A Hedonist's Guide to Johannesburg

All eyes will be turned to South Africa during the 2010 World Cup. We turn ours to Johannesburg to discover the truth behind this multifaceted, fast-paced megalopolis.
By Andrew Ludwig
Nighttime view of Johannesburg cityscape, South Africa
WHAT LIES BENEATH?: Johannesburg cityscape at dusk (Walter Knirr/South Africa Tourism)
In Town for the Cup?
Browse travel advice, articles, and photo galleries to get you stoked for this summer's World Cup in South Africa.

Jo'burg—more commonly referred to as 'Jozi'—is finally shedding its fierce reputation as a notorious no-go area and attracting a new breed of adventurous visitors by the planeload. Nowadays visitors aren't just using the city as a transfer point to other parts of South Africa, but are actually leaving the confines of the airport, checking into hotels and experiencing Jo'burg as a destination in itself. As they should, since Jo'burg—the largest city in South Africa and the provincial capital of Gauteng, South Africa's richest province—is truly worthy some exploration.

Having long played a beauty and the beast-type role in the worldwide media—sadly known more for its crime rate than its cityscape—Jo'burg is, in fact, a city you should see before you die rather than a city you go to die in. Crime is indeed high here—we're not going to beat around the African bush—but armed with knowledge and common sense (as opposed to AK-47s), visitors should feel as safe here as they do in any other major city. It's simple; don't carry valuables around with you; don't walk about alone or at night, particularly in the CBD; and don't leave car doors unlocked, especially at traffic lights. You can't plan everything, of course, but by sticking to a few simple rules you can minimise the risk to yourself and get the very best out of Jo'burg. Experiencing the beauty rather than the beast, as it were.

Statistically, Jo'burg is home to around four million inhabitants and boasts one of the mildest climates in the world. Never too hot or humid, summer days are usually warm and wind-free while winter days are crisp and clear—perfect for those pounding the pavements in search of all that the city has to offer. Founded after the discovery of ore in the region, the city is built on mining. Commerce eventually arrived in the CBD, but this soon dissolved after crime consumed the district and businesses decided to move to other suburbs. Competition among illegal immigrants is fierce, and is forcing many to turn to a life of crime for survival. That said, as with most of Jo'burg, efforts are being made to regenerate the area—both architecturally and economically—to coincide with the FIFA 2010 World Cup.

Despite being large and sprawling, Jo'burg's makeup isn't that hard to work out. Old gold and diamond mines make up the outskirts, while the inner-city area of the CBD is characterised by buildings that punctuate the sky like daggers; its many-faceted suburbs, from Sandton to Fourways, make up the rest of this beating, buzzing metropolis. Many of Jo'burg's more affluent residents live in Sandton, with the city's population a melting pot of cultures this makes for a cosmopolitan, diverse environment. The majority of the city's four- and five-star hotels are located in Sandton, which is where most people stay when in town; visitors are unlikely to travel far through unchartered, seemingly hostile territory, and for this reason many of the recommendations in this guide are based in and around this busy area. Here, Jo'burg's elite lives behind in gated communities behind high walls, while the majority live in less salubrious settlements dotted around the city. Luxury cars jostle against bangers on the streets, while designer shops and trendy restaurants jar against stalls and street vendors.

Sights, too, can be found in the area, with Jo'burg's colourful history traced through its landscape and cultural offerings. Highly recommended is a tour of Jo'burg's various townships and museums, ensuring that culture vultures are kept safe while soaking it all up.

Sport is big business here, too, with cricket and golf something of national treasures. Football and rugby are also enjoyed, while horse racing is beloved among those who can afford to hedge their bets. For the more extreme, the city also offers adrenaline-pumping sports such as bungee jumping and "kloofing"—making your way down a waterway without a boat. As active or as laid-back as you are, Jo'burg has things to do for all types of travellers.

Formerly a city that only received press when something bad was going on, it's comforting to know that good things occur in Jo'burg, too. Regeneration is sweeping away urban decay suburb by suburb, while Jo'burg's many scars—physical, social and economic—are healing. Slowly, perhaps, but surely.

Published: 12 May 2010 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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