South Africa seems to be on everyone’s travel radar and for good reason. The landscape is beautiful, the wine is plentiful, the people are kind and generous, and the exchange rate is very favorable. Most of the focus is on Cape Town, which is understandable when you consider that it is an attractive mix of mountains and beaches, wine farms and city culture. Often overlooked is Johannesburg, the largest and wealthiest city in South Africa. While it may not offer surfing or shark diving, the rich history, complex neighborhood dynamics and sprawling landscape offer something infinitely more interesting than Cape Town. Joburg is a constantly evolving mirror of contemporary Africa, which makes for an exciting trip.
The challenge of seeing Johannesburg is it’s vastness. Situated on the Eastern Plateau at an elevation of over 5700 meters, the city encompasses about 1600 square kilometers with almost four and a half million people. It is an anomaly among large cities in that there is no major body of water in or around it. Due to shifting business interests and safety concerns, there are several current and former “city centers,” including the original Central Business District (CBD) and the newer Sandton CBD. Scattered throughout the city are pockets of more contemporary development and spaces that are being reclaimed though gentrification.
Just on the other side of the Nelson Mandela bridge from the CBD is Braamfontien, one of the more established pockets of cultural development. The city government began a multimillion rand development push to clean up the area in 2002, and the efforts have paid off with many new businesses opening. The neighborhood now features a number of boutique hotels, as well as loft apartments and housing for students of Wits University. The best time to go to see the full spectrum of what Braamfontien has to offer is for brunch on Saturday. The hub is the Neighborhoods Market, a pop up collection of boutique food producers, local restaurants, artisans and craftsmen, with a bar and live band most weeks. All the bright young things will be there Saturday afternoon. When you’re done have coffee at Father, the best local roasters, or Bean There, who source their beans from small producers all over Africa.
Another emerging area near the CBD is Newtown. The Johannesburg Development Agency has been working to transform the neighborhood into a better space for living, working and shopping. The highlight is WorkShop Newtown, a retail space offering small shops of up and coming designers, jewelry makers, small gifts and crafts, beauty service and restaurants. For something more educational than shopping, you can also explore the Sci-Bono Discovery Center, an interactive museum great for kids, or the Museum Africa, housed in the former produce market and featuring a collection spanning the entire continent. Or for something more adult check out Carfax, an institution in the Joburg nightlife scene.
Maboneng is probably the hottest new area in Joburg. A relatively small area in the center of downtown, Maboneng is dense with arts, shopping and awesome places to eat and drink. The big draw is the Sunday market at Arts on Main. Similar to the Neighbourgoods market, it offers a huge selection of food stalls with an impressive variety of cuisines from all over the world. Upstairs is a pop up retail space where you can buy peacock printed shoes, vintage jumpers and “iwasshot in joburg” t shirts and small art pieces. Also check out the Living Room, a roof top cocktail lounge with great drinks and lots of beautiful, trendy people. If you need a break for an indie movie, see something at the Bioscope Cinema, which shows both new works by African directors as well as well curated classic films. Or just grab a local microbrew, park on one of the picnic tables and watch the mix of people wander by.
Sandton is the new business hub in Joburg. Chain restaurants and high street stores abound, filling giant malls that gleam with marble floors. But there are still some interesting find and places to get local flavor. Tasha’s, in the Sandton City Mall, is a favorite of almost everyone, offering an excellent mix of breakfast and lunch options that are healthy and tasty. Most of the stores are outposts of international brands like H&M and Zara, as well as luxury brands Burberry and Versace, but check out YDE for young African designers and (African gift store) for crafts and gifts.
The folks of Johannesburg love their markets. It makes sense as it allows a variety of small business a chance to reach a large audience without a lot of costly investment and can be used as an incubator for new ideas. Not as large as the Neighbourgoods and Maboneng markets, the night market in Melville takes place every Wednesday evening. It happens at 27 boxes, a mall-like space built out of shipping containers. Check out the shops in 27 boxes during the market for beautiful objects for the home, interesting handmade jewelry, and clothing from new designers. The neighborhood around 27 Boxes also has some great places to check out. Eat at La Santa Muerta or Pablo’s Eggs-Go-Bar, opt for something fancier at La Luna of Melville and definitely have a drink or several at Hell’s Kitchen, which has a very Instagramable neon sign inside. While you’re nearby, also investigate 44 Stanley, another indie mall with a few gift shops, another outpost of Bean There, and the Salvation Cafe for brunch.
Something else to consider while visiting Johannesburg is a trip through the township of Soweto, where Nelson Mandela lived for a time. The history of the apartheid system that created the townships and their place in contemporary South African culture is complicated. There are many organizations that run tours and educational programs through Soweto. Expect to spend the day getting to and from Soweto if you’re staying in central Johannesburg. Another possible day trip is to the Cradle of Humankind. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, the Cradle of Humankind is the site of the discovery of many fossilized remains of human’s ancestors, as well as an extensive systems of caves that can be visited during a guided tour.