This is my 499th blog post, and the third of my celebratory Jozi top five series.

Upon arrival in Johannesburg, nearly every first-time visitor (myself included) goes to the Apartheid Museum. Don’t get me wrong — the Apartheid Museum is fantastic and everyone should go. But there are so many other great museums and galleries in Joburg, many of which are unknown even to locals. Here are my five favorites.

1) Wits Art Museum (WAM)
Bertha Street and Jorissen Street, Braamfontein
www.wits.ac.za/wam/

WAM outsideThe beautiful exterior of the Wits Art Museum (WAM). I wanted to take photos inside but failed to do so because I went on a Tuesday. Oops. WAM is closed on Tuesdays.

The Wits Art Museum (WAM), part of Witwatersand University, is 100% focused on African art. I love the clean, modern design of the museum (it’s almost brand-new) and the open layout that allows you to survey everything in a short period of time. I also love the fact that the museum is free, and that it’s close to all the action in Braamfontein and therefore easy to combine with other activities.

The exhibitions rotate frequently and are informative without being overwhelming. The current exhibition on the art of African hair is particularly fascinating. It’s on until 2 November so go soon. Just plan your visit carefully; WAM is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

You may remember from my recent Jozi cheap eats post that WAM also has a great café.

2) Constitution Hill
1 Kotze Street, Hillbrow
www.constitutionhill.org.za

Con Hill cell doors

Isolation cell doors in the dreaded Section 5 of the Old Fort Prison.

Con Hill hillbrow skyline

View of Hillbrow from the ramparts of the Old Fort.

I wrote a long post about Constitution Hill a couple of years ago so I won’t repeat myself. But I think Constitution Hill — originally a military fort, then a notorious prison, now a museum and home to South Africa’s highest court — is the most underrated tourist attraction in downtown Joburg. It’s also centrally located with tons of parking, making it a good jumping-off point for the Joburg Red Bus tour.

Constitution Hill is worth a visit for the skyline views alone. The museum has an admission fee but you can visit the stunning court building and the old fort ramparts for free.

3) CIRCA on Jellicoe
Jan Smuts Avenue and Jellicoe Road, Rosebank

www.circaonjellicoe.co.za

Circa outside

CIRCA: The most visually striking art gallery in town.

Circa Gallery

Heading upstairs on CIRCA’s spiral ramp.

CIRCA on Jellicoe is a private art gallery, under the same ownership as the prestigious Everard Read Gallery behind it. CIRCA puts on interesting contemporary art exhibitions but the gallery itself is what grabs me most. The entire building is a work of contemporary art, with its sloping ramp surrounded by towering vertical steel slats. I love walking up and down the ramp and watching the light change.

CIRCA’s roof offers a beautiful view of the sunset, so try to go on an evening when there’s a public exhibition opening. CIRCA’s upcoming exhibition on Madiba shirts opens on 6 November.

4) Liliesleaf
7 George Avenue, Rivonia

www.liliesleaf.co.za

Liliesleaf 2011

Liliesleaf is a museum now but it used to be a farm. It still feels like one.

Liliesleaf memorial

An outdoor monument to the armed struggle against apartheid.

Again, I’ve already written a long post about Liliesleaf — the former headquarters of the armed wing of the ANC and a hideout for Nelson Mandela before his 1962 arrest — so I won’t ramble on. Liliesleaf, like Constitution Hill, tells the story of apartheid from a unique perspective and is a great compliment to the Apartheid Museum.

Most Joburgers don’t know Liliesleaf exists and I feel this is an injustice. Go check it out — it’s worth the schlep to Rivonia.

5) Sophiatown Heritage & Cultural Centre
Edward Street and Toby Street, Sophiatown

http://sophiatown.net

Sophiatown dr zuma house

The entrance to the Sophiatown Heritage & Cultural Centre, which used to be the home of former ANC president Dr. AB Xuma. It was one of the only homes to survive the destruction of Sophiatown’s forced removals in the 1950s. The entire suburb was razed and rebuilt as a whites-only suburb called Triomf.

Sophiatown we wont move

Visitors read a placard inside the museum.

The Sophiatown Heritage & Culture Centre is virtually unknown to pretty much everyone, which — I know I’m becoming redundant — is a shame. The museum tells the story of Sophiatown, a mixed suburb and legendary jazz music center that was destroyed during the forced removals of the 1950s. (Read more about Sophiatown in this old blog post.)

Although it’s tiny and has strange opening hours (probably due to its shoestring budget), the Sophiatown Heritage & Cultural Centre tells Sophiatown’s story in a poignant, powerful way. The Centre also hosts walking tours and special jazz evenings, which are really fun. The museum is open Monday to Thursday from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., or by appointment.

Sophiatown jazz

A jazz band called the Young Lions performs at Sophiatown Heritage and Cultural Centre.

Two more museums worth mentioning:

1) The Johannesburg Art Gallery (Klein and King George Streets, Joubert Park), or JAG, is Joburg’s preeminent and most historic art museum. (Read about it in this very old blog post.) I didn’t include the JAG in my top five because hectic traffic makes it extremely difficult to get in and out of there. Nonetheless, the JAG has an amazing art collection and puts on good exhibitions, despite huge financial and logistical challenges. I highly recommend it; just have your wits about you when you go.

2) Museum Africa (Mary Fitzgerald Square, Newtown) is a bit run down but puts on fantastic historical exhibitions. The current exhibition, the Rise and Fall of Apartheid, is one of the best collections of photography I’ve ever seen and it’s been extended through April 2015. I’ve been twice and may go again.

Post #500 is coming soon.

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