Millions of people fly through Johannesburg every year; it’s fair to say that it’s the gateway to many African destinations. But that’s just it; many people fly through Joburg, without giving the city much of a chance, myself included. The reasons for this aren’t entirely rational, but as I learned they’re also not entirely correct.
I was born in the 1970s and grew up in the 1980s. Every night I watched the NBC Evening News with my parents and digested with eyes wide open whatever developments Mr. Brokaw chose to share that evening. That’s also when I formulated my first impressions of South Africa, and they weren’t positive. Apartheid, riots and more formed the totality of my understanding of the country, and I dare say that it is the same for many people around the world. It can be a mental exercise to disregard these notions the first time one visits South Africa; to accept the country as it is today. The city that received the worst of my misconceptions though was Johannesburg.
Last year I stayed a couple of nights in the megacity and each time the hotel staff told me not to leave the hotel after dark. I didn’t need a lot of convincing, this was Johannesburg after all; the great and dangerous city of South Africa. Intellectually though it made no sense, and I knew it at the time. The hotels were in a suburb known as Rosebank, as dangerous to one’s health as puppies and violent marshmallows. That vital detail, the suburb in which I stayed, is an important piece of the puzzle though and is ultimately why there are some misconceptions about the city.
If you treat Johannesburg like other major cities with a defined and active downtown core, then you will not have a good experience. No, Joburg isn’t like that instead it’s a city made up of suburbs. It’s a lot like Los Angeles in that respect actually; the best things to do aren’t in a central business district. They’re in the ‘burbs, dotted around town like a treasure hunt.
You also have to keep in mind that like many other major cities there are definitely areas of town that are dangerous. Unfortunately that aforementioned downtown core happens to be one of them, which is what has led to some misconceptions by international tourists in the past. Even in light of the realities though, the biggest problem the city has is a bad image.
I travel a lot and my partner is very well traveled as well. Still when I called home the first night from Johannesburg the first question he asked was “So how bad is it?” That’s not the image Joburg tourism wants to project. So, as a tourist it’s hard to get past these misconceptions and even want to give the city a chance. If I plan a trip touring around South Africa, why would I choose a city that I think has a bad reputation when there are so many other parts of the country that I know I’ll like?
I’m here as proof though that it is possible to tour Johannesburg, to have a good time and to survive the experience. Not just survive, but I’ve come to like the city and I’m slowly beginning to understand it a little better.
As I indicated, Johannesburg is a city of suburbs and two of the best are Rosebank and Sandton. These parts of town are easily accessible from the airport via the Gautrain, have nice restaurants and hotels and are in general very wealthy areas of Johannesburg. As a tourist there is a very good chance that you will spend the night in one of these two suburbs, so rest easy. They’re great parts of town and definitely safe and easy to navigate. Sandton in particular has an amazing nightlife that I really came to enjoy. But don’t just fly into the city for a night and then jet off to a different locale the next day. Spend at least a day or two there, and here’s why.
I never intended to spend any time in Johannesburg, for the aforementioned reasons, but my schedule changed suddenly and I found myself with a solid 24 hours to see the city. The gauntlet had been thrown and I dared the city to prove me, and much of the world wrong. I wanted to see the best it could be.
As an outsider then it may seem odd to start by visiting the notorious township known simply as Soweto; a name that resonates strongly around the world. I know it from scenes of riots and as the homes of Mandela and Tutu. I visited a township last year in Cape Town and expected something similar, but that’s not what modern Soweto is at all.
During the apartheid era black people were evicted from properties that were in areas designated as “white only” and forced to move into segregated townships. These areas were underdeveloped and the living conditions were, and in some cases are, not adequate for the needs of the residents. The South Western Townships, or Soweto as they are known, is the largest township in South Africa with more than 1 million residents. But as I learned on a bike tour, it’s anything but depressing.
I’ll detail the experience in a separate post, but the tour was illuminating. I learned about the history of the community, which in turn really is a history of the country as well. I saw modern museums and well kept homes not far removed from poverty-stricken, unincorporated areas. It was not what I expected at all and it slowly changed my mind about what to expect in modern Johannesburg.
Johannesburg isn’t all reflection though, two massive towers, old power plant cooling stacks, loom over Soweto and are an important city landmark – Orlando Towers. Painted in bright colors highlighting key figures in the history of the township and the country, the towers are home to one of the most famous bungee jumps in the world. Ascending the 100 meters to the top of the towers, the jumper enjoys astounding views of the city before making the vertical drop down to the surface. There’s a lot to do in and around the city actually, from hot air balloon rides to lion walk experiences that absolutely make Johannesburg a destination worthy of several days of exploration. But that sense of history is never far away either.
The most popular tourist spot in town is the incredibly well done Apartheid Museum. Curated in a way that is both interesting and engaging, the museum is honestly one of the best I’ve ever visited. An entire day could be spent there walking through the exhibits, watching the videos and quietly learning about the origins and realities of the government policies that defined the country for so very long.
My second visit to the city was aided by some locals who scoffed at the idea of not being able to leave the hotel at night. What I discovered was a rich and vibrant nightlife that has something for everyone; from bars and restaurants to quiet cafes and a dynamic arts scene. I loved spending time at a local restaurant with new friends, experiencing first hand what the residents enjoy on a daily basis.
I know that I’ve only skimmed the surface of Johannesburg, but I’m so happy that I decided to give it a chance, to not be afraid to discover the city on my own. While precautions should be taken in some parts of the city, that’s true anywhere you go and if you take the time to get to know Joburg a little better I think you’ll be very pleasantly surprised by what you find.
Have you been to Johannesburg? What did you think?