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Driving down the busy roads of Johannesburg — past the faux Tuscan homes in the Fourways area, the shiny office blocks in Sandton and the dilapidated buildings downtown — it’s easy, at first glance, to see why it has been considered little more than a stopover for many en route to Kruger National Park or neighboring countries. Though there are 10 million trees throughout the city and jacaranda season turns the streets violet each spring, starting in September, its natural beauty isn’t immediately obvious.
The discovery of gold on farms in the late 1800s quickly transformed an agricultural area into a mining town. Ringed by some of the deepest gold mines in the world, some still active today, Joburg is often called eGoli, an isiZulu nickname for “place of gold.” A longtime financial center in South Africa, it attracted people who worked in business and manufacturing from across the continent. And while Johannesburg has never managed to shake its scruffy image, not everyone sees this as a drawback.
With that grit comes a profound sense of resilience; it’s a place where artists can thrive. The South African artist William Kentridge and the American-born photographer Roger Ballen have been based here for years; the latter recently opened the Inside Out Centre for the Arts in Forest Town. “The cultural landscape is completely unique in Johannesburg and largely defined by the entrepreneurial spirit of its creatives,” says Lucy MacGarry, a co-founder of Latitudes Online, a digital platform for art from Africa with an annual art fair in Joburg.
Cape Town is often seen as the country’s cultural capital thanks to its regular influx of travelers, many of whom seek out art, but Joburg is now home to major fairs such as FNB Art Joburg, which commences each September with a roster of local galleries like Gallery MOMO and Everard Read. Additionally, younger South African talents like the fashion designers Rich Mnisi and Thebe Magugu, who won the LVMH Prize, have chosen to stay rather than relocate to Cape Town or abroad — despite the relentless challenges the city contends with, including high levels of crime, intermittent water shortages and “load shedding” (electricity cuts that can leave residents without power for hours at a time).
“We have accepted that [such obstacles are] part of our life going forward,” says Thobile Chittenden, the chief executive of Makers Valley Partnership, a community organization that supports artists and entrepreneurs alike. “That’s what I love about Joburg: We adapt to whatever we face. We are hustlers; we make a plan.”
With an architectural upgrade by the Ghanaian British architect David Adjaye, Hallmark House is a soaring black concrete-and-steel hotel and residence located in the revitalized neighborhood of Maboneng in downtown Johannesburg. While the gentrification of the district has been contentious, Hallmark House has remained a favorite among locals since it opened in 2015. They sip gin-and-granadilla cocktails on the rooftop and listen to live jazz at the underground Marabi Club over plates of calamari. A new two-bedroom penthouse suite created by the South African designer Tristan du Plessis, in collaboration with the Grammy-winning South African D.J. Black Coffee, features color-blocked, geometric-patterned throws and cushions by MaXhosa, a heritage fashion-and-lifestyle brand founded by the Eastern Cape-born textile designer Laduma Ngxokolo. hallmarkhouse.info
Home Suite Hotels Rosebank
Centrally located in the upscale suburb of Rosebank, Home Suite Hotels offers 28 rooms in rich, warming colors of jade green, clay and ochre. Designed by the Joburg-based studio Tonic Design, the guest rooms and common areas are filled with rounded bouclé chairs with ruby red steel frames, velvet sofas and marble coffee tables. In the lobby, there’s an oxidized brass-finished sculpture by the Joburg-born, Zimbabwe-raised artist Michele Mathison — and a resident bull-terrier mix named Hazel, who sleeps most of the day. In the tiled breakfast room, a daily spread of yogurt, muesli and fresh papaya is laid out along with flapjacks, scrambled eggs and more, all cooked to order in an open kitchen. homesuitehotels.com/rosebank
EAT and Drink HERE
The Test Kitchen Carbon
After two of his cooks relocated to Johannesburg and a space became available, the English-born chef Luke Dale-Roberts debuted the Test Kitchen Carbon, a riff on his popular Cape Town restaurant. Though now closed, the original Test Kitchen won numerous awards, making repeat appearances on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. The prix fixe service and à la carte selection both take pointers from the old menu, offering sesame gyoza and pork belly in a Penang-style coconut-and-lime broth (Dale-Roberts lived in Asia and has long looked to the continent for inspiration). The narrow open kitchen is tucked behind a yellowwood bar and an inky-dark industrial dining room, with brass lighting, felt lampshades and Nguni cowhide-covered chairs. thetestkitchencarbon.co.za
Acid Food & Wine Bar
From the Thai-born chef Jes Doveton and the local sommelier Jemma Styer, this snug spot is well-suited to both wine connoisseurs and casual drinkers. While it feels laid-back, with exposed-brick walls and vintage couches reupholstered in bright orange velvet, it offers a comprehensive menu packed with independently produced natural wines. “Joburgers are keen to explore more [when it comes to natural wine], but they don’t always know where to start,” says Styer. “We tried to make it as comfortable as possible.” Take a seat at the smooth, horseshoe-shaped bar for small plates such as beef tartare with a Gochujjang dressing, a soy-cured egg, crispy nori and deep-fried won-ton skins and a glass of orange wine from Processus, a brand run by a female duo who work with Fernão Pires, a lesser-known Portuguese grape grown in South Africa. https://linktr.ee/acid_thebar
People tried to persuade the Soweto-born chef Wandile Mabaso to open a restaurant in Cape Town, the country’s gastronomy capital, but Joburg felt like the better fit. “There was an opportunity to create something new here,” says Mabaso, the founder of Les Créatifs, who has worked at Le Bernardin and Daniel in New York City. With his classic French training, he applies fine-dining techniques to local ingredients, resulting in unique dishes such as lamb kidney with savory sorghum and goat curry with okra. lescreatifs.co.za
The Eswatini-born multidisciplinary artist Banele Khoza saw a need for a gallery that highlights emerging artists and accommodates the growing number of young collectors, so he launched the kind of place where he would want to show his own work at in 2018. “For many people, the gallery feels like a safe and genuinely encouraging space,” says Khoza, who, two years later, relocated BKhz to a new spot at the Keyes Art Mile, a strip of shops, galleries and restaurants in Rosebank. The traditional glass-fronted white cube transforms with each show; for a recent exhibition of work by the South African painter Zandile Tshabalala, it was adorned with lush greenery. “It was our most visited experience; people still pass by looking for ‘the garden at Keyes,’” says Khoza. bkhz.art
Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation
Phuthuma Nhleko, Adrian Enthoven and Gordon Schachat, all businessmen and avid art collectors, launched the Johannesburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF) as a research institute and platform for exhibitions to draw attention to the region. Housed in a modern brick-and-glass building in leafy Forest Town, JCAF’s programming includes a lecture series featuring experts such as Arjun Appadurai, a scholar of globalization. Its most recent show, which is focused on pioneering women artists, has pieces by Frida Kahlo, the Hungarian-Indian painter Amrita Sher-Gil and the South African expressionist Irma Stern. jcaf.org.za
Located just west of Joburg’s CBD, Victoria Yards is a mixed-use space that serves as a meeting place for artists and artisans and a center of communal development. The brick warehouse buildings, which were overhauled in 2015, are home to affordable workshops, an urban farm, monthly markets and live events like music performances and poetry readings. There’s also Makers Valley Studio, a collaboration with the community organization Makers Valley in which one of the studios is used as a free co-working space with access to computers and Wi-Fi. “It’s all of society in one place and a beautiful reflection of what South Africa can be,” says Thobile Chittenden, the chief executive of Makers Valley Partnership. On weekends, the urban development springs to life and travelers can swing by to visit the farm, grab a flat white at Foakes Coffee Roastery or watch creators at work like Tshepo Mohlala, who makes jeans at his atelier. victoriayards.co.za/
Lezanne Viviers has quickly become one of South Africa’s most compelling fashion designers thanks to her beautifully crafted avant-garde pieces, including silk dresses made with deadstock fabrics from the ’90s. Her new by-appointment-only atelier and showroom is in a galvanized steel-and-glass house built from recycled shipping containers. The towering space, with its clear and color-paneled windows overlooking a manicured garden, is the perfect backdrop for her billowing dresses, hand-embroidered suits and other textile experiments. viviersstudio.com
What to bring home, as suggested by locals we like
Textiles from Something Good Studio
“Something Good Studio was founded by Zydia Botes, a Joburger who believes in creating within communities,” says Mpho Vakier, the founder and creative director of the multidisciplinary furniture and product design studio TheUrbanative. The brand produces limited-edition mohair rugs, mats, towels and throws, all of them collaborations with established artists or young designers such as Mpumelelo Nyuswa and Lunathi Mfanta. Vakier says the blankets are “unique pieces of wearable art, woven with the stories of the people who worked on them.” Towels from around $17; somethinggoodstudio.com.
Sculptural purses from Hamethop
“Tsakani Mashaba founded Hamethop in 2015. Each bag is handcrafted in Johannesburg by masters who are encouraged to share and teach their knowledge of weaving and crafting,” says Zanele Kumalo, the associate director of Kalashnikovv Gallery. “Her collections blur the lines between architecture and fashion and draw on Pan-African inspirations including the Dogon and the Ndebele cultures.” Bags from around $400; hamethop.co.za/.