Giving Johannesburg a Chance

Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg South Africa

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.

Not scary hotel room

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?

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By: Mike

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer. Also follow Matt on , and

20 Responses

  1. Meruschka

    Hi Matt! I’m glad you gave Joburg a chance, the city really is in the midst of a rejuvenation and shedding its bad image of the past. Thanks for the positive post, the media is slowly but surely changing its stance on Joburg. I would like to disagree with you that Joburg is a city of suburbs. Yes its really spread out and decentralised, and the inner city used to be a no-go area. This is changing rapidly. Businesses, residents and tourists are returning to the downtown core, which is re-emerging as an attraction for tourists and locals alike. Inner city neighbourhoods like Braamfontein, Newtown and Maboneng have a lot to offer, especially in terms of culture, heritage and the creative industries. I do hope you manage to come back to Johannesburg, I will gladly show you the amazing, creative, fun side of downtown Joburg that is not the suburbs. All Joburg needs is a chance, she will surprise you for the better.

    Reply
    • Mike

      Great comments and thanks for adding them. I can only relate how the city felt to me as a visitor. I’m sure as a local, it’s an entirely different experience. But I have to add that even with areas that are up and coming, that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable visiting. Here in DC we have plenty of neighborhoods like that and while I’m ok navigating them, I wouldn’t suggest them to outsiders.

      Reply
  2. Erik

    Good post, Matt.

    This is certainly one of those cities with an ominous reputation. Good to see a different perspective on it. Being from Detroit, I completely understand about the ills of a city being the only thing people hear.

    Reply
    • Mike

      Great analogy Erik and you’re right, sometimes the reputation takes on a life of its own.

      Reply
  3. Megan

    I’ve always sort of wanted to visit Johannesburg, but its reputation was a bit off-setting, to be honest. There’s so much history and culture there and it just seems like an innately interesting place. Like Erik above, I’m also from (metro) Detroit, and being from the area has gotten me many raised eyebrows around the world. Turning around a city’s reputation is a battle, but it can be done.

    Reply
    • Mike

      Wow lots of Detroiters here, I love it. As you’ve seen in the comments, there are a lot of great qualities about the city, so I encourage you to definitely add it to your list!

      Reply
  4. Heather

    Hi Matt,

    I’m an American blogger, originally from the Washington D.C. area (great city by the way), who has been living and writing about Joburg for the past three years. I’d like to echo Meruschka’s comment above and thank you for the positive Jozi post. Great pics, too!

    However, I’m very dismayed to hear that locals are still putting foreign tourists off the Jozi inner city, as you described above. I live just outside the inner city (in Melville) and go into town on a daily basis. The perception that downtown Joburg is more dangerous than the suburbs is so far from the truth, it’s laughable. In fact, I believe you are much less likely to be a victim of crime in the downtown Joburg mining district than you are in Rosebank or Sandton. (By the way, I have never been a victim of any crime, anywhere in Joburg. And I go EVERYWHERE.)

    By not visiting downtown you are really missing out on the best that Joburg has to offer. There is so much amazing history and beauty and culture there. If you have a free minute, please take a look at some of the posts I’ve written on downtown Jozi: . Then let me know the next time you’re here and I’ll show you around!

    Cheers,
    Heather

    Reply
    • Mike

      Thanks Heather I appreciate it and yes, I have had several locals working in the hospitality industry warn me off from exploring town. I’ve also seen other tourists be given panic buttons to carry with them. None of this helps.

      Reply
  5. Johan

    I agree with Meruschka above – I live in Johannesburg and work in the Yeoville area. Jozi may not everybody’s cup of tea but give it a chance. A good place to start is to check out
    Happy travels

    Reply
  6. Derek Smith

    Jozi has a undeservedly bad reputation – I love this city with a passion and wander the inner city most weekends doing street and graffiti photography on my own. You have to experience the place through the soles of your feet. I carry quite expensive camera gear and NOT ONCE have if felt threatened or intimidated. Recently I had a visitor from NYC who came with the usual misconception. One night, on a whim, I took him on a tour of the inner city, stopping in Newtown, walking through the beautifully renovated mining district, now a pedestrian walk way and then onwards to Maboneng. All was safe, and the people we met on the way were a delight to interact with. I think the drive changed his view of the city a little bit. The best ambassadors for Jozi are actually two expatriates and their great blogs goes a long way to reflect the true face of The City of Gold;

    Heather Mason –

    and Karen Lim (Bing) –

    Reply
  7. Michelle

    Nice to see a positive blog about Joburg!

    As Meruschka said though, don’t discount downtown Joburg. That’s where a lot of the fun and excitement is!

    I came to Joburg as an outsider and spent 3 months working in the CBD, going out for drinks in Braamfontein, seeing amazing bands in Newtown, and enjoying the Maboneng Market on Main almost every Sunday.

    These areas are safe for locals and tourists alike. Of course you need to take simple precautions, but that’s with any big city.

    I would tell tourists that they’re missing Jozi if they don’t go downtown.

    Reply
    • Mike

      Thank you Michelle, I think I’m being slowly convinced here! 🙂

      Reply
  8. Sofie @ Wonderful Wanderings

    I haven’t visited yet, but I would, and definitely after this post!
    Nice job;-)

    Reply
  9. Helen G. Dickerson

    If I will travel again, I’d definitely consider Jo’burg especially after reading your article about that beautiful place. I read about wonderful things to see and do in South Africa and Jo’burg is one of them. Thanks

    Reply
    • Mike

      Thanks so much for sharing!

      Reply
  10. Vicki

    I too had a negative image of Jo’burg before I had to transit through there once – luckily I thought “if I’m stopping over, lets have a proper look around” so I stayed for 2 days and loved it, would happily go back for more. I chose to stay in a B&B in Soweto which was fabulous and fun and very safe, I would recommend anyone to do it – but you can imagine the number of people back home who thought I was mad!

    Reply
    • Mike

      Exactly my point! It takes us SO long to change our opinions about a place and it’s not fair to the destination.

      Reply
  11. Brianmcquillan

    Johannesburg is a booming, happening city and once bitten by the vibe of Jozi, you’re going to want to come back again.it is also known as the “City of Gold” and is filled with a number of attractions to tempt the tourists from varied parts of the globe.

    Reply
  12. Thomas Schneider

    I thank God that i came to this page. A Page i ve been long time looking for – Clean up with the prejudice of the danger of South African Cities , meeting many American People who clearly tell that American Cities often suffer the same. Both at the same time is really pleasure and like said something i ve been waiting long for to come across. I am neither South African or American but Austrian. So far I have two favourite countries . Guess what it are South Africa and The United States. I m going to South Africa pretty much every year to volunteer in game reserves for wildlife conservation. Because thats what my passion is, the african nature. But i also got time to spend a few weeks in the cities. Just have seen a bit of Johannesburg but have seen many areas in Durban(awesome city). Have lived in The United States for around six years included New York and Los Angeles. Thats why i was very happy when you said Johannesburg is like Los Angeles Matt. Because i feel exactly the same. Probably another reason why those are my 2 favourite countries is because they are very very similiar, from looklike of the cities, social issues, history , the nature, beaches etc. I went to a school in Los Angeles and most of the time when i came home the first things i was asked ” did you ever expirience or have you ever been afraid of becoming victim of a sniper at school”? OMG. South Africa same story ” isnt it too dangerous, so many criminals, what about getting robbed, hijacked”? Yes those things happen in South Africa and The United States the same as they happen ALL OVER THE WORLD. Same as for Johannesburg( the most dangerous city in SA according to its bad reputation) i also just made it for a few days to Detroit(where many people here are from, the most dangerous city in The USA according to its bad reputation). but i got immedeately that it is not as bad either as the media make it out, the same counts for Los Angeles, Washrington D.C. ,New York, Chicago and Durban. There is one trend in Europe, which i m really not proud of, is when you ask European People here in their cities, countries is everything good and safe and you can walk everywhere at night. I just read a comment recently when it was about comparing German Cities to US and South African Cities someone saying in Germany you can walk out everywhere at night without any problem. “I love such comments”. I can tell you thats far from any truth. All they come up with why its so much safer displaying some numbers of how many homicides a year happen in Chicago, Detroit, Cape Town, Johannesburg etc. There i can tell most of those people have never been personally to some of those cities. Thanks to Megan, Heather, Eric and you Matt for your great contribution trying to change the bad image of South Africa while at the same time pointing out that your cities in America(Washtington D.C, Detroit) are very overhyped and also have a lot of beautiful sides. I heared comments as well like ” I have been to South Africa, I have been to The USA crime was visible in both countries”. I ve been to both countries as well and in my expirience BOTH are extremely overrated when it comes to the danger through crime. Oh and to statements like everywhere in Germany, Austria, Switzerland its completely safe to walk out at night everywhere, like said all of the US Cities i visited i had no really bad expirience, Mexico was also fine(though i ve not been to Ciudad Juarez), every trip to South Africa ended with no problem and the last time i found myself nearly in a knife fight was just one week ago and guess where. Yes it was in my hometown the “so safe” VIENNA. Same like with Munich when i was living there i had more problems with thugs and drunk asholes at the street than in any US City or South Africa. Thanks for your great article!

    Reply

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