A history of struggle and restless spirit is a mix that makes for an essential destination
My Kind of Place: Johannesburg, South Africa
Frenetic, edgy and ever-changing, Johannesburg is the heartbeat of not just South Africa, but southern Africa. It will not be winning beauty contests any time soon, and it’s a miracle that this old mining hodgepodge with no river grew so big, but it is now the place where South Africa’s many languages meet, and work alongside each other.
It is a city of stories, but it’s also a hive of creativity. This is best seen in districts like Braamfontein and the Maboneng Precinct, where formerly dicey inner city landscapes have exploded with highly individual openings. Jo’Burg’s restless character is changing the city in interesting ways.
A comfortable bed
The key decision is whether to stay relatively central or seal yourself off in the affluent northern suburbs where the malls and best hotels are.
If the latter, the Vegas-esque Michelangelo Hotel (www.legacyhotels.co.za) brings ersatz Renaissance flair to financial hub Sandton. Bedrooms seem kitted out for royalty, and there’s a fab indoor pool underneath a showy glass dome. Rooms cost from 3,887 rand (Dh1,107).
The Maslow (www.suninternational.com/maslow) balances business and pleasure, with plenty of sunbeds around the outdoor pool, and sleek contemporary rooms.
The complimentary shuttle services to the nearby malls and Gautrain railway station are a handy bonus. Expect to pay from 3,118 rand (Dh888).
If staying centrally, the Protea Hotel Parktonian All-Suite Hotel (www.proteahotels.com) on the edge of student-heavy Braamfontein is a decent bet. Suite-style rooms are large if visually unexciting, and the rooftop terrace offers A Grade views out over the city. Doubles here cost from around 1,318 rand (Dh375).
Find your feet
Johannesburg isn’t exactly a walker’s paradise, so you’re better off getting between attractions by taxi or hop-on, hop-off bus – which cost from 170 rand (Dh49) with City Sightseeing (citysightseeing.co.za). Constitution Hill (constitutionhill.org.za) is an excellent first stop – and a melding of dark past and bright future. A clutch of former prisons are now kept as museums that pull no punches on the brutal treatment of former inmates – who include Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
But it is also home to South Africa’s Constitutional Court, which is where the principles Mandela and his cohorts fought for for decades are upheld, and is covered in a bonanza of artwork.
Further south is the Apartheid Museum (www.apartheidmuseum.org), which is phenomenally dense, but continually thought-provoking on the Apartheid system and the efforts that were made to liberate the country from it. The part likely to stay with you longest is the big screen video presentation the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, where families of
victims tell their stories and perpetrators ask for forgiveness.
Meet the locals
What has happened to Soweto, the vast collection of townships to the south west of the city, in the last couple of decades is an engrossing story. The black middle classes have stayed rather than choosing to move to richer suburbs of Johannesburg, leading to significant gentrification in several areas.
Vilikazi Street – where Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu once lived – is now a strip of restaurants. Lebo’s Backpackers (www.sowetobackpackers.com) runs excellent bike and tuk-tuk tours, costing from 470 rand (Dh134) and 430 rand (Dh129) respectively. These meet the locals, show off the memorials and give the visitor a good understanding of the various forces that make Soweto tick.
Book a table
In Sandton, Nelson Mandela Square has a whole host of restaurants to choose from. Of these, Tasha’s (www.tashascafe.com) is a good bet with lots of African ingredients such as ostrich and springbok. Save room for dessert, though – the malva putting with macerated apricot, custard and ice-cream is so good you’ll be hankering after it every other South African restaurant you go to.
Downtown, the Maboneng Precinct (www.mabonengprecinct.com) has several appealing options, including Greek, Ethiopian, Japanese and Argentinian joints – stroll along and take whatever tickles your fancy at the time.
For mallrats, the best options are in the northern suburbs. The Sandton City Shopping Centre is a massive, sprawling beast, where the shops err towards mid-range chains, but there are some specialist jewellery and African art outlets too.
If it’s the latter you’re after, though the Rosebank Arts and Crafts Market (www.rosebankartandcraftmarket.co.za) does it better. It is full of homemade trinketry, beading work, carvings and some of the most colourful handbags.
What to avoid
Johannesburg has a poor reputation for personal safety – which is slightly overblown, but not entirely. There are certain areas – such as Hillbrow on the eastern side of Constitution Hill – where it is ill-advised to enter without a guide.
Just west of Jo’Burg, the Cradle of Humankind is where some of the most important fossils in history have been found. The Maropeng visitor centre (www.maropeng.co.za) delves into the complex web of human ancestry and evolutionary history in a thoroughly engaging manner – which, bizarrely, includes a boat tour. Meanwhile the nearby Sterkfontein Caves – where the Australopithecus africanus skull that sparked so much research was found – are open for tours. Combination tickets cost 190 rand (Dh54) per person.