Why should I go?
Johannesburg is South Africa’s most diverse, progressive and energetic city, the country’s best showcase for activism and optimism. There’s really nowhere better if you want to see the face of modern South Africa, and get a sense of how far the nation’s come and where it’s going next.
Though the city – like the rest of South Africa – is still dealing with the legacy of racial segregation, it has become a truly diverse place. Walk around Johannesburg and you’ll hear snatches of Afrikaans, Zulu and Xhosa, but you may also catch some Urdu, Hindi or Chinese.
High-intensity in everything it does, Johannesburg manages not only to be the country’s biggest and the continent’s richest city but also – at least according to the locals – the world’s largest man-made forest. There are some ten million trees dotted around, lending the place a surprisingly fresh and spacious feel.
But is it safe to visit Johannesburg?
The short answer is: yes, it’s safe to visit.
The slightly longer answer is that some areas are safer than others. The northern suburbs are fine to wander around freely, and downtown areas like Maboneng – a no-go area barely a decade ago – have become safe and exciting models of urban regeneration.
Tourists are most at risk of opportunistic crimes like theft and mugging. The best way to protect yourself is to use your common sense: don’t stand on a street corner with your DSLR around your neck staring at a map; don’t carry all your cash around with you; and if you’re going to a less safe district, hire a local guide.
Great! So what should I do in the day?
As you’d expect from a city this size, there’s a lot to do – starting with retail therapy. Other than Melville’s 27 Boxes, a bunch of shipping containers filled with shops and restaurants, the northern suburbs are mostly home to opulent, anonymous malls. Downtown is much more inspiring, with Maboneng’s Market on Main – a Sunday staple for arts, crafts and street food – and Collector’s Treasury – a labyrinthine, longstanding bookshop – among the best spots.
To get to grips with Johannesburg, try one of the excellent tours on offer. On Mainstreetwalks’ Maboneng Precinct tour, for instance, you’ll discover the best of this exciting district’s community-led regeneration. To find out more about the stunning graffiti you’ll spot on your walk, book onto one of Past Experiences’ street art tours. And to learn about Soweto, try Lebo’s tuk-tuk tours. The entertaining, knowledgeable local guides will show you both the township’s struggles and its hopes for the future.
The city’s museums include MOAD, the continent’s first museum dedicated to design, and Newtown’s cavernous MuseuMAfricA, with thoughtful exhibits on Johannesburg’s art and history.
Further from the centre, the Apartheid Museum is a nuanced exploration of the history and legacy of racial segregation in South Africa, which is also the focus at the Mandela House Museum and Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum in Soweto.
Mural by Senzo; Rebecca Hallett
And in the evening?
Start your Friday or Saturday night in Fordsburg, the historic Indian district, and hit up the night market around Mint Street. Arrive hungry, as you won’t be able to resist just one samosa, a tiny bite of uttappam, a couple of jalebi…
If you’re still (somehow) hungry, head next to Maboneng for memorable African-Asian fusion at Blackanese, a generous Argentine grill at Che, or Ethiopian cuisine at Little Addis Cafe. After dinner join the young, mixed crowd at Living Room for a sundowner with a view.
Continue your night by exploring Joburg’s thriving jazz scene – Braamfontein institution The Orbit is known as South Africa’s best jazz bar, with Sophiatown’s Afrikan Freedom Station another historic venue. A more recent addition is the Marabi Club, which pays homage to the early 20th-century marabi music scene; the classic cocktails and waistcoated waiters set the vintage vibe.