36 hours in Johannesburg cover image

A New Beginning

On Friday, Kim and I were homeless in Cape Town seriously doubting our plan to spend six months in South Africa.

On Sunday, as I write this, we’re in a prison-like Airbnb room in Johannesburg worried about rental cars.

In the interim, we had finally found an apartment in Cape Town then bought last-second flights to Johannesburg, where we’re going to rent a car and spend the next two weeks making our way back down in what we’re calling “The Hectic Route.”

We have no itinerary planned—we haven’t even booked our rental car yet—but we do plan to journal our experience here.

To start, we’ll share the highlights, lowlights, and insights from the 24 hours in Johannesburg we started our trip with.

24 Hours in Johannesburg

Cautiously Optimistic

I first heard about Johannesburg about twenty years ago when my cousins told me how their hotels were guarded by machine gun-wielding soldiers and how they couldn’t even walk a block at night. It sounded terrible.

And in the twenty years since, Joburg’s reputation has remained in the dumps, though not quite as bad.

But Bogota has similar PR problems and we really enjoyed it, so we were optimistic…

Chris behind bars in our Joburg Airbnb
Our Airbnb was prison-like in many ways.

A Bad Start

Our optimism disappeared as soon as we arrived at our Airbnb.

We’d hastily booked it in Cape Town’s airport before boarding our plane. It had good reviews and was located where our friends told us to stay, so we thought it’d be fine.

Nope.

It was basically a prison room. One bed and nothing else. White and concrete. The shared bathroom didn’t have a garbage can nor a shower curtain, and the toilet seat wasn’t actually attached to the toilet. It was also twenty-six degrees out at 7pm. Jo-Burg was experiencing a heat wave and it couldn’t have been worse timing.

Kim started crying.

But, hey, at least the location was good!

That’s Better

We escaped from our Airbnb as fast as we could and made the short, but dark and scary (it’s a nice neighborhood, but all the houses are walled and nobody’s on the streets nor are there any lights), walk to what we’d been told was a cool part of town, Melville’s 4th Ave / 7th Street.

As we approached the area and the streets brightened up, so did our mood. The 4th Street area looked like a small town’s Main Street, except with bars and restaurants instead of butchers and barbers. And, since it was Saturday at around 7:30 p.m., they were all slammed with people getting hammered. It made for great people watching as we walked to the restaurant Kim had pre-selected, Lucky Bean.

Some marketing genius had written “SA Tourist Food” in big letters on the sign out front, as if that would appeal to anyone, so I second-guessed Kim’s choice, but my fears turned out to be misguided. The menu was full of creative dishes at non-tourist prices ($15 bottles of wine, $10 entrees).

Kim was smiling by the end.

And by the time we made it back to our Airbnb, we were both too tired and buzzed to care how shitty it was.

Kim at Apartheid Museum

Feeling Apartheid

The next morning after Kim had a quick breakfast at De La Creme Cafe (she approves!), we went to the Apartheid Museum for a couple of hours.

The museum did its job.

It successfully made us feel (to an extent) what it must’ve been like to be black or colored during the apartheid era.

And though the museum had way too much info for our dense little brains to absorb, as is the case with every museum, it offered simplified 1 and 2-hour self-guided tours that made it digestible for our simple minds. Well done!

kim tasting sugar covered macadamias at market on main in johannesburg south africa
“Can I try that one again?”

Your Typical Hipster Market, Africa-Style

Next up in our whirlwind 24 hours in Johannesburg was the Maboneng Precinct and its Sunday Market on Main.

You know how every city has a once-industrial area that has taken a new life as a gritty, street art-decorated neighborhood full of lofts and art galleries?

Well, for Joburg that area is Maboneng.

And it was pretty much the same as those neighborhoods worldwide, except the hipsters here take it up a notch by incorporating wild African designs into the conventional hipster aesthetic.

The market was pretty much the same as any other market, just more African, too. Aside from the candied macadamia nuts—ever since discovering they come from SA, it’s been macadamia mania for Kim—nothing caught our eye (or stomachs).

So instead of eating the appetizing but over-priced market food, we lunched on some 50 rand ($3.50 US) barbeque platers from Sha’p Braai. Fantastic choice!

Guys in Maboneng

Another Market

Since it was Sunday and we had no idea what else to do, we took another Uber up north to another market, Rosebank Market, in Joburg’s wealthy north.

When our Uber driver dropped us off, we thought he’d given us a bum steer because we were in front of a generic American mall, but he was right. The market was inside the mall on the top level of its parking lot.

Since the market was located in a parking lot mall instead of an ex-warehouse like Maboneng’s, it was decidedly less hip and somewhat less pricey. But the stuff on sale was mostly the same: African knick-knacks and street food. All we bought was a kilo of macadamia nuts (see, I told you about Kim and her macadamia nuts) for 210 rands ($15 US).

Pork belly from Kolonaki restaurant
This pork belly was the best food I’ve yet in South Africa, which is saying a lot.

Cold Beer, a Good Tip, and a Great Meal

Having seen enough markets, we made our way to 4th Avenue in Parkhurst, which felt basically the same as Melville.

We drank some well-earned pints for typically South African low-earner prices (40 rands, or $2.80 US) then wandered up and down the street before settling on having dinner at Kolonaki Greek Kouzina, our bartender’s recommendation.

Even though we arrived at 5:30 p.m. the place was full and the hostess had to make some moves to get us a table. And, when we sat down the owner’s dad, who’s enjoying living vicariously through his son’s success, told us that they only opened a month ago and were already fully booked for the next three months.

When we got our food, we understood why. My 120 rand ($8.50 US) pork belly was the best thing I’ve eaten since arriving in South Africa. And Kim, who “doesn’t usually like Greek food,” was won over.

After dinner, we went back to our crappy Airbnb that at least had good WiFi to plan our trip… and start writing this post.

Our Take on Joburg

view of downtown Johannesburg from the highway
Johannesburg is the opposite of Cape Town

Taking into account that we only spent 24 hours in Johannesburg, here’s our take:

It’s pretty much the opposite of Cape Town for better (rarely) and for worse (mostly).

  • Cape Town has mountains in the middle of it. Johannesburg has big pits.
  • Cape Town is compact. Johannesburg is a neverending sprawl.
  • Cape Town is preppy. Johannesburg is grungy.
  • Cape Town is natural. Johannesburg is industrial.
  • Cape Town feels European. Johannesburg feels American.
  • Cape Town is dry and windy. Johannesburg is humid and wet.

In all but the last point, we prefer Cape Town so we’re in no rush to return to Joburg.


Next Up (The Hectic Route Trip Day 2):
Arizona and Scotland’s Beautiful Bastard: Golden Gate Highlands National Park

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