Gay Johannesburg | The Essential LGBT Travel Guide!
With a population of 8 million, Johannesburg is by far the largest city in South Africa. It is the nation’s economic powerhouse filled with capitalist malls, soaring skyscrapers, innovative modern architecture- and a large gay community.
While it’s by no means the gay capital of Africa – Cape Town has that crown snatched – there is a lot to love here whether you are on business, in search of a cultural encounter, an adrenaline rush or simply want to relax and unwind for a few days! Johannesburg, also known as Jo’burg, Jozi or eGoli (the “City of Gold”), is – put simply – a vibrant and diverse yet hectic, sprawling mess. But after decades of decay and decline, things are finally looking better here as an urban renaissance takes hold on a scale we haven’t seen since Medellin or Krakow.
Everything is looking smarter, new venues are opening, apartments rising on the horizon, and people here are looking optimistically to the future. Wealth gaps remain amongst the worst in the world; however, and crime is still is a big issue. Also, don’t expect to find a rainbow-flag covered queer village-like Chiang Mai, Hannover, or Athens here.
To be honest, you are unlikely to find one any time soon…
South Africa’s constitution was the first in the world to protect people from discrimination on the grounds of this sexual orientation, and the country was the first in Africa to legalize same-sex marriage. Still, sadly this progressive political climate has not translated to complete acceptance across society, and LGBT hate crimes are all too common.
South African law doesn’t catalog hate crimes separately from other crimes, so we can’t know for sure the exact levels. But, there is no denying that homosexuality is still very much taboo in smaller, rural areas and that there is a gaping chasm between the law and the social realities for many South Africans.
This, however, is unlikely to affect your average traveler in urban areas – and particularly in the upscale (read gay-friendly) areas of Johannesburg – but is something to be aware of. We generally advise caution with public displays of affection in public as such. We are only just beginning to understand the shocking scale of LGBT discrimination in South Africa. While, as visitors, we personally did not experience any, there is undoubtedly a critical need for hate crime laws here as the local LGBT community still faces high levels of violence.
Theirs is no magic solution for South Africa, and as with any change in public perceptions, it’s a process that will take some time. If you are particularly concerned, stay and play around Melville, a bastion of creative energy and modern thinking and the closest thing to a gay nightlife hub and full of uber-chic coffee shops, clubs, hipster boutiques, and avant-garde dining.
In modern Johannesburg, however, we found many tolerant and progressive attitudes and feel comfortable recommending to gay travelers who wish to experience a rich diversity of people, cuisines, and languages, alongside history and nightlife.
Gay Johannesburg Guide: The Essential Guide To LGBT Travel In Johannesburg South Africa
As the second-largest city in Africa, and the largest in South Africa, you just know there has to be a massive range of activities on offer here – each as unique and diverse as Johannesburg the city itself is.
Museums, shopping, and gourmet dining are all popular, but equally so is laying by the pool or booking day trips to explore the glorious nature on the doorstep of Johannesburg. If you plan to get a lot done, car hire in Johannesburg is a very affordable option and popular to see more far-flung attractions. This is South Africa, after all – one of the world’s greatest self-drive holiday destinations with an excellent road network and epic scenery.
However, when it comes to driving in South Africa, there are a few simple rules to keep safe. Chiefly, ensure your windows and doors are locked when driving through any urban areas (especially when stopped at a traffic light!) and never leaving any valuables insight when you are parked. Even better, park your car where a car guard is available – and then all it takes is a few rands to ensure your vehicle remains safe.
Naturally, being gay does not define which attractions most of us will want to see in each destination, and most queer travelers will want to check out the top things to see in Johannesburg during the day! We found our favorite memories were watching the sunset from a relaxing cocktail bar, dancing till dawn with our queer family, or laying out by the pool in our luxe Johannesburg hotel.
However, if you’re someone who can’t sit still, we have put together a few of our other things to do in this metropolis that are sure to keep you busy! If only there were beaches here, but for that, there is always Port Elizabeth and Durban.
Top Highlights in Johannesburg
Apartheid Museum – Explore some of South Africa’s difficult past with a tour of the Apartheid Museum complex from Johannesburg. Follow the turbulent 20th-century history of apartheid through multimedia exhibits at this well-known museum. Get randomly assigned a race at the entrance and experience the museum differently depending on your assignment. If you only do one thing in Johannesburg, make sure this is it!
Cradle Of Humankind & Sterkfontein Cave – Immerse yourself in the history of human life at the incredible UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Cradle of Humankind. Learn how the region’s geology has made it a hotbed for fossil remains of human and ape ancestors, as well as many extinct creatures. Afterward, walk through Sterkfontein Caves to see the relics of early humans such as Little Foot and Mrs. Ples, two of the most significant archaeological discoveries of our time.
Soweto – Take a half-day tour of Soweto, a township in the Johannesburg area, with a guide to visit some of its most historically significant sites. You’ll see Nelson Mandela’s former house, Vilakazi Street (the only place in the world that has been home to two Nobel Laureates), the Hector Pieterson Memorial, and Freedom Square. Lunch is included at a local shebeen.
Pilanesberg Nature Reserve Tour – See the majesty of South African wildlife with a full-day tour of the Pilanesberg Nature Reserve from Johannesburg. Travel through the reserve in an open-top 4x4 safari vehicle. Keep an eye out for the famous ‘Big Five’ – elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos and water buffaloes – as well as many other species. Eat lunch (included) and then choose to either do another safari drive or visit the nearby resort at Sun City.
3 Day Classic Kruger National Park Safari – The Kruger National Park is South Africa’s largest game reserve and home to an incredible variety of wildlife, including the Big Five. This classic 3-day tour offers just enough time to take in the highlights, including the Orpen-Satara region, the Blyde River Canyon and the Three Rondawels. Enjoy sunrise and sunset game drives, a traditional Bush Braai at the Marula Tree Boma, and accommodation in a safari lodge.
Constitution Hill – A living museum that tells the story of South Africa’s journey to democracy. The site is a former prison and military fort that bears testament to South Africa’s turbulent past and, today, is home to the country’s Constitutional Court, which endorses the rights of all citizens. There is perhaps no other site of incarceration in South Africa that imprisoned the sheer number of world-renowned men and women as those held within the walls of Constitution Hill’s Old Fort, Women’s Jail, and Number Four. Nelson Mandela. Mahatma Gandhi. Joe Slovo. Albertina Sisulu. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Fatima Meer. They all served time here. But the precinct also confined tens of thousands of ordinary people during its 100-year history: men and women of all races, creeds, ages and political agendas; children too; the everyman and the elite. In this way, the history of every South African lives on here.
Lion Park – Experience the thrill of seeing wildlife up close with a Lion Park tour from Johannesburg. See majestic lions with a visit inside the lion enclosure. See some of South Africa’s other wild animals such as antelope, wild dogs, and cheetahs. Some game drives may include other visitors, but most tours are private.
Gold Reef City – Located on an old gold mine that closed in 1971, this theme park has over 30 thrilling roller coasters and ride, a 4D movie theatre, shows, and plenty of good times. Thrill-seekers, add this one to the list!
Wits Art Museum – Home to an extraordinary collection of African art, including contemporary and historical art from South Africa and art from West and Central Africa. This incredible museum is one of Johannesburg’s premier tourist attractions, along with the Apartheid Museum and Constitution Hill, and is just three blocks from Nelson Mandela Bridge. Afterward, be sure to explore the hip, regenerating area of Braamfontein, which is also home to many students, exciting shops, and places to eat.
Maboneng – The coolest new area in Johannesburg (along with Melville if your asking us), this magical urban-renewal project is the center of creative energy with a mix of restaurants, coffee shops, clothing boutiques, art galleries, retail and studio space. The precinct draws the inner-city public as well as the chic, art-going crowd of the city’s suburbs, bringing life back to this downtown Johannesburg community. This the heart and essence of modern Johannesburg, with an abundantly inclusive vibe and enough attractions to keep you busy all day long!
Johannesburg Pride – Dubbed the Pride of Africa, Joburg Pride offers an inclusive, multi-faceted community platform that builds individual and collective pride beyond the actual pride celebrations themselves. The end goal is the liberation of every single person in our diverse community and ensuring we can all live our most authentic life. Expect four massive days of queer celebrations, including circuit parties, crowded bars, lectures, sports + cultural events, and the carnival-like atmosphere of the fabulous Parade. Held annually in October, pack your gay pride t-shirts and add this to your list of fabulous Pride celebrations around the world to attend at least once!
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In this sprawling mega-city city, you will not find any major hotel accommodation that has any issues with LGBT guests checking in.
Most are explicitly gay-friendly, so there is no need to worry.
To us, being gay-friendly is simply about providing a non-judgmental and respectful environment in which all people are treated equally. In saying that, elegant design, helpful staff, and excellent value for money never hurt anyone. Some hotels in Johannesburg have also gone above and beyond in recognizing and marketing to the LGBT community, and given their popularity with gay travelers; we would say it has paid off!
Everybody likes to be surrounded by people with shared interests. As such, there are a few hotels in Johannesburg favored by gay travelers – although to be clear, there are no exclusively gay hotels in Johannesburg sadly, as much as we would love for you to open. We had so much fun in Fire Island, Mykonos, Fort Lauderdale, and Palm Springs, but it seems Johannesburg is a city of business first and foremost, so for gay hotels, your best bet is Cape Town.
The following gay-friendly hotels in Johannesburg are only the most recommended, but there are hundreds of other hotels in Johannesburg if you don’t find quite find what you are looking for. Whether you want a fun and social hostel, a cheap but private place to crash after a night of partying, or a chic luxury option to sip cocktails surrounded by fashionable people, Gay Johannesburg has something for everyone!
Gay-Popular Hotels in Johannesburg
Four Seasons Hotel The Westcliff – High up on the rocky Witwatersrand is where you’ll find this luxury hotel favored by discerning travelers. Despite being in the middle of South Africa’s largest city, this Westcliff Hotel feels like a chic hillside village, with nine sun-splashed villas woven with courtyards, fountains, and gardens. Take a ride up the glass elevator for dinner and drinks with a view, meet friends for a traditional braai (barbecue) at the onsite restaurant, or step out onto your room’s balcony to enjoy a quiet moment as you admire the endless canopy of jacaranda trees that stretches out before you, which, come springtime, will blanket the northern suburb streets in a sea of purple blooms. Pure bliss, and a lavish hotel experience like no other!
Sandton Sun – A permanent fixture of the modern Johannesburg skyline, the Sandton Sun hotel has evolved to meet the needs of guests and exceed expectations in relaxation and leisure escapes, weekend breaks, and international arrivals. Three hundred twenty-six rooms and suites at the Sandton Sun hotel are designed for business convenience and luxury living where every room has a Nespresso machine, USB plug-points, full mini-bar, and 48” flat-screen as standard. Then there is the show-kitchen, which encourages up-close chef interaction, while the bar and lounge are perfect for end-of-day drinks or new beginnings. Not to mention the all-day rooftop bar unique in the city and synonymous with firepits, statement cocktails, and a sophisticated clientele.
Hallmark House – Industrial edge meets modern chic in the form of Hallmark House, located in the ever-buzzing city of Johannesburg. Originally used as a diamond polishing-center in the 1970s, this prime establishment offers a rooftop bar, spa, and swimming pool as well as contemporary urban spaces with 360-degree views of the city. The forty-six rooms are brilliantly appointed with bright African textiles, bold colors, modern design, and high-quality finishes.
Saxon Hotel – At the heart of the City of Gold, beneath the warm sunshine in the affluent, tree-lined suburb of Sandhurst, lies the enchanting Saxon Hotel. A uniquely perfect blend of rich cultural history and contemporary five-star service, the Saxon is situated on ten acres of magnificent indigenous gardens, providing a private and peaceful retreat like no other.
Saffron Guesthouse – Located in 7th street, the heart of the gay-popular Melville neighborhood and close to Johannesburg CBD, the Saffron Guesthouse offers quiet, modern, stylish, and spacious suites, all with private entrances and many comforts. Affordably priced, gay-friendly, and walking distance to the many eccentric restaurants, galleries, cafés, shops, and popular nightspots around.
Arum Place Guest House – A new stylish owner-run guesthouse, set in a quiet area, positioned on the outskirts of Melville. A warm welcome awaits everyone at this lovingly restored 1935 house. Arum Place has been designed to meet the needs of the business or leisure traveler seeking peace and luxurious comfort, warm hospitality, and personal service with attention to detail that only a home can offer. Relax on the terrace and enjoy outstanding views at sunset, or breakfast at sunrise.
Illovo Hotel – Cost-effective accommodation situated in one of Johannesburg’s most exclusive suburbs, close to Sandton – the region’s business hub. Set in a quiet corner of the beautiful Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) campus, Illovo Hotel is perfectly positioned to cater to travelers’ needs – especially gay adventurers wanting to explore the LGBT nightlife around Illovo. The hotel boasts 45 comfortable, newly refurbished air-conditioned rooms, and friendly staff who make it their priority to exceed your expectations through personalized service, ensuring your stay is a pleasure.
Once in Joburg – If you are not one for extravagance and luxe amenities, we also are kind of obsessed with this chic hostel offering clean sheets and dirty adventures. An accommodation concept designed to bring together new ways of traveling with the new age explorer, this hostel combines the luxuries of a boutique hotel and energy of a backpackers hostel, offering a mix of affordable and design-led accommodation types. Perfect if you are on holiday as a single gay! Give it a go if you want to make new friends, save some coin, and don’t mind sharing a dorm room.
Gay Nightlife in Johannesburg South Africa
Sadly the gay club scene in Johannesburg is always changing, and it seems like most places open just as quickly if they close.
Be sure to check websites and Facebook pages before heading out, and take care – While Johannesburg might be one of the most gay-friendly cities in Africa, displays of affection outside of gay bars can still lead to trouble. Also, watch out for hustlers and don’t take any valuables with you if you can help it.
There is a vibrant gay scene here, but it is quite spread out with no discernible ‘gay village,’ though Illovo and Melville are the most popular gaybourhoods. We also had fun exploring chic cocktail bars, rooftop chill pads, and luxe nightclubs, which we have decided to include here. Sure they might not be exclusively gay, but they are gay-friendly and gay-popular, so why not try them out too!
Of course, Johannesburg does get crazy wild, and what better way could there be to get to know the locals than in a Johannesburg gay bar! Just don’t forget your common sense.
Gay Clubs & Bars in Johannesburg
Ratz – A fun and sociable little gay bar that has become a bastion of the ever-changing Melville bar strip. The music is an eclectic mix of 1980s pop, rock, and disco – with some gay anthems and modern hints sprinkled in to keep you dancing all night. If you arrive early (before midnight), the staff and locals ensure Ratz is a great place to pre-drink and start your night off right.
Therapy – An iconic and legendary queer dance party event of international renown taking place in Johannesburg and Cape Town since 1996. Therapy is not about selling a VIP status, all of its patrons are VIPs, or about big-name DJs, it is about the party experience that is uniquely Therapy, and about making everyone feel welcome. Glitzy, fabulous fun taking place periodically in different venues.
The Gay Club SA – A new gay club in Boksburg attempting to bring back that magical era of nights filled with bright and vibrant people gathering together in celebration of queer community and culture. Every Friday and Saturday night from 8 p.m. until 4 a.m., you can enjoy their state of the art sound, dazzling dance floor, magnificent disco ball, and, of course, nightly cocktail specials. Located in an established entertainment venue with its separate entrance and secure ample parking
Babylon, The Bar – A stylish and sophisticated gay bar located on Oxford Road in the heart of Jozi’s buzzing suburb of Sandton, and one of the best gay spots in the city. Trendy and chic design with walls of flat-screen TV’s, playing Babylon’s signature sexy, smutty images. Spread over 350 sqm, with distinct spaces, Babylon The Bar is the ideal, gay-inclusive, location for any special celebration or just to dance the night away. With regular happy hours & entertainment and the hottest DJs & music acts, its no wonder Babylon was the most recommended gay nightclub when we visited.
The Factory – Overhauled and transformed from a plain-old factory into the continent’s largest, longest-running, and most élite gay cruise venues in the world. Comprising of an enormous and well-appointed bar area, a relaxing chill room, and a maze of spaces and hidden corners, the Factory Bar is the ultimate gay playground for those who are not above a little sleaze. It is fully nude – so throw off your clothes, check your inhibitions at the door, and get ready to turn your wildest fantasies into reality.For an idea of what to expect, we loved this write-up.
H Bar – A voguish yet hospitable venue where gay, bisexual, and all manner of men can strike up friendships or more over a drink. Boys and girls flock here for Wednesday’s karaoke, but the rest of the week, it’s all about the men with a playroom, full bar, and showers. Sorry ladies, there is no lesbian bar in Johannesburg – and this place is very much not for you. Currently closed for renovations with no ETA on re-opening, but check social media and please contact us if you have further information.
Trouble Bar – A back to basics gay bar with sexy bartenders, cheap drinks, queer vibes, and friendly patrons. Come for a chat over a drink and see where things go!
Beefcakes – The ultimate drag dining experience in Jo’burg mixing ’50s Americana with camp humor, outrageous comedy, and stunning drag performers. Inspired by the trend-setting styles of Miami’s South Beach, Key West, and Palm Springs, this is where flamingos flock to be surrounded by camp chic and a touch of madness. Beefcakes’ legacy of nightly performances, beefy table hosts, luscious libations and mouth-watering burgers prevails in a place that welcomes everyone and anyone to experience drag dining at its finest. They also have locations in Pretoria and Cape Town -so you know they are doing something right. While it is more oriented for girls and bachelorette parties, gays are most welcome here. We loved donning our gay pride outfits and showing those hetero-girls our queer spirit. Perfectly positioned in Joburg’s upmarket hotspot, Illovo.
Other Nightlife Hotspots We Loved In Johannesburg
Amuse Café – A very gay-friendly bar in Linden offering an intimate and eclectic space to enjoy live music performances by local artists. Anything from jazz to punk to rock can be found at this fun little spot, and the crowd of creative-types that comes here enjoy art, music, and entertainment without strict set rules or social standards.
Mootee Bar – An authentic, unconventional interpretation of modern Africa. A new addition to the Melville drinking scene, this hip, and very different cocktail bar uses all local ingredients to create divine elixirs inspired by the continent that gave life to humanity. With 120 seats, an outside rooftop deck, open-air alley seating, and a private lounge, Mootee can always be trusted to bend creative boundaries by challenging customer’s understanding of food and drink culture.
Xai Xai Lounge – Another famously gay-friendly spot in Melville adding a welcome touch of Mozambique and its cuisine to Johannesburg. We loved chatting the night away in this lively yet laid-back cocktail bar and restaurant -often the most happening places on the Melville Strip – with the assorted collection of gays, Melvillites, journalists, artists, and musicians who are drawn here like moths to a flame.
Elevate – A luxury bar and premium lounge venue situated in the heart of Johannesburg’s secure Banking District. Uniquely chic with a 360-degree view, fab cocktails, and LGBT-friendly service, this is an unforgettable nightlife destination (though we also love the chilled vibes during the day.)
Great Dane – An inner-city party bar famed for its delicious gourmet hot dogs and unique blend of house and hip-hop sounds. A diverse crowd flocked here of creative, young professionals and hipsters, and it is always very LGBT friendly The Great Dane can get pretty crowded late at night, which is perfect if you like a traditional hot-and-sweaty dance night.
Kong – An architectural first with a multi-million dollar fit out this epic venue boasts a new take on the ordinary South African style nightclub. Kong is undoubtedly one the most exclusive night venues in Southern Africa, hosting celebrity DJs, flashy VIP areas, sickening sound systems, and one hell of a night out. Aimed at a sexier, grown-up and elite market, one is sure to find the hottest people in town partying it up into the early hours of the morning here, and splashing out an eye-watering amount of cash in the process.
The Royale – A gorgeous cocktail spot inspired by the 1950s tropical playground that was Havana, with high rolling businessmen, salsa music blaring, and strong rum cocktails flowing freely. The food is hardly gourmet – which is typical of the Carribean Islands, so we expected as much – but the lively vibe, fabulous décor, excellent mojitos, and warm service-with-a-smile tempt you to stay far longer than you ever planned.
Cruising, Gay Saunas & Bath Houses in Johannesburg
Even though Johannesburg is an increasingly popular gay vacation destination, there is still only one gay sauna here, but thankfully its wonderfully done – and is guaranteed to get your pulse racing! Just don’t set your expectations too high, this is nothing like the glorious European gay sauna scenes that we found in Hamburg, Seville, Milan, and Brussels.
Other than that, there is always the venue, as mentioned earlier, ‘The Factory,’ a gay nude cruise bar in Johannesburg with lockers and cute guys, or Grindr et al. if that is more your style.
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The Rec Room – A fun gay bar, steam room & sauna that has been the largest and busiest gay sauna in Johannesburg for nearly two decades. They pride themselves on their high standards of hygiene – which we found to be much better than other places around the world – and they actively work to keep providing a safe and secure environment for gay and bisexual men to have fun. There is a fully licensed bar offering a selection of beers, wines, spirits and cocktails, a large steam room and sauna, two video lounges, and a large indoor jacuzzi as well as an open-air garden. Complimentary private cubicles are provided, including three larger rooms each with their own TV, and there are three maze areas range from the mild to the wild. Of course, the Rec Room also has open showers to freshen up before and after. They also host weekly themed parties and, on occasion, some special events.