There seems to be misperception in the trade that downtown Joburg is an excursion from safe Sandton for the brave, which is a pity, and despite all the positive media attention Joburg has been getting, I think it’s being undersold.
I’m often asked by Sandton-based trade what there is to do in Joburg! And I encounter tourists who’ve been told by their hotel reception not to venture out, and so all they experience of the city is room service.
I’m going to suggest that many in the trade are looking at the city the wrong way around;
- Joburg is more than an overnight stop between flights. English GQ calls Johannesburg “the new cool capital of the Southern Hemisphere”. It’s a destination - minimum two nights, three nights ideal.
- Sandton and Rosebank are hotel nodes, but not the destination.
- Joburg downtown is the base for activities – I’ll explain more below.
To explain Sandton from a tourism angle – it’s a business centre, with business hotels and a big shopping mall at its heart. There’s little street life, and after office hours there’s not much happening for tourists - the feeling Canary Wharf has, or perhaps Frankfurt. It’s functional, central and well connected for public transport to the airport.
Joburg city on the other hand, is like Berlin - creative, varied, architecturally striking, rich in history, and alive with art, food, coffee and interaction across social divides.
Rough and cool it is, squeaky-clean it isn’t, and that grit is what visitors are fascinated by. Watch groups of middle-aged Europeans walking the streets of Maboneng and you’ll notice they’re taking photos of the quirky, old, rough and unusual things around them. It’s a real adventure to explore, unlike any other city, and that’s what they’re loving.
A lot has been done to fix up the city since its dark days 20 years ago, by both the city and property developers. There are spotless areas, there are rough areas, and plenty of in-between. Like in Berlin, low rentals have drawn entrepreneurs to the city, and they’re the ones bringing creativity and cool stuff.
I divide downtown into four zones from a tourism point of view;
- Braamfontein: This is ‘downtown lite’ – easy to get in and out of, plenty of parking, with anchor attractions Constitution Hill (ranked number three on TripAdvisor’s list of ‘Things to Do in Johannesburg’), Origins Centre and WAM (Wits Art Museum). Coffee-culture and sidewalk-café food in the day is clustered around Juta Street, bar scene at night (it’s a student area, expect a young crowd). Food market on Saturdays.
- Maboneng: This has become the city’s creative and artistic hub - old warehouses turned into galleries, studios, restaurants, apartments. Best walked with someone who knows the area, as it stretches over many city blocks now and that’s the only way to see the superb outdoor art and take in the street life. Lots of options for coffee, lunch and dinner, even for large groups. The food market is on Sundays.
- CBD: The CBD is historically and architecturally rich – Victorian, colonial, art deco, modernist, contemporary with outdoor art thrown into the mix. Easy to explore by just sitting on the City Sightseeing bus and listening to their audio guide, or doing a walking tour centred around pedestrianised, manicured Main Street. Fox Street Sheds’ food market (Thursday-Sunday) is a great add-on, and the Apartheid Museum (ranked number one on TripAdvisor) is connected via the same bus route.
- Newtown: Newtown is relatively quiet, on the edge of the city, making it easy to move groups around on foot. It’s having a second revival with top designers opening a well curated craft market in the new shopping mall which includes elegant Edwardian buildings – a very designer artisan cocktail bar is soon opening in the old gentlemen's washrooms. A walk across the square is the SAB World of Beer.
For FIT pax, access and transport is easy. The Gautrain connects Sandton to Braamfontein in eight minutes. The City Sightseeing open-topped red bus goes from there to the CBD, Newtown and around Braamfontein, and its red shuttles link to Soweto. The Mabogo shuttle connects to Maboneng, while it’s five minutes with Uber.
For groups, all the areas above have parking or drop-off areas. Because so much of the city is residential these days, traffic going into town in the morning isn’t bad. That makes it possible to do the city, Apartheid Museum and Soweto in a day.
Walking tours have become very popular. Past Experiences and Joburg Places both have great reputations: they know their beat well, and they can take you to amazing graffiti artworks taking up the entire sides of buildings - which I still haven’t found.