We often meet people who are curious about Johannesburg (or, as everyone calls it, Joburg)and whether it is worth spending any time there. There is an overwhelming sense from foreigners (and some Capetonians) that the city is too dangerous and boring to be worth visiting. Joburg is our home town and we love the cosmopolitan, big African city feel of it. Although we definitely wouldn’t suggest that you prioritise it above Cape Town or a safari, it’s worth a visit if you’re passing through and have the time. This post is an attempt to give a bit of an overview of how to spend a couple of days in the area. The plan is to keep it updated so please feel free to comment if you think we are missing anything.
From the airport, the best way to get into the key areas of the city is via the Gautrain, which is a safe, world-class rapid rail link to Sandton with connections to Pretoria, Rosebank and the Joburg city centre. If you want to hire a car, you can collect one in Rosebank or Sandton and avoid the longish traffic-y drive from the airport. You don’t really need a car though – although public transport is not great, the city is well served by Uber which is reasonably priced and safe, and several of the main tourist attractions are served by the open top hop-on-hop-off bus (see below). You will only need a hire car if you want to travel to some of the further afield destinations (see below), and for those you could alternatively get a driver/guide for a day. Do not take a metered or minibus taxi (including one organised by your hotel) unless there is no alternative, and if you do, ALWAYS negotiate the fare upfront.
Things to do in Joburg (roughly in order of priority):
- Apartheid museum – excellent museum telling story of the struggle against Apartheid
- Soweto – the famous township where black people were forced to live under Apartheid. Vilikazi street was home to both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu and is close to the Hector Pietersen memorial with commemorates the Soweto riots. Soweto is quite suburban these days and has a chain hotel and an excellent backpackers. There are good tours including these bicycle ones (http://sowetobicycletours.com) but it is easy to do independently. Be sure to have a traditional meal from one of the many restaurants and a quart of beer from a shebeen. The FNB stadium which hosted the 2010 World Cup final is worth a stop, as is Soweto’s adventure sport zone at the Orlando towers.
- At least one inner city walking tour – we recommend Past Experiences (http://pastexperiences.co.za/), Main Street Walks (http://www.mainstreetwalks.co.za/), Dlala Nje in Hillbrow http://www.dlalanje.org/
- Visit an art gallery – along the Rosebank gallery strip or one of several in the inner city (Wits, Joburg, Standard Bank). On “First Thursday’s” many stay open late
- Liliesleaf farm in Rivonia – an excellent exhibition of where Mandela and co were headquartered before their arrest for treason
- Visit the constitutional court
- Visit Gold Reef City – a theme park based on Joburg’s mining history. Rides for the kids and young-at-heart and chance to go into a gold mine.
Some of these can be reached on the Red hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus https://www.citysightseeing.co.za/johannesburg
And further afield:
- Cradle of Humankind – about 45 minutes north-west of Joburg is an important site for hominid fossils. Maropeng is the main visitors centre and although it is a bit kid orientated, it has a restaurant and hotel. Sterkfontein caves are close by and are fascinating. Roughly once a month there is a excellent small group tour of the famous Swartkranz cave system, guided by one of the paleontologists working on the site.
- Nirox Sculture Park – this is a beautiful outdoor sculpture park near Maropeng. Check in advance to see whether there is an exhibition on, and look out for weekend events. http://niroxarts.com
- Walter Sisulu Botanical gardens – these beautiful gardens are about an hour to the west and house a nesting pair of black eagles at the beautiful waterfall.
- Pretoria – Pretoria (about an hour north) is home to the seat of government and has a number of interesting monuments, buildings, museums, a zoo and botanical gardens.
The area around the airport is industrial and a bit boring and we don’t recommend staying there unless you arrive late and leave early. If you do need to stay nearby, many tour companies will recommend Emperor’s Palace which is a big casino/entertainment complex with a decent hotel. Casinos aren’t really our kind of thing so we would suggest just sticking to the convenience of an airport hotel. If you are stayin one night and then heading to one of the safari areas, staying in Pretoria can be useful to avoid early morning traffic in Joburg – we’ve heard that Menlyn Boutique Hotel is a nice option.
Sandton is Joburg’s main business district and houses most of the upmarket hotels. Sandton City is a large shopping mall with a wide range of local and international brands. There are a number of restaurants in the mall and at the neighbouring Sandton Square but these can be touristy and we prefer the restaurant strip in Parkmore (11th street). The Sandton CBD is a business district and very first world. It doesn’t really give you a full impression of what Joburg is like and is quiet at night and on the weekends. Even if you end up staying here, you should visit some of the residential areas further south and the city centre proper during your stay.
Apart from the big hotels in the centre, Sandton has a number of boutique hotels in the more residential areas which are worth considering. Hyde Park Corner is a very upmarket shopping mall with some good restaurants and a decent chain hotel on the roof.
Rosebank and the leafy suburbs
Rosebank is a mini business district surrounded by a number of beautiful suburbs full of trees. Many of these have ‘park’ in the name so the area is also referred to as the the Parks. There are numerous small hotels and guest houses in Rosebank itself and the surrounding suburbs and these would be our preferred places to stay. The Rosebank mall is our favourite shopping mall, and has an excellent African craft market for tourists. Rosebank is also Joburg’s art district, and there is a row of galleries along Jan Smuts avenue including Circa and the Everard Reed.
Parktown North, Parkview, Parkhurst, Craighall Park, Illovo and Melrose all have plenty of good restaurants and bars as well as some more boutique shopping. Melrose Arch is a mixed use compound with offices, residential units and lots of restaurants and shopping. Parkhurst and Illovo are lively at night. Greenside and Linden are a bit further west and also have good food, with Greenside having the rowdier nightlife. Norwood is quite far to the east and also has a strip with some good food. The ‘spruit’ is a green zone which runs through the leafy suburbs to Delta Park and Joburgers run, walk and cycle along it all the time – but do ask for advice on exactly where to go and avoid being there alone or in the dark. The Emmarentia dam and the Joburg Zoo and Zoo lake areas are also good for picnics and exercise.
Melville is a residential suburb a bit south of the main Parks area and closer to the universities. It is somewhat edgier, with lively student night life and plenty of good restaurants. It is a bit more of an adventurous place to stay, but good fun. There is a development called 27 Boxes which is a market where small businesses sell goods from shipping containers which is worth a visit to browse and enjoy a meal. The eastern side of the suburb is better than the west. Melville is close to Auckland Park which also has some bars and restaurants, including a small shopping and restaurant area called 44 Stanley and the beautiful Joburg Country Club (you may need a member to get in). There is a lovely nature area called Melville Koppies but it is better to join a group excursion from a safety point of view.
Joburg CBD and surrounds
The Joburg CBD is largely still a business district but it has an interesting history. It is safe to drive and walk around during the day if you don’t carry valuables but it is better to do an organized walking tour to get the history. Hillbrow and Yeoville to the north are poor residential areas with a lot of immigrants and are generally regarded as quite dangerous. Although we would comfortably drive through them during the day, we would rather suggest one of the excellent walking tours which really give you a feel for how the majority of Joburgers live. Fordsburg to the west largely houses Joburgers of Indian descent, and has amazing Indian restaurants. There are walking tours available, or you can just pop in for a meal and some shopping at the nearby Oriental Plaza.
Braamfontein and Newtown are mostly student accommodation but there has been a focus on urban renewal and these days are very hip areas with an active nightlife including live music and jazz. They can easily be reached from the north via Uber.
Maboneng is another area in the south east which has been completely redeveloped, with a focus on art galleries, quirky shops, restaurants and bars. In general we think Maboneng is better to visit in the day time when you can see the buildings and visit the shops, but there are some good restaurants and bars that could warrant an evening visit. And the Maboneng backpackers does a pub crawl once a month. Both Braamfontein and Maboneng have good hotels, which can be a fun way to spend a few nights but leaves you a bit isolated from the northern suburbs. You do need to take care with your belongings on the street, especially at night. There are good organized walking tours available if you prefer.
Fourways and other places north of the N1
People who live in the Parks call Fourways ‘Faraways’ and are very dismissive of it and other suburbs in the far north. Of course these are actually good middle class (and some very upmarket) neighbourhoods with plenty of decent restaurants etc. They are far from the central part of Joburg though, and don’t offer much extra for a tourist. The main attraction in Fourways is Montecasino, a massive Tuscan themed casino complex. We don’t love it, but there are two excellent theatres and a nice bird park for kids which might mean that you end up there at some stage.
The same can be said for other areas in the south, east and west – nothing wrong with them, but not much to specifically draw you there.
Just a few of our favourite restaurants, use EatOut.co.za for many more (Covid alert: Several places in this list have closed permanently or temporarily, so once things calm down we will be updating the list):
- Francos in Parkview for family-style Italian
- Salvation Cafe in 44 Stanley for light breakfasts and lunches
- Great Eastern Food Bar in Melville for interesting modern Asian
- Rocomamas everywhere for decent chain burgers
- Turn and Tender in Parktown North for steak and burgers
- The Ant in Melville for pizza and beer
- Santa Muerte in Melville for texmex
- So Yum in Hyde Park for Thai and dim sum
- Thava in Norwood for amazing South Indian
- Ghazal in Bryanston for good North Indian
- The Dosa Hut in Fordsburg for imagining you’re in India
- Baha taco in Norwood for tacos tacos tacos (and try their churros)
- Corner cafe in Craighall Park for bistro style food
- Warm&Glad ditto
- Mosaic near Pretoria for the best fine dining in Gauteng, stay over so you can have the wine pairing or go on Sunday for lunch
- Les Delices France in Roodepoort for simple and delicious French
- The Wolfpack in Parkhurst for gourmet burgers and craft beer
- Che Argentinean grill in Maboneng
- Foundry in Parktown North for good food and craft beer
- Tashas are decent chain restaurants in malls, mainly aimed at the breakfast and lunch market.
- Park cafe in Parkwood for breakfast and light lunch
- Cube Tasting Kitchen in Maboneng for experimental tasting menu BYOB and come hungry, bookings essential
- Workshop 55 in Parktown North or Escondido in Illovo for tapas
- Cafe del Sol for excellent Italian. The Bryanston and Parkhurst ones are more upmarket and the Olivedale one is more homely. Bookings are essential.
- Ace+Pearl is a really good little wine bar in Craighall Park
- Lots of options on 4th Avenue Parkhurst, including Tap House and the famous Jolly Roger
- Hell’s Kitchen in Melville is great, and there are lots of other options on the same street
- Giles is always popular in Craighall Park, but is an older crowd
- Hogshead and Griffon in Illovo are popular weekend spots
- For amazing views check out the Flames at the Westcliff Hotel, the bar at Marble in Rosebank, the pool bar at the Southern Sun Hotel Hyde Park or the Living Room in Maboneng
- The Great Dane and Kitcheners in Braamfontein to hang out with the students and hipsters
- The Colony on Jan Smuts avenue (aka the Colon) for some dodgy karaoke on Saturdays and cane-and-cream soda.
Safety and security
Joburg has a crime problem. But many of the horror stats you hear reported happen in places you would never go as a tourist. As long as you take some sensible precautions, you can minimize your risk. In general:
– Avoid wearing flashy jewelry and carrying expensive looking electronics
– Lock valuables in the trunk of your car both while driving and parked.
– Watch out for pickpockets and people who might grab something like a phone out of your hand or off a table (especially at pavement cafes).
– Keep doors and gates locked. And car windows closed and doors locked.
– Be vigilant and if you see someone suspicious find a security guard or head to a busy place.
Most of the suburbs mentioned here are pretty safe and we would happily walk around. Hotels and guest houses generally have security as do all the shopping centers and many of the restaurant areas. Extra care should be taken at night and in the Joburg city centre, however, including Braamfontein and Maboneng.
Many Joburg intersections have vendors and beggars. You can safely buy from vendors although don’t expect good quality, genuine goods and don’t hand over large notes hoping for change. You can buy very cool wire and bead sculptures which are much more reasonable on the side of the road than at the airport. We do not believe in giving to beggars especially those with children. Our neighborhood has tried extensively to help the transients in our area but with limited success and much of the money is spend on substance abuse. Giving to children or people with children incentivizes the use of children for this purpose instead of going to school and the money is unlikely to benefit the kids. Vendors and beggars are occasionally criminals in disguise, so do pay attention if someone seems to be trying to distract you or scoping the inside of your car.
A Joburg-specific quirk is the ever-present car guard. These guys ‘help you park’ and ‘look after your car’ in exchange for small change when you depart. They are generally friendly and harmless although you do get the occasional one that makes you uncomfortable. They are not really much more than beggars and opinion is divided on whether or not they should be supported. Our view is to give them the benefit of the doubt and tip them a few rand (after, not before).
Joburg has a really great climate, summers don’t get too hot and winter days are sunny, dry and mild. Do not underestimate winter nights (May to August), however. Temperatures can drop below zero and buildings are generally not well equipped for the cold.
Excellent website for tours and experiences in Joburg and Cape Town https://www.gummie.co.za
This website is good for seeing what is happening around Johannesburg, and also has some information on some tours you can do and some of the interesting areas to visit (Maboneng, Braamfontein, City Centre, Newtown etc.). http://www.inyourpocket.com/johannesburg/Whats-on-in-Johannesburg
The Guardian newspaper’s page on Johannesburg has some great articles on interesting things to do: http://www.theguardian.com/travel/johannesburg
Decent website to get on overview of what’s happening around Joburg, including markets, cultural things etc.: http://www.joburg.co.za/
http://eatout.co.za/ is a good database of restaurants including reviews across South Africa. They’ve do a top restaurants in SA list annually and some excellent articles such as best new restaurants, best burger etc.
http://www.zomato.com/: Very useful user-reviewed site for restaurants, which also has a good app. The app is very useful for finding places near to you. Also has bars and take-away places, as well as menus.
http://www.jhblive.com/: Event website for Joburg
http://www.mabonengprecinct.com/: Inner city rejuvenation area, with lots of different events going on all the time
http://2summers.net/: Excellent blog of an American lady living in Joburg, who really makes an effort to find interesting things to do. Heather was also involved in the Joburg travel guide on TripAdvisor.
Joburgers are big runners and cyclists, especially mountain biking and trail running and there are events on most weekends which you can pick up via Google. Park Run is also very big in Joburg and there are numerous venues offering free 5km runs on Saturday mornings at 8. The big gym groups are Planet Fitness and Virgin Active. There are plenty of yoga studios and I recommend Yoga Warrior in Rosebank and Hotpod Yoga in Linden for scheduled classes and Yoga Works for events like Yoga in the Park and stand up paddle board yoga. There are also lots of Cross Fit gyms.