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.
South Africa’s Golden City
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Warm, Proud and Friendly. These are just some of the adjectives we can use to describe the people we met throughout the city. Like Kalala, 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 wastewater.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Research 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.
Book a Tour
There’s so much to see and do in Johannesburg! Click here to find an awesome Joburg tour or try one of these tours:
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We thank Joburg Tourism for hosting us to facilitate this article.
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