Get Cultured: Johannesburg — A Guide to Exploring the Heart of South Africa

Nelson Mandela bridge - A Guide to Johannesburg

Travel Blogger and PR guru Gabriella Ribeiro Truman shares her secrets on exploring the real Joburg, despite its reputation.

On your first day here, seeing this is a must: The most important thing one needs to remember, above all about Joburg, is to actually GO there and get out versus hiding behind the walls of a hotel in the midst of a stopover. If you don’t, and just opt to pass Joburg at lightning speed like so many others do, then guess what? You’ve just missed about 90 percent of what South Africa is all about, and the rich intriguing story it has to tell. This is one of the most vibrant, diverse and possibly misunderstood cities I have ever visited and I return again and again, each time experiencing something different and incredible. One of the most poignant things one can do, and a huge key to understanding the history of the country is to visit the Apartheid Museum. Difficult, and at times emotional, this will impact a traveler in a way that I cannot explain and will likely have you walking away with a very different perspective on life and freedom.

Get local in Soweto - A Guide to JohannesburgMost people don’t know this, but to get a true taste of the local culture”… You’ve got to do a day trip to Soweto. Bottom line. This is a huge suburb that over 1.3 million South Africans call home; it began as a settlement where people of color were forced into Apartheid. Today, it’s made up of so many different microcosms ranging from absolutely unsettling poverty to an emerging middle class where small homes are being purchased and new schools are popping up. Here, you can have tea in an elderly resident’s home and hear about his life and struggles; you can walk through the open air market and be treated to amazing scents, sights and sounds; and you’ll see children brightly smiling and jubilantly playing a game of soccer with nothing more than a few wooden posts and a tattered ball that somehow still rolls. And they’re happy. That’s what’s fascinating about this area, and this country as well — so many have so little and have endured so much, yet there’s an unfailing spirit and a warm sense of peace, regardless of the odds they face.  If you can, try to have lunch at Wandie’s Place, serving up all manner of South African comfort food and down-home specialties.

For a glimpse of daily life, I recommend this form of transportation: A South African taxi. This is how so many locals travel and it gives you a real feel for what it’s like to commute when you don’t have wheels of your own, which is the case for so many. Limber up because you’ll likely have half of your backside digging into a door while your legs struggle to keep your body propped up. Find something sturdy to hang on to and smile because you’ll be very close to several other people — best to strike up a conversation to make the ride pass by. The lucky person who gets to ride in the front (pray for a bucket seat for slightly more comfort) should know the unwritten rule of having to be the collector of funds. Shout out the total amount to those sitting in the rows behind you. Wait patiently while the money gets passed up, row by row, making its way up front. Oh, and keep in mind that you’ll probably be asked to pay before you reach your destination. NB- tips are not expected but very, very appreciated, and don’t even think about skimping on the fare unless you want your driver to treat you to a colorful, yet amusing tirade! I don’t recommend taxis for anything more than a joyride… book a driver for the rest of your stay if you want to get anywhere on time.

I had my best night’s sleep at: This is a toss up — an absolute tie — because they both deserve recognition. Fairlawns Boutique Hotel & Spa is absolutely incredible in every sense. It’s a small, hidden estate with 40 of the most intriguing rooms you’d ever want to lay eyes on in the middle of Sandton, one of Joburg’s most elegant suburbs, discretely tucked away in an oasis of rolling hills and impeccably manicured gardens. Each room is completely unique, following a specific decorative theme. Feeling chill? Try the Miami suite. Channeling your inner Anglophile? Choose between a traditional English or Scottish suite. Aching for Asia? Give the Shanghai or Kyoto suite a whirl…you get the idea, all adorned with unique pieces of artwork indicative of the location in question, and antiques that you’re somehow not afraid to touch. Add a fabulous Balinese spa with the most keenly trained therapists and an impossibly romantic garden treatment area, gorgeously prepared cuisine and discreet, anticipative service and you’ll see why this is the perfect place to relax after an energetic jaunt around Joburg. Another little place I love, which is somewhat further away but great if you want to experience nearby Pretoria is the Illyria House. Beautiful, curious and absolutely quirky, this six-room boutique hotel is run by one of the most unique women I’ve ever met — part artist, part gracious host, part absolute enigma– you can’t miss her as she floats in and out of the home in flowing clothes and a dramatic hat. This once-ordinary home has been transformed into a classic Victorian showpiece, complete with tapestries, impeccably polished woods, period furniture, outdoor gardens and indoor ponds where birds stroll freely among the guests. Signature white gloved service by butlers who, by the way, don’t wear shoes so as not to disturb guests as they walk on wooden floors and who sing a beautiful African goodbye song to you as you leave, make a stay here the ultimate experience.

Best place to find artisan handicrafts: I’m going to be completely honest here, as always. As one travels through South Africa, the truth of the matter is that you’ll likely see the same types of handicrafts just about all over. At markets, at local stands, at forced “rest stops” on long drives, flea markets, and even in the airport. You’ll see the same chunky jewelry, fantastic beaded animal statues, walking sticks, hats, hanging mobiles, printed clothing and so on. So, for me, it’ s more of a question of who I want to patronize. Generally, I’ll opt for a small market where I see someone actually creating the objects, this way I know the profit is going straight to them and they’re reaping the full benefits of their labor.

(Editor’s Note: Head to Rosebank where you’ll find a daily African craft market selling beautiful artwork.)

Moyo Restaurant - A Guide to JohannesburgThe meal at this local eatery had me salivating for days: I love, love, love Moyo — located in a hip area called Melrose Arch. This is more of an experience than a standard restaurant, and it’s got a vibe like no other. Enter, wander up the stairs through the multiple levels and you’ll notice each has its own drumbeat and décor, and you almost don’t want to commit to a location because there’s too much to take in. Begin with a traditional African hand washing ceremony before dinner…and be forewarned, this will be an energetic meal, with a selection of gorgeous traditional dishes from different countries on the continent. During your stay, you’ll likely be invited to take part in a vigorous drum lesson which is fantastic…your face will be painted by a skillful artist who somehow channels your inner spirit and finds the decorative pattern that suits you best…and of course no visit is complete without the tableside serenade by Moyo’s famous Wishy Washy ladies — dressed straight out of the 70’s and raring to go with beautiful rhythmic tones and an energy all their own. Moyo is a celebration of life, art, culture, food and fortune.

Local celebration not to be missed: One of the many things South Africa does extremely well is food…and drink. So, the Good Food & Wine Show that happens each year is fabulous for any foodie. This is a traveling fest, happening three times a year in different cities (one in Joburg, the others in Cape Town and Durban) and attracts not only local African rock star chefs, but international food celebs including Michelin chefs, celebrity food TV personalities and more. If you can’t make it to Joburg in September for the festival, it happens in Cape Town in May, and Durban in August.

Favorite pastimes: A good old-fashioned South African rugby match is definitely in order while in country. The game itself is an edgy art form all its own, and the crowd — jovial, jubilant, and always ready to bring you into their circle especially after they’ve partaken in a few Castles (the local brew), will have you cheering in you head for days to come. I always find it fun to see the regional rivalries between teams in other countries, and hearing trash talking across the aisles in accents is just extra funny.

For a more bucolic/green setting I escape here: Pilanesberg Game Reserve. If you don’t have a great deal of time in SA and want to try to see the best of what the country has to offer, Pilanesberg is a fantastic safari option and easily drivable from Joburg in under three hours. You can explore the thousands of raw, undisturbed hectares either in your own car, or on a scheduled drive from one of the lodges in the area (my favorite is Ivory Tree) The park is filled with fabulous wildlife — lions to elephants, giraffes to zebras, warthogs to hippos and everything in between. Plus, it’s malaria-free so you don’t need to worry about taking meds prior to your trip.

The art/music scene is alive and well here: One word for Joburg’s best-kept art scene secret — Melville. What a fabulous area, more like a bohemian quarter with funky homes and B&Bs, quirky shops and some great, unexpected restaurants, bars, galleries and music venues. If you like nightlife, you’ll find clubs. If you crave Asian/Italian/Portuguese/Greek/Spanish/Indian or any other type of food, you’ll likely find it here. Want to meet a local artist or sculptor? You’ll find no shortage here in one of the several trendy art galleries. It’s like a mini Soho, just a bit more edgy.

Where the locals get tipsy: Latinova is a trendy bar in the upscale neighborhood of Rosebank. This is a great spot to visit if you’re staying in the area, as it’s not too far from a few of the more well-known hotels in this area and other surrounding suburbs where one might stay whilst visiting. Hip, smooth, with a great outdoor space and Latin-infused music, Latinova is the perfect place to unwind at the end of the day. Of course, if tipsy is on the menu, just about any sporting event or local festival will do.

Most ludicrous stereotype about the people here: That everyone around you is carrying a gun and just waiting to rob you. If I had a dime for everyone who has ever said that, or something similar to me… Far too many people skip Joburg for one reason — safety (or lack thereof as they are often led to believe). You should see the look on peoples’ faces when I tell them how much I love this city. The fact is, it’s a huge metropolis, divided into many sections- some areas are stunning, some are middle class, and some are pure urban-rough. Um, I don’t know… doesn’t this sound like any other city in the world? Things happen all over, I’ve been pickpocketed on a street flanked by a string of luxury stores in Paris. No matter where you travel, you’ve got to be mindful of your surroundings and never let your guard down. That being said, Joburg really isn’t a city that lends itself well to wandering on foot. I always find it to be safe and welcoming, and best traversed with the assistance of a driver who knows exactly how to get me where I need to go.


Gabriella of The ExploratuerAbout Gabriella

A child of parents both heavily involved in the travel industry, Gabriella Ribeiro Truman was born to do her job. By day she owns and operates Trumarketing, a boutique sales, marketing and PR firm servicing tourism-related clients from around the world.  Also a frequent blogger, she produces The Explorateur and The Explorateur Portfolio, online guides and e-newsletter series for the globally curious, delivering insider travel tips, honest hotel reviews and exclusive deals for subscribers only.


Can’t get enough culture? Check out last week’s Get Cultured: Boulder and be on the lookout for the next installment in the series.


Featured Photo by:  Shine 2010 – 2010 World Cup good news

Soweto Photo by: by TEDxSoweto

Food Photo: Moyo

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