Travel and Leisure 2007-2013


Joburg, wine and sightseeing

First appeared
Monday, 20 February 2012

The editor of Classic Wine, a new bi-monthly magazine for South African wine-lovers, asked me to write an article on "inner-city sights" in Johannesburg (to run with a complementary piece on Cape Town). Never mind that the Cape is obviously more wine- and tourism-oriented than my home town ... I also found myself asking, Where is Joburg's "inner city"?


Nobody knows where the Johannesburg city centre is any more.

In Cape Town, the “City Bowl”, the “CBD” and the “inner city” are concentric circles – and, thanks to the mountains and the sea, things will stay like that indefinitely. In Durban, Port Elizabeth and smaller coastal cities, the geographical limitations are less severe, yet the high-rise buildings still cluster towards the shore. Heck, even in Bloemfontein and Pretoria there is consensus about where to go when you’re alone and life is making you lonely (“Downtown”, of course).

But in Joburg, as Ivan Vladislavic writes, the boundaries are forever “drifting away, lodging in tenuous places, slipping again” – which means that the centre is always shifting too. I’ve been known, after some creative calculation (and a few glasses of wine), to claim that my house is in the exact centre of the greater Johannesburg megalopolis; yet it’s also slap-bang in the middle of suburbia and, I can assure you, we don’t get any tourists there.

Things weren’t always like that. It used to be that downtown Joburg was a clearly-defined mecca of business and pleasure, a gridiron of one-way streets hinging around Joubert Street and Eloff Street (the expensive properties in early South African versions of the board game Monopoly). Today, these streets still throb to an exciting hustle and bustle – more about that later – but they are now referred to as the “old CBD” of Jozi. Over the course of two decades, a “new CBD” has been developed in Sandton; an area where, not too long ago, the landscape was dominated by farms and smallholdings. Remember how a certain Black Pimpernel and his fellow revolutionaries were caught hiding out in a Rivonia farmhouse?

This rapid growth does bring disadvantages. Although a walk or drive through Sandton confirms its place as the financial hub of post-apartheid South Africa, urban explorers looking for substance beneath the gloss – something authentic, something traditional, something (for want of a better word) old – may be disappointed. In terms of heritage, Madiba’s refuge at Liliesleaf Farm, which has been turned into a museum, is about all there is to see.  

But that don’t mean Sandton ain’t got no kultcha. There are galleries, theatres and live music venues to keep the artistically-inclined entertained. Architecture buffs will find much to distract them, too: although, as architect and urban planner Pierre Swanepoel has noted, many of the new buildings are “nice from far but far from nice”, there are a number of neck-craning skyscrapers and ambitious building designs to admire.

Moreover, budget allowing, foodies and vinophiles will never be bored. Sandton is better known for its cocktail bars than for its wine bars, but trendy watering holes such as the San Bar (atop the Sandton Sun Hotel) have expansive wine lists. Oenological aesthetes will enjoy the Wine Tower display at the Radisson Blu Hotel’s bar. Most impressive of the district’s hotel wining-and-dining options, however, is the Saxon; award-winning sommeliers Francis Krone and Gareth Ferreira ensure the Saxon’s distinction in this regard.

Out-of-towners, particularly Capetonians, may recognise some of the big-name restaurants such as Pigalle and Bukhara, whose older siblings are established in Cape Town; the cosmopolitan Pigalle and the superb Indian cuisine of Bukhara have wine cellars to match their gastronomic delights. Yet if you find yourself wandering through Sandton City, Nelson Mandela Square or the Michaelangelo Towers and looking for something unusual in the generic artifice of a mall, there are some Joburg gems to discover. Annica’s Boutique Restaurant, with its eclectic decor, uncluttered menu and attentive service offers respite from the ubiquitous Sandton commerce; at the other end of the scale, brassy-but-classy Maximillien (better known as the Maxim Lounge) celebrates upmarket exclusivity.

Still, all things considered, if it’s inclusivity you’re after – the inclusivity of public spaces and shared history – then you’d be better off driving south from Sandton, along the ridge that runs through Illovo and Rosebank, down Jan Smuts Avenue all the way to Braamfontein. You could continue across the iconic Nelson Mandela bridge or the older Queen Victoria Bridge into the “old” CBD, where there is a complex heritage to explore if you bring patience and perseverance to your navigation: grand buildings in various states of decline or repair, a few of the major corporate headquarters surrounded by “inner city improvement districts”, budding entrepreneurs plying their trade on the streets, immigrant communities bringing the diversity of Africa to the continent’s engine room, creative focal points like the Johannesburg Art Gallery and the Maboneng Precinct, and of course some startling public artworks sponsored by the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA).

The JDA and various private developers have initiated high-profile regeneration projects, but these have met with mixed success. As Joburg denizen Victor Dlamini remarks, however, bold visions of “a rejuvenated Joburg inner city to rival the Upper West Side of Manhattan” have remained “an elusive dream”. The Newtown cultural precinct, developed around the Market Theatre, remains a drawcard: it includes Museum Africa, historical Mary Fitzgerald Square, jazz venue Kippies, bookshops and bars. But for sheer variety (and indeed “walkability”, albeit up steep hills), Braamfontein is your best bet. For Dlamini, the “absence of hype” around the renewal of Braamfontein is precisely what gives this area its appeal.

The best and worst of South African history are on display at Constitution Hill, along Braamfontein’s northeastern edge. The Old Fort complex, site of notorious abuses and unjust imprisonments over the course of a century, is now a memorial site and museum; alongside this sits the patriotism-inspiring Constitutional Court. Nearby is the multi-storey Joburg Theatre and, further on, the modest but funky Alex Theatre. Wandering along tree-lined streets, you might catch a glimpse of the SA Ballet Theatre’s dancers rehearsing in their glass-fronted studio. Wits University has the Origins Centre, a fascinating museum of human development, and a soon-to-be-opened gallery housing its African art collection.

If tramping through Braamfontein gets you hot and bothered, fear not; there are oases of food and drink. Apparently unprepossessing city blocks harbour industrial-chic collections of restaurants and antique/decor stores such as 44 Stanley and 73 Juta Street. Finally, whether it’s a lazy lunch or a glamorous dinner you’re after, don’t miss the enigmatically-named Narina Trogon: the culinary jewel in Braamfontein’s crown, boasting an innovative menu and a wide array of wines.



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