10 reasons why every South African should visit Joburg at least once

Posted by Matt Sterne on 4 February 2022

Joburg. Jozi. The Big Smoke. The City of Gold. Home to the stock exchange, summer thunderstorms and Parktown prawns. And, at 136 years old, one of the world’s youngest major cities. Other claims to fame: with 10 million trees, it’s regarded by some as the world’s biggest man-made forest; and it’s the economic heart and creative soul of South Africa, where the moves are made and business games played.

Melville Koppies. Picture: Pexels

You cannot tell the story of South Africa without telling the story of Johannesburg. The reef that sparked the gold rush, which ended up extracting 40% of the world’s gold ever produced. The Jameson Raid. The Rivonia Trial. The Soweto Uprising. Sandton City, Soccer City and Gold Reef City. The rise and fall and slow resurgence of Hillbrow. The location of the 1995 Rugby and 2010 Soccer world cup finals.

And yet… so few South Africans have an interest in visiting, in diving into our past and present, without which we’ll never have a hope of understanding what our future may hold. Jozi is where our country’s identity has been forged and is constantly reimagined. I recently spent four days getting under Joburg’s skin, and as an outsider – someone who for years would turn up my nose at the mention of it – I came away feeling like a more complete South African. That in itself was a priceless takeaway.

Johannesburg Sandton

Sandton Square. Picture: Flickr Commons/Paul Saad

Because here’s the thing.

Not to get too political (this is a travel publication after all), but our country is extremely divided, with different pockets of people often misunderstood. It falls on us as citizens to build bridges between ourselves, to break down those divides in whichever way we can. There are different ways to do this – learn a language, volunteer, read widely – but maybe the easiest (and most fun) way is to travel. If that’s your thinking, then Joburg should be your destination. If you take time to explore the city, you might walk away feeling as I did; saddened by our history, inspired by our heroes and delighted to get a better understanding of this beautiful country we call home.

If you do go, here are the top 10 things to do;

1. Soweto tour

So, where to go first? Soweto! I went on a guided tour with Pastor Maswanganyi from Mhlanganisi Tours. With 15 years experience, Pastor is knowledgeable, assured and well acquainted with the story of Soweto. For example, did you know Soweto is home to 4 million people, 49 townships, a TV station, its own beer, more than 200 primary schools, 110 high schools and Avalon, the biggest cemetery in South Africa where 200 people are buried every weekend? We went on a township walking tour, visited the Hector Pieterson Museum and Vilakazi Street – the only street in the world where two Nobel prize winners have lived, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Half-day tours from R750, 072 666 1829

2. Hillbrow walking tour

Picture: Dlala Nje

Dlala Nje runs a community centre aimed at providing a safe learning environment for children and youth in Hillbrow. With premises at the bottom of Ponte Tower, they also run fascinating inner-city experiences to help fund the community centre – so you know your money is going to a worthwhile cause. On their Hillbrow walking tour, you’ll explore the streets of Hillbrow and Berea, two of South Africa’s most notorious and misunderstood suburbs. You’ll learn about “hijacked buildings”, how the 2010 World Cup helped breathe new life into the city centre, how the area was once the place to be in Joburg and what efforts are happening today to get it back on track. Lunch on the 51st floor (with remarkable views), and a guided tour, of Ponte Tower is included. R450 per person

3. Check out the jazz scene

Picture: The Marabi Club

Joburg is the home of South African jazz, and has long inhabited the soulful, vibrant nature of the genre. Historically, jazz emerged from the townships of Joburg – Sophiatown was the breeding ground for experimental African sounds fused with swanking Western jazz beats. The influence of ragtime and Dixieland music lead to the development of a uniquely South African musical form called marabi. It took the country by storm and, with the onset of swing, the music became increasingly more complex and popular. Today, one of Joburg’s leading jazz clubs goes by the same name: The Marabi Club. Tucked into the basement of the boutique hotel Hallmark House, the club evokes a classic feel. Add excellent food (try the carrot!), a long bar, jauntily dressed wait staff offering friendly and slick service, and live jazz and you’ll get why most people who visit this Maboneng landmark remark on the electric atmosphere. And I’m serious about the carrot.

4. Visit the Nelson Mandela Foundation

The Nelson Mandela Foundation upholds the legacy of Nelson Mandela, providing public access to information on his life and times, and convening dialogue on critical social issues. Their archive, situated in Houghton where Madiba once had offices, aims to serve as a dynamic information resource on the life and times of Nelson Mandela. The Foundation feels like a very personal museum, full of hand-written letters and remarkable items from Madiba’s own archive.

5. Bar hop at Park Corner

Picture: Sin+Tax

‘Joburgers love to party,’ I was told more than once when asking what it was like to live in the city. I experienced this deep embrace of the jol on a night exploring the bars and restaurants at Park Corner, where one cocktail turned into plenty and I too got swept up in the city’s Friday-night energy. Sin+Tax is probably the flagship establishment, the only bar on the African continent to make it into the World’s 50 Best Bars’ top 100 in 2019. They ‘up the ante for South Africa’s cocktail scene by pushing the boundaries of innovation and imagination’, but I had an equally good time at A Streetbar Named Desire, Edge of Glory and Bar Ber Black Sheep. 2 Bolton Road, Parkwood.

6. Explore Maboneng

Picture: Alaister Russell/Gallo Images/Sunday Times

Maboneng, a seSotho word meaning “place of light”, has fast become a centre of creative energy for Johannesburg’s urban artists. Although badly affected by Covid, the urban neighbourhood is still a vibrant, artistic space with a mix of restaurants, coffee shops, clothing boutiques, art galleries, retail and studio space. Joburgers talk about it with pride – maybe because it boasts such an abundantly inclusive vibe. The precinct draws the inner-city public as well as the chic, art-going crowd of the city’s suburbs, bringing life back to this downtown Johannesburg neighbourhood.

7. Check out Victoria Yards

Picture: Victoria Yards

Here’s an interesting concept – an integrated urban complex (of gardens, farms, skills development workshops and galleries) that has the twin pillars of social development and commercial enterprise. The goal of Victoria Yards is to build an ecosystem where tenants thrive as a community and visitors can dip into the scene during special events such as their First Sundays programme, when all their art galleries, shops and eateries are open. This creative hub on the eastern side of the city has open days on which the resident artists open their studios to the public, presenting an opportunity to meet the artists and get a look behind the scenes at their creative process.

8. Take a walk in The Wilds

Once neglected and forgotten, left to the homeless and the weeds, The Wilds has gone through the most remarkable transformation over the past few years. This is all thanks to the vision and hard work of artist James Delaney who wanted somewhere to walk his dog. On exploring the park, he realised how many wonderful trees and nooks the park had. He set to work and this magnificent historic park with its stone-cut paths, water features, and awe-inspiring city views has been brought back to life. Its miraculous revival has transformed the park into one of the most popular in the city. Other green spaces worth visiting are the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens and Melville Koppies, the last conserved place still standing of Joburg before the gold rush.

9. Apartheid Museum

Picture: The Apartheid Museum

According to Tripadvisor, this is the number one attraction in Joburg, which makes it even more disappointing that it’s been closed for almost two years because of Covid. Opened in 2001, and widely acknowledged as the pre-eminent museum dealing with South African history, the Apartheid Museum illustrates the rise and fall of apartheid. An architectural consortium comprising several leading architectural firms, conceptualised the design of the building on a seven-hectare stand. The exhibits were organised by a multidisciplinary team of curators, film-makers, historians and designers. They include provocative film footage, photographs, text panels and artefacts illustrating the events and human stories that are part of that horrific period in our history. Hopefully it re-opens soon as such an attraction has a real pull and would encourage foreign tourists to linger in Joburg just a little longer.

10. Constitution Hill

There is perhaps no other site of incarceration in South Africa that imprisoned the sheer number of world-renowned men and women as those held within the walls of Constitution Hill’s Old Fort, Women’s Jail and Number Four. Nelson Mandela. Mahatma Gandhi. Joe Slovo. Albertina Sisulu. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Fatima Meer. They all served time here, but the precinct also confined tens of thousands of ordinary people during its 100-year history. In this way, the history of every South African lives here. Constitution Hill is now a living museum that tells the story of South Africa’s journey to democracy.

Where to stay?

The Sanctuary Mandela is a relatively new boutique hotel converted from the house in Houghton where Madiba lived in from 1991 to 1998. Each of the nine rooms depict a period in his life, with the restaurant Insights a key feature of the establishment. Here, Mandela’s chef of 22 years plies her trade. From R2 000 per person.

Motel Mi Pi CHi is a creatively imagined and laid-out property. Designed by one of the city’s leading architects, the motel is a lovely little haven full of character and charm. With easy drive-in, drive-out accessibility, it’s an unexpected oasis on the other side of a rough, high brick wall on Melville’s vibey Fourth Avenue. From R633 per person.

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