Lonely Planet Local Heather Mason moved to Johannesburg in 2010. Enchanted, she soon fell in love with Melville – the quirky, tree-lined suburb where she now lives – and later the gritty inner city, with its coffee houses, evolving foodie scene and hidden pockets of art, culture and music. She doesn't think she’ll ever leave.

Two employees of Flynn Coffee stand smiling with arms around each others shoulders, with espresso machines behind and cakes in front. All backed by a retro brick wall. © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet
Flynn Coffee, one of the many new options in Johannesburg for lovers of fair trade and single-origin African coffees  © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet

A typical weekend involves... at least one coffee date. The number of indie coffee shops in Johannesburg – many serving fair trade and single-origin African coffees – has exploded recently. My favorite new discovery is Flynn Coffee, hidden amidst a jumble of furniture warehouses in the northern suburb of Kramerville.

Sunday is the best day to visit Maboneng, a regenerated section of downtown where everyone goes to see and be seen. Maboneng hosts a Sunday market, Market on Main, and is crammed with shops, restaurants, galleries, and street vendors.

A singer belts out jazz vocals, backed by three different drummers, a guitarist, percussionist and back-up singer in the Orbit jazz club. Guests sitting around raised tables enthusiastically watch on. © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet
Live jazz at the Orbit in Braamfontein is a great choice when going for a big night out  © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet

When I’m up for a big night out… ​I book a table at the Orbit jazz club in Braamfontein. The Orbit is the best spot in town for live jazz, with top local and international artists performing nearly every night of the week. The club has a locals-only vibe and serves decent food. My last trip to the Orbit was to see BCUC, an 'afro-psychedelic' band from Soweto.

For cheap eats… I love Fordsburg, Johannesburg’s historically Indian neighbourhood west of downtown. The area has dozens of restaurants serving inexpensive and delicious curries, as well as a busy weekend market at the corner of Mint Rd and Albertina Sisulu Rd. The Mint Rd Market is the place to go for spicy chicken on a stick or freshly pressed sugarcane juice.

The Oriental Plaza, also in Fordsburg, is home to World of Samoosas (the South African version of samosas, with two o’s instead of one). A dozen samoosas will cost you less than R60 (US$5), and it’s the only place in town (maybe the world) selling sweet coconut samoosas.

One thing I hate about Johannesburg is… Parktown prawns. These massive, cricket-like insects (longer than a man’s thumb) live nowhere on earth except Johannesburg. They creep into the house during rainstorms and – while harmless – can strike fear into the heart of even the most stoic Jo'burger. Parktown prawns have a hard exoskeleton and are virtually impossible to kill. If you try to kill one, it’s likely to spray you with smelly brown liquid. Oh, and they can jump too.

Stone Hill, a petite wooden cottage sits nestled in long grass with the rolling hills around Magaliesburg © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet
Stone Hill, one of many self-catering lodges in the rolling green hills around Magaliesberg that make for a great escape from city life  © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet

When I want to get out of the city… I head to Magaliesburg, home to one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges, which is an hour northwest of Johannesburg. There are several great self-catering lodges in the area – my favorite is called Stone Hill – as well as a quirky little town with an ancient train station and interesting shops. Nearby Mountain Sanctuary park is perfect for hiking.

I know I’m a Jo'burger because… I complain about the weather when there’s absolutely no reason to do so. I have come to expect meteorological perfection. Johannessburg may be in Africa, but its high altitude and low humidity mean pleasantly warm summers and cool winters. Winters are dry, with little to no rain between May and September, and summers bring refreshing, dramatic thunderstorms. The lack of central heating in the city makes for some unpleasantly chilly weeks in July and August, but otherwise the weather is perfect. Complaining about it is ridiculous.

Looking down the long aisle of the Cathedral of Christ the King in Hillbrow. The towering vertical walls to the left and right are brilliantly lit stained glass windows, above is a modern vaulted ceiling. © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet
The little-visited but inspiring interior of the Cathedral of Christ the King in Hillbrow  © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet

My favourite places in the city… include the Melville Koppies, a nature reserve in Melville with million-year-old rocks and impressive skyline views. I love the vibe in Linden, another leafy suburb with a perfect combination of coolness and quirk. Check out Tonic, a new Linden gin bar, and Cheese Gourmet, which offers the best local cheeses in the country. And I love the Cathedral of Christ the King. Since the cathedral is in Hillbrow, a notorious downtown neighborhood known for crime, almost no one goes there. But the cathedral is in pristine condition and the wall-to-wall stained glass windows are awe-inspiring.

Looking out over downtown Jo'burg's many skyscrapers from 5101, a new events venue in Ponte City cylindrical tower © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet
The view over Johannesburg to the hills of Magaliesberg beyond from 5101 in the Ponte City cylindrical tower  © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet

For a great view of the city… 5101, a new events venue in Ponte City, offers the best view by a long shot. Ponte City is an architectural marvel – a cylinder-shaped skyscraper with a hollow core – and is the highest residential building in Africa. 5101 is on the building’s second-to-top floor, and on rainy days it is literally above the clouds. On clear days I could spend hours looking out the window, which looms over the densely packed Hillbrow apartment blocks and offers views all the way to Magaliesburg.

Another good shout is the Top of Africa at the Carlton Centre. The tallest building in Africa, it's smack in the middle of downtown Johannesburg. While the 50th-floor viewing desk is run-down, it provides great views in every direction and costs R15 (less than US$2) to visit. The frenetic shopping mall on the Carlton’s lower floors is also fun to explore.

The writer Heather Mason stands smiling and surrounded by cds and cassettes in the Vinyl Joint on Eloff Street, downtown Johannesburg © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet
Have music, will play. Heather looks happy to have found the musical feast at 13 Eloff St  © Heather Mason / Lonely Planet

What I love most about Jo'burg… is that it can be a difficult city to get to know. There are few resources for tourists. But this weakness is also a strength. I’m still discovering whole hidden sections of the city with weird and wonderful shops, secret coffee bars, and abandoned buildings full of graffiti. I never get tired of exploring. My favorite recent discovery is 13 Eloff St downtown, where you can buy great African cassette tapes and CDs for pennies.

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