x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Africa's New York

Initially a rough and lawless tented camp, Johannesburg was built above one of the richest gold reefs the world had yet discovered.

The Sandton Towers in Johannesburg.
The Sandton Towers in Johannesburg.

Because, at its core, the city retains the raw vitality of its mining town roots. Initially a rough and lawless tented camp, Johannesburg was built above one of the richest gold reefs the world had yet discovered. Its early denizens were adventurers and hustlers, profiteers and pimps, and respectability was late in coming to the town. Today, like few places on Earth, this untamed energy can still be felt - if the visitor knows where to look, and adheres to simple rules that can (and will) guarantee safety.

Don't, on a whim, decide to walk around at night. Don't venture into volatile areas without a guide or a local. Don't succumb to the desire to advertise your wealth. Most importantly, though, don't be reluctant to take the city on: this is the New York of Africa, a cultural mélange of communities from across the continent, and your boldness of spirit will be abundantly rewarded. From the imposing high-rises of Sandton, the continent's wealthiest square mile, to the storied streets of Soweto, the spiritual home of the anti-apartheid struggle, it's a city of depth and contrast. "Jozi", as its residents call it, is also a city of unheralded beauty - the verdant flora, the rolling koppies (African hillocks) and the peerless climate all contribute to its inimitability. Then there's the Fifa World Cup. Johannesburg is the venue of the opening ceremony and the final, and there's no better place for it in South Africa - no other local city is as essentially "African," as surprisingly hospitable, or as willfully determined to make an impression on its visitors as this one.

If you wisely want to get away from the mall culture that can consume you in Johannesburg (many of the international chain hotels are attached to the malls), there's really only one upmarket choice: The Westcliff (www.westcliff.co.za ; 0027 (0)11 481 6000). The hotel nests on the side of a steep hill in one of the city's oldest suburbs and offers views across the vast and verdant man-made forest that shades the area known as "The Parks". Should you want a touch more exclusivity, a recommended establishment is the Saxon (www.saxon.co.za ), an award-winning converted mansion in the suburb of Sandhurst that's the preferred choice of visiting celebrities - Oprah Winfrey, on her regular trips to the city, stays here. Both the Westcliff and Saxon have world-class spas and restaurants, with nightly rates that start at less than US$300 (Dh1,100) for the former and $900 for the latter.

Again, mall culture is ubiquitous in Johannesburg. From Sandton City to the Rosebank Mall to the open-air Melrose Arch, they are the places that most tourists flock to on arrival - generally because they offer the promise of safety, and specifically because they deliver the levels of sophistication and elegance that any American, European or Emirati traveller would be familiar with. Their downside, of course, is that they present an impression that this is all the city is about.

To grant Johannesburg the nuance that is its due, and to get out of the suburbs and into central Jozi as quickly as possible, there are two trips that should be arranged: first to Arts on Main, a converted 1900s warehouse that's fast becoming a hub for the city's creative community, and second to 44 Stanley Avenue, an agglomeration of galleries, crafts shops and outdoor restaurants in a refurbished industrial zone.

Both venues are on the fringes of the inner city - Arts on Main is in fact right on the CBD's border - and both will give you an idea of the young, urban African identity Jozi has forged for itself in the past 10 years. From 44 Stanley Avenue, the bohemian enclave of Melville is less than a two-minute drive, and this too is an obligatory destination when the sanitised malls begin to oppress with their sameness.

The Radium Beer Hall on the corner of Louis Botha Avenue and Ninth Street in Orange Grove is one of Johannesburg's oldest eateries. The pressed ceilings, wrought iron railings and heavy teak bar retain memories of the conversations of the city's early pioneers, and the modern-day owner, an effusive Madeiran-born South African by the name of Mannie Cabaleira, will (if he likes you) regale you with tales that will make you feel brave and worldly just for being there. Wednesdays through Saturdays from around 4pm onwards is when the crowd is at its most lively, and the menu's always good - Portuguese fare includes espetada (recommended), trinchado and fillet bitoque, while the pizzas are second to none.

For a Sunday lunch you won't forget, Il Giardino Degli Ulivi at 44 Stanley Avenue, mentioned above, is the place. It's situated in a large open courtyard and often hosts tables of 20 guests or more, which means the atmosphere tends to be bolstered most weeks by the sounds of someone's party. But the sounds that really make the venue are those that emanate from the ensemble of musicians that gathers on Sunday afternoons - two superb violinists, a kicking rhythm section and a saxophonist draw a local Joburg crowd as eclectic as the city itself. The menu is classy Italian and the prices are reasonable.

The Sandton City and Sandton Square mall complex are not worth the time or effort, no matter what your concierge may say. This vast agglomeration of internal lighting, recycled air and household-name luxury boutiques (an oxymoron if ever there was one) will leave you feeling drained and bitter, and the hugely ugly bronze statue of Nelson Mandela in the fake Italian piazza won't help your mood. If you must visit a mall, go to Melrose Arch.

The Apartheid Museum opposite Gold Reef City is mandatory. It provides an overview of the country's recent history that is both thorough and moving, and you will be left with a much-enhanced sense of place after your visit. A tour to Soweto is also necessary; Kliptown, the Hector Pieterson Museum, Mandela House, Vilakazi Street and a meal in a shebeen - not only is it a unique and enlivening way to spend a day, your taste of Jozi is simply incomplete without it.