In South African parlance, things happen at two speeds: “Just now” — which could be anywhere from 10 minutes to two weeks to who knows when — or “now-now,” which means, well, now. Judging by the pace at which Johannesburg is evolving these days, you need to get there now-now. The City of Gold originated as a dusty mining center; though it might not have the natural majesty of coastal Cape Town in its court, beneath Johannesburg’s grit there’s a kinetic urban energy: Big-money deals are made in the metropolis’s financial hubs and creative collaborations are unveiled in quirky arts-centric enclaves. While travelers en route to places like Kruger National Park or Cape Town and the Winelands have long treated Johannesburg as an in-and-out stop, many are finally discovering that there are plenty of reasons to extend stays and find out what this lively city is all about.
Large parts of Johannesburg’s city center can still feel gritty — urban decay led to many companies abandoning downtown in favor of the newer financial hub of Sandton in the 1990s. But while crime remains an issue, recent years have seen locals reclaiming their inner city. Historic neighborhoods are being revitalized at breakneck speeds, luring citizens back to streets lined with iconic architecture, much of which dates to the city’s late-19th- and early-20th-century origins as a gold-rush boomtown. Explore them while on a walking tour with Past Experiences. Depending on which itinerary you spring for, a knowledgeable local guide (some of them are also artists, musicians and historians) might lead you through neighborhoods like Chinatown, Ferreirasdorp, Newtown, Braamfontein or Fordsburg, directing your attention to easy-to-miss landmarks or sharing the inspiration behind vivid street art installations. Stops could include Nelson Mandela’s former office, or a little-known mine-shaft museum 100 feet below the Standard Bank headquarters. Private tours are 100 rand, or about $8.25, for up to three people; scheduled group tours range from 180 to 400 rand.
Most of South Africa’s culinary accolades go to restaurants in Cape Town and the Winelands, but Johannesburg chefs have lately been stepping it up in a big way. Case in point: Urbanologi, a stylish restaurant that shares its cavernous, industrial space with the Mad Giant Brewery in the 1 Fox development. There, the chef Jack Coetzee turns out modern, Asian-inspired shared plates like yakitori chicken with chimichurri, venison tataki with sriracha emulsion and kumquat ponzu, and a ginger-heavy take on a classic South African dessert, malva pudding. Plan to spend around 600 rand for two, including house brews.
Johannesburg’s music scene is electric — whether you’re into house, rap or indie, you’ll find your niche here, infused with plenty of local flavor. But with jazz greats like Hugh Masekela, Thandi Klaasen and Jonas Gwangwa having started their careers in the city, Johannesburg’s jazz heritage is particularly rich. Head to the Braamfontein district — often called Braamies by locals — to see who’s performing at Orbit, the city’s most important jazz club. Recent acts have included the Linda Sikhakhane Sextet, Vuma Levin, Lu Dlamini; tickets typically range from 100 to 150 rand, depending on the artist.
For many, South African history is synonymous with apartheid, the oppressive institutionalized system of white-dominated racial segregation that governed the nation from 1948 to 1991. An 85-rand admission fee to the Apartheid Museum will randomly assign you a blanke (white) or nie-blanke (nonwhite) ticket, and you’ll enter the museum through separate routes depending on your classification. Once inside, visitors tour powerful exhibits on the origins of apartheid, explanations of its divisive laws and photographs and narratives that offer glimpses of life under its constraints. Then take a cab to Constitution Hill: The country’s Constitutional Court was built on an erstwhile jail site (where Nelson and Winnie Mandela, Joe Slovo and Albertina Sisulu all served time). It’s also a museum, and visitors can explore the court, the old fort and jail Number Four, where Gandhi was a prisoner. A one-hour tour is 65 rand.
To market, to market — that’s where locals go to eat, drink and unwind on the weekends. Neighbourgoods, an offshoot of a popular Cape Town market, operates every Saturday morning from a parking garage in Braamfontein. Make a quick stop, hopping from stall to stall to pick up dishes like grilled cheese with maple bacon, Korean corn dogs or carrot cake — you can have brunch for around 100 to 150 rand, all the while soaking in live music and fun vibes.
Soweto — an acronym for South Western Townships — was formed as a settlement for black South Africans who were forcibly removed from areas designated for whites. It’s now called home by more than a million people, and has counted the likes of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu among its past residents. While the sprawling suburb can be overwhelming to navigate, an easy way to explore it is by tuk-tuk. Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers offers two-hour rickshaw tours, and you don’t have to be a guest at the hostel to book a spot; tours are 460 rand, and pick up and drop off can be arranged for an extra cost. The price also includes a buffet lunch after the tour — you might try South Africa’s famous street-food favorite, bunny chow: a loaf of bread stuffed with curry.
A stretch of the upscale Rosebank suburb has recently been recast as the Keyes Art Mile, lined with boutiques, galleries and cafes aplenty. Stop by before dinner to browse modern art at galleries like Circa, Everard Read and Whatiftheworld (some close earlier on Saturdays, but you can often make an appointment in advance to visit outside regular hours). There are also cute cafes, like the colorful vintage-Afro-chic Milk Bar and the burger joint BGR, but save your appetite — big dinner plans lie ahead.
Ever since its opening in 2016, Marble has been attracting the city’s most discerning diners by the droves. Part of that might be because of a dearth of restaurants of its caliber in the city; but more likely it’s because David Higgs is Johannesburg’s premier chef, and news of his plans to open a temple to meats cooked over an open fire was met with excitement. If you come early enough to the top-floor space in the Trumpet building on the Keyes Art Mile, you can catch sunset views with a cocktail by the bar; afterward, settle in for a feast of sea bass with orange and leek sauce (285 rand), tandoor quail with charred sweet potato chutney, coriander yogurt (215 rand), or the game of the day (options might include blesbok or kudu).
More markets! The Maboneng Precinct is one of Johannesburg’s most thriving examples of urban revival; the ever-expanding neighborhood is teeming with galleries, restaurants and boutiques frequented by an eclectic crowd. And come Sunday, the Market on Main is a great place to scrounge for burgers, paella, crepes, and more as well as souvenirs — there are stalls selling clothes, handbags and T-shirts from local designers. For a really cool add-on, book a Picnic in the Sky. Meet in the market at 11 a.m. and collect your picnic basket and blanket from the organizers, then spend half an hour filling your basket with provisions at the stalls, before heading up to the 50th floor of the Carlton Center — the tallest building in Africa — for exactly what the name suggests: a picnic in the sky. Tickets are 250 rand per person, not including whatever food you pick up at the market.
The University of the Witwatersrand — Wits, for short — is home to the Wits Art Museum, which is renowned for its collection of African art. Browse works by the likes of South African masters Gerard Sekoto, Walter Battiss, Irma Stern and William Kentridge, as well as emerging talents like Gabrielle Goliath, Nandipha Mntambo and Zander Blom. Admission is free.
An eco-friendly spread in the suburb of Melrose — not far from the Melrose Arch shopping development — the Peech Hotel (61 North Street, Melrose; 27-11-537-9797) has 16 rooms clustered around a lush garden. Tribal masks, animal-hide rugs and patterned armchairs add warmth to the hotel’s industrial-chic look. Doubles from 3,350 rand.
With Johannesburg’s inner city booming in recent years, the only thing missing was a luxury hotel catering to high-end travelers not keen on staying in the tony suburbs. Last year’s opening of the Hallmark House (54 Siemert Road, New Doornfontein) changed that: The 46-room hotel, which occupies two floors of a building designed by David Adjaye, has stellar skyline views and is close to all the action in the Maboneng Precinct. Doubles from 940 rand.
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