The City of Gold is often seen as little more than a stopover en route to Cape Town, but Johannesburg (“Joburg”) has much more to offer. Joburg is a sprawling cosmopolitan metropolis bubbling over with multiculturalism and pride. It’s a busy city with a small-town feel, a thriving food scene, and some of the friendliest locals you’ll ever meet. Local expert Sophie Baker lifts the curtain on the city’s secrets.
After a visitor arrives in my city, I always recommend going straight to Maboneng, at the heart of Johannesburg’s central business district (CBD). Because Joburg’s inner city has undergone something of an urban renaissance, it’s the best place to discover the beating heart of the city.
The best time to be here is in the shoulder season. Think September, October, March, and April. That’s when the days are warm without oppressive heat, and the city is alive with people going about their day-to-day business.
I tell first-time travellers to experience Joburg’s great food and wine scene, as well as to visit a rooftop bar for our incredible African sunsets that paint the skies different hues of red and orange. I also tell them to avoid sticking just to the Sandton area. Yes, it’s beautiful, modern, and definitely worth a visit — but there’s so much more to discover in the City of Gold.
People from here know better than to eat, shop, or stay at big international chains. Instead, they would rather support small, local businesses and feast on South African-produced food and wine. One particular local red wine varietal, Pinotage, is very popular with South Africans and should definitely make it onto your dinner table at least once.
The best museum to start your journey and get a good sense of this city is the Apartheid Museum in South Johannesburg, because it’s an essential stop for those wanting to understand and experience what life was like for South Africans only a few decades ago.
Parents should take their kids to the Montecasino bird gardens or one of Joburg’s numerous outdoor activities because the city has such an abundance of natural life and green spaces — plus it’s a good warm up for safari!
Food from the Heart
Among the food (or dishes) my city is most proud of, shisanyama or braai is probably top of the list — it’s one of those traditions all residents of the Rainbow Nation have in common. I like to go to the home of a friendly Saffa to really enjoy it, but if that’s not an option, there’s a good restaurant overlooking the Lonehill dam, aptly named The Braai Room. But South African cuisine is varied and the standard of restaurants in Joburg is high — whether you want Italian, Greek, Asian, or American, you’ll find it.
When we get together to celebrate, a good South African wine or an ice-cold beer is what people here traditionally drink. I like to gather my friends and go to Giles or The Station for a round.
When I eat completely local, I will go to Les Creatifs restaurant. I know the food here is a celebration of traditional Zulu dishes with a fine-dining twist, served with excellent wines. For a more relaxed option, The Culinary Table in Lanseria serves relaxed breakfast and brunch fare, which is mostly grown in their very own farm garden.
Another two classic, iconic restaurants include popular steakhouse The Grill House, which serves top-notch South African meat, and Café Del Sol Botanico, an Italian bistro where handmade pasta can be savoured alongside carefully crafted cocktails.
The part of town where locals come for traditional food is Soweto, or the inner city.
My city is known for making gold — or it used to be! Nowadays, there’s more of a focus on art and business.
The best food market in Johannesburg is Market on Main, where you can sample everything from artisan bread to huge group paellas. Both are in the CBD and can be visited one after another if you go on a Sunday. And the best market to buy everyday items like clothes and home goods (as well as delectable snacks) is The Playground.
I always take visitors to the Rosebank Sunday Market to buy real, local souvenirs. The products are varied, locally crafted, and unique, and the vibe is buzzing and energetic. And we know to avoid Sandton City because, despite it being a beautiful and upmarket mall, many of the shops can be found in any city worldwide.
Getting Deeper Into Johannesburg
A great book to learn more about my city is “Born a Crime,” written by Trevor Noah. Known worldwide for hosting The Daily Show, Noah is one of South Africa’s most successful and beloved comedians.
Most people know about Sandton, especially businesspeople, but the Braamfontein area should also be visited because of the thriving food and art scene, luxury places to lay your head at night, the hipster haven coffee shops, bustling markets, and vibey boutique shopping.
My city is a place people are attracted to because of the economic opportunities and the glitz and glamour of city life.
To really celebrate my city at its best, come during the spring because the purple jacaranda trees are in bloom, the weather is at its best, and accommodation is affordable.
Most people think of my city as a place to go for business meetings or as a stopover on the way to the Cape or Kruger, but really this is a destination to see what life is like in a modern South African city.
This is one of the best places in the world to experience safari, because we’re within driving distance of most of the game lodges and reserves. Locals are proud of that because it’s such a unique and humbling experience to see wildlife like lions up close.
Getting Around Johannesburg
One thing you should know about getting around my city is that there is very little public transport available, with the exception of the Gautrain.
The best way to travel in my city to have as little impact as possible is to rent a car or use Uber.
Luckily this method of transportation also allows me to get everywhere quickly, easily, and in comfort. All drivers speak English, so it’s easy to communicate with them as needed. Plus, the roads are well-maintained and can get you just about anywhere your heart desires in the city.
Outside The City
To get away and into the outdoors, I like to head into Kyalami area, which has the second-highest density of horses in the world.
For a day trip just beyond my city, I like to visit the Magaliesberg and stop in for a bite to eat at Black Horse Brewery.
Many people will head to Pilanesberg National Park if they want a weekend out of town, but locals know to go to smaller reserves like Madikwe or the Welgevonden. If those are out of your budget, Black Rhino offers a more intimate experience in Pilanesberg.
I really enjoy the view of my city from the Westcliff Hotel. It has a fantastic restaurant and balcony on the edge of a dramatic cliff that overlooks the entire city. Dress up, because you’ll want to take pictures!
Connecting with Locals
When I want to have fun and celebrate being out in my city, I head to Parkhurst, where there’s always a vibe thanks to an entire street lined with bars, restaurants, and boutiques to enjoy.
To hang out with my friends and go to a real insider spot, I go to MooMoo’s in Pineslopes, where I take advantage of the “buy one get one free” daily wine specials and enjoy great food alongside live music over weekends.
The best resource for finding out what’s going on around town is What’s on in Joburg, which gives you guides to all the local events. Another good resource is Facebook.
When I want to enjoy my city without spending much (or any) money, I browse the markets and boutiques, and then visit one of the many parks and gardens to enjoy a picnic and a hike. My favourite is the Botanical Gardens, which has plenty of quiet picnic spots and an abundance of fauna and flora.
The Marabi Club is my first choice for music because it’s the leading jazz club in the country, barely noticeable from the outside, and feels like you’ve stepped into a 1950s soiree once you get inside. And when I feel like dancing, I go to Sir James van de Merwe for the great view of the Sandton skyline, feel-good party music, and retro chic decor.
Finding Solitude in Johannesburg
When I want to go somewhere to sit and meditate about my incredible city, I go to Nirox Sculpture Park. It’s a beautiful green space full of dams and trees near the Cradle of Humankind, where contemporary art sculptures are dotted around the reserve. Each year, they have different artists in residence who each leave a sculpture as a token of their appreciation.
If I chose the one place that makes me most proud of my city, it would have to be Braamfontein, Maboneng, and One Fox areas because they show the potential that Johannesburg has when we focus on regeneration and upliftment. It’s a place where you can experience and appreciate so many different aspects of South African culture. Plus, it’s largely untouched by tourists, and you’ll find some of the city’s best hidden gems there.
When the Seasons Change, This City Shines
Spring (September, October, and November) is the best time to see the jacaranda trees in bloom, visit before it gets too hot, and enjoy al fresco dining outside.
I always recommend visitors explore the city in the early morning or late afternoon in the summer (December, January, and February) to stay safe from the heat. I also recommend you choose a hotel or accommodation with a pool (which is quite easy in Johannesburg), so that you can make the most of the warm days with a refreshing dip. There are often dramatic lightning storms on summer evenings that are spectacular to watch, as long as you stay safely inside.
The fall (March, April, and May) here is magical when you want to see wildlife at nearby game reserves, because the dry scenery makes it easier to spot them. The cooler weather also means they’re more active.
The winter (June, July, and August) is a great time to enjoy Joburg’s winter scene. It’s notoriously dry in winter so there’s no risk of rain, and warm sunny days are broken up by chilly nights where you can curl up with a South African red wine and tuck into hearty oxtail and bobotie in front of a roaring fire.