Overview

Johannesburg, South Africa, is often affectionately called Jo'burg, Joeys or Jozi. The city was founded in 1886 on one of the richest gold reefs in the world and started life as a simple wagon camp for early prospectors on the bare, open Highveld. Johannesburg quickly grew into the economic powerhouse of southern Africa and the largest urban space in sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite being predominantly a business destination, Johannesburg has a wealth of urban attractions, such as art galleries, museums, parks and zoos. Gold Reef City (the oldest and last of Johannesburg's gold mines to be shut down) is now a theme park and mine tour, where visitors can explore Johannesburg's legacy of gold mining. The countryside, too, is easily accessible—craft markets, country inns, wildlife projects, dams and mountains offer a breath of fresh air.

To the southeast of Johannesburg is famous Soweto (an acronym for South West Township), where black people were restricted to living during apartheid. Soweto holds an important place in the heart of modern South Africa for its activities and the rise of peoples' voices that contributed to the demise of apartheid. The vibrant township spawned activists Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, among many others. Soweto tours are hugely popular with international visitors, and museums such as the Apartheid Museum and Hector Pieterson Museum also tell the story.

Johannesburg is very modern by African standards, but crime can be a problem—you'll be reminded over and over that you shouldn't walk downtown after business hours and that you shouldn't carry a purse or wear expensive jewelry. The authorities are addressing the problem successfully and constructively, however. Most hotels and nightlife are in the safer suburbs, you can visit major tourist attractions safely, and a number of half- and full-day city tours are offered.

Geography

Johannesburg is built on an eastern plateau of South Africa known as the Highveld at an altitude of 5,751 ft/1,783 m above sea level. It was founded as a gold-mining city, and mine dumps—piles of yellow sand that were excavated from mines over the decades—are its prominent feature. These are now gradually disappearing as a result of development and as mines extract the remaining gold. Although the region was once a bare, grassy plain, trees were planted and streets laid out to dramatically change the landscape. Johannesburg now has an estimated 6 million-plus trees, which in turn attract abundant birdlife.

The urban sprawl of the metropolitan area covers approximately 635 sq mi/1,650 sq km and is divided into more than 600 suburbs. These include central downtown to the south (also referred to as the CBD); the upmarket suburbs of Sandton, Rosebank, Hyde Park, Rivonia and Fourways to the north; the O.R. Tambo International Airport and large industrial areas to the northeast; and Soweto and its many neighborhoods to the southwest.

The N1 Highway runs past Soweto before heading through the northern suburbs and then on to Pretoria (South Africa's seat of government), 30 mi/50 km to the north. Suburbs and industries line the highway, effectively joining Johannesburg with Pretoria.

History

From 1835, the Boer inhabitants of the Cape (descendants from the early Dutch settlers of the 1600s) felt increasingly intimidated by the arrival of the British. Many thousands loaded up their ox wagons and either headed east from the Cape over the Drakensberg Mountains or northeast to the relatively untouched Highveld, an empty area of grassy, uncultivated plains. The hardy journey over mountains and across rivers still populated by wild animals became known as the Great Trek, and the Boers became known as Voortrekkers. There they set up simple farms and administered the region as the Transvaal Republic and Orange Free State. In 1886, their rural existence was shattered almost overnight by the discovery of gold, which drew prospectors, investors and fortune hunters from across the globe.

Johannesburg, named after two town planners, each with the name Johannes, grew quickly as the gold poured into the world's stock exchanges and banks. Johannesburg was a formal city by the 1920s. But life among the black mine workers, white mine managers and government officials became increasingly segregated. As early as 1913, legislation was in place that prohibited blacks from buying land in white areas.

After World War II, an economic boom in Johannesburg drew more rural Africans into the city. This fueled an Afrikaner national sentiment, and the National Party came to power in 1948 on a platform of apartheid (which means "being apart" in Afrikaans). Its policy was for a white minority to keep control of the black majority. To do this, blacks were increasingly administered to under a different set of laws, and legislation was passed against mixed-race marriages. Black people were permitted to move freely to their places of work, but they were restricted to inferior and separate living areas. If they refused to move, their homes were razed and they were forced to relocate. Every aspect of daily life between blacks and whites was segregated.

In Johannesburg, the blacks were forced to live in Soweto (short for South West Township), which subsequently played an important part in the fight against apartheid and was home to many of the leading activists. Soweto experienced serious riots in 1976 by students, now known as the Soweto Uprising, sparked by a ruling that Afrikaans was to be the primary language to be used in African schools. The riots were violently suppressed, and 176 people were killed; an event that made headlines and raised awareness of what was going on in South Africa around the world.

By the end of the 1980s, there was great international pressure on the South African government to reform apartheid policies. After F.W. de Klerk became president, he unbanned the African National Congress (ANC) and other opposition parties, released political prisoners (including Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu) and began to develop reform legislation. In the early 1990s, de Klerk and Nelson Mandela, then the newly appointed leader of the ANC, negotiated a peaceful end to apartheid, for which they won the Nobel Peace Prize jointly in 1993. The following year, South Africa held its first democratic election, and the ANC won by a resounding majority. Mandela became the country's first black president. He stepped down as president in 1999 and retired from public life in 2004.

The end of Apartheid had a dramatic effect on Johannesburg. No longer restricted to the townships, black people moved back into the city center and suburbs that were once whites-only enclaves such as Yeoville, Hillbrow and Berea. The 1980s and '90s also saw a largely unchecked immigration surge of Africans from other countries. The whites retreated to the affluent northern suburbs of Sandton, Rosebank, Randberg, Rivonia, Parkhurst and Mellville. The city center was transformed from a sleek modern grid of office blocks to a vibrant, lively, authentic African city with a clamoring street life, not dissimilar to Nairobi or Dar es Salaam, though sadly not without a new set of problems.

The crime rate in the city center soared, mainly attributed to illegal immigrants without legal status to work in the country, and the unemployed turning to crime to make a living. The result was that businesses moved out and relocated to new business parks and shopping malls in the northern suburbs. Most of the skyscrapers were left standing empty with evidence of broken windows, vandalism and squatting. By the mid-1990s, Johannesburg's city center was an abandoned and lawless place that had been dubbed one of the world's most dangerous cities.

But things have improved greatly, and a number of city improvement initiatives have enhanced the physical and social environment of the city center. These include extra policing, CCTV cameras, maintenance of public spaces and pedestrianizing certain streets to form attractive precincts. As a result, businesses such as banks, shops, restaurants, art galleries and theaters, among other investors, are moving back in. Much of the city center is now a safe, clean and pleasant place to visit again, and vast improvements are happening all the time.

Sightseeing

Johannesburg has a diverse number of attractions for visitors. It is the best destination in the country for museums, which cover a range of topics from culture, apartheid, gold mining, archaeology, transport and the military—even beer.

Of these, the moving and world-acclaimed Apartheid Museum is worth at least a few hours to soak up the full story, whatever your knowledge of South Africa's history. Next door, learn another important part of Johannesburg's history at Gold Reef City, where you can drop down a mine shaft or watch a gold bar being poured. There's also plenty of action on the rides in the adjoining theme park.

A half-day tour of Soweto takes in the major sights and can be teamed with an African lunch in a shebeen (township pub). Although there are many sights in the city center, such as the Newtown district, it is best explored on a guided, combined minibus and walking tour, which usually finishes with a panoramic view of Johannesburg from the 50th floor of the Carlton Centre, known as the "Top of Africa."

On a sunny day, Johannesburg's open spaces provide great spots to enjoy the trees and birdlife. Zoo Lake is an attractive park surrounding an ornamental lake, and across the road, Johannesburg Zoo has an extensive collection of animals in spacious enclosures.

Beyond the city are tranquil and well-established botanical gardens, and an hour's drive to the north are the Magaliesberg Mountains, which are good for a country escape. The various wildlife centers offer opportunities to get close to African animals for those not going on safaris in South Africa's parks and reserves.

Nightlife

Johannesburg's nightlife is typical of any modern city. There are trendy cocktail bars, large-scale dance clubs, fashionable hotel bars, grunge hangouts and lively shebeens in the townships. Many of the restaurants and cafes get more alcoholic and crank up the tunes as the evening wears on.

Many venues are located in shopping malls, and the casino complexes also have bars and clubs. There are several live-music venues, especially for jazz. The local version of hip-hop or rap, called kwaito, is popular on dance floors.

Melville is the place to go for a bar crawl, where a block of streets is home to many little laid-back bars, restaurants and cocktail lounges.

Melrose Arch and Nelson Mandela Square are the places to go to people-watch. The busiest night for going out is Saturday, though Wednesday is popular, too. Friday is a popular day for Jo'burg residents to meet up for drinks after work.

Dining

Johannesburg has a wealth of excellent restaurants, and just about every world cuisine is offered. Because of South Africa's love of shopping malls, a number of restaurants, bars and coffee shops are located there, but many have outside seating and extended hours after the shops have closed.

One of the best malls for dining is Nelson Mandela Square adjoining Sandton City in the northern suburbs. It has an attractive and atmospheric piazza lined with some of the city's best restaurants. A giant bronze statue of Mandela smiles over diners at the alfresco tables.

Not far from there, The Mall of Rosebank has a number of good eateries along its tree-lined streets. Melrose Arch has another square lined with trendy spots, and the Hyde Park Corner mall has some excellent restaurants among its luxury boutiques.

The large casino complexes feature a variety of restaurants, dinner theaters and food courts, and many of the top hotels have a range of places open to nonguests.

There are a few distinctive restaurant districts where a variety of establishments cluster on one or two streets, making them ideal places to wander up and down until something catches your fancy. These include Melville, where restaurants and dozens of small bars line a block of streets; the roundabout on Gleneagles Road in Greenside; and many streets in Parkhurst and Parktown North. These restaurant districts are all located in the northern suburbs.

Johannesburg's Chinatown is east of the city on Derrick Avenue in Cyrildene. A line of mostly unnamed and very cheap restaurants decorate themselves with red lanterns and dead ducklings. These restaurants serve up delicious, authentic food.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on dinner for one, not including tax, tip or drinks: $ = less than R100, $$ = R100-R200, $$$ = R201-R300, $$$$ = more than R300.

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