Smooth guide to Johannesburg

posted 3rd July 2019 by Danica Wilson in Work in progress

Are you going to Africa and potentially stopping in Johannesburg? Here’s our smooth guide to Johannesburg.

Johannesburg is surprisingly beautiful, unexpectedly welcoming to first timers and of course South Africa’s largest city, financial hub and creative and cultural mecca if you know where to look.I am always being questioned about Johannesburg.  Is it safe? What is there to do when it’s just crime and grime?

One of my favourite articles on Johannesburg was called the Smooth Guide to Johannesburg in the Financial Times written by Douglas Rogers.

I know Johannesburg has evolved into a slick, vibrant, cultured African city, with no-go areas shrinking as quickly as a Highveld thunderstorm. For a traveller, there is so much to do from cycling through Soweto,  horticultural walks through Brenthurst Gardens in the private home of the Oppenheimer family exploring the Pandora’s Box of African artefacts at Amatuli, and Africa’s best contemporary art galleries (Arts on Main, Circa on Jellicoe, Everard Read and the Goodman Gallery).

As an aside – earlier this year (April 2019), the World Economic Forum posted the ten top cities in the world on their social media when it comes to their tree canopy coverage. Johannesburg was number six on the list! The city boasts vibrant lilac jacarandas that line the city’s streets. By 2010, over 200,000 trees had been planted in township Soweto in order to extend the already famous green belt. (South Africa also claimed number 5 in Durban).

More a series of neighbourhoods than a dense city, Jo’burg offers eclectic areas such as Parkhurst with its cafe society, chic shopping in Sandton, and a plethora of quirky developments in the rapidly regenerating inner city, including Maboneng, boutique industrial style shops and innovative uses for historic buildings.

Don’t take my word for it, read the smooth guide by Douglas Rogers from the Financial Times a few years back!

The Smooth Guide to Johannesburg

‘Surprisingly beautiful, unexpectedly welcoming, South Africa’s largest city is showing up its naysayers with a growing cultural buzz.’

In the build up to 2010’s Fifa World Cup, Johannesburg host city of the final, was portrayed in much of the western media as a violent hell hole. The tournament would be a disaster the papers warned us, if you so much as set foot in Jo’burg you’d be mugged, shot, hijacked – possibly all three. So when the match, held in the spectacularly futuristic Soccer City Stadium on the edge of Soweto went off harmoniously, the astonishment among the doomsayers was almost palpable.

It shouldn’t have been. Johannesburg is much more than its crime ridden stereotype: it’s the financial juggernaut of the continent, a 3.88m strong metropolis that’s a bewildering paradox of developed world and prehistoric Africa, where eight lane freeways traverse frostbitten veld and blue chip malls rise within a few miles of township slums. Yet for all its extremes, it is somehow a back-slappingly friendly place, its people mostly warm, welcoming and utterly without pretence.

‘In recent years the city has only become richer and more dynamic’

In recent years the city has only become richer and more dynamic with a growing cultural energy. A state of the art transit rail system, the Gautrain, connects the airport with the upscale suburbs of Sandton and Rosebank and glittering commercial precincts of hotels, boutiques, restaurants and galleries spring up with the regularity of Highveld thunderstorms. Johannesburg’s miles of LA like sprawl have historically been too daunting for many to navigate, fortunately now one does not have to.

‘Johannesburg is a city of surprising beauty’

Hire car company Avis has launched an excellent hired driver service called Point to Point and SA Cabs is a safe (and punctual) London-cabbie style enterprise.

Johannesburg is a city of surprising beauty and boasts the largest manmade forest on earth. You can best view this literal urban jungle from the pool deck of the Westcliff, the city’s most elegant large hotel. An icing-sugar pink collection of villas on a rocky ridge, its mildly colonial air is offset by the majestic setting; you can sip a Citric Flower Martini from the Polo Bar’s new molecular mixology menu and gaze out on miles of explosive purple jacarandas, while lions road in the Johannesburg Zoo below.

Despite its reputation, Jo’burg actually does intimate better than brash, as is witnessed by the success with which a few choice suburban mansions have been converted into chic small hotels. Foremost among them is the Saxon Boutique Hotel, Villas and Spa, in leafy Sandhurst the former residence of insurance billionaire Douw Steyn, and favoured by Oprah, Bono and the like. The contemporary African art, Romanesque pool and three new stone villas are all of presidential calibre; Mandela himself stayed here while editing his book, A Long Walk to Freedom in a 400 square metre suite named in his honour.

Fairlawns Boutique Hotel & Spa is the stately colonial manor of live-in owners John and Anna Thacker. Part of a former horse farm owned by the Oppenheimer family trust, it has 40 suites, all facing immaculately landscaped lawns; opt for one of the sleek Villa Suites with a secluded, oak-shaded terrace.  A stone’s throw from the bustle of Melrose Arch is Athol Place, a 10 suite study in discreet elegance set in the leafy Athol suburb.  The contemporary rooms in crisp cream, brown and beige tones all have underfloor heating (handy in Jo’burg’s frigid winters) and top-shelf Frette linens, while the garden outside is a tropical explosion: landscaped lawns, giant acacia trees and a gorgeous pool.

Contemporary South African art continues to be a boom market and Jo’burg is its epicentre. Along Jan Smuts Avenue, as it passes the lovely Rosebank area, Goodman Gallery is the leading contemporary force, representing heavyweights William Kentridge and photographer David Goldblatt; nearby Everand Read deals in oils by Carl Becker and Kerri Evans, and the charcoal drawings of Philemon Hlungwani. But Circa is the area’s true rising star: a three storey Guggenheim-like structure designed by StudioMAS – all curves and brushed steel – complete with sculpture garden, viewing deck and lecture space.

The most radical new art development, however is found in the once blighted inner city. Arts on Main, five reclaimed brick warehouses set around a garden courtyard, is a creative hub anchoring a terrific gastro-pub (Canteen), an outdoor cinema, an edgier satellite of the Goodman Gallery and the studios of numerous designers and artists (among them none other than Kentridge; you can observe the master at work when he’s in town). Fashion design outfit Black Coffee has its atelier here too while a cool, self catering ‘art’ hotel, 12 Decades, opened nearby in 2010. The rooms have been created by 12 local artists and designers, with each representing a decade in the city’s history.   (The serious bourgeois will want to book elsewhere, this is strictly urban adventure, though a provocative and chic version thereof.)

On Sundays Arts on Main becomes Market on Main for food, fashion, furniture and the city’s best people watching: suburbanites nibble on organic chocolate a few blocks from where witch doctors sell baboon skulls, underpinned by a surreal soundtrack of gospel music blaring from Nigerian churches.  Art on Main is not alone in its urban vision. A flirtation with loft living in the inner city a couple of years back never quite took off, but it’s happening now in Braamfontein, a business district on the northern edge of downtown where artists and young professional sare moving in to revamped office blocks.

If you have time and good connections, it’s worth trying to score an invitation to a party at Randlords, the chic private-event space on the rooftop of South Point Towers, a high rise with spectacular views of downtown’s concrete canyons. The other Braamfontein must is the new Neighbourgoods Market. Run by the team behind Cape Town’s superb Saturday flea and food market, the Jo’burg rendition occupies two floors of a 1970’s building and features a gallery of gourmet purveyors: among them coffee roasters Origin, organic winery Lazanou and the sublime charcuterie Richard Bosman Quality Cured Meats (gemsbok Carpaccio? Smoked warthog gam? Both delicious).

High cuisine in Jo’burg may lack the big-name chefs of Cape Town and its Winelands, but it has more restaurants and a good deal more ethnic variety. In Millpark, 44 Stanley is a cutting edge culinary and design complete featuring 25 restaurants, boutiques and studios. Start with a flat white at Bean There Coffee Company where the adroit baristas wax lyrical about their single origin beans from Burundi and Ethiopia. Move on to boulangerie Vovo Telo for house made pastries or poached eggs with coranter aioli and cherry tomatoes on ciabatta. Or consider lunch alfresco at Il Giardino Degli Ulivi; set in a miniature urban olive grove, lit with fairy lights, it’s easily one of the most romantic tables in the country.  While here, peek in to Tiaan Nagel / Anatomy Design, a concept store combining fashion designer Nagel’s structured feminine creations with Anatomy’s contemporary furniture and homewards, and Lunar, one of South Africa’s leading fashion brands.  It’s strong environmental ethos manifests in organic cotton smocks and whimsical dresses made from upcycled textile remnants.

Jo’burg’s cafe society meanwhile has as its locus trendy Parkhurst, a few miles north. The pick is Bottega Cafe, a languid, tiled floor hangout channelling La Dolce Vita (as evidenced by the Vespas parked outside and models inside).  It’s open early for espressos and pastries and only shuts when the last of the Peroni and oysters crowd heads home. During daylight hours, Parkhurst has some lovely shops to duck into, such as AD Antiques, where locals score their Georgian silver and early Victorian English furniture. On 6th Street, Dish sells charming handmade (by local women) ceramics, specialising in mosaics – pieces as small as teacups are inlaid with tiny mosaic scenes.

Immediately east of here in similarly trendy Parktown North, is the ultimate in Jo’burg fine dining. La Cucina di Ciro is the high-ceilinged, elegant domain of veteran chef Ciro Molinaro, who can lay claim to having mentored Margo Janse, of The Tasting Room in the Cape Winelands, arguably Africa’s finest restaurant.  But it’s the nearby Cube Tasting Kitchen that’s the top table in town: a stark, minimalist, 29 seat concept where self trained chef Dario de Angeli offers tasting dinners of 16 – 23 courses. The menu reads like a simple list of ingredients, the dishes are complex arrays of foams, fusions, jellies and palate cleansers. De Angeli barely advertises and has no liquor license, but the place is perennially in demand. Cool, honest, no pretence; very Jo’burg.

Article by Douglas Rogers, Financial Times.

If you enjoyed reading the Smooth guide to Johannesburg and want to find out more about the gold city, give us a call. We’d love to tell you more great stories. The restaurant scene right now is on point from first hand experience!

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