Johannesburg is making a comeback, and it’s big. After almost 20 years of decline, “Jo’burg” has been on an upswing, transforming its aging downtown into the buzzing and energetic metropolis you’ll find today. Born in 1886 during the greatest gold rush of all time, the city’s rich history, combined with it’s current, cutting-edge revitalization, makes it easy to see why Jo’burg is more than worth a visit. The city’s past can’t (and shouldn’t!) be ignored, and the Apartheid Museum and Constitution Hill will guide you along South Africa’s decades of oppression as the country struggled for freedom, leading you to the moment the country had its first taste of liberation. But as important the city’s past is, modern and edgy is quickly becoming the name of the game, and the uber-trendy Maboneng Precinct is proof of the city’s transformation. Translating to “Place of Light,” this area plays host to contemporary art galleries, trendy restaurants, and offbeat cafes that even the most jaded hipster would love. With an optimistic future built on a poignant past, there’s no doubt about it- Jo’burg is back and ready to show off its eclectic juxtaposition of old and new to all who visit.
While Johannesburg is indeed large, tourist areas of interest are fairly compact. With some orientation and some map savviness, Jo’burg can be quite easily navigated. Central Jo’burg refers to the legion of skyscrapers and office buildings of the Central Business District, Braamfontein, and Joubert Park, as well a the high-rise residential apartments of Hillbrow and Berea. Yeoville, including Bellevue (immediately east of Yeoville across Cavendish St.) forms a buffer zone between the overflowing ghettos of Hillbrow and Berea and the middle-class residences of Observatory, Cyrildene, and Bruma. Melville, just north of Brixton and Braamfontein off Barry Hertzog Ave., is the trendiest of the northern suburbs, especially around 3rd and 7th Ave. West of the city beyond Newtown lies the working class residential area once reserved for Johannesburg’s Indian and “colored” populations - Brixton, Mayfair, and Amalgam.
For most visitors, Jo’burg’s pragmatic architecture, busy streets, and reputation as a mugging trap make it little more than a stopover point. But scattered among the grim office buildings are several hidden gems, ranging from museums to unique buildings to historic sites. In the city center, a lively informal economy of traders hawks everything from vegetables to VCRs - some of them of undoubtedly dubious origin. Outside the city center, the northern suburbs are glimmering pockets of affluence, while nearby Soweto reveals Jo’burg’s suffering - a visit to the township will give you real insight to Joburg’s surreal socioeconomic extremes.
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Dining options in Johannesburg run the gamut from cheap take-away chains that dominate downtown to flashier fast-food joint in the northern suburbs and expensive gourmet establishments. For the best combination of quality and convenience, Rosebank and its shopping centers offer dozens of concentrated options. The trendy suburb Melville is one of the most promising spots for great food and nightlife. Other worthwhile spots include: the Bruma/Eastgate area just east of Yeoville, with the newer of Johannesburg’s two Chinatowns: Oriental Plaza in Newtown, with some of the best Indian cuisine in Jo’burg served from its stalls and shops, and the Market Theatre Complex (MTC) on Bree St. in the Newtown Cultural Precinct. Even with all of these options, vegetarians in Jo’burg may still be forced to make do with very few menu choices. Unless otherwise stated, restaurants accept major credit cards and are fully licensed to sell alcoholic beverages.
The many cultures that have contributed to South Africa’s history have also contributed to its cuisine. At an early stage, cooking was profoundly influenced by the Far Eastern slaves who were brought to the area by the Dutch. These slaves infused traditional Dutch dishes with spices, leading to the creation of such dishes as sosaties - kebabs in a spicy marinade - and bobotie - minced lamb or beef with a top of baked egg, milk, and toasted almonds. Curries, also a product of the Malay influence, are usually served with spicy, flavorful sauces, chutney (onions and fruits cooked with spices and vinegar), and atchars (pickles).
Traditional black “chow” (food in South Africa slang) relies heavily on beans, grains, and corn. Putu, a staple of the Zulu diet, is made by cooking cornmeal (known as “mealie meal”) into a stiff, dry porridge and is eaten with amasi, a sour milk. The Afrikaners have developed their own version called pap which they serve with sweet tomato and onion relish known as sous. Cooked greens maize and roasted mealie (corn) on the cob are favorite snacks, especially in cities. Homemade brews from cornmeal, sorghum seeds, or millet are common beverages.
The Great Trek resulted in some unique ways to preserve food as the Afrikaners made the long trip across arid territories. The best-known and perhaps best-tasting is biltong - salted, spiced, and air-dried beef. Beef or lamb ribs were pickled in brine to make soutribbetjies, and scones were dried to make beskuit (called rusks in English) to be dunked in tea or coffee. Bredie, a stew of vegetables and meat, was cooked over campfires in three-legged, round-bellied iron pots. Potjiekos, or pot food, consists of layers of pork, beef, lamb, and different vegetables simmered over a low fire to blend the flavors and make the meat melt-in-the-mouth tender.
South African barbecues, or braaivleis (more commonly known as braai), also derived from the Great Trek. The staple is lamb chops, and boerewors, a juicy sausage with coarsely-chopped beef, pork, herbs, and spices. Vetkoeks (fat cakes), made from yeast dough deep-fried in oil and eaten with savory mince or Bovril (South African-style Vegemite), are a dinner favorite.
Traditional African sweets include melkert (milk tart), soetkoekies, cookies from the Cape Area, and koeksusters, small plaited portions of dough, deep-fried and then dipped in a syrupy sauce which they soak up to become very sweet and moist. These have been adopted into black culture and are called itwist.
Specialties of Durban’s Indian population include: samosa, a three-sided, deep-fried triangle with spicy meat and vegetable fillings; biryani, a blend of meat and spices marinated overnight in yogurt, and roti, a flat bread.
South Africa is home to a thriving wine industry, initiated in 1655 when the first governor of the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck, planted a vineyard and produced the first Cape wine. Cape vineyards now offer 21,000 wines from which to choose. Revelers may come across local and home-brewed specialties such as “cane,” a spirit distilled from sugar cane and frequently mixed with Coca-Cola. Beer brands in South Africa include Lion, Castle, Hansa, and Ohlssons, and are consumed with gusto at braai and sporting events. Maheu is a thick and sour homemade beer with a sorghum base.
Heed the warnings of an earned nickname; Yeoville, Hillbrow, and Berea are not referred to as “thieves’ paradise” for nothing. Mugging and car theft are not uncommon. Exercise 24 hour caution and hit the streets in groups.
When Yeoville turned to the Dark Side, Melville became the guardian of Jo’burg’s nightlife. This part of the town resembles London’s Camden Town in all its splendors, with a sense of safety that is quite un-Jo’burg. Of course, always remain careful: if you found your way here, so might Jo’burg’s less upstanding citizens.
The evolution of some South African holidays manifests how South Africa has changed over the past decade. December 16th - once called the Day of the Vow to celebrate the Boers’ pact with God that led to their victory in the Battle of Blood River - is now Reconciliation Day. Most businesses are closed on holidays. If a public holiday falls on a Sunday, it will be celebrated the following Monday.
South Africans are generally very outgoing. Many will engage you in conversation, often enthusiastically referring to the popular topic of national sports. White South African have continental manners. Initiating conversations with a firm handshake is key. Make eye contact and don’t put your hands in your pockets while talking to someone. When you arrive at the airport, you might be greeted by porters with cupped hands. These men are not begging; rather they are indicating that they will be grateful for any tip you may give them.
Always receive gifts and reach for things with two hands. Ladies don’t always go first; African men usually enter the door before women do. Greetings are usually more involved than a simple “hello” - you should ask how someone and their family is doing.
If you plan to visit a Zulu village or homestead, wait to enter until people notice you and invite you in. Do not stand when a Zulu chief or high ranking official walks toward you; your head should always be below his. Accept offers of food or drink (refusing them is insulting). Don’t be surprised if children are shy when you approach them. People who are younger than you will not make eye contact and will not speak until you address them.
Do not point; it’s rude, and it looks like you are trying to challenge someone. Indicate where objects are with an open hand instead. Making a “V” with your middle and index fingers with your palm facing your body is very insulting.