There’s far more to Johannesburg than mine dumps, shopping malls, crime and oversized faux-Tuscan houses. How much more? Well, that’s really up to you. It’s not the prettiest or most happening city in the world. It’s definitely not London or New York. But there’s something about Johannesburg.
It’s difficult to put your finger on it, but if you scratch just below the surface you will find unexpected vibrancy in a young city that’s reinventing itself for the better. And I can’t be wrong as the New York Times deemed the city cool enough to be featured in an editorial in August 2012. I was pleased the reporter didn’t involve getting mugged in her 36 hour Jo’burg itinerary. There is no doubt you need to be aware of your surroundings when visiting or living in Jo’burg, but once the paranoia subsides, you will enjoy exploring the city and meeting its diverse inhabitants. If I was your tour guide for three days, I would take you on the following adventure:
Lilieslief Farm Museum: This museum brings Apartheid history to life via interactive displays and smart storytelling techniques. The farm is where prominent leaders of the Apartheid struggle sought shelter and attended meetings. Nelson Mandela spent time at Lilieslief during the 1960’s. If you are looking for a more in-depth overview of Apartheid’s sad history, the Apartheid Museum is definitely worth a visit, but the displays are vast and not as well packaged as Lillieslief’s clever storytelling. If you can spare the time, visit both museums.
Soweto Bicycle Tour: A great way to see Soweto (South Western Township) is from the saddle of a bicycle. You don’t need to shave your legs or own a heart rate monitor to enjoy this bicycle tour. I suggest you set aside additional time to visit Mandela House and the Hector Pieterson Museum. If you still have the energy, you may wish to end the day with a bungee jump at Orlando Towers.
Posh Cocktails with a View: You may need a strong drink after taking in South Africa’s sad and recent history. A great way to end a day is at the Westcliff Hotel (update 2018: Four Seasons Hotel) overlooking Jo’burg Zoo. Be sure to book a table for drinks.
44 Stanley Precinct: If you enjoy food and quirky shops, you will love 44 Stanley, a creative oasis in Auckland Park. My favourite spot is Il Giardino Degli Ulivi for dinner and live music (update 2018: I visited in March 2018 and enjoyed a wonderful lunch and listened to incredible musicians). If you visit during the day, Salvation Café is a favourite hangout for Jo’burgers.
Neighbourgoods Market and Juta Street: Visiting this Saturday market in Braamfontein is one of my favourite Jo’burg activities. And once your stomach is full, there is plenty to see on Juta Street. You may want to wander two blocks to the Wits Arts Gallery (WAG) or stroll over the Nelson Mandela bridge into Newtown.
Maboneng Precinct: The best day to visit is on a Sunday. Enjoy the Market on Main, art galleries and rooftop sundowners. There is plenty to see, eat and enjoy in this wonderful island of urban-cool. If you enjoy yourself too much, you can sleep off the excess at the über-original 12 Decades Art Hotel situated in the Main Street Life complex.
Constitutional Hill, including the Court and Prison Complex: The Constitutional Court’s art and architecture must make this one of the most appealing court houses in the world. Adjacent to the court is the old Johannesburg prison museum. Gandhi and Nelson Mandela spent time here. A visit to the male and female prisons reminded me how far we have come in South Africa.
Gandhi’s House: Satyagraha House, situtated in the leafy suburb of Orchards is a surprising little museum and guest house. Gandhi stayed here for a portion of the time he lived in Johannesburg. The history, friendly staff and décor make this a worthwhile visit.
Ilovo cool: Wolves (update 2018: Wolves is permanently closed) is the hippest spot in Illovo perfect for an early evening drink and snack. It’s an eclectic bar come coffee shop that attracts the skinny-jeans, cardigan and black-rimmed glasses crowd. You can order micro-brewed beer with a velvet cupcake or dim sum, while taking in live music and a good dose of people watching. The dim sum is prepared next door at the Good Luck Club (updated 2018: Good Luck Club is permanently closed), which is the sister-eatery to Wolves. I have never had a bad meal at Good Luck Club. The service isn’t super slick, but the vibe, food and accommodating owners make up for it. Trabella is one of the best pizzeria’s in Johannesburg situated on the Illovo drag. Fishmonger always gets high marks it you like seafood while Turn ‘n Tender pleases meat lovers.
2018 update: I don’t live in Jo’burg anymore and it seems that many of the spots I enjoyed have closed (see above). Be sure to also explore Parkhurst, Parktown North, Greenside and Melville. They all have plenty to offer in terms of food and fun.
Parkhurst’s Main Drag: My wife enjoys the shopping experience on 4th Avenue in Parkhurst, but my favourite past time is people watching. I can’t say I have ever had an excellent meal in Parkhurst, but I’ve had fun. Your best bet it to walk 4th Avenue, from the Jolly Roger to The Leopard and beyond. And remember to park down one of the side streets, unless you want to be seen or enjoy paying for parking.