Johannesburg is big and sprawling, a city that is a work in progress. Despite its history - or maybe because of it - it's a city with a youthful vibe that is constantly changing and has a hip fashion and arts scene to match.
Johannesburg is the economic engine of South Africa, and an important financial and business center for all of the African continent. Jo'burg, as it is affectionately called, is also a very green city; about six million trees were planted within the city to create one of the world's largest urban forests.
The Apartheid Museum, Liliesleaf Farm, the former secret HQ for the ANC or African National Congress, and many other monuments serve as reminders of the city's troubled past, a past that is receding more and more each day as Johannesburg continues to reinvent itself into a busy modern city.
You can play with lion cubs or feed the giraffes at Lion and Safari Park, or take in a show at the Montecasino Bird Gardens. Despite its cosmopolitan urban area, Johannesburg is a great place to experience South Africa's unique and iconic wildlife. Pilanesberg National Park and Game Reserve is a large nature reserve, one of many in the area, and you can easily book wildlife safari day tours from the city.
The Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve is just a short drive away, with about 52 square miles of unspoiled highveld grasslands where you can hike to altitudes over 5,000 feet above sea level. The Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens is an escape located inside the city, with displays and areas to walk through.
The Lesedi Cultural Village is just one of many venues in the city where you can explore the city's cultural traditions. Jo'burg is also a hotbed for modern music, theater, and performing arts, hosting a renowned jazz festival and many other arts events and performances throughout the year.
With everything from sleek cocktail lounges and hipster bars to huge outdoor patios, dance clubs, and more, there's no excuse for staying in night after night in Johannesburg. From chic, upscale Sandton or the nightclub district in Melville, stylish Rosebank, to the dance clubs in Newtown, each neighborhood offers its own flavor when it comes to entertainment.
Johannesburg is a melting pot of African cuisines, and incorporates Indian, Chinese, and European influences. There are many areas in the city to explore its thriving foodie culture, including 4th Avenue in Parkhurst, an upscale district, or Illovo Junction with its youthful vibe. 7th Street in Melville is the traditional restaurant district, while Fordsburg is where to experience great Indian cuisine.
Johannesburg sees the most tourist visits during the summer, between the months of December to February, when daytime temperatures can reach as high as 95 degrees Fahrenheit. In winter, from June to August, daytime temperatures are typically in the mid-70s, and evening temperatures may drop close to freezing on occasion.
The O.R. Tambo International Airport (JNB) is about 13 miles from the city center. As one of the busiest airports in Africa, there are international connections throughout the continent and beyond to European destinations. There is a commuter rapid rail network called Gautrain available at the airport, with service from the airport to Sandton station, where transfers are available to Johannesburg. The cost should be around R165. Taxis are available, but be sure to take only a licensed taxi with a meter. Lanseria Airport, about 25 miles from the city, is a private airport, but does service some discount airlines along with domestic flights.
Shosholoza Meyl trains offer both economy and deluxe classes on sleeper trains that connect Johannesburg to major centers in South Africa, including Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth, and East London. The Johannesburg Park Station handles most intercity routes. The Metrorail suburban train line connects the city with Soweto, Pretoria, Springs, and Krugersdorp. Gautrain is faster and very secure, but also more expensive. Fares depend on the distance. A trip from Johannesburg to Pretoria costs R46 with Gautrain and R9 with Metrorail.
Johannesburg connects to most centers in South Africa and beyond through a network of highways. The N1 links to Cape Town or Bloemfontein, and the N3 connects to Durban. The N4 goes as far as Botswana, and the N14 connects to Namibia.
Intercity buses arrive and depart from Park Station, and include Greyhound, Magic Bus, and SA Roadlink. Park Station is busy and can be quite chaotic, so give yourself extra time to find your way.
There are many stylish hotels in Johannesburg, like the impressive African Pride Melrose Arch Hotel, along with historic accommodations like the Monarch in the upscale Rosebank neighborhood. The rooms combine antique furniture and contemporary South African art. Faircity Mapungubwe Hotel Apartments and the Reef Hotel are two of many mid-priced hotels where you'll find clean, comfortable rooms and basic amenities.
Central Business District - aka CBD, this is where you'll find great shopping along Diagonal Street, as well as Little Addis, the Ethiopian district. It is also home to many art galleries and arts venues.
Braamfontein - near the city center, this is where you'll find a young, hip crowd due to the presence of the University of Witwatersrand. Many of the city's museums and arts venues are to be found here, along with the Neighbourgoods Saturday Market, unique boutiques, and places to stop for coffee or a bite to eat.
Maboneng - this is a neighborhood that went from urban blight to hipster hangout, one of the world's most successful urban renewal projects. Look for a lively scene of dining and nightlife.
Johannesburg is largely geared to drivers and not so much to public transit. A network of buses connects to the Gautrain lines, making most of the city accessible by public transportation, but note that the buses do not run on Sundays. The Gautrain electronic card costs a flat fee of R15. Other public transportation can be somewhat haphazard, including privately operated buses and minivans.
Taxis are not plentiful in Johannesburg, except at the airport or some areas of the city center. You should call in advance and pre-book any trips. A trip from the city center to Pretoria costs about R560.
Unless it's absolutely necessary, it's best to avoid driving during the highly congested rush hours of morning and late afternoon. The layout of Johannesburg is relatively spread out, and together with traffic woes, it can mean significant delays getting across town. Despite that, a car rental can be a good option for getting around town, with compact rentals starting at about R205 per day. There are a number of Avis outlets in town.
For locally produced crafts and artisan work such as beadwork and wirework pieces, you'll find a large store at the Rosebank Mall and the Rosebank Rooftop Flea Market, open on Sundays on the top level of the mall's parkade. Kwa Mai Mai is another flea market where you'll find herbs and spices along with crafts. Sandton City or Northgate are two of the city's many shopping malls. The Oriental Plaza in Fordsburg features African goods, and here you can bargain with the shopkeepers. Be forewarned that many shops and attractions close in the early afternoon on Saturday, and don't reopen until Monday morning.
Woolworths and Spar are national grocery store chains, with prices on the higher side, but both feature a good selection and quality of goods. Food Lover's Market specializes in fresh foods. A gallon of milk costs about R50-55, and a dozen eggs about R25.
The Cube Tasting Kitchen in the Maboneng precinct is a popular spot to sample from a high-end tasting menu that costs R800 for food only, and R1300 for a food and wine pairing. Seafood is king at many restaurants in town, like the Fishmonger, with multiple locations. Fresh seafood dishes from an international menu start at about R100. The Local Grill menu focuses on free range, grain-fed beef dishes that start at about R130.