Johannesburg Travel Guide
Veering out from the shadow of its bigger sister city, Cape Town, the ever-developing, energetic Johannesburg is ready for your undying attention. Masterfully planned yet spread wide, Johannesburg is both a city break and a road trip in one, where at each pit stop you’ll experience the boundless warmth of the South African people as they introduce you to a diverse city of intoxicating Pan-African dining experiences and unique local stylings fused with sleek modern architecture and boutique shopping experiences. Despite lagging social acceptance of LGBT rights and some ongoing safety issues across the nation, metropolitan Joburg continues to surprise with tolerant and progressive attitudes. The annual Pride of Africa festival, the continent’s biggest pride celebration, exemplifies this and ensures the local LGBT scene brims with colour and confidence all year round. So, want to know where to go in Johannesburg? Mr Hudson will talk you through it.
The best hotels in Johannesburg
Home to a whole heap of boutique hotels, Johannesburg has something to cover any queen’s needs. Those looking to fill their sights with lush landscaped gardens should look no further than Fairlawns Boutique Hotel & Spa, providing guests with themed rooms in an intimate atmosphere on vast acreage. The Peech is a small eco-chic boutique hotel, set in the suburb of Melrose providing privacy, pool views and plush settings. Offering bountiful peace and sanctuary to its small roster of guests, The Residence Boutique Hotel is a one-of-a-kind boutique oozing warm luxuriousness across its 18 designer suites. Its multitude of on-site amenities, such as a spa, tennis court and pools plural, make this the ultimate space to unwind.
For a unique blend of rich cultural history and contemporary five-star service, Saxon Hotel, Villas & Spa is situated on ten acres of indigenous gardens, making it a peaceful retreat within the city. Monarch Hotel, located in the city’s Rosebank area, takes an interesting approach by combining antique furniture with modern South African art in its spacious suites – the property also has its own garden. For something completely different, try the Cradle Boutique Hotel, located in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site and providing guests with unobstructed views of the Highveld and surrounding valleys. The luxury hotel is set on a 7000-hectare private game reserve where guests can book private safaris to fossil exploration sites. In this Johannesburg guide, we also couldn’t resist a mention of the city’s most iconic hotel, the newly reborn, Four Seasons Hotel The Westcliff, a truly urban resort, located on a lush green hillside with panoramic views across the Johannesburg Zoo and prestigious neighbourhoods of The Parks. The hotel also provides exclusive services and options for their guests, such as private helicopter experiences that can be set up through the concierge.
Melville and Auckland Park are vibrant and playful, highlighting some of the local young talent and creativity
Things to do in Johannesburg
Affectionately referred to as Braamies and the playground of the city’s hipsters and university students, is Braamfontein, joined to Newtown by the Nelson Mandela Bridge. Here you’ll find an array of Johannesburg points of interest including museums, theatres, restaurants, galleries and design stores. During the weekend the Neighbourgoods Saturday Market is where like-minded folks come together to eat, shop and hang. Two areas adjacent to Braamfontein are Melville and Auckland Park. These areas are also saturated with university students, and while at night, you’ll find grungier crowds downing colourful shots in bars, during the day, the areas are vibrant and playful, highlighting some of the local young talent and creativity. Then there’s Newtown, the original cultural precinct in Johannesburg, which is now a vast heritage site, made up of the historic Market Theater, the Museum of Africa and the renovated Turbine Hall. Nearby is Newton Junction, famous for its street art. While it’s possible to walk around, visitors are encouraged to use a tour company, safe as much as entertaining and educational. Over in arts district Maboneng, in addition to finding many top art galleries and exhibitions, visitors can also explore the Museum of African Design and a specialist independent movie theatre.
If walking around strikes you as a little prosaic, then how about jumping off Orlando Power Station, a now decommissioned coal-fired power station in Soweto township. Today, Orlando Towers is somewhat of an adrenaline junkie’s dream come true. The world’s highest SCAD free fall takes place inside the Western Cooling Tower, and there is also climbing and paintballing on location. But the ultimate here is the suspension bridge between the two cooling towers, where visitors can do a 100m bungee jump! Down below is a collection of traditional BBQ restaurants with loads of beer, music and cheering onlookers to keep the party going.
Constitution Hill, the birthplace of South African democracy, is very much worth a visit
Things to see in Johannesburg
Holding such a vast and turbulent history, some of the most worthwhile places to visit in Johannesburg are also able to educate. To learn directly about the real history of South Africa, the Apartheid Museum is the country’s most poignant experience, authentically portrayed. Constitution Hill, the birthplace of South African democracy, is also worth a visit. The Johannesburg Planetarium is the Southern Hemisphere’s second planetarium, founded in 1960, while the Johannesburg Zoo has more than 10,000 animals, including the “Big Five,” just in case you don’t have time to add a safari to your trip. For lovers of art, the Johannesburg Art Gallery is the largest gallery on the continent, and the Museum Africa is a cultural museum that’s been around since 1933.
Entwining both art and history is the Wits Art Museum, hosted by the leading national university of the same name, and famed for its titanic collection of African art, with collections covering historical, classical, modern and contemporary works from across the continent. And, as it’s free for everyone, there’s really no excuse not to acculturate yourself!
The city centre’s cultural offerings could keep you busy for weeks, but you’ve not experienced the real South Africa without venturing into the wilderness. Pilanesberg National Park, in particular, just a three-hour drive from Johannesburg in the transition zone between the Kalahari and Lowveld, is the optimum spot for witnessing South Africa’s exceptional native wildlife and learning more about African ecology. Depending on your preferences or prudery, you can choose to stay in any style you choose; from amenity-packed luxury lodges to star-lit camping sites. Also well worth the drive is Sterkfontein Caves, situated within the wider Cradle of Humankind UNESCO World Heritage Site, offering an incredible visitor centre and tour. Here is where a 2.3-million-year-old fossil of what’s believed to be the first ape-man, was discovered.
Quintessential South African cuisine is all about that BBQ and there’s no better place to have a ZA meat feast than Marble
Where to eat in Johannesburg
South Africans like an open flame, particularly when it comes to smoking their meats. Quintessential South African cuisine then, is all about that BBQ and there’s no better answer of where to go in Johannesburg for your ZA meat feast than Marble whose dining concept enmeshes current and international trends and features a prized wood-fired grill as the restaurant’s centrepiece. After wolfing down some tender rump, rouse from your food coma with a dreamy wander through Keyes Art Mile, Rosebank’s most bustling art district, lined with a number of fancy galleries and quirky design stores. If prime meats are what you are looking for, The Local Grill is the city’s premier destination for incredible cuts of beef.
At the Four Seasons is View, and with a name like that, you can bet there will be some inimitable views to heighten your dining experience – some say they are the best in the city. The refined seasonal menu here offers contemporary cuisine in an urban chic interior atop the famed Westcliff hills. At Hotel Ten Bompas meanwhile, Winehouse isn’t a nod to wine, but instead to legendary singer, Amy Winehouse. Enjoy the comfort food menu of fresh seasonal produce sourced from the hotel’s own gardens surrounded by tasteful Amy artworks.
For more casual dining, Trés Jolie is a country restaurant that also boasts a farmyard. It’s more rustic experience is a little outside the box, with live animals surrounding the restaurant. To taste a bit of Italy while in South Africa, Assaggi has a traditional Italian pasta menu that will leave you craving for more. And for the more adventurous travellers, head to the township of Soweto and visit the first restaurant of Soweto, Wandie’s Place, for traditional South African food like mogodu, ting, pap and umqushu – you’ll have to head to Wandie’s for an explanation of what each is, or ask regular diner, Richard Branson. Other diners on the wall of fame include Barack Obama, Mohamed Ali and Beyoncé.
Shopping in Johannesburg
With intriguing boutiques on every corner you’ll never be short on ideas of where to go in Johannesburg for a shopping spree or two. 44 Stanley, in particular, is an olive-tree-lined venue for speciality fashion and accessories, housed in a former 1930s industrial complex and a nice relief from the usual malls and shopping centres. If your travel wardrobe is in need of a splash of class during your visit to Jozi, take a trip to menswear store Odrin which trades in quality suits and wardrobe stables with additional personalised styling services.
The reigning answer of where to go in Johannesburg for locally handmade goods is 27 Boxes, a fantastic shopping centre made up of 27 shipping containers. Supporting both entrepreneurship as well as the local community, 27 Boxes is not only is a place to shop but also to eat and play! For art connoisseurs, Johannesburg is ready to impress. In addition to the aforementioned Keyes Art Mile in Rosebank for high-end art pieces, Sandton is a lovely spot for refined home décor. Amatuli Fine Art is located here, a genuine treasure trove of authentic African artefacts curated by zany collector and impassioned traveller Mark Valentine.
The inner-city district of Maboneng, what once was home to industrial factories, is now the go-to hangout for those crazy about art. The small precinct is continuously growing as warehouses transform on the regular, like Arts on Main, where various well-known and emerging artists run studios and galleries. As well as Arts on Main, you’ve also got Market on Main a slightly more chaotic and ramshackle affair but no less worthy of a tour. It’s one of the oldest markets in the city sporting Joburg’s standard industrial setting and featuring a range of fresh baked goods, local designer fashion and working art studios.
Working its 50’s South Beach aesthetic with flamingo chic and cabaret themes, Beefcakes is reportedly Johannesburg’s best gay bar
More of a vast open-air rooftop than a living room, Living Room makes up for its false advertising by providing guests with outstanding views, eco-friendly jungle inspired décor and exotic plant life to get lost in. Peddled as a café-bar with a lip-smacking organic menu, Living room is one of the best places to visit in Johannesburg for a peachy Sunday sundowner, before slipping into party mode with a live DJ come nightfall. Bringing more cocktails to your outstretched hands is the Brian Lara’s Rum Eatery where visitors are transported to a Caribbean island with kitsch beach-themed décor to enjoy their tropical tipples. It’s the menu that really runs the place however, offering up West Indian favourites like jerk chicken and crab curry. For your third post-dinner cocktail, Lounge 55 will do you proud, most notable for its glamorous 1920s Miami-style lounge setting and rare craft beverages. And, a pro-tip from us; if you’re hungry and in the area, try the fancy tapas at Workshop 55 just next door.
Working its 1950s South Beach Miami aesthetic with flamingo chic and cabaret themes, Beefcakes is reportedly Johannesburg’s best gay bar, located in the upmarket hotspot of Illovo and famed for its nightly drag entertainment, delicious burgers and tight-bunned table hosts. But the gay bars don’t end there, certainly not, for Ratz is on the scene with vibrant 70s era music, impeccable table service and gay-friendly clientele.
Over in the surprisingly lively suburbs of Sandton sits the Babylon The Joburg Bar, a sultry and sophisticated gay club recently voted in the top 5 of bars and clubs in Jozi by Hello Joburg. With flat-screen TVs projecting artfully smutty images to an eager crowd, Babylon is the ultimate spot for hip grinding the night away beside Joburg’s most stylish gays. Lastly, you’ve got Therapy, perhaps the most legendary of places to visit in Johannesburg for a queer dance party, which found international fame when it was opened in 1996 by DJ Stuart Hillary. Therapy’s visitors are treated like VIPs from the get-go and destined for a unique party experience impossible to forget.
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Market on Main | Photo: Berna Coetzee
Maboneng | Photo: Berna Coetzee
Melville | Photo: Berna Coetzee
The View | Photo: Berna Coetzee