City guide: Johannesburg

The largest city in South Africa, called Jo’burg or Jozi by locals, is having a renaissance. The city center is evolving into a lively arts and culture hub. Urban renewal has brought glitzy shopping areas, vibrant nightlife and revamped parks and galleries. But Johannesburg isn’t ignoring its turbulent history—museums and historic sites trace the rise and fall of apartheid and South Africa’s journey to democracy.

Johannesburg is the driving force behind the country’s economy and home to South African headquarters of global companies and major banks. The retail, manufacturing and service sectors are primary industries.

Getting to and from the airport

O.R. Tambo International Airport is located 24 kilometers (15 miles) from downtown. The Gautrain departs every 12 minutes at peak times (5:30-8:30 a.m. and 3-6 p.m., Monday to Friday) and every 20 to 30 minutes outside peak times. A one-way ticket to the central Sandton Station costs 72 South African rand (US$5.43 using the exchange rate US$1 = R13.26).

If you take a taxi, use an official company with a meter such as Orange Cabs or Zebra Cabs.

Getting around Johannesburg

Johannesburg is a sprawling city, and while public transport is getting an upgrade, the current system is unreliable and may not reach all the places you need to go. To get around easily, arrange for a reputable chauffeur-driven car service or rent a car for the duration of your stay.

Where to stay

For luxury and upscale accommodation, try Hyatt Regency Johannesburg (191 Oxford Road, Rosebank; Ph: 27-11-280-1234), Intercontinental Johannesburg Sandton Towers (corner of Maude and 5th streets; Ph: 27-11-780-5555), Crowne Plaza Hotel Johannesburg The Rosebank (corner of Tyrwhitt and Sturdee avenues, Rosebank; Ph: 27-11-448-3600) or the Radisson Blu Hotel Sandton/Johannesburg (at the corner of Daisy and Linden streets, near Rivonia Road; Ph: 27-11-245-8000)For a midscale option, consider Mercure Johannesburg Randburg (corner of Republic Road and Arandburg Waterfront; Ph: 27-11-326-3300).

Things to see and do

The story of Johannesburg’s role in major wars of the 20th century is told at The South African Museum of Military History, which contains artifacts, tanks and aircrafts. It’s open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is R40 (US$3.02). The Apartheid Museum is a chilling reminder of South Africa’s era of oppression and segregation. Video, text and audio accounts give visitors a view into the apartheid system, as well as inspiring stories of the fight for democracy. Its open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is R85 (US$6.41). The lessons of apartheid are also taught at Constitution Hill. The site of a former court and prison where Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists were held is now a tribute to human rights and freedom. Tours are given every hour on the hour from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and cost R30 (US$2.26).

The transformation of Johannesburg is epitomized by the Maboneng Precinct. Maboneng, a Sotho word meaning “place of light,” is an apt name for the urban neighborhood that’s become a hub of culture and creativity. Galleries, boutiques and entertainment venues entice locals and tourists alike. You could easily spend a day exploring this uber-hip enclave—especially on Sundays, when there’s a lively food and design market.

Montecasino Bird Gardens houses a large and diverse collection of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Visitors can wander through magnificent gardens on elevated walkways and marvel at creatures such as scarlet ibises, Nicobar pigeons, colorful frogs and small antelope. Three daily “Flights of Fantasy” bird shows feature pelicans, vultures, cranes and owls. Its open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is R70 (US$5.28).

Where to eat

Parea Taverna’s unassuming charm keeps patrons coming back again and again. Greek fare is served in a relaxed atmosphere. Menu favorites include calamari, souvlaki and lemon rosemary lamb chops. Come with a group, order several dishes and taste a bit of everything. If you’re there on a Friday or Saturday night, prepare for traditional Greek dancing, belly dancers and plenty of smashed plates. Find it at Shop 3D, Corlett Drive, Illovo; Ph: 27-11-788 8777.

For a fine-dining experience, visit DW Eleven-13. The intimate restaurant’s creative menu includes creations like nori-wrapped tuna tataki and smoked potato dumplings with fondue sauce and braised cabbage. Order a la carte or try a tasting menu. Wines are largely sourced from small South African vintners. Find it at Dunkeld Shopping Centre, corner of Jan Smuts Avenue and Bompas Road, Dunkeld West; Ph: 27-11-341-0663.

The Local Grill is made for meat lovers. Diners are treated to options unique to Africa like springbok, kudu and impala. Guests select the cut of the meat and choose between grain-fed or free-range options. The restaurant boasts a wine list that changes monthly to showcase the best of what’s available at any given time. Find it at 40 7th Avenue at the corner of 3rd Avenue, Parktown; Ph: 27-11-880-1946.