A Few Days In

Cape Town Is Beautiful, but Johannesburg Feeds My Soul

by Nneya Richards
A A mural in Johannesburg's Newtown neighborhood. All photos by Nneya Richards.

There’s more to Johannesburg than meets the eye. Use this guide to plan your trip to South Africa’s cultural capital.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - In a country that's boldly taking steps out of the shadows of apartheid, Johannesburg has established itself as the cultural capital of South Africa — and perhaps the continent. Grittier than world renowned Cape Town, the up-and-coming city is home to international fashion publications, renowned galleries, famed brands, and art collectives.

Ask most South Africans who have ties to both Johannesburg (or "Joburg" and "Jozi" in local lingo) and Cape Town which city they prefer, and you will almost always hear, "Cape Town is beautiful, but Joburg feeds my soul." South Africans are friendly, and Johannesburg natives will bend over backwards to make sure you’re falling in love with their city. One of the questions I got the most is, “So when are you moving here?” After a few days in Jozi, I started to wonder that myself.

Where to Stay

Sandton Sun puts you in the center of the very chic Sandton district. Think of it as living downtown. Vibrant, with a great restaurant and bar scene catering to the after work crowd, you’ll find a mix of young professionals and well-heeled tourists. The hotel is connected to the luxury shopping center Sandton City, which is home designer boutiques like Dolce & Gabbana and Giorgio Armani.

Johannesburg can be hectic, but, like Los Angeles, it's also a city of suburbs. If you prefer a country vibe, check into Saxon Hotel, located three miles from Sandton in the northern Johannesburg neighborhood Sandhurst. Surrounded by ten acres of verdant gardens and beautiful lakes, the piano lounge is popular among tony locals. Absolutely worth the splurge, staying here will make you feel like you’re a part of history: Nelson Mandela was a resident when the hotel was a private home. This is where he wrote Long Walk to Freedom.

If boutique hotels are more your speed and you’d prefer to stay in the epicenter of cool, head to Hallmark House in Maboneng, Johannesburg’s creative quarter and the pulse of the young city. Designed by star architect David Adjaye and located on a street filled with art galleries, bars, and restaurants, a stay here costs less than $100 per night. A free Maboneng shuttle service stops at the hotel for evenings out on the town.

The author in Newtown.
A local day market.

What to Do

Tour Soweto Neighborhood
For the best food and dancing, go to Soweto. Often thought of as the cultural hub of Johannesburg past and present, in no small part because many prominent South African jazz musicians hail from this "South West Townships" area, no trip to the city is complete without seeing it.

Starting in the 1950s, blacks were moved away from central Johannesburg to this part of the city, which remains at the heart of the country's struggle against apartheid. Start at the Mandela House and explore from there, and don't miss Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial, a poignant and heartbreaking memorial to the young man shot and killed on the site during the struggles.

The neighborhood and its growth are testament to change; there are now million-dollar homes in the township. Many wealthy black people are moving back to the area, as the food and the culture lure them home. Some have converted their houses into art galleries, and the first Saturday of each month is the Soweto Arts & Crafts Fair. Soweto also has the only street in the world to house two Nobel Prize winners: Vilakazi street is home to Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. The amazing neighborhood was also home to Trevor Noah. Just saying.

Delve into the Past at the Apartheid Museum
Johannesburg’s world-renowned Apartheid Museum chronicles the rise and fall of the country’s apartheid system with interactive and experiential exhibits that wow visitors from all over the world.

Explore the Present in Maboneng
New buildings with great amenities, galleries, and restaurants in the Joburg neighborhood Maboneng (the work of a single property developer to revitalize a rundown area) are drawing a young creative class. This feels like the epicenter of cool in Johannesburg, and reminds me of Williamsburg in Brooklyn or Shoreditch in London. Get a feel for the community, and for the city’s leading chefs and local designers, every Sunday at Market on Main in the Arts on Main complex from 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

To learn some new dance moves, stop by Rooftop Salsa on Auret Street. Also worth checking out is the shop by elevated streetwear brand Unknown Union, which tells stories about South African tribes through its clothing. Mos Def is the creative director and their new Maboneng location is not only a stylized beauty, but a cultural hub with an in-house DJ, radio station, and recording studio. The studio houses an original 48-track recorder, one of only a handful in the world. (This is what The Beatles, Prince, and Dr. Dre all recorded on.)

A mural in Soweto.
A street scene in Maboneng.

Squeeze in a Safari Day Trip
If you can’t fit in a full safari experience (though you should!), at least spend a day at the Lion & Safari Park, 40 minutes outside Johannesburg, a 600-hectare reserve in the Cradle of Humankind area. You can see majestic creatures like zebras, giraffes, cheetahs, and lions. They also have luxury accommodations and opportunities for volunteering.

Appreciate the Arts in Newtown
The recent history of political struggle has produced a bastion of creativity, and Johannesburg has some of the best street art in the world, concentrated in the Newtown District. Using the backdrops of buildings, abandoned galleries, and pillars under bridges as canvases, street artists have revived these previously neglected districts. John Kani (a character from the film Black Panther) is highly involved in The Market Theatre, so much so that they renamed it after him. American graffiti photojournalist Martha Cooper's work in the area is lauded in art circles worldwide. South African artist Dr. Esther Mahlangu, revered as a "mama" to these artists, minimizes the gap between tradition and cool and is a beacon exporting South African art to the world: She recently partnered with BMW on car interiors. Craving more art? Keyes Art Mile in the Rosebank neighborhood hosts first Thursdays every month, with live music, DJs, events at surrounding galleries, and a street party.

Shop for a New Wardrobe
Johannesburg is a big production base for the fashion industry on the continent and is also home to international fashion publications. (The wealthy from all over Africa come here to shop.) You may have seen the traditional Xhosa-inspired knitwear of MaXhosa by Laduma on celebs like Beyonce and Solange Knowles and in American Vogue. Check out the designer’s Newtown boutique and inquire about custom fittings. Another local luxury brand to look out for is Okapi, maker of luxury leather handbags. Pop by the Rosebank Center for an in-store experience. The one-of-a-kind beauties are made in South Africa from leathers and other elements that are totally traceable, sustainable, and ethically sourced. Discreet, artisanal, and luxurious, you may have seen an Okapi in the arms of the international jetset. It’s definitely one of those brands that you know if you're in the know.

A Banksy sighting.
The MaXhosa by Laduma shop.

Where to Eat

Whether you’re touring around Soweto with a guide or visiting with a local, there’s a high chance that someone will recommend the award-winning restaurant Chez Alina. The home-style restaurant in the heart of Soweto gives you that visceral understanding of mama’s cooking in South Africa. Owner Alina has been a national guide in South Africa for more than 20 years. After seeing how much visitors wanted to experience South African home-style cooking, she started her restaurant in her home in 2006, serving her mother’s recipes. The restaurant showcases the true South African principle of ubuntu, meaning “I am because of you.” It’s a true family operation, employing relatives and neighbors who manage the place together.

The famous The Neighbourgoods Market on Saturdays is the place to be in Johannesburg, the kind of spot visited by food gods, like Anthony Bourdain, and locals alike. It feels like the best brunch party, food hall, and street market that you’ve ever been to. Vegan eats? Check. DJ playing your favorite '90s music? Check. Locally designed fashion? Check. It’s open from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. every Saturday.

South Africans love their meat. Braai meat is a South African barbequed meat specialty, and one of the best places to get it is Bafokeng Corner in Soweto, a spot that captures the true essence of Soweto and its entrepreneurial spirit by functioning as a carwash, butchery, shisanyama, bakery, and, come sunset, a legit lounge and gathering hole with delicious food.

Make sure to include chic and cozy restaurant Lucky Bean on your list for South African local food and cocktails. Delicious local snoek fish baked with apricots, springbok pie, ostrich burgers, and malva with amarula cream are just a sampling of the delicious local eats to order.

Where to Drink

The mixology culture in South African cities is booming, and Johannesburg has amazing hot spots. Try The Great Gatsby themed cocktails at Parkview cafe and bar, Blind Tiger. Or you can be like Bey (and Kelly Rowland) and take in live jazz and drinks at The Marabi Club.

This country also takes pride in a cup of coffee. While you’re in Newtown taking in the arts, check out Craft Coffee.

A vendor at Neighborhoods Market.
The Chez Alina crew.

Plan Your Trip

From the United States, South African Airways has direct flights from New York City and Washington D.C. It’s about a fifteen-hour flight, and the airline could use some updates (like electrical outlets in the seats). I would rather fly to London and take a Virgin Atlantic or British Airways flight instead for a more comfortable economy flying experience.

Johannesburg has a fast and reliable public transport system. Uber and other cab-sharing services are very popular.

Get into the Groove

Remember I mentioned those dance parties in Soweto? Get in the mood by watching Solange’s “Losing You,” filmed in the township, as well as Ciara’s “Freak Me.”

Keep Exploring South Africa

The Surprisingly Affordable (And Luxurious!) South African Safari
Everyday Urban in Joburg and Durban
Let It Go to Your Head: A First-Timer’s Guide to the Cape Winelands

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