Disclaimer: Some of our articles contain affiliate links. We may receive compensation if you click on these links and make purchases, but it won't cost you anything extra.

Clico Restaurant Impala Rump Tartare - Joannesburg Golden City

5 Reasons to Visit Johannesburg – South Africa’s Golden City

In South Africa by Daryl & Mindi Hirsch11 Comments

Thinking of skipping the golden city of Johannesburg when you visit South Africa? Think again. Joburg is hip, happening and worthy of at least three days.

 

Don’t visit Johannesburg! We kept hearing this warning from other travelers during our first two months in South Africa. Instead of scaring us away, these warnings made us curious about the capital city of South Africa. Then, after various chefs and winemakers spoke well about the food scene in Joburg, we really wanted to check the city out.

Long story short – we ended up spending three days in Johannesburg South Africa and wished we had more days to explore Africa’s fourth largest city. (FYI, Lagos is the continent’s largest city with a population of a whopping 21 million residents.) This short visit was just enough time to give us a taste of the city’s offerings and left us wanting more.

Check Johannesburg Hotel Rates

South Africa’s Golden City

Nelson Mandela Square - Johannesburg South Africa Golden City

An impressive six-meter Nelson Mandela statue stands guard at Nelson Mandela Square. The bronze statue weighs 2.5 tons, so theft is not an issue.

Thriving for years as a boom town after the discovery of gold in 1866, the golden city of Johannesburg lost much of its luster in the latter half of the 20th century when Apartheid defined the city and separated its races. Global businesses stayed away, rendering the city depressed and unsafe. In other words, Joburg rightfully earned a bad reputation that kept tourists away.

This bad reputation made us wary to visit Joburg. After being victims of crime in Cape Town, we seriously considered driving straight to the airport after our three safaris and flying straight to New York. That’s what most tourists do. But we’re not most tourists.  We wanted to experience the maligned city and its food scene for ourselves. Plus, after falling in love with the Cape Town coffee culture, we were curious about Joburg’s coffee shops.

Craft Coffee Shop - Johannesburg South Africa Golden City

The third wave coffee scene is alive and well in Johannesburg.

So what happened? Obviously, we made it out alive since we’re writing this article now. Beyond our survival without having to use our travel insurance even once, we discovered a cosmopolitan metropolis with more multiculturalism than any other city we visited in the country. We found diversity in the city’s people as well as its cuisine, and we felt at home in the busy city environment.

Don’t get us wrong – Joburg isn’t perfect. Like all big cities around the world, it has sketchy areas and its fair share of crime. Despite this lack of perfection, or perhaps because of it, we connected with the edginess that shines through the city’s street art and permeates its public markets. We ate well, we slept well and we learned a lot during our visit. Our only regret about visiting Joburg is that we didn’t have more time to spend in the city.

5 Reasons to Visit Johannesburg

Maboneng Music Class - Johannesburg South Africa Golden City

The streets of Johannesburg are alive with culture. We bumped into this music class in Maboneng.

We were wondering what to do in Johannesburg and were pleasantly surprised to find a wide selection of things to do in Joburg. As tourists, we could have spent our few days doing activities in Johannesburg like drinking pints of brew at the SAB World of Beer and bungee jumping off of the Orlando Towers. We’re all for fun, but there’s so much more to do in the city. Plus, let’s face it, we’re not really bungee jumping adventure travelers.

Sure, we had fun during our visit, but we didn’t stop at the popular Johannesburg attractions. We rolled up our sleeves and discovered the soul of the city. Here are the five aspects of Johannesburg that resonated with us and that we’ll remember forever:

The Vibe

Maboneng - Johannesburg South Africa Golden City

Johannesburg has an active outdoor culture thanks to its favorable climate.

There’s no way around it. Johannesburg is a hip city. Residents walk with attitude and swag. These cool cats can’t even be bothered to call the city by its proper name or even by its shortened name. They just call it Jozie, like the happenin’ friend down the block.

Rosebank Statue - Johannesburg South Africa Golden City

We bumped into this interesting sculpture during a stroll in the Key Art Mile Precinct in Rosebank.

In many ways, Joburg reminded us of Los Angeles. The city sprawls from neighborhood to neighborhood. The weather is mild year round. And, if you have money to spend, there are plenty of stores for you to shop for designer clothes and signature art pieces. Not all of the shopping is expensive though, as we found while shopping at Arts on Main in Maboneng where vendors sell colorful handicrafts for affordable prices.

Maboneng Vendor - Johannesburg South Africa Golden City

Maboneng has a slew of street vendors selling handicrafts for reasonable prices.

But Johannesburg is its own city with its own character and personality. Older residents lived through Apartheid, and many were victims of its discrimination either directly or through friends and family members. Remnants of this period still exist in the city, serving as monuments to a darker time without defining the city today or holding back its people from moving forward. We saw this resilience in the street art and shining through the people we met during our visit.

The People

Willy Kalala - Johannesburg South Africa Golden City

More than just an accomplished Johannesburg tourism professional, Willy Kalala is highly knowledgeable about Johannesburg and can carry two coffees in one hand.

Diversity in the people is the first thing that struck us in Johannesburg. Johannesburg travel guide Willy Kalala picked us up at the airport and welcomed us with open arms and colorful stories. Originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kalala’s international background is not unusual in Johannesburg, a city that attracts people from other parts of the country, throughout the African continent and from all of the world. Even our charming Airbnb host was born in Scotland. (She came to Joburg for a holiday decades ago and never went home.) We met expats everywhere we went in the city, though we also met plenty of natives who were proudly born and bred in Joburg.

Constitution Hill Tour Guide - Johannesburg South Africa Golden City

Constitution Hill Museum Tour Guide Collen (Khaorisa) Baloyi guided us through the former prison and provided an insightful look into South Africa’s dark history of racial struggle during Apartheid. The former prison is one of the top places to visit in Johannesburg.

Warm, Proud and Friendly. These are just some of the adjectives we can use to describe the people we met throughout the city. Like Kalalala, the people of Joburg were anxious to show us their City of Gold literally built on gold mines. Perhaps this welcoming spirit is part of the city’s culture or perhaps it’s due to the relatively smaller number of tourists who spend time in Johannesburg before jetting off to a safari or the Garden Route.

Maboneng Guitar Student - Johannesburg South Africa Golden City

The younger generation is the future of Johannesburg.

What excites us most is to see where the younger generation takes the city. This generation did not grow up during Apartheid, and they live in a city where the races blend together more so than we experienced anywhere else in the rest of the country. Hopefully, the city’s financial center will continue to grow, lifting the city and its people to levels we can only imagine.

The Food Scene

Marble Grill Chef - Johannesburg South Africa Golden City

Wondering what to eat in Johannesburg? The city has a wide range of cuisine at all price points.

Though our visit was too short for us to do a thorough exploration of the restaurants in Johannesburg, we ate enough to know that the city’s food scene is for real. Though not as developed as the Cape Town food scene, Joburg food has it going on at all levels.

Fine Dining

Marble Steak - Johannesburg South Africa Golden City

We ate this steak at Marble Restaurant after the grill master prepared it on the restaurant’s open grill.

Thanks to favorable exchange rates, most tourists will find the fine dining in Johannesburg to be refreshingly affordable. These same tourists will also find the city’s upscale restaurants to be culinarily exciting with a focus on service that is missing in much of the world.

We first heard about Joburg’s high-end dining scene during our dinner at FABER in the Cape Winelands when we got recommendations for Marble Restaurant, Restaurant Mosaic and DW Eleven -13. All three of these Johannesburg restaurants are serving exciting food in elegant spaces. Marble Restaurant takes its fine dining experience in a different direction with a live-fire grill and open kitchen. Despite its down-and-dirty, modern approach to grilling pictured above, Marble offers a true luxury dining experience in the Rosebank neighborhood with a chic decor and impressive, glass-enclosed wine cellar.

Clico Restaurant Impala Rump Tartare - Joannesburg Golden City

This Impala Rump Tartare was our favorite dish at Clico Restaurant. Surrounded by dots of orange puree and salsa verde and topped with a confit egg yolk, the tartare was both specific to South Africa and creative at the same time.

Interestingly, many of the top Johannesburg restaurants are located in hotels. We dined at Clico Restaurant at Clico Boutique Hotel during our two-night stay at the tony Rosebank hotel. Here, Chef Marnus Scholly takes his safari culinary experiences to new heights with creative cooking at the highest level. Seriously, eating Scholly’s six-course meal paired with South African wine was a highlight of our visit in Johannesburg. Every course was a winner – especially the Impala Rump Tartare served with orange puree, confit egg yolk and salsa verde and paired with glasses of Faithful Hound wine from Stellenbosch.

Neighborhood Restaurants

Bottega - Johannesburg South Africa Golden City

Bottega Cafe, one of many popular Johannesburg restaurants in the Parkhurst neighborhood, serves comforting Italian food and South African wine for reasonable prices.

Johannesburg is a city of neighborhoods, and many of the best Johannesburg restaurants can be found in neighborhoods like Parkhurst where we ate pasta on a bustling restaurant row. The gentrifying neighborhoods of Braamfontein and Maboneng have a large concentration of privately owned restaurants, many of them multicultural like CHE Argentine Grill, Mama Mexicana and Soul Souvlaki. And then there’s the booming township of Soweto with its wide selection of restaurants serving some of the best local food in the area.

Food Markets

Maboneng Food Market - Johannesburg South Africa Golden City

We ate this bunny chow at Market on Main in Maboneng. It’s the next best thing to eating the dish in Durban.

Sometimes we find our favorite food at markets where we dine while standing up and eat food on plastic plates. Such was the case in Johannesburg at Market on Main in Maboneng. This Sunday market has all kinds of savory food like Durban bunny chow and Ethiopian injera as well as sweet treats like CocoaFair bars from the Cape Town chocolate factory. The premier food market in Joburg, Market on Main is a great spot to sample lots of local food and also to people watch. Other markets worth a visit include the Jozi Real Food Market on Saturdays and the Rosebank Rooftop Market on Sundays.

Pro Tip:  If you can’t get to Market on Main on a Sunday, go to the city’s best market on the first Thursday night of the month. Eating at this market is like taking a condensed Johannesburg food tour.

Coffee Shops

Named after South Africa's favorite freedom icon, the six meters tall and 2.5 tons bronzed Nelson Mandela statue in the Nelson Mandela Square was unveiled on the square in celebration of the10-year anniversary of democracy in 2004. The towering statue is situated at The Nelson Mandela Square- one of the largest open public spaces in the country.

Daryl is fully charged after drinking a flat white at Craft Coffee.

Not surprisingly, finding a good cappuccino was our priority one when we arrived in Johannesburg. Similar to Cape Town but on a smaller scale, Joburg has a thriving coffee culture. Our problem wasn’t finding a good coffee shop – it was narrowing down the choices.

Bean There Coffee - Johannesburg South Africa Golden City

We had to try the coffee at Bean There after drinking the coffee during our second safari in South Africa.

We drank solid cappuccinos at Bean There Coffee Company, Father Coffee and Origin Coffee Roasting. We had expected good coffee at Bean There, a local stalwart, since we had already enjoyed their coffee at &Beyond Kirkman’s Kamp and at Clico Boutique Hotel, as well as at Cape Town’s Origin Coffee.  But it was Craft Coffee, a local South African roastery, that truly wowed us with its commitment to beans from the farm all the way to the cup.

Craft Coffee Roaster - Johannesburg South Africa Golden City

Craft Coffee’s Japhet Matimbe honed his “craft” at his father’s coffee farm.

Craft Coffee has all of the bells and whistles that are typical in third wave coffee shops around the world, but it also has a true sense of place. As we sipped naturally sweet flat whites that had been crafted to order with Guatemalan beans in an Aeropress coffee maker, we were as pleased as punch to be in the heart of Joburg’s Newtown neighborhood.

The History

There’s no way around it – Johannesburg has an ugly history related to Apartheid. Instead of shying away from its storied past, Joburg shines a light on it. The result is both highly educational and utterly fascinating. More importantly, this attention on history will hopefully keep the past from repeating itself.

Constitution Hill Cells - Johannesburg South Africa Golden City

The isolation rooms at Constitution Hill were chilling to see in person. During Apartheid, prisoners spent 23 hours a day inside these cells.

We got our introduction to the city’s history at Constitution Hill with Zulu music before entering the former prison that began as a fort. We toured dilapidated cells where we saw remnants of the inhumane conditions that political prisoners like Nelson Mandela experienced during their incarcerations. Food was rationed to prisoners based on skin color. Conditions in the prison were so crowded that inmates were forced to sleep on top of each other. Solitary cells were so confining that prisoners could never fully stretch their bodies from end to end. Cells would flood with unsanitary waste water. Harrowing and grim, the prison tour was necessary for us to understand the city’s history and the sheer will of humans to survive oppression. Equally important, nearby Constitution Hall shows how far the city has come with its artistic, transparent design and an open court that enforces the nation’s recently passed equality laws meant to protect all citizens. If you’re looking at different Johannesburg tours, this is the one to take.

Regina Mundi Church - Johannesburg South Africa Golden City

The Regina Mundi church is both an active church and a historical site.

To garner an even better understanding of the city’s history, we spent a day in Soweto, the massive township located inside Johannesburg. An abbreviation of SOuth WEstern TOwnship, Soweto is the township where two Nobel prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, lived down the block from each other. It’s also the township where the Regina Mundi church, with Tutu as its pastor, played a pivotal role in the end of Apartheid.

The City Itself

Maboneng Street Scene.jpg - Johannesburg South Africa Golden City

Don’t blink! Johannesburg is experiencing rapid gentrification.

You could spend your days in museums learning about Johannesburg. You’d surely learn a lot on this type of Johannesburg city tour, but you’d miss out on the soul of the city. We felt the soul as we drove and walked through the city streets but mostly when we spoke to the friendly locals.

Pro Tip:  Although walking around Johannesburg is as safe as walking in any other big city during the day, you should take Uber to get around at night. The global car service is a popular, inexpensive transportation option in South Africa.

Maboneng Gentrification - Johannesburg South Africa Golden City

The street art on this Maboneng building showcases Nelson Mandela from his boxing days.

We were struck by the rampant gentrification in Johannesburg. Loft buildings are popping up next to shacks. Those shacks won’t be there for long now that real estate prices are on the rise. Joburg residents are proud of this development – and who can blame them for enjoying a better quality of life.

Maboneng Street Art - Johannesburg South Africa Golden City

We bumped into this street art while walking to Market on Main in Maboneng.

Colorful street art fills the city streets, painted on buildings and street barricades. Some of the art is for art’s sake while much of it carries a message. A tourist could easily spend a day in Johannesburg searching for street art and photographing the city’s colorful murals.

Pro Tip:  The OR Tambo Airport has great souvenir options including cute t-shirts and colorful handcrafted jewelry, so don’t spend your time limited searching for Johannesburg souvenirs. Instead, use your time to explore and enjoy the city.

Maboneng Street Art 2 - Johannesburg South Africa Golden City

We weren’t looking for street art in Johannesburg, but we kept finding it anyway.

We’re glad we didn’t listen to our fellow travelers and that we gave Johannesburg a chance. Our reward was a fun, educational three-day adventure. We left Johannesburg smarter than when we arrived, inspired by what we had experienced and hopeful for a return visit sooner than later. We also got the opportunity to experience a real day-to-day piece of modern South Africa – a worthy bookend to our monumental trip before we departed the country for our next adventure.


Hungry for More? Check out our articles about our stay at Clico Boutique Hotel and our day trip to Soweto.


Book Your Johannesburg Hotel

Clico Hotel - - Johannesburg South Africa Golden City

Clico Boutique Hotel is a great place to stay during a Johannesburg visit.

Have we convinced you to visit Johannesburg during your South Africa dream vacation? Click here to research rates for Johannesburg hotels.

We stayed at an Airbnb apartment for one night and at Clico Boutique Hotel for two nights, and we highly recommend both of these Johannesburg accommodation options if you’re wondering where to stay in Johannesburg. Both are good bases for Johannesburg sightseeing visits.

Start Planning Your Trip Now

We thank Joburg Tourism for hosting us to facilitate this article.

Johannesburg | Joburg | South Africa | Johannesburg South Africa | Things To Do in Johannesburg | Visit Johannesburg | Visit Joburg | Constitution Hill | #Johannesburg #Joburg #SouthAfrica 
 #SouthAfricaTravel #TravelTips

Disclaimer: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Comments

  1. What an interesting read! I was in Johannesburg for just one day before setting off on a safari and had debated with myself going out to check out the city. I ended up not doing it, both because I was really tired from a day of traveling but also because I was simply afraid to go out on my own. I’d heard too many stories about horrifying crime in the city, same as you. It does look like a very interesting city and I’m a little miffed that I didn’t actually get to experience it..

  2. One of the other students in my Rescue Diver class was from Johannesburg and he would often tells stories from the city. His stories made it sound a lot like Los Angeles as well. There were some areas that were cool and hip and others that you really didn’t want to visit. Taking an Uber at night sounds like it would serve you well to avoid any complications.

  3. This is the second article I’ve read that calls out Joburg’s coffee scene. Being from Seattle, we always take time to seek out as much local coffee as possible… and African coffees have held my heart since my first day at Sbux 16 years ago. Can’t wait to explore!

  4. I will admit, I do not know much about Africa but your blog post makes me want to go! I would love to go to one (or three) Safari’s but I’m interested in this coffee scene you speak of! Wonderful Post

  5. I do love the Cape Town Craft coffee culture in Cape Town and it was such a beautiful city.
    I think one of the reasons for me to have visited Johannesburg was about it’s the history of apartheid.
    History is so impactful and inspirational in different ways.

  6. Coffee would be a primary reason for me to visit the city. We often find ourselves visiting places that other travellers label “unsafe”. It’s interesting how tourists give places such as Oman bad reps, when their own countries have higher rates of gun violence and shooting. I suppose it’s all about perspective.

  7. Jo-Burg is an intriguing place guys. We house sat with a South African travel blogging couple in Bali a few years ago. These guys suggested a trip thru the region to enjoy fine food, drink and to soak up the local culture. Ditto Rhonda’s comment above. I have never felt unsafe during my 6 years of circling the globe, living in cities or rural areas, walking home at 2 AM sometimes. Yep a few weeks before we began traveling, a kid was shot on the front steps of the library in my American hometown. Travel guys!

  8. I went South Africa for two times but never visit Johannesburg.Next time definitely visits Johannesburg.Thanks for sharing this article with us.

  9. Many Thanks Food Trippers for such a nice Blog full of positive stories of Joburg. I will always say this and repeat it again, your Trip or holiday to South Africa will never be complete if you miss to visit “Jozi”. I am Willy Kalala, the storyteller, you just need an expert guide to make you enjoy , explore and discover the city.
    Thank Darry

    1. Author

      You’re so welcome Willy! It was our pleasure to be guided so expertly around Joburg. We hope you and your family are doing great. If we ever travel back to Joburg, we’ll be sure to look you up so we can share some beers and fellowship!!

Leave a Comment

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required