First Impressions: Johannesburg

An American traveler’s first 48 hours in Jozi, South Africa

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Instagram: @misterlevius

Note to self: Next time, avoid visiting Johannesburg during the Christmas/New Year’s season if you’re looking for the usual summertime bustle.  The city, I’ve been told, goes near empty at this time as Jozi dwellers flock to idyllic coastal towns such as Cape Town and Durban for their holiday.  Duly noted.

Pre-Arrival

It’s a shame that rumors- outdated ones, especially- have such power to damage reputations. I didn’t need to experience Joburg to understand it’s one of the world’s most misunderstood destinations. First-time tourists to South Africa flock to Cape Town en masse, as it’s more beautiful and world-renowned. But many are still stuck on hearsay back from 1998 that JoBurg is a run-down, crime-ridden city that should be a no-go zone for travelers. Not many are aware of (and others don’t care to share) the tremendous progress that’s happened over time…so when I constantly heard from friends with direct experience living/traveling in today’s Johannesburg that it is indeed “safe to swim”, I happily took the plunge.

The Downtown Sights

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On top of the Carlton Centre, Africa’s tallest building!

I walked and tour-bused through its main CBD (or downtown) on my first afternoon.  Afterwards my friend, a frequenter in Johannesburg, asked me if the city (the “inner city” Jozi, as I didn’t get the chance to see the world’s largest manmade “forested” side of the city) was what I expected.  To be honest, it was: not classically pretty, busy and a bit distressed in many areas, but with an energy worth exploring.  I knew it would be no Paris; while it’s more gritty concrete jungle than charming city-center, exciting sights appeared once I looked in the right direction. Directly above the grungy, partitioned ground floors of retail space are several aged art deco buildings hinting at Johannesburg’s glorious past, aesthetically-speaking. I learned Johannesburg has one of the largest collection of art deco buildings of any city in the world, third after Miami and New York. The buildings here, however, need much TLC, but the city has begun reclaiming the many derelict spaces in hopes of making the CBD a viable, flourishing area once again.

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On the Red Bus Tour crossing the Mandela Bridge

Party/Music Scene (One of the Main Reasons I Visited!)

As a bonafide Deep House music lover, I’ve been told that House is huge in South Africa, but I had to be there to see it. My God…South Africa is House music. You’ll hear it everywhere, much more than Rap. The first songs on the radio on my cab ride from the airport to my accommodation were Deep House tracks. What I found frustrating to find in the States is ubiquitous in Johannesburg. Musically, I am home.

And this unyielding crime people speak of…I must have missed it. I wasn’t robbed, held at gunpoint or felt threatened at any time. I not only was the CBD, but also in “the hood” (late at night!), in a massive township called Alexandra that evening. Perhaps my semi-local friend and I are more intrepid travelers than others, but I didn’t shudder at the thought of taking a taxi and getting dropped off at a very un-touristy spot of town to party. The venue, called Stoep 15, was a trip in itself- a so-called “abandoned mansion” now turned into a club spot in an unlikely locale.  Abandoned is correct; the front and east wing of the space is completely open-faced, and there’s incomplete stair construction that would lead to the second floor (though you can’t access it safely).  There are no doors to enter.  It’s just you, the buzzing crowd spilling onto the residential block, sultry Deep House music and an unfiltered view of the neighborhood and distant, twinkling hills.  If this were to exist in any Western city a la London or New York, it would be a tremendous string of sanctions, complaints and lawsuits waiting to happen…but the coolest places in the world, I believe, tend to be the most unregulated.

As an American, I was astounded to witness all that was around me in the township. We’re in the ghetto and every single person in the packed, sprawling complex is black, young and many most likely local. They have to be playing hip-hop and R&B, right?? I instead saw hundreds of girls and guys, straight and flamboyantly gay side-by-side, in harmony vibing to the beats of chilled South African Deep House music. I just couldn’t imagine going to a party full of black 20-year-olds in the slums of Brooklyn bouncing to Black Motion and Kojo Akusa, or masculine heterosexuals in the same space as bag-and-heels boys with absolutely no tension. Unfathomable. But this is how it is in South Africa, a country where progressive rights were made constitutional back in the 90’s…issues that these so-called “greater” countries have only begun addressing.

The Buzz

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Leaping through the Maboneng District

The area that excited me most in my first 48 hours was Maboneng, the fast-developing industrial-chic neighborhood where I stayed, nestled next to the CBD. I walked around to see blocks of black African-owned boutiques & multicultural cafes, vibrant murals and street art, fun passerby fashions and a trendy spirit that reminded me of Shoreditch (in London) and Williamsburg (in NYC). I learned from locals that this artsy vibe and edge in its people permeates Johannesburg, making it superior to Cape Town for the creative crowd. I’m now aware you don’t go to Jozi intending to find charm and beauty…you go for the buzz.  And the amazing people.

And buzzing it certainly is. It was lovely to experience a city currently “on-the-rise”, to witness the rigorous transformation of a place with a terribly trying past. Johannesburg is a lively city that I, like many who have visited, will excitedly anticipate all the upward change that will occur in the next 5 years.  And if what I experienced at time of my visit was “empty” Johannesburg, I’ll be clamoring for another plane ticket to re-visit and jump into its fullness very soon.

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Have you been to Johannesburg?  Live there?  Would love to know what you think about the city too!  Sound off below 😉

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34 Comments Add yours

  1. Lucinda Jordaan says:

    Love this! And your pics… Want to publish it in Nigeria in-flight mag…!
    Please mail me?

    Like

    1. misterlevius says:

      Thanks Ursula and Lucinda!

      Wow, I’d love to hear more details, Lucinda! Will email you now 😉

      Like

  2. Ursula says:

    Awesome! Glad you enjoyed my country. Do come back!

    Like

  3. Bill Ward says:

    So pleased you loved our city. Feel free to visit again and again. You need to experience Braamfontein and many more vibey spots.

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    1. misterlevius says:

      Thanks Bill, I’m actually working on returning to SA (this time on proper travel assignments) next month! Would love to check out all the cool places I didn’t see this go-around.

      Like

  4. Bongani says:

    Lived in Joburg for two years and I recently moved down to Cape Town because of work… sorely regretting it 😦 Glad you didn’t have to be there for two years to realise how incredible it is! I also lived in Maboneng and Soweto respectively for short periods of time and felt safe ALL.THE.TIME! Pity I can’t say the same about flamboyant and racist Cape Town

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    1. misterlevius says:

      Thanks Bongani, and I absolutely agree- Jozi is incredible if you know where to look 😉 I do love Cape Town as well (my First Impression piece on CPT is coming up soon!), but the two offer completely different things.

      Like

  5. Kristi says:

    You seem to have missed the luxurious side of Joburg, the richest square mile in Africa. and the wildlife experiences. Next time head for the man-made forest!

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    1. misterlevius says:

      Hey Kristi, I did get to spend an afternoon in Sandton, but it was past the 48-hour period for my First Impressions piece (I saw it on my 4th day there). It completely reminded me of the luxurious area in Atlanta called Buckhead!

      Like

  6. kands26 says:

    Yay! So glad to hear you say loved it here! We’re super proud of our city and you explained it exactly the way I do – not pretty, but it has its own unique vibe.
    Next time you come over, give us a shout. Guaranteed you’ll have friends here 😉

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    1. misterlevius says:

      Thank you! You have many reasons to be proud of Jozi. I will certainly let you know when I return, meeting people around the world is my favorite part of traveling 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Sarah says:

    Thank you for writing such a wonderful piece on my city 🙂 Joburg definitely gets a lot of bad press and it’s refreshing to read such a positive review. If you’re coming back I would definitely suggest trying to plan it over the last Friday of the month so that you can join Critical Mass (a ride through the CBD at night)-it’s an amazing way to experience the city. I also recently did a bicycle tour of Soweto which was also fantastic. If I can help in any way with suggestions etc please don’t hesitate to contact me.

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    1. misterlevius says:

      It was a pleasure, Sarah! Thought it was necessary to accurately profile the “underdog”. Thanks for reaching out and offering advice, I just might need it soon!

      Like

  8. Atiya says:

    Lovely piece. There’s so much more to explore so if you’re interested in seeing Joburg with a Joburger, drop me an email.

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    1. misterlevius says:

      I appreciate it, Atiya 😉 When I book that ticket (hopefully soon) I’ll definitely reach out! Cheers 😉

      Like

  9. Nicola says:

    I also live in the man-made forest. I love it in Jozi because of all the adventures one can do. My favorites include touching lion cubs and bat-eared foxes, doing obstacle courses in the trees, visiting the vibey weekend markets, sand boarding, horse riding and so much more. Check out the Dirty Boots website for a list of about 50 adventures. I live in the heart of the north and I am 5 minutes away from a game reserve and 45 away from seeing rhinos. And I agree with you on the friendly people – if you give them a smile they will definitely give you one back. I hope you come back to enjoy more of our beautiful city.

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    1. misterlevius says:

      I’m a city guy I but I love nature as well…your comment is making me very excited to see the forested part of Johannesburg and I’ll make sure to add this to my future itinerary. You’re so lucky be around such amazing wildlife!

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  10. Nomqawuse says:

    Durban has more art deco buildings than Johannesburg

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    1. misterlevius says:

      Really? Good to know if true!

      Like

    2. Sarah says:

      Durban has the bests examples of Art Deco buildings in South Africa but actually Springs in the east rand of Johannesburg has the most Art Deco buildings in South Africa and 2nd most in the world after Miami.

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      1. misterlevius says:

        good to know! I’d love to visit Durban next time…Cape Towns beaches were too cold 😉

        Like

  11. Lit says:

    Great piece, Travis! I’m a Joburger currently living elsewhere, but what you wrote is exactly how I would describe Joburg. I am also glad you spent most of your time in downtown Joburg – much more interesting than “the richest square mile in Africa” (Oyi!!). And there’s still so much more to see, as someone else said – Braamies, Melville, the Parks, Rosebank. I’m sure you’ll have an interesting perspective on your second visit as well.

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    1. misterlevius says:

      Thanks Lit, I’m glad I was able to capture the city similar to others like yourself who’s had much more experience being there. Cant wait to return to a *longer* trip to see more 😉

      Like

  12. Danny says:

    Hey, so glad to hear you had a great time here in my mother city. I’ve lived in Jozi all my life, through the good the bad and the ugly and there is nothing better than hearing visitors talking about it like you do. Come back soon and have even more of a jol. (You know, now, what that really means)

    Like

    1. misterlevius says:

      Thanks Danny, and I’m sure you’ve seen so MUCH change over time…it’s so exciting to see where Jozi is and how fast it’s developing. Definitely ready for another jol with great locals!

      Like

  13. Paulette says:

    Do come visit again…. South Africa has the best weather & within hours drive from Jozi we have Big Five game reserves, the beautiful Drakensberg, Blyde River Canyon on the Way to Kruger Park.
    Plus wonderful warm beaches in Durban.
    If you do scuba diving. No where else in the world have I seen brighter more beautiful fish then on the SA & Mozambique border by Kosi Bay / Ponte Malongane.

    We have beautiful scenery plus all the vibe of the big city that you were looking for.

    Like

    1. misterlevius says:

      Thanks so much for these recommendations, Paulette: I can’t wait to visit SA and spent some *really* good time and getting to know this beautiful country. Itching to return!

      Like

  14. Maader says:

    Check this out. It’s a 2 year old from Alex on the DJ turntables. This is how you know Jozi rocks.

    http://pulseradio.net/articles/2015/01/watch-south-africa-s-youngest-dj-2-year-old-dj-arch-jnr

    Like

    1. misterlevius says:

      haha, that is AWESOME! Little man was literally “born with it” 😉

      Like

  15. salindfeld says:

    Reblogged this on Lindfelds in South Africa and commented:
    Diesen interessanten Blogeintrag über die ersten Johannesburg-Eindrücke eines Amerikaners möchten wir euch nicht vorenthalten. Auch hier sieht man wieder, wie positiv die Stadt wahrgenommen wird, wenn man sich auf sie einlässt. Allerdings wären wir mit einem nächtlichen Besuch in Alexandra eher vorsichtig 😉

    Like

    1. misterlevius says:

      I had to Google Translate this haha, but I read it all: thank you! And yes, still take caution in Alexandra like you would anywhere else 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Matt says:

    Great piece, I love my city and you did her justice considering you had 48 hours…did you notice the craft brewery vibe? There’s about a dozen excellent microbreweries and brewpubs in and around the city, from elegant country retreats to gritty urban joints, township shebeens. 6 of those in one day is quite the pub crawl…

    Like

    1. misterlevius says:

      Glad you enjoyed! And I’ll need to put that on my to-do’s the next time I’m there…sounds great! Jozi is just full of surprises…

      Like

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