This is part 17 of my series exploring my March 2017 trip to South Africa and Namibia, which started here.
I really had no idea what to expect of Johannesburg. Lots of folks had suggested it was skippable, or the kind of city you can breeze through in a day. I ended up having three nights and two full days there, but I actually wish I’d had a day or two more — especially since one of my days was a Sunday. Overall, the city is completely different from Cape Town. Whereas Cape Town feels like a touristy version of San Francisco, Johannesburg is more like L.A., with an urban core, extremely spread out, and not walkable at all. It also was far more racially integrated than Cape Town.
My hotel stays, as covered in other posts, were split between Sandton and Rosebank, two of the more sanitized commercial districts north of the city. Neither had that much character, as they’re both largely malls and hotels, but Sandton was a bit more upscale.
On my first night, I took an Uber from the disappointing Protea Balalaika Sandton to the Butcher Shop, a fairly well-known steakhouse in Nelson Mandela Square, the fanciest shopping mall in South Africa. I’d had a reservation, which I actually needed, though the restaurant was massive. It basically reminded me of a classic huge New York steakhouse, with lots of tourists and businessmen, with a few locals. It wasn’t a cheap meal by any means, but compared to the cost in the States it was a good value. Upon seating, I was given a huge hunk of bread and a bowl of sausage. I started with a salad, and then had a really tasty bowl of filet tips, along with a side of mushrooms and fries. Along with two glasses of wine and an after-dinner cocktail, it came to around 45 USD. Not a crazily memorable meal, but could be good with a group and/or if you like steak – and good for people watching.
Later that evening, I checked out one of the gay bars in Ilovo, an easy Uber ride away from my hotel. Johannesburg has more gay bars than Cape Town, but they are less concentrated, and stretch all the way out to Pretoria, where there are a number of big clubs. I only ended up at one, Babylon (which, confusingly is a bar in Johannesburg, and then a related club in Centurion, halfway to Pretoria). It was fairly small, in a shopping center, and very crowded with young guys. There was also smoking in the bar, which I’m not used to. Regardless, I had a good time. One notable thing was that police had set up a roadblock on the road that according to my Uber driver was going all day. They were stopping every car, and asking for bribes (although they didn’t ask Uber drivers). It was still there when I went back home late in the evening.
In the morning, I walked over from the sad Protea Balalaika to Knead, an all-day breakfast café in the Michelangelo Towers, connected to Nelson Mandela Square and Sandton City mall. It was nice and relaxing, and a good value, recommended. My sunglasses had broken on safari, so I had to get an eyeglass repair kit, which ended up taking a while in the Sandton City mall, but then I was on my way, later than expected.
I had planned to have an ambitious Saturday, with stops all over the city. The goal was to start at Lilliesleaf Farm, north of the city in Rivonia, which was a farm secretly used for both the ANC and South African communists as a safe house and planning location before being compromised and raided in 1963. It is now a museum. Unfortunately, I decided not to head that way, as I wanted to also do the Apartheid Museum and the Neighbourgoods Market, and I didn’t think I’d be able to hit them all.
It was a $14, 30-minute Uber ride from Sandton to the Apartheid Museum, south of the city. Despite it being a major tourist attraction, my Uber driver had no idea how to get there, and first took me to the employee-only entrance. It’s weird because the museum is basically inside the compound of a casino and amusement park. But once I was there, the museum was phenomenal. Your ticket is printed with a racial designation, and you go through the “entrance” marked white or non-white. There’s an outside area with some thematic art, and sweeping views of the Johannesburg skyline. You can’t take pictures once inside the main exhibition, but it presents a really gripping look at the history of apartheid from both cultural and political perspectives, as well as the story of freedom and reconciliation. I actually wish I’d spent more time there, and you can easily spend a half-day between the films and exhibits. Definitely recommended.
From the museum, I headed to the Neighbourgoods market, which is definitely a must-do if you’re in town on a Saturday afternoon. (There’s actually another one in Cape Town.) It’s in a section of downtown, Braamfontein, which is very student-heavy. The market is mostly a big food hall, open on Saturdays only from 9am to 3pm. It reminded me a lot of Union Market here in DC. The top floor has an open space where live music was being played on a beautiful day, as well as a large bar and some craft vendors. There really wasn’t anything special being sold, and I for some reason picked poorly amongst the plethora of food options – mediocre sushi – but the vibe of the place was just great. Check out the video I took, below. It was also interesting to me given how integrated it was racially, and in terms of a mix of tourists/visitors and locals.
Unfortunately, Lilliesfarm closed too early for me to make it back up there before it closed, so I headed to Sandton to pick up my luggage, then back down to Rosebank to my new hotel. Rosebank itself was basically just a large mall, not particularly impressive, though there were a few grocery stores and plenty of eating options. I was pretty tired and had been out late and up early the previous night, so, after the gym, I decided to have a quiet night. I had dinner at Pizza e Vino, a well-reviewed, mid-range pizza/Italian place in Rosebank. I was able to sit outside which made for great peoplewatching, but got a little intense towards the end when a 12-year-old girl’s birthday party took over the patio at 9:15pm on a Saturday night. The highlight of the meal was a spicy Calabrian onion soup; the calzone was less successful. But for both courses, a Coke Light, bottle of water, and decaf cappuccino, it came to 15 USD.
The next day, Sunday, was one of the highlights of my entire trip. I knew that I wanted to take a tour of one of the townships when I was in South Africa. Townships, for those who might not know, were the areas of South Africa where non-white city residents were forced to move during apartheid. During apartheid, they were significantly underserved by utilities and infrastructure, and largely remain so today. At the same time, I had some ethical travel concerns – I didn’t want to simply pay someone money to point and look at poverty. So, I spent a long time researching how to tour a township most ethically. I ended up settling on a bicycle tour through Soweto, the largest township in South Africa, with Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers, a hostel and tour company. Not only is Lebo’s fair trade certified, the company was founded by someone who grew up in Soweto, and the company makes a point to employ local community members. Plus, by traveling via bicycle, I would be able to get a more intimate perspective than on a bus driving by the main roads.
I was supposed to do a Sunday afternoon half-day tour, which would have allowed me to hit some of the few sights that are open on Sunday mornings, but, alas, a few days before, I got an email asking if I could switch to the Sunday morning tour instead as there weren’t enough people for the afternoon. I could have arranged my own transportation down to Soweto, but just arranged it through Lebo’s instead (for 450 ZAR roundtrip ($35)– almost as much as the 580 ZAR for the tour itself), and at 9am, Chico picked me up in a nice late model sedan and drove me down to Soweto, taking some side roads so I got to see more of the city, including some more wealthy suburbs, before arriving in Soweto 40 minutes later.
There was a group of 16 of us on the 4-hour tour, and the group was mostly European with a few Americans. Interestingly, only about half of the participants were tourists; the rest were foreigners working in Africa, temporarily or more long-term.
Soweto is actually a syllabic abbreviation for SOuth WEstern TOwnships – five different communities joined in the Apartheid era. The different townships were built by different governments, going back to the British over the course of the first ¾ of the twentieth century. This means that different parts of Soweto look completely different – ranging from detached homes and widish streets that look fairly suburban, to shanty towns that smell of garbage. In addition, since apartheid ended, some township residents have built up their homes, making for some multi-story large houses. Riding through by bicycle really provided a great perspective. It’s also shocking how 25 years after the end of apartheid, such abject poverty and segregation remains so close to Johannesburg. Our tour guide told us some of the stories of attempts at development over the years that have failed, either as a result of corruption or mindless planning – chief of which was the paving over of soccer fields to build modern apartments – without realizing that no one would be able to pay the monthly rent to live in them; they remain abandoned, and a pipe was leaking from one of the never-occupied units – and had been for 4 months. (Not sure how apocryphal the story was, the closest I could find online was this.)
Going by bicycle also allowed more interaction with the people who lived in Soweto. Several residents gladly talked to us, asking where we were from, and in no way did I feel like I was bothering them, nor did I feel unsafe or like they were begging. We had been warned in advance of the local Zulu word for “tall white man”, and sure enough we heard it a lot biking through some of the poorer neighborhoods, where children chased us on bicycle. The kids also all loved being picked up.
After riding through various neighborhoods, we came to the Hector Pietersen Memorial, which commemorates the 1976 Soweto Uprising and the massacre of student protestors, including 13 year old Hector Pietersen, that followed. There’s a museum next to the memorial, but it was closed for repairs.
From there, we went to “the Beverly Hills of Soweto”, so labeled because the houses are larger and hilly – and now filled with fancy cars. The neighborhood has Desmond Tutu’s house, as well as a house Nelson Mandela lived in from 1946 to 1962 (pre-Robben Island), which has been turned into a small museum. There were a lot of street performers and tour buses in that area, and we didn’t go inside.
We headed back to the hostel, where there was a tasting of some local home-fermented beverages (gross), followed by a nice lunch of pap (a bland, corn porridge) and a choice of various stews. Chico was waiting to take me back on a more direct route, which took 25 minutes back to the Holiday Inn in Rosebank.
Back at the hotel, I took a brief nap and shower. By then, alas, almost everything was closed on a Sunday afternoon. I wandered aimlessly away from the mall, into the neighborhood of Parkhurst, which looked like it may be an interesting pedestrian walk. It was not. I ended up Ubering back. For dinner, I ate at a disappointing seafood restaurant, Fishmonger, on a sort of outdoor plaza of upscale restaurants in Rosebank in a mall called The Firs.
In the evening, I met up with a group of American gay tourists in Melville, a young/student friendly neighborhood, that happened to have an open gay bar – Ratz. Ratz was completely dead, though, so after a drink, we went across the street to Six – a cocktail bar with food that was lively and mixed in every sense of the word. I didn’t stay out too late, and then I was back to the Holiday Inn before a morning trip to the airport.
If only there were unlimited vacation days, I would definitely have added another day or two in Johannesburg. While not as pretty as Cape Town, there’s definitely a lot to see, and a lot more interaction with the people of South Africa. So don’t skip Jo-burg, and be wary of Sunday is one of your days there!