Marshalltown & Newtown
Ask South Africans what they think about downtown Johannesburg and the chances are they’ll say ‘unsafe’ and 'run-down'. Savvy locals, though, will speak differently about central Jozi. Large areas of the Inner City are being upgraded and modernised. Sure, there remain a number of dodgy enclaves, but what was before a no-go zone is regaining attractiveness.
One of the most appealing (and safest) areas is Marshalltown, Jo'burg's financial and corporate district, where you'll find many mining-company and bank head offices. Amid the imposing skyscrapers are plenty of small-scale sights and during the day it's generally safe to explore on your own – although you'll get more out of the experience if you have a guide.
The revival of Newtown itself has slowed in recent years as other areas have risen in the hip stakes, but it's still home to some decent museums, the Market Theatre complex and the new Newtown Junction mall.
During the day you can walk pretty safely around the area west of the Carlton Centre and south of Rahima Moosa St, but it pays to keep your wits about you, especially around Park Station. Don't flash around valuables such as cameras and watches, and avoid carrying bags.
A resounding triumph of urban renewal, Braamfontein is one of Jo'burg's proudest examples of the continuous effort to transform once-neglected neighbourhoods into vibrant, modernised areas. Braamfontein is also the city's student capital – it's home to the University of Witwatersrand campus and a number of cool cafes.
Hillbrow, Berea & Yeoville
Dominated by two iconic buildings – the 269m Telkom Tower and the cylindrical Ponte City – Hillbrow and neighbouring Berea and Yeoville were once the liveliest and most interesting suburbs in the city where South Africans of all races lived side by side. However, from the late 1980s, when whites began to flee the inner city, they became marked as 'grey zones' devoid of basic utilities and policing.
These densely populated neighbourhoods still have a reputation for crime but are also very lively and colourful, with a mixed pan-African population and vibrant street markets during the day. If you venture here, it's best to do so with a savvy guide, such as those from Dlala Nje.
The gritty eastern fringe of downtown Jo'burg is still labelled on maps as New Doornfontein and Jeppestown. But everyone now calls it Maboneng (www.mabonengprecinct.com) – a Sotho word, meaning ' place of light', that was coined by the area's key property developer Propituity. A breeding ground of creativity and innovation stacked with galleries, artist studios and cultural spaces, cool bars, coffee shops, restaurants, boutiques and startups, Maboneng is an exemplar of Jo'burg’s vision for the future.
Be sure to explore the buzzing streets of this hipster paradise and soak up its vibrant atmosphere. But also be savvy about how far away from the main precinct (generally bordered by Berea Rd to the west and Aurer St to the east, Main St to the south and Beacon St/Albertina Sisulu Rd to the north) you wander – it's still rough around the edges here. During the day the free Maboneng Shuttle runs in a circuit around the area.
Across South Africa iconic images of Nelson Mandela (or Madiba as he is respectfully known) are common. Jo'burg is no exception and tracking down some of its Madiba artworks is a great way to view different aspects of the city.
Start in Maboneng, where you can gaze up at a 10-storey-tall mural by Capetonian street artist Freddy Sam (aka Ricky Lee Gordon), inspired by the famous photo taken by Bob Gosani of Madiba in 1952. The mural was commissioned as a tribute on Mandela's death in 2013 and completed four days later.
The very same Gosani image is the basis for the 5m-tall painted steel Shadow Boxing Sculpture by Jo'burg artist Marco Cianfanelli that punches proud opposite Chancellor House where Mandela and Oliver Tambo set up South Africa's first black-owned law firm.
Next raise a glass at the bar of the once very exclusive (but not any more) Rand Club, then head upstairs to admire a fine portrait of Mandela in elder statesman mode.
Finally hop in a taxi and head for Sandton's Nelson Mandela Square, where a 6m-high bronze statue of Nelson Mandela, sculpted by Kobus Hattingh and Jacob Maponyane, is a favourite spot for selfies.
Monthly Arts Events
Jo'burg's contemporary visual arts scene is well worth taking the time to discover, and helping that process is First Thursday. This event, which takes place on the evening of the first Thursday of the month, focuses on the galleries in three main areas: around what is dubbed the Keyes Art Mile in Rosebank such as Everard Read and CIRCA Gallery; those clustered close to Wits Art Museum in Braamfontein, such as Stevenson; and the art spaces of Maboneng, including Arts on Main and Hazard. Exhibition openings, pop-ups and other special events are scheduled to happen on the night, with participants encouraged to walk between each venue. Rosebank is the most happening area with a street-party atmosphere around Milk Bar, where gourmet food and bar trucks set up and DJs and singers provide musical entertainment.
Not to be outdone, the galleries and art spaces around Troyeville hold the First Sunday in the Valley Jozi! event during the day on the first Sunday of the month. This is a great time to drop by the unique Spaza Art Gallery as it usually hosts a lunch in its sculpture garden.
Nothing encapsulates the changing fortunes of downtown Jo'burg better than Ponte City, which can be visited on tours with Dlala Nje. This 54-storey cylindrical skyscraper with 484 apartments was conceived in the 1970s as the pinnacle of high-rise living in the city. However, by the late 1980s, as white South Africans abandoned the inner city, the building was hijacked by squatters. As this part of Jo'burg became a 'grey area' without basic utilities or policing, Ponte City was declared a vertical urban slum: some 10,000 people lived here with no running water or electricity.
Flash forward a couple of decades and Ponte City's fortunes are swinging back to its original conception. The building's owner, Kempston, has taken back control and refurbished the structure, which is now generally safe and home to an ethnically mixed community of working- and middle-class South Africans. For a great insight into their lives and wonderful photography, search out the book Ponte City by Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse.
Dlala Nje's work with the local community, particularly the young, has been a huge success. In December 2017 the social enterprise opened the bar 5101 on the 51st floor and there are plans for a climbing wall up the side of 173m building. Dlala Nje also manages a couple of Airbnb rental apartments should you wish to stay overnight here.