, all year-round. Most tourists come to Soweto on a day tour while staying in Johannesburg but as the city itself gets more and more unsafe, it’s highly recommended to stay in Soweto and do day trips to see Johannesburg. Soweto will surprise you with the vast amount of activities on offer - which can take up almost a week worth of your time.
Orlando West is your entry point into Soweto
Stay in the tourist friendly Orlando West area, which is served by the Phefeni and Orlando trains stations. Lebo’s backpackers is your go-to spot for accommodation in the Orlando West area. Conveniently situated in the heart of Orlando West, it’s a famous place in Soweto, with locals showing up at all hours of the day and night to mingle with the foreigners. Shebeen’s, local drinking holes, are littered around Soweto. Visit a real one - not the tourist traps - to gain insight into the Apartheid days from locals who survived through it. It’s a once in a lifetime experience and most places will more than likely allow you to enter and mingle.
You won’t regret the bike tours
All the accommodations in Soweto have their own bike tours. It’s highly recommended to take one of these as you’d have a very knowledgeable guide who, more than likely, has been born and raised in Soweto and this is their main source of income. Most bike tours will take you through to the Hector Pietersen Museum - an influential and significant day in Apartheid history, the museum commemorates the events leading up to, and during, the anti-Afrikaans Soweto Uprising. The Mandela Family Museum is also conveniently located close by. The former house of Nelson Mandela and his family, it has been run by a museum since 1997.
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The museums in Soweto are iconic and unique
Soweto is extremely unique in that it is the only place in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize Winners have resided. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela both lived in the townships of Soweto for several years, and through the bike tours or a walking tour with a guide, one can bear witness to museums, artefacts, shops and streets dedicated to these two extremely influential individuals.
The roads in Soweto are many and the system to get around on the local transport is extremely confusing for foreigners. If you do want to go explore the townships by yourself or with friends, it’s recommended to ask a local to signal the min-bus down for you, as different hand signals mean different things.
Going to Soweto is a once in a lifetime experience
Soweto is a safe city by day to walk around in with most locals out and about and willing to help foreigners who are lost. At night though, take caution and don’t stray far from your choice of accommodation. If you do decide to venture out of your comfort zone, go with a trusted local or go in a group large enough that you would feel safe in.
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