South Africa's largest city has hundreds of diverse areas, so knowing where to explore or to stay requires thought and planning. To help, Lonely Planet Local Heather Mason reveals Johannesburg's best neighbourhoods to venture into.

Some of the city's neighbourhoods are as large as several square kilometers, while others are as small as a couple of blocks. More often than not, they are all referred to as 'suburbs' in Johannesburg, regardless of their location. So, unlike elsewhere in the world, suburbs here can be in the heart of the city's downtown core.

A shot of an intersection, with a bright pink-and-orange sky backing the surrounding buildings and traffic. Maboneng is one of Johannesburg's best neighourhoods © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet
The sun goes down on Maboneng, one of Johannesburg's brightest neighbourhoods © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet

Maboneng

In the early 2000s, local property company Propertuity started buying up abandoned buildings in an industrial area east of the CBD, and transforming them into art galleries, retail space, and a boutique hotel. The development was named Maboneng, which means Place of Light, and Maboneng grew as Propertuity bought up more buildings and expanded into existing neighbourhoods.

Today, Maboneng has reached deep into the inner city suburbs of New Doornfontein and Jeppestown. Maboneng’s Sunday market, Market on Main, is one of downtown Jo’burg’s most popular weekend destinations, and the number of restaurants in Maboneng has increased exponentially over the past decade. Maboneng has a new upscale hotel, Hallmark House, and a fantastic backpackers called Curiocity. The area is also featured on many walking tours of the city.

This image looks up to two large brick buildings, one with a huge mural of a baobab tree. Between the two buildings is an alley, with a bright yellow entrance emblazoned with 'South Point'. Braamfontein is one of Johannesburg's best neighbourhoods © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet
The Grove is a cafe hub that is popular with local students and visitors alike © Heather Mason / Lonely Planets

Braamfontein

On the northern edge of the central business district (CBD), Braamfontein is home to the University of the Witwatersrand and hence is frequented by students and party animals. Braamfontein, nicknamed 'Braam' or 'Braamies', is best known for the Neighbourgoods Market on Saturday, where Jo’burg fashionistas go to sip afternoon cocktails on the market’s rooftop and where foodies taste their way through the various stalls. Braamfontein also boasts Jo’burg’s oldest bar, Kitchener's Carvery and the stunning Wits Art Museum. The Orbit jazz club is one of Jo’burg’s top live music venues, and bibliophiles will love the independent African Flavour Books.

A hip-looking gentleman – in red converse Chuck Taylor shoes, a trilby hat and jeans – sits in a deck chair on the pavement and plays a guitar that is laid flat across his lap. Melville is one of Johannesburg's best neighbourhoods © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet
Artists, academics and journalists visit Melville's main drag for its cafes, restaurants and second-hand shops  © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet

Melville

Melville is one of Jo’burg’s most centrally located suburbs, less than a 15-minute drive from downtown, and has dozens of quaint guesthouses to choose from. Melville’s main drag (7th Street) is lined with quirky restaurants, bars, and second-hand shops, and it's a popular student hangout on Friday and Saturday nights when it clogs with cars and revelers. But Melville has a completely different vibe during the day, when artists, academics and journalists gather at sunny pavement cafes nursing cappuccinos and glasses of wine.

For a tasty Melville breakfast or lunch, try Pablo Eggs Go Bar or Bread & Roses. Mooteebar is tops for cocktails, and Hell’s Kitchen offers craft beer and live music. The Melville Koppies Nature Reserve is popular with dog-walkers and has a beautiful view of the city skyline.

At the base of a large brick building is a bakery and coffee shop. Sitting on the corner, it has tables running down both streets. Patrons sit under umbrellas and dine, while a waiter walks out from the interior. Linden is one of Johannesburg's best neighbourhoods © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet
Linden may be a quiet suburb, but it's making noise in culinary circles with its wide-ranging eating options © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet

Linden

A quiet suburb northwest of downtown, Linden has recently gained a reputation as a foodie hotspot. Nearly every culinary genre is on offer – South African, Asian, Mexican, Indian, Italian, Argentinean – and it's also home to the best cheese shop in town, the Cheese Gourmet. Try Linden’s Craft Beer Library for a dizzying selection of local beers and good pub food. For a quiet cup of coffee, hit up Yield Coffee Bar at the corner of 3rd Avenue and 6th Street.

Orlando (Soweto)

Most people think Soweto is one huge township, but in fact it’s a collection of 30 smaller townships. Orlando, technically divided into Orlando East and Orlando West, is Soweto’s best-known township. Vilakazi Street is the only street in the world that was home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners: President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Vilakazi is Soweto’s tourism hub, with foreigners lining up to visit Mandela’s former home, have a traditional South African meal at Sakhumzi Restaurant, or buy souvenirs from one of countless street vendors. The nearby Hector Pieterson Museum is an informative and heartbreaking memorial to the 1976 Soweto Uprising.

For a fun overnight stay, book a room at Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers. The first black-owned youth hostel in South Africa, Lebo’s offers lively entertainment, local food, and cycling tours of Orlando and surrounds.

Parkhurst

Parkhurst, one of Jo’burg’s most glamourous suburbs, is frequented by ladies who lunch. Its 4th Avenue is known for its upscale restaurants – Coobs and Bottega cafes are two of the most popular – but for an affordable breakfast try the egg basket from Nice on 4th. Parkhurst is also home to a branch of Paul’s Homemade Ice Cream, which serves the best gourmet ice cream in town.

This image looks over a small rectangular-shaped pond that sits raised above the street's pavement. A statue of a fish jumps from one end of the pond, while a sculpture of a human with a long, elasticated neck stands at the other end. The human's neck arches over so that the human is looking back at its chest. Rosebank is one of Johannesburg's best neighbourhoods © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet
A sculpture by Norman Catherine stands outside the CIRCA Gallery on the Keyes Art Mile © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet

Rosebank

Rosebank is one of the few Jo’burg suburbs with its own Gautrain station. Easily accessible from the airport and with a plethora of hotel and shopping options, the area is experiencing explosive urban development and has a real big-city feel. Rosebank Mall is one of Jo’burg’s more pleasant shopping destinations, with two outdoor plazas and various pavement-dining options. And nearby is Keyes Art Mile, a fashionable block of galleries and cafes, which includes the avant-garde CIRCA Gallery and the chef David Higgs’ wildly popular Marble Restaurant.

Norwood

Norwood, along with Melville and Parkhurst, is one of Jo’burg’s most walkable suburbs. Grant Avenue has a number of great restaurants and a classy hotel bar called the Ascot, serving excellent cocktails. Satyagraha House, a high-end guesthouse on the outskirts of Norwood, is the restored former home of Mahatma Gandhi and includes a museum dedicated to the time Gandhi spent in South Africa.

Atop an octagon cement pillar is a plaque entitled 'Johannesburg City Heritage'. Its text speaks of the site of Red Square, which sits in the immediate background of the pillar. People walk about in various styles of dress: a woman in a long skirt and hijab; a man in a long robe and embroidered fez hat; a couple of men in jeans and hoody tops. Fordsburg is one of Johannesburg's best neighbourhoods © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet
Red Square in Fordsburg was a meeting point for political protests in the 1940s and 1950s © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet

Fordsburg

Fordsburg is Jo’burg’s historically ethnic Indian neighbourhood and a cultural centre for Muslim immigrants from all over the world. The Oriental Plaza, a sprawling mall where Indian shopkeepers were forced to relocate during the apartheid era’s forced removals, has become a cultural institution with its warren of colourful fabric shops and samoosa vendors. The Fordsburg Market, which takes place every weekend on Mint Road, is the place to browse cheap DVDs and fill up on South Asian street food. Don’t miss the sugar cane juice shop, hidden in the market’s interior, where juice is squeezed straight from fresh-cut cane.

Rivonia

Due to its location in Joburg’s far northern reaches, Rivonia doesn’t spring immediately to mind as a draw card for travellers. But it's worth visiting for two reasons: its proliferation of Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese restaurants; and Liliesleaf Farm, a former hideout for ANC and Communist party leaders during apartheid, which has been transformed into an excellent museum.

Stop for lunch at Chinese Northern Foods, one of Joburg’s most authentic Chinese restaurants, and then spend the afternoon learning about the 1964 Liliesleaf raid and the subsequent Rivonia Trial, when Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison.

Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter.

Explore related stories