Johannesburg (Joburg) is a city of contrasts. This cannot be denied. The rich are really rich and live very well and the poor live poorly and often in squalor-there is no middle class. The city of Johannesburg has a terrible international reputation for crime and corruption and the Central Business District (CBD) is considered a “don’t go” zone. Much of the business and industry has moved out of Johannesburg and into the northern suburbs. However, on my recent stay in Joburg I saw a different side of both the CBD and the suburbs. It is improving and I am eager to go back again.
I remember landing in Johannesburg for the first time in January 2004 with my buddy Mike and we rented a car from the airport. We were originally going to drive into town and find a hotel to stay and then explore the city. As we entered the CBD, we were mobbed by a riot in the streets and barely made it out without damaging the car or even worse-ourselves. We headed straight up to Pretoria and for 6 weeks in Southern Africa on that trip, we never went back to Joburg except to fly out of the airport. This is a common story you’ll hear from people about Joburg.
In my seven visits to South Africa, I had never stayed more than one night in Joburg and always either by the airport or in a ritzy suburb like Sandton, Rosebank, Northcliff or Houghton. If I did stay in Joburg, it was never by choice; it was dictated by flight schedules. This trip was different though and I saw different parts of Joburg in different ways and more importantly, I saw that the CBD is improving.
The purpose of this trip I am currently on is to view and experience the luxurious properties and places in Southern Africa. However, as a traveler I want to see everything so I headed into Joburg.
I had heard wonderful things about the Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein; which is just over the bridge from the CBD in Joburg. The market takes place every Saturday in an old abandoned parking garage that is multileveled. It features foods from all over the world from vendors who live in Joburg. The market is packed with everyone from the local city dwellers to people from the wealthiest suburbs. It is a real social thing.
I couldn’t stop eating empanadas from Argentina and nachos from Mexico along with local game burgers and steaks. Of course there is also a bar plus a lot of wine. It is a great way to spend a few hours of your Saturday and it helps you to see Joburg from a different light than you would expect.
Not far from the market is the Wits Museum. It is a fabulous gallery that features African art and exhibits. I went with my host, Mark from the Munro Hotel, who is a native of Joburg and also used to own a few of the paintings on display. The museum itself could have been in any major city in the world. It was top notch and very interesting and I am not a museum guy.
Mark and I then drove in his Rolls Royce into the CBD to go to view the Apartheid Museum. A funny thing happened along the way though. All the roads were closed for a festival concert for Freedom Day in South Africa. The whole downtown had been transformed into a giant concert venue to go off that night. We didn’t get a chance to stick around for the show but it was starting to fill up as we drove through.
The museums and the concerts aside, what I saw in the CBD and of Joburg proper was that it was much nicer than it was almost 10 years ago. Stores had opened and storefronts had been refurbished. There were parts that looked like any decent city. Don’t get me wrong though. Joburg is still unsafe at night and is not the most scenic place but it is improving and it has a lot of potential. Mark put it best when he said; “Joburg looks like a major US industrial city like Baltimore or Cleveland in the 1970’s…the difference is Joburg hasn’t changed.”
Back in the suburbs, I actually stayed in a few different places in Joburg. My favorite was in Houghton at the Munro Hotel. It is a small piece of paradise overlooking Joburg below. I really mean that, the place was amazing. It was straight out of Versailles with a modern touch. The owner Mark and his staff were so wonderful that I couldn’t recommend a place to stay in Joburg higher and after watching this video, you will see why.
I also stayed in Northcliff for the first time at a place called Morrell’s and I really liked that as well. There are two properties across the street from one another. One is a farmhouse and one is the manor house; which is where I stayed. The ironic thing was Mark’s family (from the Hotel Munro) used to own the manor house that Morrell’s bought and now use as another hotel. It’s funny how these things work in a community like Joburg.
Both properties were stellar and I hope to go back to each place next time I am in Joburg.
Obviously, there are many nice suburbs and hotels in Joburg but I prefer the boutique luxury hotels that really cater to you and add little touches that make the stay so much more personal. Big city hotels are OK in certain cities. But in a place like Joburg, with so much history and strife, it is nice to meet locals whose families have lived there for generations and in fact helped build Joburg into what it is today. I am grateful for the experience.
I am grateful for being able to have experienced Johannesburg in a way that I never had before. It was cool to see different types of small boutique hotels doing their part as well. For instance, the delightful Peech Hotel focuses on sustainable, environmentally friendly luxury-the bistro isn’t too bad either. That said, those 4 days changed my opinion of the city in general and gave me hope for its continued renaissance.
I will actually be spending another two nights in different areas of Joburg before I leave South Africa this trip. I just hope the experiences to come can give me as much insight and perspective as I’ve gotten thus far.
Disclaimer: I was comped my nights at the Munro Hotel, Morrels Hotel and the Peech Hotel. This did not influenced my article in way and I was not obliged to mention them at all. The hotels were mentioned because they added to my stay and I feel they should be mentioned and/or recommended. I received no financial compensation from them for writing this article.