Johannesburg is commonly known as South Africa's financial capital – "Africa's Financial Powerhouse", but this is a lazy definition, for Jozi is much more than that. South Africa's biggest city is currently in the midst of an urban and creative renaissance that has to be seen to be believed.
Stay three days, or three weeks, there’s plenty to keep you busy. The more time you spend here, the better you will understand the emerging social dynamics that are driving the African continent forward in the 21st century.
Article Quick Links
- Johannesburg City Centre
- History & Culture
- Jo'burg's Art Scene
- Eating Out
- Beer, Cake & Coffee
- Jo'burg Outdoors
- Sport & Adventure
Johannesburg is 'Egoli' and Cape Town is 'Slaapstad'
The nicknames tell you everything you need to know. This is an African metropolis that evolved at light speed from a huddle of gold prospecting tents in the middle of the bush. So it won't surprise you to find that the Jo'burg DNA is all about making something out of nothing. Where Egoli (Place of Gold) mushroomed out of the veld in less than a hundred years, Cape Town took about 300 to get some momentum going.
People Power in the Midnight Hour
Engage with the Jozi locals and you cannot help but be infected by their fearlessly positive attitude. It's a way of thinking and doing that is all about 'Getting Things Done'. It is this attitude that is dragging Jo'burg out of the dark times of the mid to late '90s. It is very much the opposite of what you will find in Cape Town, or "Slaapstad" (Sleep Town) as the locals have come to refer to the country's other prettier capital city. Cape Town is more likely to mesmerise you with it's physical beauty than light a fire under your butt.
The Jo'burg Vibe
This is a place powered by a vast army of irrepressibly positive and pragmatic people. Get a feel for the Jozi vibe in the Pharrell Williams cover below.
Johannesburg’s inner city had a pretty bad rap for a while – to put it mildly – but in the past few years, there’s been huge investment into regenerating what was once a vast inner-city slum. This area is now one of the most exciting slices of urban renewal ever to emerge on the African continent.
Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus Tour
The red bus that’ll drive you around the city with stops at many of the tourist highlights. You can get off and get back on as you like, and there are two routes – city only or city and Soweto. If you have limited time and no transport (or just don’t feel like negotiating Joburg traffic), this is a great way to get an overview of Jozi. Stops include Constitution Hill, Gold Reef City and the Origins Centre.
There’s no better way to see real Jozi than on a walking tour through the CBD. Only a few years ago this would have been a big safety no-no, but today you can take in the city centre with a qualified guide or even venture into certain areas without one, if you so choose.
Past Experiences Walking Tours
Past Experiences are Jo'burg's first and best CBD walking tour specialists. All of their people are registered tour guides and specialise in this most happening part of the city. They were nominated for an Halala Award for their contribution towards the regeneration of the centre of town.
Past Experiences owner and founder Jo Buitendach is an archaeologist, as well as public art and graffiti fanatic. Her wealth of information and passion for the city is infectious, and it is this enthusiasm for her home town that has propelled her walking tour venture into the limelight.
Looking for a 360-degree view of Johannesburg? The Carlton Centre – the tallest building in Africa – has an observation deck. While it's a little neglected, R15 will get you up to the 50th floor, from where one can see for miles, over the CBD toward the goldmines one way, the leafy northern suburbs the other, and the spectacular Soccer City to the south-west. The lower floors of the centre are a bustling shopping mall. We'd suggest going with somebody who is familiar with the area.
In the east of the CBD, lies the Maboneng Precinct, a trendy development which incorporates office, retail and living space.
It's a vibrant, hipster-filled spot with restaurants, galleries, a brewery and plenty of happenings. This is modern Jozi at its finest. Go, spend a day browsing galleries, shopping, eating and just sitting watching the trendy Jozi set do their thing.
See their calendar for a plethora of weekly and one-off events.
Up on a hill overlooking the CBD is Constitution Hill, a place whose passages echo with whispers of South Africa's turbulent past. The original building, built in 1892 and referred to as the Fort, functioned mainly as a prison for awaiting trial prisoners. It was notorious for the harsh treatment of prisoners incarcerated for disobeying first Colonial, and then Apartheid laws. In 1987, it stopped functioning as a prison and fell into a state of neglect until the mid-90's, when it was chosen as the site for the Constitutional Court. It has three museums and hosts various exhibitions which give a moving overview of South Africa's troubled history, pre-democracy.
South Africa, and the City of Gold, has a chequered past, there's no denying it. Johannesburg boasts a number of museums and historical sites that allow a glimpse into the heartbreaking and awe-inspiring stories that weave together to create South Africa's story.
To get a full understanding of South Africa's history, which was largely shaped by Apartheid, a visit to this museum is essential. Beautifully designed and carefully curated, a number of exhibitions lead the visitor through the harrowing story of Apartheid and those who fought so bravely for its demise. It's a hectic story, this one.
This was once a normal suburban street in Soweto. It is now a vibrant pedestrian precinct with benches and artworks, beside the reason for its fame itself. This is the only street in the world to have been home to two Nobel prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Mandela's home has been turned into a museum, which is well worth a visit.
Close by is the Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial. Here the tragic story of the 1976 uprising of children against Afrikaans in schools (and the whole Apartheid system) – when Hector Pieterson was shot dead by police, and many children wwere brutally attacked – is commemorated.
Soweto Cycle Tours
For a different, more 'in touch' and ecologically-friendly view, go on a Soweto tour on a bicycle. Soweto Backpackers' Bicycle Tours offer a range of tours, from 2-hour to full day, depending on your time- and budget-constraints, and level of fitness, which include many of Soweto's best attractions. There's nothing like a cold quart with the locals in a shebeen, after a good, long, ride!
Johannesburg is vibrant and busy when it comes to all things art. From galleries to theatres, there are always many exhibitions, plays and performances to take in.
Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG)
Situated in Joubert Park, central Johannesburg, this incredible gallery is well worth a visit. It houses over 9 000 works in 15 exhibition halls and sculpture gardens – from Dutch paintings from the 1600's, to 18th- and 19th-century European works, to 19th-century and contemporary South African art. It'll keep you transfixed for hours. Go with someone who knows how to get there, or get a driver – the one-ways and hooting taxis can be a little daunting, but is well worth it!
Opened in 2012, the Soweto Theatre in Jabulani is a state-of-the art theatre complex containing three theatres. There are regular happenings in the theatre precinct too, from art and craft fairs to food fairs, and everything in-between. Keep an eye on their Facebook page for updates on events. For performance schedules at the theatre, see the Soweto Theatre website.
CIRCA on Jellicoe
Another Johannesburg architectural spectacular is the CIRCA on Jellicoe Gallery in Rosebank. Within its gorgeous walls it also hosts numerous contemporary art exhibitions. This is not a place only of paintings, it is a visual art exhibition space and the curators pride themselves on their istallations. Expect art, intermingled with archaeology, technology, music and more. For their current exhibitions, see their website.
For an authentic South African eating experience, Sakhumzi, conveniently situated on Vilakazi Street in Soweto, is a must. The restaurant is a converted house, which spills out into the garden They serve meals which include many of South Africa's favourite traditional dishes. It's a vibey, loud place with good food and great atmosphere.
South Africa is known for its diverse cultures. There has been a thriving Portuguese community in Johannesburg, well, forever. The Troyeville Hotel is the legacy of this, established in 1939 in the CBD. Go for lunch and enjoy unpretentiously delicious Portuguese fare, with a view over the city from the balcony.
Situated in the ever-trendy Maboneng District in the CBD, you will find Vusi Kunene's Blackanese Sushi and Wine Bar. The food is Afro-Asian fusion, and news of these culinary delights has spread as far as the New York Times, so be sure to put this concept to the test and try out Vusi's signature biltong sushi. If you go on a Tuesday you will be greeted by an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet, and on Sundays it's time for the ever-popular prawn braai.
This is a great place to do a bit of people watching in the heart of Jozi's new creative hub. As Vusi says, "Joburg is full of crazy people that are always willing to engage with crazy ideas. In Joburg, only your thoughts can limit you".
The Jolly Roger
Another old favourite haunt of Jozi locals is The Jolly Roger, in Parkhurst. It's loud, vibey, has great pizzas, beer and a juke box that belts out some great tunes. Wednesday nights are half-price pizza night, so every student within a 12 km radius descends on the place.
South Africans have always liked their food, their beer, their coffee. Johannesburg, like many other cities of the world, has been taken up by the search for the finest coffee, craft beers and other artisanal delights.
The Foundry Cafe
Set in the fabulous Parktown Quarter, The Foundry Cafe prides itself on its coffee. With coffee beans sourced from around the world, and a state-of-the-art German roaster, this is the coffee of dreams. Add to that a great range of local craft beer and an open-plan kitchen that produces a delectable, seasonally-changing menu, this is a place to visit, hang-out and, well, drink beer.
With names like Bree Street Belle and Braamfontein Brawler this craft brewery is firmly on the hip CBD map, 'smack bang in the middle of the city'. Smack! Republic is situated in the Arts on Main building in the trendy Maboneng Precinct, they are open on market days and host all sorts of events. Check for events on their Facebook page.
In the tradition of the British 'gastropub', The Griffin in Illovo offers fabulous, fresh food and craft beer on tap. The menu changes with what's in season and the drinks are not limited to craft beers – they've got a great wine list too. They do a killer Sunday roast and run various 'Beer and Burger' (with rugby. This is South Africa, after all), Quiz Nights and 'Cocktails & Beats'. See their website for current specials and Facebook page for events..
Feel like a cup of world-class coffee and a slice of Whippet cake? Don't know what that is? Think the perfect balance of creamy layers of full cream milk tart and crunchy cookie, with a thin middle layer of lemon condensed milk. There you have it. Whippet cake, at The Whippet, in Linden. Apparently they do the most sought-after Eggs Benedict in Joburg, too.
When one thinks of Joburg, one doesn't necessarily think of nature and the great outdoors. This is wrong! Not only is Johannesburg known as one of the biggest man-made 'forests', due to the huge number of trees in the suburbs, but it boasts some beautiful parks and places to get closer to nature. Here are just three of many:
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
In Roodepoort, north-west of the CBD, lie these beautiful gardens which have both manicured gardens and natural bush. There is a beautiful waterfall and the gardens are renowned for a breeding pair of Verreaux's Eagles who nest in the cliffs next to the waterfall. It's worth a visit, not only for the eagles, but other small mammals call the gardens home, too. Take a picnic, or eat in the restaurant there.
Maropeng: The Cradle of Humankind
One of eight World Heritage Sites, this is where Mrs Ples, the famous prehuman skull was discovered. The area has now been beautifully developed and tells the fascinating history of this – still active – archaeological site. There are a number of fascinating exhibitions.
While at Maropeng, go on a tour of the Sterkfontein Caves and wonder at the stalactites and stalacmites, while learning about our prehistoric descendents. If you're claustrophobic though, definitely avoid the caves as there are some tight spots to negotiate.
There are numerous restaurants and places to stay within the Cradle. Make a day of it and enjoy a light meal at the Market Place Restaurant or marvel at the incredible view across the valley at the wonderful Tumulus Restaurant.
Johannesburg Botanical Gardens and Emmarentia Dam
Closer to the CBD are the beautiful Johannesburg Botanical Gardens. Boasting over 30 000 trees, rose gardens and herb gardens (with many medicinal plants), this is a peaceful haven just 6 km from the CBD. The gardens also contain three dams, including the Emmarentia Dam, on which a number of watersports are offered.
Looking for a thrill? Want to get your adrenaline pumping through your veins? Look no further, Joburg'll provide it.
So you thought you needed to trek out into the desert to find a sand dune to board down? Nope. Think again. Adventure company Pure Rush will show you. Make the short trip to Benoni, east of Johannesburg, where you can experience the rush of sandboarding down an old mine dump, called Mount Mayhem. And we thought all Benoni could claim was that it's where our homegrown Oscar winner, Charlize Theron, is from!
The local soccer scene is alive and kicking, and still filled with the sound of vuvuvzelas. If you're lucky, you can catch a match at Soccer City, made famous by being the place of both the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. This iconic structure has become a must-see Joburg building. Even if there's not a match here, there are numerous other stadia in and around Joburg where you can catch a match. The Premier Soccer League fixtures are on their website.
Visible from miles away, the Orlando cooling towers in Soweto are now known not only for their great murals, but also for their 'vertical adventures'. Using a lift up one side of the towers, you can walk into the middle of the suspension bridge which joins the two, and jump. Attached to a bungee rope, of course. Other options are a power swing, internal swing or, for those more faint-hearted, just the lift ride to the viewing platform and the lift back down.
Johannesburg offers the shopper a diverse range of options – from markets to designer stores, and everything in-between. Be it in any of the numerous shopping malls or from one of the hawkers on a street corner, you'll have no problem spending your hard-earned cash.
The Oriental Plaza
Established in Fordsburg in the 1970's after Indian traders were removed from their well-established stores by the Apartheid regime, this is a hive of shopping activity. With over 350 stores in the complex, the tantalising aromas of spices, curry and incense will have you seated at one of the restaurants in a jiffy. Known mainly for its textile shops and clothing stores, you can buy pretty much anything at the Plaza. Bargaining is expected and welcomed.
Market On Main
Each Sunday from 10 am to 3 pm, the hip Maboneng District comes alive with stall-holders and market-goers. There's food (the aim is to encourage sustainable, organic food, so expect fresh deliciousness) and all sorts of originally designed goodies on sale. The restaurants spill out onto the pavements and the inner city buzzes. Keep a eye on their Facebook page for special events and goings-on.
For a more glitzy shopping experience, head into the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, to Sandton City. Here you'll find all the designer stores on multiple levels of shopping heaven. Once you've maxed your credit card and have enough bags to fill your boot, step out into the sunshine and enjoy coffee or a meal on Mandela Square. Be sure to get a photo next to the beautiful Mandela Statue in the square.
Each Saturday, from 9 am to 3 pm, in downtown Braamfontein, the Neighbourgoods Market happens. Based in an old building which boasts a magnificent 5-storey Eduardo Villa mural, the market offers food, drink and plenty of delights to buy. There is a focus on organic, sustainable goods. This is a place to come for the day - browse around the gorgeous clothes, design and jewellery stalls, then kick back and have a glass of wine and some delicious food at one of the communal tables. This is where it's all happening.
Johannesburg buzzes at night. There is something for every taste – from live music to dancing spots to bars and shebeens, there's a happening place to suit everybody's taste.
Stanley Beer Yard
Situated in the hip 44 Stanley – a collection of speciaity shops, design studios and foodie spots – the Stanley Beer Yard is a fabulous spot to meet friends. Whether it's in the courtyard on a summer's afternoon, or indoors next to the fireplace on a cold winter's night, they offer great beer and wine. They regularly have live music or retro DJs, so be sure to have your dancing shoes in your bag. Check their Facebook page for what's on.
Jazz lovers, ahoy! The Orbit, in De Korte Street, Braamfontein, is a happening live jazz venue. It prides itself on not only hosting well-established local and international jazz musicians, but also new talents and poets. Collaborations between established and new stars and good old jazz jamming is the order of the day. Add to that a slick atmosphere, great acoustics and good food and The Orbit is a great find.
Get your dancing shoes on. Another Braamfontein favourite, Kitcheners, which is one of Joburg's oldest night spots, will have you shaking your bootie into the wee hours. Kitcheners offers 'progressive' music – froom indie pop to Afro-rock. The DJs are cool, the vibe is fun, all in an old city setting, complete with wooden panelling and kitsch wallpaper. See their Facebook page to find out what's happening there tonight.
The Radium Beerhall
Established in 1929, the Radium Beerhall is the longest standing bar and grill in Joburg. If only its walls could talk, they'd have the most fantastic stories to tell. Covered in pics and memorabilia of the bar's history, they do tell many! Serving food with a Portuguese flair and all the South African bar favourites, they also have regular live music gigs. See their Facebook page for what's going down. Friday nights and the first Sunday of the month, late morning, they have not-to-be-missed jazz!