Johannesburg will surprise you. In a good way. Because it is not like you think it is. It is bustling, modern, friendly, mostly safe and in some places pretty cool. You should really pay this city a visit. We spent a week in Johannesburg and visited the best places, the coolest neighborhoods and the hippest markets for you!Things to do in Joburg!
Johannesburg: so different from what you think!
Johannesburg. One of the most dangerous cities in the world. You will definitely be assaulted here.
Unfortunately, this is the picture many people have of Johannesburg. But Johannesburg has changed a lot in the past years: new cool neighborhoods are developing, artists and creatives are moving to the city and it is getting safer and safer. The city cannot be compared to Cape Town but Johannesburg does have a few cool areas worth visiting.
Unlike in other large cities downtown Johannesburg is not really where the happening is, life here pulses in neighborhoods that are a little outside like Maboneng or Braamfontein. The downtown area is in a pretty shabby state, many houses are squatted and there are some streets here that you should avoid.
Still Johannesburg has a very special vibe and we immediately felt good here! And here are the best things to do in Joburg for you!
The best things to do in Joburg – from hipster markets to the best coffee in town!
When you come to Johannesburg you should try to find accommodation in Maboneng and start your ventures to the rest of the city from here. Because Maboneng is one of the coolest neighborhoods in town, centrally located just to the East of downtown, and most importantly safe. Here you can safely move around at night. We spent the entire week in Maboneng and really felt at home here in the end.
The neighborhood used to be one of the most dangerous in Johannesburg and was avoided by most locals, tourists almost never came to this part of town. Today things are very different here: Maboneng is Johannesburg’s new in-neighborhood, with lots of cool restaurants and cafes and very modern loft-style apartments.
The reason for this is the vision of a young man named Jonathan who wanted to revive Johannesburg’s city center and offer room for creativity. Maboneng also means “Place of Light”, as the new light in Johannesburg. Little by little he bought old deserted and semi-squatted buildings, renovated them and rented them out. And since Maboneng used to be an industrial neighborhood the buildings are all architecturally intriguing!
You drink coffee surrounded by cool stone walls, have delicious Argentinian steak in an old industrial hall and go to sleep in a cool studio apartment with a view of the rooftops of Johannesburg. Every other corner holds art ranging from huge very cool murals on houses to small chic galleries with various kinds of exhibits.
Jonathan indeed managed to make his vision reality, more and more young creatives and artists are moving to Maboneng or are coming to visit. Everything started with a small food and design market which still takes place every Sunday and really is worth a visit!
The best cafes and restaurants in Maboneng
In Maboneng you really have a hard time choosing: typical South African barbecue, tasty Mexican burritos or maybe a healthy salad with a freshly squeezed juice? You can really get everything here! This is what we loved the most:
Origin Coffee is a really cool cafe at the end of Fox Street, on the corner of Berea Road and Sivewright Ave. Here you get great coffee and the baristas even ask what kind of coffee you enjoy the most and what flavours you like in a roast and then make a recommendation. We had flat whites as always but our barista Mac prepared it slightly different the second day, it tasted slightly chocolaty and even better than before.
Origin Coffee also offers free wifi so you will meet other people with laptops here. We also spent a few mornings there working and sipping delicious coffee on the job. The interiors are minimalistic with two large tables, large bright windows and a bar of warm wood with the coffee machines behind it and cool stone walls to balance that – all in all pretty hipster!
The place already closes at 15:30 every day and apart from coffee and free water there are no other drinks and no food on the menu. However, you are allowed to bring in some cake or pastries from the market around the corner on Sundays and have them inside with your coffee.
The Canteen is one of the nicest restaurants in Maboneng and is situated in the courtyard of the Arts on Main building. Just pass through the large gate on Fox Street and you find yourself facing the door. The great perk here is that you can sit outside under lots of little olive trees in the shade or semi sunshine, surrounded by cool former industrial buildings. A really great place to relax and just enjoy life!
The food here was delicious and super high quality. There are fresh salads and sandwiches but also pasta and steak. And still the prices are cheap, a salad with Avocado and Parmesan costs 48 Rand which are around 3 Euros. There are lots of options for breakfast as well. The Canteen is closed Mondays and on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays it closes at 15:30. On all other days this is a great dinner joint as well.
Eat Your Heart Out
The name alone is reason to come here! At Eat Your Heart Out there is breakfast all day, freshly squeezed juices and smoothies, delicious healthy salads and various wraps and sandwiches – almost like in Canggu on Bali. A salad or wrap will cost around 80 Rand, which amounts to around 5 Euros. The green juice is especially good!
Eat Your Heart Out is also on Fox Street, on the corner of Kruger Street. It closes at 4 pm every day and Mondays are off. It is a little pricier than the other restaurants.
Pata Pata is one of our favourite restaurants! The interiors may be a little dark but super super comfy. There is a bench and lots of different tables. Some of the lamps are covered with old coffee bean bags and there are great decorative elements everywhere like vintage suitcases. Pata Pata also has a bar and offers up some good wine.
You can have breakfast, lunch or dinner here, the menu is pretty diverse: everything from tasty salads to typical African dishes to burgers and fish. We especially liked the ribs – great marinade and tender meat! You get an entire rack of ribs for 170 Rand, only 12 Euros.
Unlike the other restaurants and cafés Pata Pata is open every day and until late. Most other places are closed Mondays and some even Tuesdays and many of them close around 4 on the days they are open. On weekends they have a live band playing and the atmosphere is great! Pata Pata also lies on Fox Street on the corner of Maritzburg Street.
Mama Mexicana offers super good and comparably cheap Mexican food. The place is right next to Origin Coffee on Fox Street and there are lots of classics on the menu: Nachos, Tacos, Burritos and Quesadillas – everything is delicious! We particularly liked the chicken Burrito which costs 50 Rand, so less than 4 Euros.
Che is an Argentinian restaurants and the place to go for really really good steak! The restaurant’s interiors are simple, you sit at wooden tables in a large former industrial hall, every table there is unique. And on every table is an old empty wine bottle with a candle slowly dripping wax. This makes for a very warm and homely atmosphere.
Che is one of the more expensive restaurants in Maboneng, but still cheap in comparison. A 300 gram filet steak costs 130 Rand, so less than 10 Euros. There also is a great selection of tasty South African and of course South American wines. You get bread and a small bowl of a kind of oily tomato sauce with the food, the sauce is spicy but amazing. You should definitely try it!
Che too is on Fox Street, corner of Betty Street.
When in South Africa you have to try the typical South African barbecue! At the Braai (this means barbecue) on Kruger Street you sit in an old converted container which is open to one side. Right next to you is the grill where the meat is prepared and the whole street smells of delicious barbecue.
A t-bone steak with fries and great homemade salad is 48 Rand, a little over 3 Euros. You will often find locals hanging out here and when the weather is good then eating out here is like a cool barbecue with friends. Braai is open Mondays and late too. So you will always get something to eat here!
Special events and locations
Arts on Main Food and Design Market
Every Sunday there is the Arts on Main Food and Design Market, the one with which it all started. Here you find great food from all over the world, from Lebanese falafel sandwiches to Greek pita and Chinese Dim Sum, or great Pulled Pork Buns.
Of course there are also lots of sweet goodies which you cannot miss, like waffles and delicious ice cream, but also various cakes, brownies, cupcakes, puddings and huge cream cakes! Definitely try GALA’S carrot cake – it is one of the best I ever ate, truly delicious and only 25 Rand, less than 2 Euros a piece.
You can sample all these things in the market hall itself, in the building’s courtyard or in front of the building. There are tables and chairs everywhere. There is even more seating on the first floor and up there you also have stalls where local designers sell their goods. There are colourful bags, jewellery and second hand clothing.
The Living Room is a super cool rooftop bar, or rather a bar and rooftop terrace with a fantastic view of downtown Johannesburg. The terrace is full of potted plants and the plants grow up the walls – a really cool place to let the day fade and watch the sunset!
Living Room has become pretty popular and is usually booked for all kinds of happenings during the week, so it is now only open on Saturdays and sometimes Sundays. Admission is 50 Rand, around 3,50 Euros. It is advisable to come early, around 5 is good, because the Living Room already closes again at 9.
To get there you have to enter the building on Kruger Street, go past the reception and security people and take the elevator to the 5th floor.
The Bioscope is Johannesburg’s only independent cinema. It shows a lot of cool films and gets pretty crowded, especially on weekends. Part of Bioscope is the Chalkboard, the cinema bar if you like. Here you get popcorn of course as well as drinks and good pizza!
Open: super cool co-working space
If you have to work while travelling like we do then you have to check out the Open co-working space! It really is the coolest co-working space we ever saw and offers lots of space, bright rooms and even a small minigolf course. The people are super nice and you feel right at home. It feels like being among good friends and we were able to get a lot of work done there.
There is a kind of bar in the middle where you can grab water, tea and coffee and there is a comfy lounge area with couches and a large bookshelf in one corner of the space. There also are rooms of various sizes which you can book for events. And there is a small balcony so you can get some sunshine and fresh air.
The internet of course is super fast but membership there costs 225 Rand for a day only, which is around 15 Euros and there is only one gigabyte included. But you can buy additional gigabytes, they are not that expensive.
The Open is in the same building as the Living Room, the Main Change building, on the fourth level, just below the Living Room. The entrance is on Kruger Street but you have to bring an ID or passport to be able to ascend to the upper levels. Don’t forget that if you want to work at the Open. It is a good thing they are open until 9 pm, you can stay and work even when everything else is already closed.
Living and spending the night
12 Decades Hotel
The 12 Decades Hotel is a small boutique hotel and to this date the only hotel in Maboneng. Every room is unique and just as the name suggests, is decorated in the style of a certain decade. Different artists and architects were given free range here and they take you on a time travel through Johannesburg’s past.
12 Decades Hotel is right on Fox Street in the Main Street Live building and costs around 950 Rand per person per night in the luxury suite, so around 65 Euros.
Maboneng also has a really cool hostel, called Curiocity Backpackers. It is new, has cool interiors, a bar and its own little restaurant where you can have great cheap food. You have the classic dorm rooms but also double and single rooms, depending on what you prefer.
The hostel staff also offers several tours through Johannesburg and will tell you more about the different neighborhoods and the cities history. We took the Inner City tour and the tour of Soweto – more on that in a sec!
As an alternative you can also stay in a wonderful AirBnB apartment. We can recommend two that we have stayed in ourselves. Both are in the same building as the 12 Decades Hotel, right on Fox Street and cost around 35€ a night. You have your own bathroom and shower and a small kitchen with a fridge.
One of the apartments is furnished in retro/vintage style, it has a comfy sofa and a desk and is on the second floor. The other one is on the fourth floor and looks out over the roofs of Johannesburg, it is kept mostly in grey with yellow elements lighting up the room and making it really comfortable.
What not to miss when in Johannesburg
Apart from Maboneng there are a few more really cool neighborhoods which you should check out when in Johannesburg. Go there on your own or take a guided tour.
Braamfontein is like Johannesburg’s college neighborhood and pretty hipster. You see a lot of cool young folks around, there are some cafes, bars, restaurants and nice shops in the area. Best to come on a Saturday when the famous Neighbourgoods Market takes place. Just like the Maboneng market, this one offers delicious food from all over the world and a few designers selling their crafts.
Above the market is a little rooftop patio. People take their food and drinks up there, soak up the sun and listen to live bands playing – the atmosphere is super cool! The market already closes at 3 pm, so make sure to come in time. No new visitors are admitted then, even if the place only empties slowly after 3.
The downtown area used to be Johannesburg’s financial and business center, nowadays many of the old buildings are squatted and decaying. With the beginning of Apartheid and the first riots that followed many banks and businesses moved away from the central area to the Northern districts.
You can move pretty freely downtown just make sure to avoid certain corners and streets. Johannesburg in general is not really a pretty city. There are a few buildings from the past but they too are mostly squatted or are not used any more. So you don’t really have to spend much time there.
But there is one thing you definitely should do: go up the Carlton Tower! It was one of the highest buildings in Africa and from here you have a fantastic view of the city and surroundings. Don’t be surprised by the noise, the wind up there is pretty strong.
Inner City Tour
We got to know downtown Johannesburg together with the guys of Curiocity Backpackers and had a lot of fun doing so. The tour starts at 10 am at the hostel and goes through Maboneng first, then to the Mai Mai Market, the oldest market for traditional healing in Johannesburg and then you get on a typical minibus to go to the downtown area. There you go straight up in the Carlton Tower, then to Gandi Square and past a few government buildings.
If you join the tour on a Saturday you also go to Braamfontein after the standard route and visit the cool Neighbourgoods Market. The tour ends around 3 pm and you will be a lot more knowledgable when it comes to the history of Johannesburg!
Soweto: the Southwestern township
Before we get started: Soweto is a lot different than you think! Unfortunately it is true: the media portraits Soweto as a poor slum where people live in rows of shanties of wooden boards and corrugated iron, filthy and without water or power. Yes, this part of Soweto also exists, but it is rather small, there may be a couple hundred people living like that.
The rest of the township looks like a common suburb, has supermarkets, schools and bus stops. 90% of Sowetos population belongs to the middle class and lives in normal, even quite spacious houses, some even have one or several cars in the garage or parked up front. And in most streets you will even be safer than downtown Johannesburg!
This really demonstrated to us once again that only travelling teaches you the essentials of life. Only when you have seen something with your own eyes do you know if it is true or not. We were pretty shocked by ourselves and disappointed, that we had had such a distorted picture of Soweto. All the better that we know now, what Soweto really looks like!
We also did the Soweto Tour with the Curiocity Backpackers crowd and learned quite a bit about the suburb and its past. You will also get to try a South African delicacy on this tour: the head of a cow with pap, a kind of firm corn porridge. You also have the opportunity to try spicy chicken claws and Johannesburg beer which tastes strongly of yeast.
We were also given enough time to visit the museum at the Hector Pieterson memorial and this way learned even more about Soweto and the riots of June 16, 1976 which cost the lives of hundreds of students, among them Hector Pieterson. We highly recommend taking a tour like this! Of course you can drive to Soweto on your own but you wouldn’t really know where to go and what places maybe not to go to.
Unfortunately we also saw a few buses crowded with tourists which don’t ever leave the bus and take pictures from behind the windows, they never leave their ‘safe space’ except for maybe a visit to a museum. Horrible! This is not how it should be and it is precisely because of commercial tour operators like these that Soweto and Johannesburg still have such a bad image…
A few more general tips for Johannesburg
Look after yourself, but don’t worry too much!
Yes, Johannesburg is not a safe city but it also won’t kill you. The weirder and more mistrusting you are the more you will attract bad fortune. Try to be normal, be open towards other people and don’t suspect every encounter with another person to be an assault. The people of Johannesburg are super nice most of the time and very warm and welcoming.
Just steer clear of certain areas, don’t walk around at night if you don’t have to and don’t openly display your valuables and you should be fine. One street you should avoid is Commissioner Street in the downtown area. A few of the squatted buildings there are inhabited by drug addicts that will do anything for their next fix.
Use Uber to get around!
Uber is very common in Johannesburg and you usually will get an Uber within 5 minutes that will take you wherever you need to go. The rides are pretty cheap and they are registered so you are super safe when travelling this way. We used Uber several times and always had really nice drivers!
You can also use Uber to go to the airport or from the airport to the city. The 20 minute trip cost us around 190 Rand, a little under 13 Euros. You can of course take a normal taxi but those are usually more expensive and often times the drivers will try to cheat you.
When we landed in Johannesburg we took a taxi that was ‘authorized’ by the airport and paid around 400 Rand for the same trip, so twice as much! We also saw money change hands between the airport employee and the taxi driver. When the meter then started racing and literally climbed from second to second at a red light we knew that something was wrong.
So: Use Uber and not the taxis that are expensive and less safe!
Conclusion: Johannesburg is not what you think it is!
Johannesburg really has a lot to offer and there are constantly more cool neighborhoods sprouting. One of them is Maboneng with its many restaurants and cafes, the cool art and small galleries. And even though you should avoid certain areas in Johannesburg and not wander around at night Johannesburg still is worth a visit and definitely will surprise you!
What picture do you have of Johannesburg? What things to do in Joburg can you recommend?