South Africa

Johannesburg city guide: the good, the bad and the ugly

Memorial to the former president Nelson Mandela outside the outstanding Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg city guide

April / July, 2017: Johannesburg has a rather colourful reputation. We heard of people getting car jacked at lights because they forgot to keep their car locked; we were constantly warned against walking even the shortest distances at night; and, we heard that women are almost guaranteed of assault. In fact, as a major city we didn’t really hear of many redeeming features at all. As a result when we first drove into Jo’burg in our little Datsun I have to say I was a little nervous about what we would find. What we actually found was a bustling and friendly metropolis with loads to do. Sure it was a little rough around the edges but thoroughly enjoyable for the time we spent there over two visits. In fact, I would almost say that we enjoyed exploring Johannesburg more than Cape Town. Don’t tell Capetonians that though. Here is our Johannesburg city guide.

Johannesburg city guide: the good…

Johannesburg is South Africa’s largest, most metropolitan city. It was founded off the back of the 19th century discovery of gold which created enormous wealth and brought people of all different colours, religions and nationalities. This heritage has translated into modern day diversity and a certain authenticity which is quite infectious. In a country which is still divided along racial lines and beset by huge divisions in wealth, to us, Jo’burg feels the most integrated. What about some tangible goodness though?

Plenty of tasty treats and colourful characters at the Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein, Johannesburg city guide

Plenty of tasty treats and colourful characters at the Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein


  • Markets filled with great food, booze and people: Neighbourgoods and Arts on Main: For us, these two markets held on Saturday and Sunday respectively provide the best examples of that integration we mentioned above.  People of all colours, creeds and ages come together to feast on delicious food, listen to great tunes and indulge in a spot of retail therapy. Sure the scene probably leans to the slightly hipster side with more money than your average South African. But, to us it’s a scene which brings together the best of what South Africa has to offer.  Around each of these markets you can find redeveloped industrial spaces filled with cool little bars, cafes and restaurants; boutiques and galleries; and yes, plenty of hipsters!
  • Take a bike tour of Soweto: Soweto is a massive township on the south west side of Johannesburg. It’s a sprawling area with a colourful and at times dark past but where today you can do quality bike tours with local guides to get a very different view of the city. We spent four hours riding around the place and loved it. Stay tuned to our Touring Soweto by Bike blog for more on that…
  • The powerful Apartheid Museum: This epic museum traces the history of the apartheid regime through a full on, chronological series of pictures, films and objects from the time. The impact of the place was really brought home to me when I saw an older white South African man in tears as he watched footage of then President F.W. De Klerk call time on apartheid. It was such a transparent display of emotion from a time that I have real trouble getting my head around. I find it crazy that blacks and coloured people in South Africa were living under such atrocious conditions while I was enjoying a completely carefree childhood in my privileged private school in Australia.
  • Nelson Mandela museum: While there is a Nelson Mandela museum in his former Soweto home, apparently the one next door to the Apartheid museum is far better. Unfortunately though we got too engrossed in the apartheid history and ran out time.
  • Kitcheners Pub: So this is a blatant plug for a mate’s pub in Braamfontein but it is legitimately cool. Kitcheners is across the road from the Neighbourgoods Market and amongst a few cool looking cafes, bars and restaurants. It’s a lovely old pub with plenty of good booze, tasty food and good DJ’s on the weekend.

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Johannesburg city guide: the bad…

Without doubt the worse thing about Jo’burg is security or more accurately the perception of bad security. While this situation appears to be improving, Jo’burg has a pretty shocking reputation which is still very influential today. Whether we were staying in scruffy, downtown Braamfontein or the wealthier area of Sandton we were always warned against walking anywhere at night. Our hotel in Sandton wanted us to wait 30 minutes to catch their free shuttle to a mall which was literally less than 5 minutes walk away.  And that was during the middle of the day.  Houses often seem more like Fort Knox surrounded by cameras and razor wire, and private security guards are everywhere. The result of this is that wealthier areas like Sandton or Parkville come across a little soulless. There is no one on the streets as everyone is locked in their car, behind their razor wire covered fence or shopping in a massive mall.

Johannesburg city guide: the ugly…

Regardless of anything good about Jo’Burg, it’s not a particularly beautiful place. It has a certain industrial feel about it which in places is just plain old, ugly industrial while in others it’s been gentrified slightly to make it look cool. A splash of colour here, a creative space there or a bit of a graffiti on that wall. Sure there are leafy suburbs with big houses (some beautiful, some gaudy) but as above these are usually surrounded by razor wire and huge fences. The city seems built across a series of undulating hills which in itself should provide a nice view except for the hulking remains of an old mine in the background. Cool, edgy and dynamic the place might be. Beautiful it is not.

Johannesburg city guide: final thoughts

I haven’t written this article as I’m getting a kick back from the Jo’Burg tourism board. Nor am I trying to get up the nose of a Capetonian. I’m writing it because this big crazy city came with a pretty horrendous reputation which is at odds with the impression we will leave with. No doubt some of the negatives would get you down after living here a while. But, if you have the opportunity to spend a few nights here (and you like big cities) you might find yourself pleasantly surprised.

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