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A jazz performer walks through Poppy's in Melville.
CITY GUIDE

A local’s guide to Johannesburg

A jazz performer walks through Poppy's in Melville.
  • By Pumza Fihlani
  • Photos by Gulshan Khan
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Affectionately known as eGoli, or “the city of gold” because of the gold rush in the late 1800s, Johannesburg has evolved to much more than a small mining town. It’s one of South Africa’s largest cities and home to skyscrapers, award-winning restaurants and expensive real estate. The allure of Johannesburg, or Jozi for short, is unmistakable. It’s where many ambitious South Africans try their luck at starting a company, launching a musical career, getting into the arts or even politics. The energy truly makes it feel like anything is possible. It’s a dazzling blend of cultures, nationalities and languages. Here you can sample local dishes, shop at designer outlets and see wildlife at a nature reserve. Keep an open mind, but keep your wits about you, and you’re sure to discover something unforgettable.

Meet Pumza Fihlani

Pumza has lived in Johannesburg since 2006. She describes herself as a small town girl, having grown up in Mthatha, South Africa, in the countryside. She moved to the city as an intern, fell in love with its lights and never left. She loves city life but misses the clear night sky in the Eastern Cape province — and the sense of community there.

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IN THE ACTION
Sandton
Over the past few years, Sandton has become the new hub of Johannesburg. It’s the commercial district and home of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Be warned, though, accommodation is on the pricier side — this is where you’ll find most of the city’s five-star and boutique hotels, as well as apartments with endless views of the city’s skyline. You can shop up a storm at Sandton City mall or Nelson Mandela Square, catch the latest theater production at the Teatro, and if traveling with children, explore Croc City Crocodile and Reptile Park. Find the neighborhood.
LOW-KEY
Parkhurst
There is an ease to the charm of Parkhurst. The tree-lined streets and parks make for a lovely afternoon stroll and are particularly beautiful in the spring, when the purple jacarandas are in bloom. The area offers an array of secluded guesthouses and Airbnbs, with most places located a short distance from sidewalk cafes, antique shops and the Goodman Gallery, home to some of South Africa’s best contemporary art. Find the neighborhood.
Neighborhoods

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Eat

BREAKFAST
Nice on 4th
Nice on 4th is famous for its “egg baskets” — toast baskets filled with poached eggs and an assortment of delicious toppings. Traditionalists go for the standard egg basket, topped with crispy bacon and a spicy tomato relish, while vegetarians can opt for a basket that features mushrooms and avocado. For a lighter meal, the Berry Bowl is a local menu favorite, too.
BTW: This spot doubles as a sidewalk cafe on a street brimming with restaurants, shops and bars. Grab a book from the bookstore next door to enjoy with your meal.
37 Fourth Ave., Parkhurst, Johannesburg 2193
BREAKFAST
Salvation Cafe
Found within a mini market called 44 Stanley, Salvation Cafe is a great spot for pancakes and benedicts. You can also tuck into freshly baked pastries and loads of savory goodies; the egg benedicts and breakfast burritos are local favorites. And the best part? You can enjoy this from the beautiful outdoor sitting area — a sunny patio, perfect for a slow, easy morning. If you’re in a hurry and can’t dine in, there’s a deli section to order on the go.
BTW: The portion sizes are generous. Walk off the meal by exploring the market, which boasts shops full of clothing and homemade accessories.
salvation cafe, 44 Stanley Ave. Milpark, Johannesburg 2092
LUNCH
Perron
This charming, small Mexican restaurant in Illovo is an especially great option for vegetarians and vegans, with a wide selection for meat-lovers as well. From spicy chicken quesadillas and carnitas to cauliflower tacos and sweet-potato fritters, the best way to enjoy a meal here is to mix and match a taste of everything.
BTW: Don’t skip dessert. What could be better than warm deep-fried churros and chocolate sauce?
Perron, Illovo Junction, Corlett Drive, Illovo, Johannesburg 2196
LUNCH
Fishmonger Rosebank
If seafood is what floats your boat, then welcome home. There are more than 30 dishes to choose from at this outpost, part of South Africa’s oldest restaurant franchises. Dig in to everything from fresh fish and lobster to prawns and calamari.
BTW: The mixed platters are crowd-pleasers and especially great if you’re dining in a large group.
fishmonger rosebank, The Firs Cradock Avenue &, Biermann Ave, Rosebank, Johannesburg, 2196, South Africa
DINNER
The Wine Bar
There’s something for every palate at this gem in the heart of Soweto. The Wine Bar is located on Vilakazi Street, the only street in the world to serve as home to not one but two Nobel Peace Prize winners: Nelson Mandela and former Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu. Here, you can sample traditional dishes like Mogodu (lamb tripe) or a hearty oxtail, best enjoyed with homemade steamed bread and a glass of wine from the in-house cellar.
BTW: After dinner, patrons have been known to get on their feet and enjoy some local music. Join the fun!
the wine bar, 7165 Vilakazi St., Orlando West, Soweto 1804
DINNER
The Local Grill
Steak lovers simply can’t leave town without stopping by this modern steakhouse. Famous for its friendly service and beautifully aged beef, the owners strongly believe in sourcing from local farmers and aging the meat in-house. The restaurant also gives guided tours of the kitchen, offering a glimpse into dry- and wet-aging techniques.
BTW: South Africa’s wine industry is rated among the best in the world, and the steakhouse’s wine selection makes sure to reflect that. Ask your waiter for his or her recommended dish pairing.
The Local Grill, 40 Seventh Avenue and Third Avenue, Parktown North, Johannesburg 2193
LATE-NIGHT
Che Argentine Grill
If you’re dying for a good meal after stumbling out of a movie or before heading to a club, this is your spot. Che Argentine Grill can be found in the recently refurbished Johannesburg city center — once famous for being unsafe but now a gathering place for young professionals. The restaurant’s Argentine roots come across in everything from the music to the rustic decor, but the open kitchen is the real showstopper; everything is cooked on the wood-fired parrilla. Nothing works up an appetite quite like the sounds of meat sizzling on a large grill.
BTW: Leave your flashy jewelry at home and carry small sums of money. There is only street parking, so the cash will come in handy for tipping car guards. $2 will do.
Che Argentine Grill, 128 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood, Johannesburg
LATE-NIGHT
Poppy’s
This no-fuss-or-frills spot feels like dining at your favorite aunt’s house and is the perfect place to end the night. The menu is delicious and straightforward, with a Cape Malay influence. Dig in to the chicken wings, homemade burgers and spicy chicken. Speaking of spicy: Try the homemade chili sauce. Every Wednesday night, you can sit back and enjoy a live jazz performance by local artists, with the occasional surprise act from an international jazz star.
BTW: If you’re a fan of curry, this is the perfect place to indulge.
Seventh Street and Second Avenue, Melville, Johannesburg 2072
(Johannesburg illustrator Andrew Footit for The Washington Post)
LOCALS THINK YOU SHOULD KNOW
  1. There are 11 official languages in South Africa, and you’re likely to find all of them here — learning the basics of the Zulu language, even just a greeting, will win you favor.
  2. Explore the city’s many wonders, but have your wits about you. It’s best to leave your family heirlooms and diamonds at home.
  3. If you get an opportunity to dance, do it. Anywhere. Trying your hand at a local dance is the best way to have fun in Johannesburg.
(Johannesburg illustrator Andrew Footit for The Washington Post)

Do

The Orlando Towers
Adrenaline junkies will enjoy a visit to the Orlando Towers in Soweto. The 33-story towers once functioned as part of a coal-fired power station but were shut down and later repurposed into a playground for extreme sports in 2008. Take part in bungee-jumping, rappelling and zip-lining. If you’d prefer to keep your feet firmly on the ground but still want a thrill, the site also offers a quad-biking trail and paintballing.
BTW: Booking is essential for groups of more than six.
The Orlando Towers, Corner of Sheffield Road and Chris Hani Road, Orlando East, Soweto 1808
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
This botanical garden was founded in 1982 and continues to be a popular hangout spot for locals looking to enjoy the outdoors. With beautifully manicured lawns stretching as far as the eye can see, it is the perfect location for a picnic under the sun. Hit the hiking trails to take in the gardens’ various bird species and exotic assortment of plants.
BTW: In this case, do go chasing waterfalls. The waterfall at the gardens makes for an amazing picture — guaranteed to make your Instagram followers jealous.
Malcolm Road, Poortview, Roodepoort 1724
Johannesburg Arts on Main
Nestled in the Johannesburg city center, what was once a run-down warehouse complex now oozes creativity: One can find artists’ studios, galleries and restaurants. On Sundays, take a walk through the food and goods market, where everything is freshly prepared.
BTW: Although most vendors accept cards, bring some cash for smaller purchases.
264 Fox Street and Berea Road, Maboneng, Johannesburg 2094
Market Theatre
Many internationally acclaimed artists cut their teeth at the home of South African theater. During the fight against racial segregation in the 1970s, the Market Theatre was one of the few places that took a public stand against racism. Carrying on that legacy, the plays here are a proud display of the country’s diversity and creativity, all in an intimate setting.
BTW: One of the best parts about going to the theater is dressing up, so make a night of it and channel a bit of old Hollywood. You won’t be the only one.
Market Theatre
Chaf Pozi
South Africans love their meat, and nothing says “authentic South African experience” quite like an open-flame barbecue. Barbecues in the local culture are called shisa nyama, which translates to “burn meat.” A shisa nyama worth its salt will have a butchery or meat section where one can choose a cut of meat, a well-stocked bar, lively music and delicious traditional food. It’s a place to sit back and catch up on the latest sports news, enjoy a cold beer and really get lost in the chatter. Chaf Pozie offers exactly that.
BTW: Wear comfortable shoes. The beers are cold and cheap, so chances are you’ll end up on the dance floor in no time.
Chris Hani Road and Nicholas Street, Orlando East, Soweto 2196
Pumza Fihlani
Pumza has lived in Johannesburg since 2006. She describes herself as a small town girl, having grown up in Mthatha, South Africa, in the countryside. She moved to the city as an intern, fell in love with its lights and never left. She loves city life but misses the clear night sky in the Eastern Cape province — and the sense of community there.
Gulshan Khan
Gulshan is a contributing photographer to The Washington Post based in Johannesburg.
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CITY GUIDES