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Top Things to Do in Johannesburg

Published 30 March 2016

Jaillan Yehia

Jaillan Yehia

Johannesburg – or Joburg, as it’s known to linguistically thrifty locals – is the largest city in South Africa and a great alternative to the more visited Cape Town. There is so much to see and do, and you’d need years to experience everything on offer. In this post Jai Yehia, who knows the city well, has put together a mini guide for you and shared her top things to do in the city.

Johannesburg city skyline

I do love an underdog city. Give me Sao Paolo over Rio, Antwerp against Brussels, Valencia versus Barcelona.

Yet even I wavered when it came to Johannesburg; everyone expects you to go to Cape Town, but not its land-locked, more functional, less fun counterpart. In the staring match between you and the wall of negative publicity about this city which confronts you, only the most committed traveller does not blink.

Johannesburg is the biggest city in the world which owes its success not to a proximity to rivers or seas but to pure hard graft, so it is somehow fitting that you must work to turn up the little gems in Joburg, like the diamonds in the rough and the glimmers of gold which first made this city prosperous.

Determined to champion the ultimate urban underdog I pressed on with my research and discovered Melville. A small suburb with a high street, restaurants, a bookshop and a village vibe; Melville is the way to stay in Johannesburg without turning into either a scaredy cat or a mall rat.

I read about Joburg’s art projects, photography, inner city regeneration and nightlife. No I didn’t think Joburg would be pretty, I thought it would be gritty, but I liked that: Urban melting pots don’t come much more urban than this.

So if you want attitude, culture and history, plus new art, great food, music, business, and most of all a real energy and buzz, change that transit through Joburg into a few days’ stopover. I hope the city changes your mind too.

Mini Guide To Johannesburg

Coffee in red cup with Lindt chocolate

Get your coffee at... Vida e Caffè

I guarantee you’ll be a fan of this so-serious-about-coffee-they-don’t-even-serve-tea South African café chain within minutes of touching down in Joburg. With 12 branches in the city you’ll see the familiar red and white logo rather a lot but a bit like spotting impala on a safari, it’s always nice to know they’re there even if you’re not that excited after the first few. I still hadn’t tired of their savoury and sweet muffins and complimentary Lindt chocolate squares by the time I left Joburg.

Small houses in Soweto

Hear about history at... Soweto

The Soweto tour was the highlight of my trip to Johannesburg – interesting, educational, vibrant, eye-opening, and most of all, fun. Having a great guide is the best way to see this part of the city; they’ll show you the township that is such an integral part of South African history from a personal viewpoint, talking you through the way the township was segregated and often what this meant for them and their family and friends.

A plaque featuring a quote from Nelson Mandela at Nelson Mandela house

You’ll visit Mandela house, the Hector Pieterson Museum, probably meet some kids who can show you their gumboot dancing skills and certainly sit down at a shebeen for some local food. For more on the history of apartheid you can also visit the Apartheid Museum which is just outside Soweto.

Hang out at... The rooftop gym at 12 Decades

12 Decades is a hotel, gallery and spa in the heart of Johannesburg -it has a rooftop boxing gym, what better place to work out your aggression while taking in the inner city rooftops.That rooftop is also home to a bar and the ground floor hosts art exhibitions. A cool place to hang out.

The roof tops of city buildings in Johannesburg

See the view at... The Top Of Africa

Head to the Carlton Centre a fifty-storey building in the CBD for Joburg’s only lookout point, The Top Of Africa, which gives you the best views of the city and surroundings. The guide books mention buying tickets at a booth in the mall in which the viewpoint is situated but when I went this ticket window proved strangely elusive and the security guard on duty ended up helping me out – so don’t be afraid to ask!

Work at... The Hub

If you’re a creative type or need to mix a bit of business with pleasure on your trip to Johannesburg, The Hub is the place for you. The only African outpost of a global chain of cool creative spaces designed to offer meeting rooms and work stations to location independent young workers, Joburg’s Hub is where some of the city’s new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs set up shop.

Shop at... Neighbourhood Market

The neighbourhood market launched in 2011 in the vibrant neighbourhood of Braamfontein with a brief to help urban regeneration.

Market on Main aims to encourage an inner city lifestyle and sustainable living.

Expert tip: It’s well worth hiring your own car to explore Johannesburg, yes you’ll need to exercise some caution but driving is actually very straightforward and I even stopped at red lights!

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