Johannesburg: I Guarantee It’s Not What You Think.

Adventurous Kate contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks!

Four nights in Johannesburg?  

I clicked through my trip itinerary in mild disbelief.  In a country as wild and diverse and incredible as South Africa, did we really have to spend more than one third of our trip in this much-maligned city?

Looking back, I don’t blame myself for thinking that way.  There is very little positive press for Johannesburg out there.  Travel agents plan their trips so that their customers barely have to set foot in Johannesburg.  I honestly thought it was bleak at best and dangerous at worst.

The truth?  Joburg had nowhere to go but up — and to my great surprise, I really dug this city!

Johannesburg, the Stylish

“All the men here are dressed really well,” Cailin said to me as we walked through the mall at Nelson Mandela Square.  She was right — these men were dressed NICELY!  And the mall itself was filled with a surprising number of nice boutiques.

It’s true — we saw a surprising amount of style throughout Johannesburg — not only in fashion, but in architecture, landscapes, food and more.  Far from the dreary place I expected it to be.

Though Johannesburg isn’t a city to explore on foot — it’s akin to Los Angeles in that you really need a car — the neighborhood of Parkhurst was a fun place to walk around.  Though we were only there briefly, I’d love to return and see more of it.

We spent time in a cool little boutique called Egality.  I could have gabbed with the designers all day!

And for our stylish visit, we had a very stylish hotel — 54 on Bath in the high-end Rosebank neighborhood.  I loved this hotel.  It was pure style,  all in black and white, with daily desserts brought up to our room, a sexy champagne bar, and a piano in the lobby that the staff graciously let me play for a while one night.  (Bloggers will attest: if a piano appears on a press trip, I will be playing it.)

54 on Bath also has the prettiest breakfast buffet I’ve ever seen.

Johannesburg, the Delicious

I never thought I would have some of the best oysters of my LIFE in an inland city, far from the ocean — but Johannesburg changed all that!

At Pigalle Melrose Arch, the oysters were enormous, cold, and astonishingly fresh.  Topped with lemon, tabasco, and a little bit of red wine vinegar and shallots, they were SUBLIME.

We ate so well in Johannesburg.  Another great place?  Turn ‘n Tender steakhouse.  Such great steak, and a bargain compared to what you’d pay in North America or Europe.

Our dessert trio at the Polo Bar at the Westcliff (where we had the excellent view in the top photo): black sesame ice cream over strawberries; panna cotta with a green tea center; ginger chocolate cake topped with edible goldleaf.

If I lived in Joburg, I would spend all my money and gain a million pounds.

Johannesburg, the Thought-Provoking

You can’t visit Johannesburg without delving into the city’s difficult history.  The single best example of that is the Apartheid Museum, which is an excellent guide to a time period in history.  It’s a shocking place, a difficult place, and a place that you absolutely must visit in order to understand the country of South Africa.

Beyond the museum, we also visited Liliesleaf, where Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders met in secret before it was raided in 1963.

Visiting Constitutional Court was eye-opening as well.  Can you believe that the lobby of the highest court in the nation looks like this?

I was stunned to learn that same-sex marriage has been legal in South Africa since 2005.  Additionally, the death penalty was abolished in the early 90s.  The country has always been forward-thinking when it comes to social change.  This is huge when you consider that in Uganda, just a few countries away, homosexuality carries the death penalty.

And then there are the townships.  Rough, poor, stricken with many problems — but also places of compassion and joy, and teeming with so much life and color and music.  We visited Alexandra, known as the toughest township in Johannesburg, as well as Soweto, the most famous township in Johannesburg (if not South Africa).

Visiting a township is an absolutely vital part of the South African travel experience.

I should add that in Johannesburg we had the best tour guide we could ever imagine, the incomparable Robin Binckes.  Any time that you get to spend with Robin is extremely, extremely well spent.  The man himself is living history, a former apartheid supporter who now spends his time in townships.  Look him up if you’re going to Johannesburg — I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

Johannesburg, the Fun

With its difficult history, visiting Joburg can be a bit of a downer if you’re not careful — so make sure you sprinkle in lots of light, fun stuff around the heavy historical stuff.

Looking for adventure?  Head to the colorful Orlando Towers in Soweto, from which you can bungee jump, rappel, freefall, swing, or even BASE jump.

At Lekgotla Restaurant, Cailin and I got our faces painted — in between bites of springbok carpaccio!

My favorite Johannesburg quirk — you signal shared taxis with hand signals!  Depending on the neighborhood you’re in and where you’re heading, there are dozens of different hand signals locals use.  To go to Alex,  you make your finger into a gun.  To go to Orange Grove, you hold y our hand like you’re holding an orange!

Pure cheesy fun?  Go to the World of Beer!  It was a ridiculous showcase of movies about beer, complete with a few pints.  Go with people you can laugh with.

(Which we did.  Especially when an older Indian man walked up to Cailin and said, “You know why you have dimples?  So even blind people can tell you’re sexy!”)

Johannesburg, Land of the Jacarandas

My favorite surprise about Johannesburg?  The GORGEOUS jacaranda trees!  Our late October visit was perfect timing to catch the lilac blossoms in full bloom.  It added a beauty to the city — particularly in Alex.

Without a doubt, Johannesburg is my biggest travel surprise of the year.  I had no idea the city was even worth visiting — let alone that I would enjoy it so much.

Essential Info: Rates at 54 on Bath start at 3,500 rand ($395) per night.  You can find pricing information on the links to the restaurants and attractions.

Robin Binckes is available for tours through Spear of the Nation.  He’s also written a book called Canvas Under the Sky, available from Amazon.

Many thanks to Visit South Africa for hosting my stay in Johannesburg.  All opinions, as always, are my own.

Get email updates from Kate

Never miss a post. Unsubscribe anytime!

35 thoughts on “Johannesburg: I Guarantee It’s Not What You Think.”

    1. As a person who grew up in Northern Europe, Joburg has always been a dodgy as well as dangerous place, thanks to media. But then I had the opportunity to spend some time in this wonderful city. 12 months have been way too short. A blasting, sparkling place with welcoming people. Everywhere you go you will see new shops, bars, restaurants and clubs popping up. sometimes clubs only open for one gig and then they are gone again. For me it’s my kinda city!! Give it a shot, visit the nearby Cradle of Humankind, visit Pretorias Union Building & Vortrekker Monument to learn much more about Afrikaner history.

  1. Thanks for this Kate! I live in the US but grew up in Joburg. Its refreshing to hear your review because I am constantly defending my home town from critics who have never been there.

  2. So glad u enjoyed our Jozi as we South Africans call it..
    it is a pity that our transport system is still in its infancy. It does make it difficult to see and get to things without a car. But we are getting there, one day at a time 🙂

  3. Love the contrasts in this posts: from the fancy boutiques and even more fancy 54 on Bath to the townships…
    Don’t think everyone can afford to stay at the 54 on bath, though:-)

  4. You’re so right. I’m glad you did this post. Jo’burg can be so much fun and holds so many different and unique experiences. I was only there for two days and I can’t wait to get back!

  5. Every thing looks nice, When I think of Africa the first thing that I will remember is the wild, the river, giant crocs all those things because of national geographic. Now definitely it change.

  6. I LIKE SOUTH AFRICA…..BECAUSE ….NELSONMANDALA….THE NATIONAL FREEDOM FIGHTER LIVED IN SOUTHAFRICA….RED SALUTE MANDELA

  7. Hi Kate! I absolutely love your picture of johannesburg from the Westcliff and I would absolutely adore to have a bigger resolution photograph for my computer desktop. Would it be possible to email the original to me?

  8. I came to Johannesburg 37 yrs ago, ” just to see” and have never left.
    have never been a victim to crime, love the climate, absolutely the best in the world and I have been
    to more countries that I can remember.
    The people are astoundingly friendly and helpful. Getting lost – don’t be surprised if the person you ask
    directions will walk with you to where you want to go or drive in front of you.
    Talk to a stranger in a restaurant, especially in Pretoria ( a city 1/2 hr from Jhb) and you can often expect to be invited for a visit.
    People laugh easily here, one would expect the opposite. Most restaurants are noisy and relaxed – because everyone is chatting and laughing.
    I have friends from all over the world who have visited and only once did I have a negative comment.
    Thanks Kate for your objective view !!

  9. Wow! I should have checked your post before visiting Joburg, there’s so much more to see. I visited a little bit around (apartheid museum and Soweto) but I felt in love with the district of Maboneng and spent most of my time chilling there… hehe.
    Happy travels Kate!

  10. This list is lovely and really shows off Johannesburg as the sparkling jewel that it is! However there are many more things to do in Johannesburg! As South Africa is the host to the birth of Humankind, it is a must to visit the Origins Museum at Wits University. Here one can learn about the connection of sacred art and evolution, with particular mention to the original inhabitants of the land: The San. A must see to understand that South African history is more that 300 years old.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.