Johannesburg

The Joburg Explorer's Bucket List: What to do and see in the Joburg Inner-City

11 Jan 2019
created 07 Jan 2019
Sunset over the downtown Joburg skyline
Sunset over the downtown Joburg skyline
Photo by Anton Bosman
Undoubtedly one of the most vibrant, historically rich, diverse and exciting areas of Joburg, the Joburg inner-city (also referred to as the City Centre, town or CBD) has also unfortunately often been the victim of a bad reputation. Downtown Joburg's negative reputation grew out of the crime wave and urban decay that rocked the area in the 1990 causing big business to flee north to the new Sandton suburbs and property owners to abandon their buildings to squatters. However, fast forward some 20 years and the Joburg inner city has a completely new lease on life. Business is reviving, buildings are being restored, neighbourhoods like the historic Mining District enjoy a charming pavement cafe culture and locals and visitors alike are starting to see the inner city in a new light.

For the Joburg explorer, we think that the adventure should always begin downtown. From awesome selfie opportunities, thrilling city tours, colourful street art, impressive historic architecture, sky high viewpoints and shopping for the pan-African fashionista, here's our bucket list of activities and sights to earn your "Been there, done that" Joburg T-shirt.

1. CYCLE THROUGH THE CITY WITH MAINSTREETWALKS
A youthful tour company headed by the unofficial Mayor of Maboneng, Bheki Dube (who also founded the Maboneng Precinct's Curiocity Backpackers), MainStreetWalks encourages people to get off the tour bus and onto the street. Discover the inner-city's rich public art landscape on the East City Cycle tour or take a stroll through the neighbourhood by night on the Maboneng Night Walk and Penthouse Dinner tour.

2. HANG OUT WITH BRAAMFONTEIN’S HIPSTERS
Known for its youthful energy, abundant and colourful street art and busy nightlife, Joburg’s student heartland Braamfontein is particularly lively on Saturdays, when the streets fill with street fashion rebels, creatives, fixie bike hipsters and the young-at-heart seeking a faster pace than the northern suburbs. Chill out with the hipsters at the Neighbourgoods market, catch an exhibition at the Kalashnikovv and Stevenson galleries and make sure to also pay a visit to the Wits Art Museum, before ending off the day bar hopping along Juta, De Beer and Reserve Streets.
 
Neighbourgoods Market on a Saturday in Braamfontein

3. WATCH THE SUNSET FROM A CITY ROOFTOP
Joburg is the perfect town for sundowners, even in the middle of summer the sun still sets relatively early and an abundance of rooftop bars also means that you can enjoy expansive views of the city with your sunset. Hands down the best view in the very centre of downtown Joburg is that which is found at the Elevate bar, which towers 16 floors above the city on the top of the Reef Hotel. Alternatively for something a little closer to the ground head to the nearby Kafe Noir's 4th floor beach-style rooftop space for cheap beers, delicious Congolese-style grilled fish and a game of pool.

6. JOIN JOBURG'S SKATER BOIS ON THE CITY SKATE TOUR
Learn to skate and earn your 'street cred' while zipping through the streets of the inner-city with self-confessed skater boi Ayanda Mnyandu's City Skate Tours. Mnyandu's energetic tours start with a quick lesson on how to skate and are liberally peppered with fascinating anecdotes about the Joburg inner city's history. 
 
Exploring the city with City Skate Tours

4. SAMPLE CRAFT GIN AND CRAFT BEER AT 1 FOX PRECINCT
Science meets craft spirits at the 1 Fox Precinct, home to craft beer label Mad Giant and craft gin label the Ginologist.  Sample the Ginologist's gins at The Little Fox cocktail bar adjoining the distillery or check out chemical engineer-turned-brewer Eben Uys' Mad Giant latest creations at the impressive Mad Giant craft brewery.

5. VISIT THE ICONIC PONTE TOWER AND EXPERIENCE HILLBROW AND YEOVILLE WITH DLALA NJE
Join Dlala Nje for one of their memorable walking tours of the infamous inner-city neighbourhoods of Hillbrow (Saturdays) and Yeoville (Sundays). Offering a different perspective of these much-maligned neighbourhoods, at the start of the Hillbrow tour you’ll get awe-inspiring views from the 52nd floor of Hillbrow’s Ponte building where Dlala Nje's event space 5101 is based and on the Yeoville you can take a culinary walk through the pan-African cuisine of Yeoville's busy Rockey Street.
 
A visit to the Yeoville Market on Dlala Nje's Taste of Yeoville walking tour

7. ENJOY BRAAMFONTEIN'S FIRST THURSDAYS ART PARTY
Every first Thursday of the month, you can look forward to contemporary art, live music, DJ sets, poetry, performance art and pop-up bars in Braamfontein as part of First Thursdays art party. Look out for exhibitions at Stevenson, Kalashnikovv Gallery, The Artivist and Wits Art Museum.

8. SHOP AT FORDSBURG'S ORIENTAL PLAZA
More of a bazaar than a mall, the Oriental Plaza takes over an entire city block in the historic neighbourhood of Fordsburg on the western fringes of the city centre and boasts over 350 stores selling everything from unusual spice mixes and sari silks to haberdashery and African fashion. Originally an attempt to compensate Indian shop owners whose businesses had been destroyed when the apartheid-era municipality brutally demolished the vibrant nearby suburb of Fietas, today the Oriental Plaza is a shopping mecca. 
 
View over Fordsburg from the Oriental Plaza. Photo by Justin Lee

9. FIND YOUR NEXT READ AT THE RAND CLUB
One of South Africa's foremost book traders and a legend among Joburg's book collectors, James Findlay's bookshop finds its home in the historic Rand Club. A historic members-only club founded in 1887, the Rand Club's lavish interiors include a beautiful entrance hall with an impressive stained glass dome and grand staircase and in impressive wood-panelled bar that is said to be the longest in Africa. Findlay's grand bookshop which specialises in rare and collectable books and maps is located in the building's basement where club members used to enjoy theatre productions and games of billiards.

10. DISCOVER JOBURG'S GRAFFITI SCENE
Joburg has a thriving graffiti artist network and culture and regular festivals like the annual City of Gold graffiti festival organised by Braamfontein's dedicated graffiti gallery Grayscale also attract numerous international street artists to the city. In Braamfontein, Newtown and Maboneng, scores of murals by local and international artists enliven spaces, create reasons to pause along busy streets and add colour to the concrete cityscape. Past Experiences, MainStreetWalks and Jozy Triangel all lead excellent city walking tours that highlight Joburg's abundant public art.
 
Murals at Constitution Hill by Nard Star, Braamfontein

11. CATCH A PLAY AT THE MARKET THEATRE
Historically known as 'South Africa's Theatre of the Struggle', during apartheid the Market Theatre was one of the few South African cultural institutions to openly challenge racial segregation. Nowadays the theatre focuses on developing and promoting new talent and is famous for its ground-breaking drama productions based on the works of local and international playwrights. If you are looking for the best of new African theatre and well as classic South African plays, this is the place.

12. TAKE THE KIDS FOR AN INTERACTIVE SCIENCE LESSON AT SCI-BONO 
Get switched on at Joburg's science museum, where the educational and interactive exhibits engage and entertain growing minds. Designed specifically with children and teenagers in mind, the Sci-Bono Discovery covers a wide array of topics such as space, anatomy, chemistry, geography, engineering and physics, and offers something for all ages.

13. SPEND A SUNDAY IN MABONENG
Labelled by Forbes’ magazine as one of Africa's coolest neighbourhoods, the trendy Maboneng precinct is at its best on Sundays when the popular Market on Main is in full swing. The Sunday heartbeat of Maboneng, Market On Main takes over two floors of the regenerated neighbourhood's pioneer development Arts on Main. After exploring the market, take your pick of the pavement cafes, bars and restaurants that dot the high street for a quick lunch stop or catch a film at Joburg’s only independent cinema The Bioscope and end off the day at the rooftop bar Living Room, whose sundowners sessions remain one of Maboneng’s most popular parties.
 
Vintage shopping at Market On Main, Maboneng. Photo by Market on Main

14. GO UNDERGROUND TO SEE AN EARLY MINE STOPE
One of the very first gold prospecting sites in the city, Ferreira's Mine Stope lay forgotten for decades until it was re-discovered in the 1980s during the construction of the Standard Bank building on Simmonds Street and it has since been preserved as a small museum. The stope is named for Ignatius Phillip Ferreira, a farmer, soldier and later a gold prospector, who also has a city district, Ferreirasdorp, named after him. A small exhibition illustrated by photographs and old maps details how the very first prospectors operated and there are also various pieces of old-fashioned mining equipment such as gas lamps and pickaxes.

15. SHOP FOR AFRICAN FABRICS IN THE FASHION DISTRICT 
Nestled in the heart of the inner-city, at the hub of Joburg’s original clothing manufacturing district is the Fashion Kapitol, a hotspot for pan-African-style inspiration and shopping. The area of half a dozen or so blocks around this small city square has long been known as Joburg's Fashion District with scores of fashion wholesalers and fabric retailers. Look out for Makotis, a huge family-run fabric shop that been selling traditional fabrics and bespoke garments, including clothing for traditional weddings, since 1961. 
 
16. TAKE A SELFIE WITH MANDELA
Created in 2013 by South African sculptor Marco Cianfanelli, the magnificent Shadow Boxing monument symbolically returns Nelson Mandela to his 1950s haunting grounds, tucked away on a route Mandela would have walked many times, in between Chancellor House and the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court. Once the offices of Joburg’s first black law firm – Mandela and Tambo Attorneys – Chancellor House is now a smart little open-air museum telling the tale of a thriving practice from 1952 to 1956 that fought apartheid’s petty restrictions on black life in the city. 
 
Marco Cinafanelli's Shadow Boxing and Chancellor House. Photo by Justin Lee

17. HAVE A DRINK IN AN OLD BANK VAULT
Set inside the restored heritage building Somerset House on Gandhi Square, the Thunderwalker is an exciting new development that includes cafe-restaurant Scatterlings that is spread through the building's ornate arcade and the underground bar Zwipi located one floor below inside an old bank vault that is filled with mysterious old safes and more than 1000 unopened safety deposit boxes.   

18. CHECK OUT THE VIEW FROM THE TOP OF AFRICA'S TALLEST SKYSCRAPER
Despite being built way back in the 1970s, the hulking 223-metre colossus that is the Carlton Centre is still Africa's tallest skyscraper. Nowadays the Carlton, like the rest of the area around it, no longer commands the sense of prestige it once did, although the view from the 50th floor remains unrivalled. The enclosed 360-degree Roof of Africa viewing level is a great place to get perspective on the city's incredible scale and many neighbourhoods. 
 
The view from the Roof of Africa viewing deck. Photo by Akira / Curiocity Backpackers
19. LEARN ALL ABOUT JOBURG’S WILD EARLY DAYS AT THE JOBURG FIRSTS EXHIBITION
Who was Joburg’s first barmaid and what did the city's first bank look like? Once Joburg’s fruit and vegetable market, Museum Africa is home to the exceptionally well-researched permanent exhibition Joburg Firsts, which details the city’s beginnings, taking a deep dive into the historic firsts that accompanied the gold rush such as the first circus, the first theatre, the first school and the first pet dog. 

20. WALK ALONG HISTORIC MAIN STREET IN THE MINING PRECINCT
Main Street is the heart of the City of Gold's mining history and a walk along its many pedestrianised blocks from the Carlton Centre all the way to Chancellor House is a great way to get a feel for the inner-city's rich mining past with the entire pedestrianised area lined with various relics from the early gold-rush days such as covered wagons, stamp presses and headgear from old mine shafts. There's also some beautiful modernist architecture to admire - the beautiful facade of AngloAmerican, is a particular highlight - and a host of eye-catching sculptures and monuments.
 
Leaping impalas on Main Street in the Main Street Mining Precinct
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