By Nick Carvell
Sydney. Buenos Aires. Rio. Cape Town. There are plenty of cool cities south of the equator that are ripe for your travel consideration – but, right now, the best place to go is Johannesburg.
Sure, it might not be the sun ‘n’ surf stereotype of a Southern hemisphere holiday, but what South Africa’s first city lacks in beaches it more than makes up up for with a seriously buzzing urban landscape packed with superb bars, inventive restaurants, cool hotels and one of the world’s most exciting theatre, art and music scenes – not to mention safari just outside if you want get some time with the country’s most recognisable furry residents.
Here we pick out the best restaurants, hotels, bars, coffee shops and things to do while you’re in town.
Where to stay…
The Peech (above)
Almost directly opposite the famous Wanderers Golf Club, this 16-room hotel is the antidote to a town dominated by big, international chains. With the majority of the rooms set away from the original building in beautifully landscaped gardens, this former family home now has all the trappings of a traditional hotel, just on a smaller scale: a splash-about outdoor pool, cocktail bar, a mini movie theatre and dining room all on the ground floor (which serves a mean breakfast buffet, complete with eggs-any-way-you-want, fresh juice and homemade granola).
Crowne Plaza Rosebank
Towering over the purple jacarandas that have made the suburb of Rosebank one of Jozi’s most beautiful and exclusive neighbourhoods, the Crowne Plaza offers a comfortable and chic jump-off spot for the rest of the city (the Gautrain, only a short stroll away, can take you either downtown to Park station or out to Sandton in minutes). The rooms have also got far more personality than your average chain hotel – our favourite feature being showers that have a two-way mirror into the bedroom.
The Bannister Hotel
There’s so much to do in the rapidly regenerating Braamfontein district (see entry below) that you’re going to need more than one day there. We recommend a night or two at The Bannister Hotel, the neighbourhood’s coolest hotel – thanks in large part to its vibey bar downstairs. Sure, the rooms err more towards small and functional rather than some of the lavish larger hotels in town, but they’re undeniably comfortable and still packed with personality. And with a night starting from R575 (under £30, including breakfast), it’s also distinctly affordable.
Where to eat
The best places for breakfast, brunch and coffee…
Bread & Roses (above)
While many of Johannesburg’s newer neighbourhoods are dominated giant malls, the suburb of Melville still has restaurants and cafes that open out onto the street – all housed in beautiful, low-rise Victorian buildings. With an arty, young population, there’s a great vibe down on 7th Street, where most of the shops, bars and restaurants are to be found – and Bread and Roses is a particular highlight. With its colonial wrought iron and plasterwork painted bright teal and red outside, the cafe is even brighter on the inside with chairs covered in eye-popping African fabric. Food is straightforward, fresh and delicious, especially the salads if you need something to beat the heat.
With eight outposts across the city, this is the place to get your brunch fix. The menu is packed with European takes on American brunch classics: hummus toasties, bacon rosti, pain perdu (French toast), quesadillas, and sweetcorn scramble. And while the coffee selection is impressive and extensive (the spicy coconut chai latte is incredible), we’d suggest you leave it until after midday and go for one of the restaurant’s signature cocktails instead.
As you’d expect from a rapidly regenerating area of Johannesburg (most often compared to London’s Shoreditch), there’s an abundance of places to get good coffee in Braamfontein. However, even in an oversaturated market, Post still stands out. The menu is compact, but what they do they do mighty well – try the melty brie crostini or supremely satisfying croque monsieur with an iced cappuccino.
It’s a tiny space, but it opens at 6:30am so you can get there early, grab a spot in the courtyard out back and watch the sunrise, soundtracked by the record player spinning vinyl by the back door.
While Salvation Cafe is a great little spot at any time of the year, it really comes into its own in the summer when tables and patrons spill out into the central courtyard of 44 Stanley – a collective of independent shops, bars and galleries nestled between Johannesburg’s two big universities. Order a stack of sweet Caribbean french toast (topped with fresh fruit) or creamy basil mushrooms on toast with a frozen mint lemonade.
The best restaurants for dinner…
Level Four at 54 on Bath
Located, as you might imagine, on the 4th floor of the former Grace Hotel, now re-christened 54 On Bath – a beautiful red brick building flanked by classical columns that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Twenties New York – the Level Four restaurant is a stunning dinner venue. While the African-meets-European cuisine served in the plush, claret dining room is delicious (try the pork belly served with chorizo stuffed artichokes, red pepper puree and black garlic or the South African Kingklip served with fresh vegetables grown on the hotel rooftop), we suggest you get there early to enjoy a drink on the pool deck next to the restaurant as the sun goes down beforehand.
Having originally opened in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1984, Wombles re-located to Johannesburg a few years back where it has quickly become the most famous steakhouse in town with a near-legendary reputation. Choose from steaks of all cuts and sizes as well as plenty of other meat dishes such as beef schnitzel, not to mention springbok, lamb, poussin and over-roasted duck. Combine that with starters like avocado Ritz or prawn cocktail and crepe Suzettes for dessert and you’ve got a Seventies-inspired menu that’ll make you feel like a lead in American Hustle.
A speakeasy with rock music and ribs, this place not only has great food, but also a stellar selection ofwhiskies on offer. There’s also a not-so-secret poker room behind the bookcase – pretty handy if you need to duck out of a bad date. And if you feel like you don’t have enough body art to fit in with the clientele, you can pop to the tattoo parlour next door while you’re waiting for your main course.
Where to drink
The Living Room (above)
While the idea of somewhere being an “oasis” in the centre of a city is a well-worn cliche, this space is just that – a rooftop bar covered in plants floating above bustling downtown Johannesburg. Located in the recently regenerated Maboneng district – a formerly run-down industrial area now packed with artists’ studios – The Living Room now boasts DJs and live music gigs, as well as a superb cocktail menu. It’s only open to the public certain nights of the week, so check the website before you go (just in case).
For stunning skyline views across downtown Johannesburg and Sandton, head to this former warehouse on the outskirts of the city. And while you’ll find great drinks in both the rooftop bar (Katy’s Palace) and the shabby-chic bar on the second floor below (Sir James van der Merwe), there’s also an impressively gargantuan shop on the floors beneath stocking a carefully curated selection of African crafts.
Stanley Beer Yard
Just like the UK, South Africa is in the grips of a small-batch, craft beer craze – and this is the place to sample the best examples first-hand. There are also local wines and a newly expanded bar food menu, not to mention leafy olive trees outside to enjoy your pint under.
What to do
Secretly used by African National Congress (ANC) and Communist Party activists in the Sixties, this was the nerve centre of the South African anti-Apartheid movement until a police raid on 11 July 1963 – an event that lead to the famous Rivonia Trial, resulting in life sentences for eight of the accused (including Nelson mandela). Today the house has been restored and has visual, audio and physical exhibits that tell the story of those who lived there, and their subsequent fight for racial equality.
Bike tour of Soweto
One of the many townships to which black South Africans were relocated under the racial segregation of Apartheid, Soweto (an abbreviation of “South Western Townships”) today is a vibrant neighbourhood with almost 1.3 million residents – including the only street in the world to boast the houses of two Nobel Prize winners (Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu both lived on Vilakazi Street).
The best way to see it is by bike, either or a two-hour (R390) or 4-hour (R480) ride where you’ll get to meet the people who live there, see the sights and, if you’re lucky, pick up some proper African street food on the way. And, if you’re planning on staying in town until evening, see if you can catch a performance at the Soweto Theatre.
Walking tour of Downtown Johannesburg
Since the late Eighties, Downtown Johannesburg has managed to get a bad rep. With an exodus of residents and businesses thanks to the building of the suburb of Sandton to the north, the centre of town was hit by a wave of urban decay with soaring crime rates and widespread poverty. However, thanks to investment over the past five years, the area is regenerating with the city’s once stunning architecture being restored to its former glory.
With that in mind, a walking tour of the area should definitely be on your agenda and Gerald Garner, who lives with his family Downtown, is your go-to guy. Starting out at One Fox (a cool urban market) he will he take you to the town’s most impressive Art Deco and mid-century Modernist buildings, and explain how the city developed in the way it did. He’s an encyclopedia of local knowledge and South African history – not to mention of the best coffee shops to stop off in on the way.
Sure, this might be a temporary shopping centre constructed out of shipping containers just like East London’s Boxpark, but the key difference between 27 Boxes and the Shoreditch version is that the focus is far more honed in on giving local businesses space to sell. Inside you’ll find a great mix of African crafts, small-time artisans, cool home shops and clothing as well as food and drink with an international vibe. Our tips? Check out the brassware at Rae Interiors, leather goods at The Kraal, the cardamom iced coffee at The Countess, and the cronuts at X&O Patisserie.
Designed by British Architect Edward Lutyens and opened in 1915, the beautiful, classical Johannesburg Art Gallery (known as JAG) was originally built to house the city’s rapidly expanding collection of paintings and sculpture. With the local gold mining industry booming in the early 1900s, the city invested in pieces from world-famous artists to prove the might of Jo’berg’s rapidly expanding economy.
This is still evident today: you’ll find works by Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet and Rodin hanging here and an impressive selection of 17th century Dutch masters, as well as more recent additions from Henry Moore and modern South African artists.
The art gallery is undergoing major regeneration work right now in preparation for its centenary, but try and find a museum representative – such as the wonderfully eponymous Senior Librarian, Jo Burger – who might just give you a tour of these secret rooms if you ask nicely.
Corner of Klein and King George Streets, Joubert Park, Johannesburg, 2044 via Johannasburg Art Gallery
The district you didn’t know about…
After years of under-investment by businesses and the local govenment, the centre of Johannesburg is beginning to reinvent itself – and nowhere can this urban renewal better be seen than in Braamfontein. Located across the train tracks from Downtown Jozi via the Nelson Mandela bridge, the formerly abandoned skyscrapers and crumbling Victorian houses of this district are now being filled with cool young creatives, bringing with them a delicious wave of coffee houses and restaurants, not to mention sneaker shops and outposts by up-and-coming South African designers.
From theatre to art galleries, there’s plenty to do in this district – so much so that it would be worth booking a couple of nights at The Bannister Hotel[see entry in the Where To Stay section] to have enough time to truly take it all in.
However, whether you’re staying for an afternoon or a weekend, try and make it to Neighbourgoods Market on a Saturday morning – a vast local food and crafts market inside an old multi-storey carpark with live music and cocktails.