Soweto (an acronym for South Western Townships) is the biggest township of Johannesburg with more than 1.2m inhabitants. It has many suburbs and subcultures and not all areas are easily accessible, people live here and not all are accustomed to tourists. Orlando West (home of most of the tourist attractions) is probably the easiest area to explore on your own.
The most famous street in Soweto is Vilakazi Street. Nelson and Winnie Mandela lived here as well as Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
It is easy to get to Vilakazi Street on your own by car, park anywhere and walk the busy street filled with restaurants, vendors selling T-shirts and other touristy stuff and locals performing all kind of song and dance to earn a few rands. The street has a great vibe and tends to get a bit chaotic, with many cars (windows rolled down, loud music playing) cruising up and down the street maneuvering between dance groups, fabulously fashionable locals and tourists. Make sure to bring plenty of small change because you may want to hand it out here and there. We always bring our friends here for a drink, a local lunch and a stroll, and it’s very enjoyable and not dangerous or scary at all.
Just a block away, Hector Pieterson was killed by police during the students’ uprising of 1976. Now the Hector Pietersen Memorial and Museum stand on the corner of Moema and Vilakazi Streets. The memorial is a lovely monument, well maintained and full of symbolism, with beautiful olive trees planted around it.
Mandela’s house at 8115 Vilakazi street is now a small museum and well worth the visit. The Mandela’s family lived here for many years through constant harassment and ordeals. The house is filled with various pictures and memorabilia from their lives.
If you want to see a little more of Soweto, you can do one of the many of the bike or bus tours on offer. We did the short (2 hour) bicycle tour with Soweto Backpackers and it was really enjoyable. Because it was election day, we stopped at a voting station, and rode through Orlando and Meadowland. If you have more time, the 4 hour or full day tours will bring you to the Orlando Towers (you can bungee jump) or squatter settlements and a visit to a shebeen (local tavern). Our tour ended with a relaxed braai and a beer at Lebo’s outdoor restaurant.
Best: Great vibe, friendly people, lots of history
Worst: At Vilakazi street some people are quite persistent asking for money and will walk with you until you succumb or feel the urge to become rude