While all eyes are on Cape Town and the splashy new Zeitz Museum Of Contemporary Art Africa, Johannesburg, the city's gritty, sprawling big sister, has a newfound sophistication that might surprise you. Here are our top things to do in Joburg now.
The inner-city Maboneng precinct has become one of the hippest parts of town, especially around Arts on Main—a complex of industrial warehouses now hosting creative studios as well as Market on Main, a Sunday-only Mecca for regional food and design. Its crowning jewel is the Centre for the Less Good Idea, opened by South African artist William Kentridge as an experimental incubator for cross-disciplinary arts projects—dance, film, music, poetry, theater, digital and visual art—and "a safe space for failure,” where local practitioners test performance works on the public.
The Cosmopolitan, Maboneng
Joburg’s Hazard Gallery recently turned a Victorian hotel into a mod, pan-African art, food, and shopping hub called The Cosmopolitan. Some of the old guest rooms now display contemporary works from across the continent, while others have been converted into the boutiques of a Department Store stocking handcrafted designs from near and far (Ndebele-print handbags and slippers from Johannesburg-based Hamethop; bicycles that photographer Trevor Stuurman had beaded by masters in KwaNdebele). There’s also the regional Yswara tearoom and the ground-level Sphere Monk, with live jazz and refined artisanal fare (trio of beef, ostrich, and springbok tartars) featuring herbs plucked from the courtyard garden.
Hallmark House, Maboneng
Earlier this year, a circa-1970 diamond-polishing center reopened as a buzzy hotel and residential complex done up by the Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye. Inside the charcoal tower, you’ll find 46 guest rooms with brightly printed African textiles and bathrobes, Charlotte Rhys Cape Town bath products, and mini-bars stocking small-batch South African beers. A rooftop bar, spa, and swimming pool are set to be completed early next year. For now, don’t miss the speakeasy-like Marabi jazz bar in the basement, named after a style of music that emerged in South Africa’s townships in the early 1900s.
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Keyes Art Mile, Rosebank
Right next to the 104-year-old Everard Read—Africa’s oldest commercial art gallery—and the iconic curving façade of its innovative younger sister, Circa, you'll find a newly cobbled strip freshly planted with wild-olive and Buddleia trees alongside outposts of the most respected South African art and design businesses. Among the highlights: Cape Town’s SMAC, Southern Guild, and Whatiftheworld galleries, plus a just-opened flagship from Okapi, whose handbags are named after African goddesses and made in South Africa using only local materials like ostrich leather and springbok hair. And between the retro Milk Bar (boerewors rolls; bunny chows) and the rooftop, glass-walled Marble (locally inspired dishes grilled over a wood fire courtesy of chef David Higgs), you can eat really well here, too.
The Orbit Jazz Club, Braamfontein
Johannesburg has a rich jazz history, having birthed legends like saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi (a.k.a. “the father of South African jazz”) and the singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam “Mama Africa” Makeba. Recently opened within a converted warehouse in the up-and-coming Braamfontein district, The Orbit is where true aficionados go to hear the latest and greatest local musicians jam. You can also catch the resident salsa band, vinyl DJ sessions, a Fela Kuti tribute, even a comedy-and-jazz night.
Past Experiences, various locations
Joburg has been called Africa’s street art capital; everyone from the South African portraitist Nelson Makambo to Shepard Fairey has tagged its facades. With advanced degrees in archaeology and architecture focused on the heritage of Johannesburg’s graffiti, Jo Buitendach is one of the city’s most in-demand street guides, and has introduced his first walking tours. Itineraries are totally personalized, taking in the political history and contemporary street art of areas like Braamfontein, Maboneng, and Soweto—the latter including stops at Mandela House, Hector Pieterson Memorial, and the must-visit Apartheid Museum on the way—and lead by a local architect (heritage specialist Brian McKechnie) or graffiti artist (Bias, Mars), if not Jo herself.
The Saxon, Sandhurst
Before it became one of the country’s swankiest hotels, the art-filled Saxon was a private residence temporarily occupied by Nelson Mandela, who edited his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom in what is now the two-bedroom Platinum Suite. His one-time home now houses 53 elegant, butler-serviced rooms, some of them set within villas connected by a wood-planked footbridge. Even if you’re not spending the night, there’s good reason to visit. Mandela loved the Steak Diane at the regionally inspired Qunu (named after the eastern Cape Town where he was born), which also serves Namibian oysters and Natal lobster, plus milk bread and biltong butter. And don’t miss the just-launched Luke Dale-Roberts restaurant, an outpost of the chef’s perennially packed Test Kitchen in Cape Town. The newly revamped spa is also worth a stop: its treatment rooms feature chandeliers locally handcrafted from Himalayan salt and recycled glass, designed not only as striking centerpieces, but also to purify the air, stimulate circulation, and increase energy levels.
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Work Shop New Town
A couple of years ago, the duo behind Cape Town’s preeminent regional design gallery Southern Guild set up shop—or rather, a “contemporary market space for African creatives”—in the artsy, on-the-up Newtown precinct, where a mix of young Jozi artists, designers, and entrepreneurs now congregate and collaborate in a historic potato shed. Expect everything from Xhosa-inspired knitwear label MaXhosa by Laduma to exhibitions from the likes of the Ghanaian-American visual artist known as Citizins to a monthly Bite Club with local food stalls and lives music.