When I’m asked by prospective expats about Johannesburg, the first topic that invariably comes up is the crime rate. It’s the Eiffel Tower for Paris, the Golden Gate Bridge for San Francisco, and Roadside Smash-and-Grab for Johannesburg. Yes, the reputation is there for a reason, but I don’t know of any other major city in the world where the chasm between perception and reality is quite so deep. If you’ve ever actually lived in Johannesburg, or Joburg or Jozi as it is also often called, and someone asks you what you remember it for, the crime rate won’t top your list.
What will probably top your list is the weather. Joburg gets an incredible 300 hours of average sunshine per month, which translates into about 10 hours per day. From the early morning when you’re woken by the blood-curdling screech of the hadeda, a bird in the ibis family and an icon of South Africa, until evening when the sun dips over the horizon in a sea of orange and red marking another breathtaking African sunset, the sun will shine as reliably, well… as reliably as traffic lights work in places other than Johannesburg. Actually, they are not traffic lights but robots, as South Africans inexplicably call them, but we’ll get back to those later. Even places like Rio or Sydney, which you might think of favorably in terms of climate, don’t get much more than 150 hours of sunshine a month. And they are not just regular hours of sunshine; they are splendid – mild, dry, never humid. Sleeping with open windows and a breeze wafting through our bedroom is one of my fondest memories of life in Johannesburg.
As is often the case, the sunny climate seems to seep into a person’s soul, and so the people of Johannesburg are known as the friendliest in the world. The smiles and jokes being lavished on you from all sides on a daily basis are so contagious you will make friends faster than you have ever before, and when you do you’ll probably be invited into their homes for a braai, labeled by some as the best kind of barbecue in the world (probably because it lasts so long and involves a lot of wine and beer). Random people will offer you their help. They will be genuinely interested in your problem or project and generous with their time helping to solve it. Surrounded by such goodwill, you will find yourself strolling through the streets of Joburg with an extra spring in your step.
Though I admit that you might not, in fact, stroll – Johannesburg is huge, around 10 million people, though estimates vary greatly – but rather find yourself in a car, and more often than not that car will be stuck in traffic, which to me far outpaces crime as Joburg’s worst feature. This is due to its almost non-existent public transport system and the fact that numerous ill-maintained and largely unregulated minibus taxis take up the slack, and often also due to the aforementioned robots, a good number of which can be counted on not working on any given day. Don’t ask me why, there is no good reason for it, it’s just the way it is. But in typical African fashion predicament is turned into opportunity, and thus you get one of Joburg’s most endearing features: Its ubiquitous street vendors. You will see them simply everywhere offering their colorful wares, from beaded key chains to rugby shirts, pirated DVDs and clothes hangers. As a newcomer you will often be warned to keep your windows up, but to me engaging with the street vendors and haggling over price was a favorite pastime. Not only that, I’d often despair at not finding an item in any stores, and sure enough a street vendor could be counted on to source it for me.
The things you can do and see in Joburg are too numerous to count. If you’re interested in culture and history, must-see stops are the Apartheid Museum, Liliesleaf Farm, and the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto. While you’re at the Apartheid Museum, you might also plan a visit to Gold Reef City, an amusement park that has it all, from a Kiddies Corner for your toddler to the Tower of Terror where you can plunge headfirst into an old mineshaft at breakneck speed. While you visit Soweto, you might sign up for an official tour – even bike tours are available – that takes you to other important landmarks such as Mandela House, Walter Sisulu Square, and Regina Mundi Church. If you like shopping, then Sandton City is a place for you; it’s one of the largest (and confusing) shopping centers I have ever been in. Be sure to also step onto Mandela Square and get your picture taken next to the giant bronze statue of Nelson Mandela. If it’s Sunday, pay a visit to the Rosebank Roofetop Market for a colorful collection of antiques, African artifacts, and ethnic foods, where you might also be entertained by talented drumming or a capella performances. In the Northern suburbs of Johannesburg, which is where most expats choose to settle, you can walk on cobble-stoned streets at Montecasino, an indoor shopping and entertainment complex built to resemble a Tuscan village with quaint stores, many restaurants, movie theaters, a casino, bowling alley, comedy club, and the “Teatro” featuring all the big-name performances coming to South Africa.
If you’re more of a nature and animal lover and tired of the hustle of the city, embark on a day trip into Joburg’s surroundings. There is the Elephant Sanctuary near Hartbeespoort Dam where you can ride on an elephant and be kissed by one, the Ann Van Dyk Cheetah Centre at De Wildt not far from there where you can pet cheetahs and see them run at their incredible speed, there are canopy tours and balloon safaris on offer in the Magaliesberg, there is the Lion Park where you can drive right up to lions in your own car, and there is Pilanesberg National Park less than two hours away where you can see all of the Big Five in their natural habitat.
While Joburg might pale in comparison to its glitzier cousin Cape Town when it comes to world class restaurants, it nevertheless offers countless options for high quality (and very affordable) dining. You might try dinner at Tasha’s at Melrose Square, lunch at the Saxon Hotel in Sandton, or High Tea at the Westcliff Hotel where you can enjoy an amazing view. Or stroll along 4th Avenue in Parkhurst and pop into some of the furniture and antique stores, then treat yourself to a sandwich of freshly-baked bread at Vovo Telo bakery or eat on the rooftop terrace at George’s on 4th. If you don’t mind a longer drive, head out into the lovely Muldersdrift area and enjoy the plantation-like setting at Casalinga over a leisurely meal on the patio, or try the Leafy Green Café for some renowned vegan fare. If vegan doesn’t appeal to you, I’m sure you will love the food (and African-themed atmosphere) at nearby Carnivore.
Speaking of views, be sure to drive up to Northcliff Hill, park your car at the water tower, and take the 15 minute stroll around the top for some stunning views of the Joburg skyline and surrounding areas. If you’re adventurous you might want to go off the beaten track and go on a graffiti walking tour with Past Experiences, join the Joburg Photowalkers on one of their Sunday walks, or find a tour that ventures into Alexandra, one of the most infamous (and historic) townships in the area.
What strikes most visitors is how young and vibrant Johannesburg seems. Perhaps this is so because it is, in fact, one of the youngest big cities in the world, having only been founded in the late 19th century. It is also one of the greenest cities of the world – it is said to be the largest man-made forest – which is remarkable given its semi-arid climate (you won’t get a drop of rain from May to October, another factor contributing to those long hours of sunshine I promised earlier) and the fact that it’s also the world’s largest city not built next to water of any kind. Some more facts: Johannesburg is the largest city in Sub-Saharan Africa, is home to the tallest tower in all of Africa (the Hillbrow Tower which in the years we lived there was clad in a giant soccer ball in honor of the first African Soccer World Cup), almost half of the world’s gold comes from the Johannesburg region, and – perhaps less well-known – almost half of the world’s humanoid fossils were found nearby. In fact, another excursion not to miss is a half-day trip to the Cradle of Humankind and its Epcot-like Maropeng Visitor Centre and Sterkfontein Caves – be sure to have a cappuccino on the terrace afterwards for some breathtaking views of the Magaliesberg mountain range.
You’ve asked about the crime rate. I know you have, there is no denying it crossed your mind when the word Johannesburg came up. So let me close in telling you that yes, you should be careful and sensible, especially at night and in places unknown to you, much like you might be advised when visiting any other metropolitan area. Some people make a point of not stopping their cars at a red light at night (which, you will remember, most likely isn’t working anyway) and we’ve had some fun with this while living there. It won’t be a bad idea to find a home in a fenced-in estate with around-the-clock security and to do your shopping and dining where there is guarded parking (which is almost everywhere in South Africa). However, some of your most memorable experiences in Johannesburg might happen when you step out of your comfort zone.
And you should know that there are a large number of expats living happily in Johannesburg whose biggest fear is not crime but the fact that they’ll have to move back home one day.