Johannesburg is a vibrant, multicultural and creative city that rarely sees itself at the top of visitor’s travel plans. Plagued for decades by its reputation for being ‘extremely’ dangerous, and much of the core centre of the city being abandoned in favour of ‘safer’ suburban areas, the challenges in visiting meant that travelers chose more ‘accessible’ spots in the country instead.
This is changing, though. There’s an optimistic energy in Johannesburg that’s palpable, social enterprises are creating a new class of young entrepreneurs and urban regeneration initiatives are bringing people back to the areas of town that’ve been all but abandoned for a generation. And people are taking notice with Johannesburg being given more than its fair share of accolades, including being recognized by GQ as the ‘cool capital of the Southern Hemisphere‘.
Exploring Johannesburg can be daunting. The city is a sprawling metropolis with dozens of distinct boroughs and districts, some of which remain unsafe to venture. This guide lays out the the hip neighbourhoods of Johannesburg and each is like a mini-guide of the best things to do, the top eating and drinking spots and where to stay.
Maboneng is one of the first, and most referenced, developments of an inner city neighbourhood in Johannesburg. Extending along Fox Street in the Central Business District (CBD), the area that was once a ‘no-go’ zone is now thriving with local shops, restaurants and creative spaces occupying the former warehouses built at the turn of the 20th century.
Arts on Main / This mixed use art space is the cornerstone of Maboneng’s urban renewal and the first revitalization project in the district. The space features galleries, studios, shops and restaurants in this converted industrial building that are open to the public.
Museum of Sub-Sahara African Design / The first museum focused on pan-Sub-Sahara African design, MOAD is a gallery and studio space with rotating exhibits, and has solidified itself as a hub for forward thinking design across the continent.
Market on Main / Every Sunday the Arts on Main building is transformed into a market from 10 to 3. A collection of food stalls and vendors selling their homemade wares are a pleasure to peruse.
Bioscope / An independent cinema on Fox Street that showcases the latest feature films alongside documentaries and indies. The single screen theatre offers unique screenings and events like food & moving pairings, while maintaining a focus on local productions.
Canteen / Set inside the Arts on Main building, Canteen is a top eatery in Maboneng with a sizeable patio shaded by olive trees. The restaurant’s demeanour is chill and relaxed making it a perfect stop for a late lunch or glass of wine while scoping out the nearby galleries.
The Living Room / An eco rooftop oasis provides tranquility and great views in the heart of downtown Joburg. Filled with plants, a few hammocks and a hip clientele, The Living Room is open for lunch and sundowners, with extended evening hours from Thursday to Saturday.
Curiocity Hostel / Rated the number one hostel in Sub-Sahara Africa, Curiocity is the passion project of Maboneng entrepreneur Bheki Dube. The inviting hostel features modern and well appointed rooms, an excellent bar and fun staff.
Another reformation of a previously thriving district in the CBD, Braamfontein has experienced a marked urban rejuvenation effort throughout the last decade. Once in the throes of deterioration, ‘Braam’ is now home to some of Joburg’s hippest shops, creative spaces and innovative restaurants. The Nelson Mandela Bridge acts as the gateway into Braamfontein.
Wits Art Museum / This award winning museum dedicated to showcasing Sub-Sahara African art is only a few years old but has solidified itself as one of the top art spaces in Johannesburg. With over 10,000 items across a variety of collections from across the continent span the eras from classical to contemporary.
Stevenson Gallery / This minimalist gallery space features contemporary art from both South Sub-Sahara African and international artists. With galleries in both Cape Town and Joburg, the Braam location on Juta Street is well worth a stop when taking in the sights of this evolving district.
Constitution Hill / In the northeast segment of Braamfontein lies Constitution Hill, a former military site turned political prison that held many activists and apartheid offenders in deplorable conditions. Today, the site is a ‘living museum that tells the story of South Sub-Sahara Africa’s journey to democracy’ and should be included in every traveler’s itinerary.
Neighbourgoods / This widely popular market is held every Saturday in a large converted warehouse in Braamfontein. Dozens of food and creative vendors showcase their goods to a crowd of locals and tourists, who kick back on the communal tables in the sun with their chosen eats.
Father Coffee / Coffee appreciation is rising in Joburg and a number of craft coffee shops have popped up around town, including Father Coffee, a roastery and cafe that’s often recognized as one of the top contenders.
The Orbit / This reintroduction of an iconic bar is one of the best venues in South Sub-Sahara Africa for live jazz. Part theatre and part restaurant, The Orbit is a happening spot where you can enjoy a nice meal and an intimate performance any day of the week.
Kitcheners / Renowned as one of Johannesburg’s oldest bars, Kitcheners has shed its previous colonial heritage and become a meeting spot for hip locals. The quiet pub transforms into bustling bar in the evenings, often to the DJ acts that get the crowd dancing.
44 Stanley / This mixed use space between Melville and Braamfontein offers a range of shops, restaurants and workspaces in a rejuvenated 1930s industrial building that’s been green-ified. Tucked along narrow alleys are independent boutiques while co-working spaces allow you to be productive while you’re at it.
Stanley Beer Yard / Joburg’s take on the German beer garden is a large outdoor space with plenty of communal tables, which serves up local craft brews and beer complementing food. Don’t be put off if you can’t get a seat outside – the inside restaurant is lovably quirky and often hosts live musical acts.
Bannister Hotel / With an ethos of ‘No Frills, No Compromise’, this hip boutique hotel doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. With a balanced focus on value and quality, and rooms starting at $40 USD per night, the Bannister proves that luxury can be at arms reach.
Long a bohemian enclave in Joburg, Melville is north of downtown near the University of Johannesburg. The main strip is dotted with independent shops and businesses, and has a small town feel in the middle of the populous city. Leafy, treelined streets cascade from the main strip 7th Street, where sizeable homes and impressive gardens await.
Botanical Gardens / Located in neighbouring Emmarentia, the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens is a delightful green refuge in the city. The Botanical Gardens feature a diverse mix of plant life, both local and international varietals, as well as a large dam that is a popular spot for watersports.
27 Boxes / This complex of shops and eateries in converted shipping containers is a worthy visit, as much for its design aesthetic as the hip independent vendors that have established themselves here. A market is held Wednesday nights, allowing visitors to peruse the various shops accompanied by a drink and live music.
Cafe de la Creme / This small but elegant cafe on the corner of 7th St. and 4th Ave. has been a neighbourhood staple for years. Stop in for a caffeine fix and a treat, like a piece of the decadent cakes they bake onsite, or head in for breakfast, which features pastries and fresh squeezed juices.
The Leopard / The original iteration of this buzz-worthy restaurant closed its doors just a couple of weeks ago, but will be opening a take-away and catering shop in nearby 44 Stanley complex shortly. The Leopard was renowned for its simple yet exceptionally executed dishes focused on organic and sustainable ingredients, which hopefully its second take is too.
Cafe Picobella / A casual and perpetually busy restaurant that delivers excellent Italian fare off of the 7th Street strip. Grab a table in the large dining room or finagle a seat on the wraparound patio, both a good backdrop for the yummy pizzas and wine selection.
Hell’s Kitchen / Styled after a 1920s speakeasy, Hell’s Kitchen is a bar that’s popular across town for its cocktails and great whisky offerings. Think dark lighting, leather furniture and intimate seating, Hell’s Kitchen is a prime spot for a drink when in Melville, particularly on weekends when there’s live music.
Six Cocktail Bar / Featured as one of the top bars in the world, Six Cocktail Bar is a quality spot in Melville. The bar is renowned for its artisanal cocktails, made to perfection by the talented bar staff, who ensure the vibe remains chill.
Ginegaap Guesthouse / This small B&B is in a lovely historic house located on a residential street in Melville. The nine rooms are beautifully appointed and the property grounds are an oasis of gardens with a patio and pool.
The ‘Parks’ are a collection of distinct neighbourhoods all in close proximity to each other, who’s common prefix makes it nearly impossible for non-locals to keep straight. Parkhurst, Parktown North, Parkview, Parkwood and Craighill Park all have their own vibe, and as they’re so close, they can be explored en masse. These leafy boroughs have less in the way of tourist attractions, but instead offer a glimpse into local life, including an excellent dining scene.
Parkhurst / The main street of Parkhurst is along 4th Avenue, which has emerged as a hub for trendy shops and restaurants. Peruse the local antique shops or grab a seat in a sidewalk cafe for some unparalleled people watching.
Parkwood / Bordering Zoo Lake, a lovely park north of the CBD, Parkwood has a more relaxed feel. The district is a hub for galleries that are situated along Jan Smuts Avenue.
Coobs / This Parkhurst spot is a popular eatery that focuses on local and organic ingredients, which are featured front and centre. Despite its notoriety, Coobs remains delightfully unpretentious – the perfect spot for a late lunch or casual dinner.
The Wolfpack / This sleek burger restaurant has delicious food and a design that’s on point. A large menu features several burger options with unique combinations alongside an extensive cocktail and local craft beer selection.
Craft / This buzzing restaurant and beer bar is a hot spot from morning until night. A huge menu features casual and sharable meals like pizza and boards, and the local craft beer list is one of the best you’ll find across town.
The Foundry / An equally impressive beer selection can be found at The Foundry, one of the most innovative restaurants in Johannesburg. The rustic ambiance and excellent food have people coming to this Parktown eatery from all over the city.
The Local Grill / Parktown North is where you’ll come across one of the top rated restaurants in Johannesburg. The Local Grill is an institution for carnivores, with an impressive showing of decadent steaks and the delicious sides that accompany them.
The Parkwood / A small boutique hotel in a cottage-like setting, The Parkwood is a spot where you can truly escape the hustle and bustle of the city while having many of Joburg’s top sites at your doorstep.
This inner city borough has become Johannesburg’s cultural district where many of the main tourist sites are located, including several important museums and galleries as well as popular event space Turbine Hall.
Market Theatre / This non-racial theatre was one of the most prominent cultural outlets to challenge apartheid during its heyday. Known during that time as the ‘Theatre of the Struggle’ for its dedication to challenging the apartheid regime, the Market Theatre continues to feature thought provoking and doctrine challenging pieces.
Museum Sub-Sahara Africa / Museum Sub-Sahara Africa showcases the history of Sub-Sahara Africa, both through artifacts and cultural displays that provide an immersive experience. A large permanent collection is shown alongside rotating temporary exhibits.
Newtown Tour / Local tour company Past Experiences offers a range of tours in Johannesburg’s inner city, including I ♥ Newtown, which takes visitors to the main neighbourhood sites while providing an insider’s perspective. Another excellent tour offered is the Public Art Tour, stopping throughout various CBD zones to scope out some of Joburg’s top pieces of artistic expression.
Potato Shed / This sprawling restaurant set in a former industrial railway makes the potato, a staple in South Sub-Sahara Africa for generations, cool again. At the Potato Shed you can get your fill of spuds virtually any way you like, and the large beer and wine selection take the whole experience to the next level.
1 Fox Precinct / What was once a mining camp during Joburg’s gold rush is now a space for culture, food and beer just a stone’s throw from Newtown. The two blocks on Alexander St. between Marshall and Fox feature a weekend market, several restaurants and Mad Giant craft brewery.
Rosebank has long been an established neighbourhood in Johannesburg, and has managed to keep up with the up and coming boroughs like Maboneng and Braamfontein. Many businesses operate out of Rosebank, while it’s been a popular tourist base throughout recent years. The main draw of Rosebank is the quality shopping and density of restaurants, which bring both locals and visitors in droves.
Circa Gallery / With its large circular metal building, you can’t miss the impressive Circa Gallery. A substantive collection of contemporary art, including sculptures, paintings and photography, the Circa Gallery is as lovely inside as it is out. Take the stairs to the top level for epic views of Rosebank.
Art & Craft Market / A popular destination for tourists is the Sub-Sahara African Art Market in Rosebank, which offers a huge selection of crafts and artistic wares from around the continent. Individual artisans sell their goods under one roof, making souvenir shopping an absolute breeze.
Rosebank Market / Every Sunday, a rooftop parking lot is converted into a thriving market with an array of food and drink vendors, artistic pieces and fantastic views of the surrounding area. A vintage clothing area offers unique apparel, while kids activities make the market ideal for families.
Roast Republic / There is so much to love about Roast Republic, an artisanal coffee shop in a converted shipping container that’s also a social enterprise taking root across the city. Half of all profits go to education development programs for children, while its social franchise model empowers young entrepreneurs to run their own Roast Republic business.
Tashas / A bright and modern eatery that is a local favourite from breakfast to dinner. There are several Tasha outposts across the country, and now the Middle East, but each has their own inspiration. The New York City influence on Tasha Rosebank is clear, both throughout the decor and menu, which features classic Big Apple dishes prominently.
The infamous Johannesburg township has had a vibrant, and at time tumultuous, history. With over a million inhabitants, Soweto is often misunderstood by travelers, yet is offers a variety of experiences that beckon to be explored.
Soweto Tour / A tour that focuses on the history and cultural relevance of Soweto is recommended for first timers. Favourite hostel Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers not only offers a cool spot to stay, but also immersive and informative tours of the township. The tours range from walking to biking, and get travelers off the beaten path to discover the true Soweto.
Locrate Market / Just one of the many urban renewal projects in Soweto, Locrate, a combo of ‘local’ and ‘creative’, is an epic market that takes place the first Sunday of every month. It’s not just food on focus here, there’s an emphasis on art and music, with a strong community feel.
Soweto Theatre / Inaugurated in 2012, Soweto Theatre is the township’s first theatre and is contributing to its cultural transformation. The three outdoor stages feature all types of productions from music and dance to theatrical plays.
Wandies Place / An institution in Soweto, Wandies is a traditional restaurant that is beloved by locals and frequented by visitors. The classic Sowetan dishes are served buffet style from breakfast to dinner.
Ubuntu Kraal / Stop in at local brewery Ubuntu Kraal, the producers of popular lager Soweto Gold, for a taste of their signature beers. Have a drink and a bite in the large beer garden on site.
Uber / Getting around Johannesburg can be tricky given its massive size, pockets of unsafe neighbourhoods, inconsistent public transit and unregulated taxis. Uber makes the process a whole lot easier and safer by handling the money exchange electronically and having a tracking system in place. It’s also likely the most efficient way to cut across town.
SIM Card / When arriving in Johannesburg, you can rent or buy a SIM card from any of the major telecommunication providers. Having a local number is recommended so that you can look up directions, use Uber, and connect in an emergency.
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