A New Joburg

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.
Joburg, Johannesburg, CBD, South Africa, Africa
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.
Neighbourgoods Market, Joburg, Johannesburg, foodie, food, market, South Africa, Africa, Braamfontein
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.
Neighbourgoods Market, Joburg, Johannesburg, foodie, food, market, South Africa, Africa, Braamfontein
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.
Neighbourgoods Market, Joburg, Johannesburg, foodie, food, market, South Africa, Africa, Braamfontein
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.
Wits Museum, Museum, art, Joburg, Johannesburg, South Africa, Africa, Braamfontein
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.
Rolls Royce, Joburg, Johannesburg, Munro Hotel, South Africa, Africa, Braamfontein, CBD
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.”
suburbs, Joburg, Johannesburg, Munro Hotel, South Africa, Africa, Houghton
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.
Manor House, Joburg, Johannesburg, Morrells Hotel, South Africa, Africa, Northcliff
Both properties were stellar and I hope to go back to each place next time I am in Joburg.
Farm House, Joburg, Johannesburg, Morrells Hotel, South Africa, Africa, Northcliff
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.
personal touch, wine, Manor House, Joburg, Johannesburg, Morrells Hotel, South Africa, Africa, Northcliff
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.
Peech Hotel, Joburg, Johannesburg, sustainability, South Africa, Africa, Melrose
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.

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  1. Hi Lee. I’ve never been to Johannesburg but I have heard exact reputation you mentioned-that it is abysmal. It’s interesting to hear a different perspective from someone as well traveled as you. I like local markets very much when I travel and the one you feature here seems like a communal outreach that has worked to bring the rich back into the city. Good post, cheers.

  2. Johannesburg seems like a lovely place to spend some time in, what a nice view from the pool.

  3. That hotel room in the video is amazing. I want to stay there so bad!

  4. Samantha says

    The suburbs of Johannesburg are some of the most beautiful places in South Africa. People have no reason to be scared. Don’t go downtown at night. That’s the same in almost any big city in the developing world.

  5. Good post Lee…never spent much time in Joburg, like you I was in and out…the Munro Hotel looks unbelievable and Morrell’s looks great too. I didn’t know they had really lux hotels there that aren’t like a Marriott or something.

    • Yes they have the ones I’ve mentioned and several others…Joburg is a cool place in my view. I didn’t really think so til I stayed there a few days and saw what it had to offer.

  6. Well, this posting is interesting if you have a lot of money to spend on an ultra-expensive hotel. Or be comped. But I don’t think the overall perspective or comments on either Joburg or South Africa are correct. And I doubt that one can get a good view by staying in these sorts of hotels, or by driving with a guy in his Rolls Royce. I mean sure, it was fun, and comfortable.

    The information about the CBD and its dangers is dated: say by 10 years. Also about the outlying areas. There are two major universities in the CBD area (just across the bridge as you put it): Wits University and RAU. And the occupancy rate in the CBD is not so bad now: probably better than Washington DC or Detroit…:-}

    I had a very interesting tour of Joburg by an architect friend of mine with a visiting Canadian friend: I think you’d get a different perspective if you’d gone on that tour. And we included Soweto, as well as the CBD.

    South Africa, and in particular Joburg, can indeed be dangerous: VERY dangerous. But the people who live there adapt to these risks. And sure, sometimes suffer the consequences. I’m not sure how you define “middle-class”, but there is indeed a large middle-class. As well as a large very poor lower class: so broad in range that it goes from people so poor they go often go hungry, to those on subsistence farming. And yes, there is an upper class: with people like your buddy with the Rolls Royce, and with some VERY big houses: not just in Joburg, but in other places too, and often overseas. And there’s been a lot said that there needs to be some redress to this: taking away their riches and re-distributing it. But not by me, I’m a capitalist, and I don’t think it would work in any event. Would end up like in Zimbabwe and be lost to corruption.

    But I doubt you can classify things with just three classes: that’s too simplistic. In the UK they recognize 7 classes., I suspect in South Africa you’d need a few more.

    If you look at the highways around and thru Joburg, you can see evidence of a middle class just by the cars they drive. And they are a rainbow: white, black, Indian and coloured (a name with special emphasis to South Africa and not used in a racist way).

    I am Canadian born, but lived in South Africa for 15 years from 1985 to 2000: I have South African citizenship as well. After that I left to work in West Africa: Angola, Gabon and Congo. I’m now in the UK at Sheffield University doing a PhD. I go back regularly.

    I recently rode my motorbike (solo) from Netherlands via Turkey/Syria/Jordan down the East side of Africa: going thru South Sudan. And I worked for many years in West Africa, as well as Algeria. So I’ve seen the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa.

    I used to own a house in Yeoville, not so far from the CBD. And I did an MSc at Wits University: which was and still is, in Braamfontein. I’ve had friends killed by violence, have been shot at, and been robbed.

    So yes, I DO agree with your comment that “Joburg is a cool place in my view”. I’ve travelled quite a bit myself, but not to quite as many countries as you have. I have my doubts about the validity of saying you have “visited” a country unless you’ve actually been there for a certain time: say long enough to actually learn about it. For the USA that would probably need at least a year or two, for smaller places like Singapore maybe a few months. And I’m not sure if you CAN actually know much about them unless you speak some of the language. I don’t count myself as knowing much about a country unless I’ve been there for at least 3 months, regardless of size. But then I guess it all depends on what you gained from your visits.

    This is not mean’t as an attack on either your blog or your pastime of travelling. But I think your observations on places you’ve visited might be in error because of the relative shallow scope of the visits. And sure, if you tried to truly visit every country by MY criteria you’d need to spend over 80 years!!! And then you’d need to go back because they’d all have changed…..:-} The world is indeed a large place.

  7. Johannesburg is a great City with beautiful people. People of Joburg are open minded and fun to be with. Yes, it is not perfect but no one can deny the fact that it’s a wonderful City. One thing I love about Joburgers is they either get rich or die trying!

  8. Next time you come I will take you around and show you how awesome JHB can be!!

  9. Carole Vincent says

    I was in Joburg for a couple nights before the World Cup in 2010, and there was so much excitement and construction going on to get ready for that big event. We loved touring the city and visiting Soweto, too, where we had an authentic local lunch in a family\’s home garage. We were part of a small university group with a tour guide from France, and I liked Joberg better than boring Pertoria.

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