Call Johannesburg what you will – ugly, the crime capital of the world, mine dump, blah blah blah – many of us have always loved it. And plenty of people who once avoided the place – staying cocooned at OR Tambo International on their flights to Cape Town or Kruger – are now venturing into this spectacular world-class city.
So much so that media around the world are paying attention to the mile-high City of Gold. The latest is the UK’s Daily Mail, which says the city “sizzles”, less than a year after Rough Guide named it No. 1 in its Top 10 cities of the world. Major newspapers like The New York Times, meanwhile, are doing travel stories about Egoli when they once never would have touched it.
Only once you start looking at what Joburg has to offer do you see the choices – loads of them. Even thought there’s lots more, we start with 20 things that make the city fabulous.
The Maboneng Precinct
Lying on the eastern edge of downtown (yes, downtown has changed a lot!), Maboneng is full of renovated buildings, loft apartments, cafes, the Arts on Main building of artist studios that explodes into the Market on Main on weekends, innovative art galore, funky shops in repurposed containers, The 12 Decades Art Hotel, and lots more. This is one of the premier examples of what Joburg has done to resuscitate a previously moribund city centre.
Watch one tourist couple’s trip to Maboneng:
Go! It achieves the incredible feat of making many South Africans feel terrible about the history of apartheid and yet stupendously proud that we could create such a fantastic museum that recalls that period of history.
The high-speed train links OR Tambo International Airport with Pretoria and Sandton, Rosebank and Johannesburg’s Park Station. Loads of commuters use it, and more stations are being added. Hop on!
The Sheds at 1 Fox Street has grown from an occasional food market to a fully fledged city precinct. Situated in the western edge of the inner city, in Ferreirastown. Food, design, craft, fashion, the list goes on.
The Nelson Mandela Bridge
The iconic bridge joins Braamfontein with downtown near Mary Fitzgerald Square and the Market Theatre Precinct. Cyclists and runners by the hundreds and thousands sometimes cross it for races.
What’s been going on for a long time is now a feature of the city. Take a walk and see for yourself. Main Street Walks and Dlala Nje are two of the companies specializing in leading walking tours of the inner city, its murals and until recently no-go areas like Ponte and Yeoville and Hillbrow.
Not only the seat of the country’s Constitutional Court but also the site of the Old Fort Prison, later called Number Four, jail to some famous and infamous prisoners. Two eras of very different justice, and both very worth touring.
Cradle of Humankind
Archeologists at the University of Witwatersrand have found amazing discoveries, such as “Mrs Ples” and “Little Foot”, an almost complete Australopithecus skeleton dating back more than three million years, at the Sterkfontein Caves at the Cradle.
Professor Lee Berger describes the latest find at the Cradle of Homo naledi
Weekend markets, where food is a major component – think craft beer and cuisine that outdoes itself, locally and internationally – are a major activity in Joburg. Some of the better-known ones are the Neighbourgoods Market in the the fantastic Braamfontein, Market on Main in Maboneng, the Rosebank Sunday Market and the Bryanston Organic Market.
Johannesburg Art Gallery
Often overlooked – because of its location between Hillbrow and one of downtown’s major taxi ranks – JAG shouldn’t be. A brilliant building designed by Edward Lutyens, who also did the Anglo-Boer War Memorial, it’s got some great art and an equally wonderful ambience.
Top of Africa
This is the place for a spectacular view of the city, from the top of the Carlton, the highest building in Africa.
The original house of Hermann Kallenbach in Orchards where Mahatma Gandhi lived for some of his time in Johannesburg, the city where he conceived his idea for peaceful resistance (satyagraha).
There are malls in Joburg, and there are malls. From Rosebank to Sandton City, from Eastgate to Cresta, those are the big ones. For those of you who like the smaller, funkier places – specialty stores, cafes, restaurants – try out 44 Stanley and 27Boxes in Melville.
4th Avenue, Parkhurst
Anything interior designer that you might need, this is the area to head to. Or to eat or to shop, or to hang out and be seen.
The latest addition to the bustling Newtown Precinct being revitalised on the western edge of the city centre – possibly best known for decades as the Market Theatre precinct – is Work/Shop/New/Town, where more than 100 local designers come together to sell their work in the 100-year-old Potato Sheds.
Father, Motherland, Bean There, Doubleshot, Vintage, there are too many speciality coffee shops to name, and more opening all the time. More reason to go explore.
Once a name that spelled apartheid for its intransigent division of white and black by suburb – South Western Townships – Soweto has come into its own. It is now the most populous black urban residential area in the country, with a population of around a million. Day tours (see Hector Pieterson Museum and the Kliptown Open-Air Museum) and night tours take in very different sites. Make sure to stop in the Vilakazi Street precinct, the only street in the world to have housed two Nobel Prize winners, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. Finish off – if you dare – with a bungee jump off the Orland0 Towers.
Everard Read Gallery
A premier private gallery in Rosebank, with its brilliantly designed sister gallery Circa on Jellicoe next-door, with rooftop views over the city. And this is only the start of Joburg’s bustling art scene – there are loads more galleries to choose from.
Jacarandas by the kilometre
You have to be here in October or early November to see the jacarandas in bloom, but the lilac festival of colours is worth the trip. Otherwise just take in the canopy of trees that has led the city to sometimes be called (probably wrongly, but still) “the most treed city in the world”.
But never mind whether Johannesburg has the most trees in the world or not – it does have the most amazing weather, winter, spring, summer or autumn. Go see for yourself!