Over the last two decades, Johannesburg’s reputation for violent crime has turned the transportation hub into little more than a pit stop en route to the plentiful delights that South Africa has to offer. While concerns for personal safety still exist, parts of the city centre and surrounding suburbs are shaking off their deplorable reputation with vigour and are waiting to be explored.
Start by walking the streets of Johannesburg's Central Business District (CBD), where an influx of shops selling inexpensive international goods have filled the void left by the businesses that fled during the uncertainty and paranoia of the 1990s. The neatly designed, New York City-style blocks explode with colour, sound and traffic - marking the spot where Western order and African energy intersect.
An excellent route is to start in the central suburb of Braamfontein, head south over the Nelson Mandela suspension bridge to Newtown and stop to admire the urban skyline along the way. After sifting through the curio stalls or catching an exhibition at the Museum Africa (www.museumafrica.org) on Newtown Square, meander east into the old City Centre.
For a more tranquil shopping experience, visit 44 Stanley (www.44stanley.co.za), a collection of boutiques, design studios and cafes, hidden in the industrial suburb of Milpark on the western fringes of the old City Centre. It would be easy to miss if not for the two giant iron 4's jutting from a skyline of office buildings and supermarkets. The entrance however leads to an Aladdin-like marketplace of high-end Africana craft stores, art galleries and musty bookstores.
44 Stanley provides a refreshing change from the sanitized shopping malls and franchised eateries that dominate modern day South Africa. Take a break from your browsing by grabbing a cup of coffee at one of the several independent cafés and sitting beneath an olive tree in an outdoor courtyard.
Johannesburg's early days as a gold-mining town, and the ensuing mass urbanisation, left an acrid legacy in the form of Apartheid. To form a better understanding of this tumultuous and nation defining period, visit the outstanding Apartheid Museum (www.apartheidmuseum.org), built a short drive south of the city in 2001.
The stark exterior purposely evokes feelings of detention and oppression, and sets the scene for a dense journey through the reasoning, justification, practicalities, absurdities and struggle of the 45-year Apartheid era. Moving through the intelligently created museum is both a sombre and heartening experience, where uncompromising displays and footage are interspersed with spaces for reflection.
Just west of the city centre, near the main streets of Melville (7
Street) and Parkhurst (4
Street), botanical gardens, public parks and golf courses are surrounded by a moat of middle class suburbia. Nestled within is a bohemian community with an eclectic mix of Japanese, Italian and Portuguese restaurants, and nightlife that ranges from frantically energetic dance floors to mellower bars. Whiskey-lovers will be enamoured by WISH bar (www.wishmelville.co.za) and the perpetual two for one special on its vast selection of the brown liquor.
Throughout the city, an injection of new life into tired areas and a fusion of Afro and European styles in others, has led to a metamorphosis from Johannesburg to "Jozi", a name affectionately coined by locals. Jozi, is a microcosm of a new South Africa, one that strives to welcome guests with open arms instead of bearing them.
The best way to avoid trouble in Johannesburg is by using common sense.
Always take local advice from concierges, hotel receptionists and friends on where to go and places or areas to avoid. When walking around town, minimize external trappings of wealth and avoid the city centre or walking between areas at night. If in any doubt about personal safety, take a taxi.