Published March 2020
Spending a few days in the biggest city in South Africa is like taking several trips in one. For the food, the contrast between urban life in a financial center and natural parks, the transformation that pulsates at every corner, and, above all, the story the city tells on every tour, in every conversation, and – why not? – in every bite.
Anyone who tries dishes like bobotie, a kind of lamb meatloaf cooked in a spices sauce, for example, will experience influences from Malaysia and Indonesia left there by the Dutch.
This is because, in the 17th century, they stopped in Table Bay, in Cape Town, to replenish their Dutch East India Company boats. The new flavors were taken to the rest of the country and are still present to this day. Incidentally, bobotie was one of leader Nelson Mandela’s favorite dishes.
Anyone who prefers trend-setting dishes will discover a scenario on the rise in the city: the chefs who combine African cuisine with Asian and European influences in a creative, subtle manner, aiming to put Johannesburg on the map for critics and foodies who select the best and most interesting establishments around the world to visit.
It’s the case of Marcus Gericke, recognized last year as the best young chef in the country by San Pellegrino, the same organization that promotes the 50 Best, an event that selects the best restaurants in the world every year.
Gericke is a sous-chef at the restaurant Qunu, installed inside the Saxon Hotel, Villas & Spa. The restaurant’s British-inspired menu and name are another proof that history and gastronomy come together in the city. South Africa was colonized by the British. And Qunu is the name of the rural village where Nelson Mandela spent part of his childhood. The ingredients are bought from small producers, a trend that’s booming in this new gastronomic scenario.
Urbanologi is on the same path. There, everything that enters the kitchen is from farms within a 93-mile [150 km] radius. The restaurant is installed in a warehouse inside the Mad Giant Brewery, in Ferreiras Dorp, the oldest area of Joburg – as the city is also known. Their Asian-inspired cuisine (which features recipes like grilled chicken with chimichurri) gets contemporary touches in seasonal dishes to share.
Qunu: 36 Saxon Rd, Sandhurst, Johannesburg, 2196
Urbanologi: 1 Fox St, Ferreiras Dorp
By harmonizing the menu with their homemade beverages, you can also experience another trend: the production of local beers. For dessert, order a malva pudding, traditionally made with apricot jam and served with cream on top. Originally Dutch, it’s always part of locals’ meals.
There’s also the exotic street food that includes specialties like chicken feet with saffron, curry, and peppers. A feast to enjoy with your hands. And what about the treats at the markets? Make sure to stop by Neighbourgoods, in Braamfontein, on a Saturday morning. Let yourself get carried away by the joy that radiates from great live music performances and, again, by the food – tasty and at inviting prices.
The Neighbourgoods Market: 73 Juta St, Cnr De Beer & Juta St 2000
Carnivore types will have a feast with exotic meats. Ostrich, boar, and kudu, a kind of antelope that resembles Bambi. These dishes are usually served with polenta made with corn flour, known as pap, or a spicy vegetable sauce called chakalaka.
For hipsters, the district of Maboneng is the ideal destination. Formerly a run-down industrial region, it’s been taken over by galleries and shops. It’s the perfect area to casually explore cafés and restaurants and find that special place to call your own.
To learn more about the story of Nelson Mandela, who fought against the apartheid (a regime of racial segregation that existed in South Africa from 1948 to 1994), spent 27 years in prison and later became the president of the country, from 1994 to 1999, it’s essential to visit at least two places: the Mandela House Museum and the Apartheid Museum.
The first is in the district of Soweto, installed in the house where Mandela lived. The museum has a few family items. The street, Vilakazi, is also known as the address of another leader who fought against the apartheid: Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Take advantage to rent a tuk-tuk and explore the region with a local guide. It’s worth taking a tour that includes lunch at a restaurant frequented by local residents.
Meanwhile, the Apartheid Museum, opened in 2001, has a permanent exhibition, a temporary exhibition, and an exhibition on Mandela. The experience starts before you actually enter the museum. At the entrance, visitors are separated between white and non-white. Randomly, just like they used to do in the past.
Mandela House Museum: 8115 Vilakazi St, Orlando West, Soweto
Apartheid Museum: Northern Parkway & Gold Reef Road Ormonde, 2001
From there, take a taxi to Constitution Hill, home to South Africa’s Constitutional Court. It was built in the prison where Nelson Mandela served time in the 1950s. Visitors can also see the place where Mahatma Gandhi was imprisoned, in 1913 – the Hindu pacifist leader lived and practiced law in South Africa for 20 years.
Constitution Hill: 11 Kotze Road
If you’re traveling with kids, after the Apartheid Museum you can enjoy a lighter activity nearby: the amusement park in the Gold Reef City complex. This theme park offers a trip back in time. More precisely, to the gold rush era. In addition to conventional rides, like the roller coaster, visitors are invited to a different activity: explore an underground mine. There are two hotels and 12 restaurants at the park.
To relax, Johannesburg has incredible natural hideaways. Less than 3.5 miles [6 km] from the city center is Emmarentia Dam. Have a picnic there or enjoy the park as a starting point to explore the Botanical Garden, home to over 30,000 trees and beautiful rose bushes.
Gold Reef City: Corner of Northerns Parkway & Data Crescent, Ormonde
Emmarentia Dam: Entrada principal pela Olifants Road, Gauteng
Botanical Garden: Entrada principal pela Olifants Road
For a nearby safari, visit Pilanesberg Park. A two-hour drive from the city (less than half the time to get to Krueger, the country’s most famous park), it’s just 137 miles [220 km] from Johannesburg Airport.
Installed inside the crater of a volcano that became extinct 1.2 billion years ago, Pilanesberg is also home to the Big Five, the five animals most feared by hunters: buffalo, elephant, lion, leopard, and rhinoceros. Since it’s not a long trip, you can return to Johannesburg at night.
It’s a great way to save some time to further explore the city that, definitely, is no longer “a quick stop between safaris and tours to wineries in South Africa,” becoming a destination (a wonderful destination!) in itself.