South Africa’s largest city is an eclectic place to visit. On one hand it is a destination deep rooted in the macabre history of apartheid, a place previously known for the once war torn suburb of Soweto.
On the other hand it is a vibrant city, a buzzing urban metropolis that dances to the beat of the late night clubs that attract revellers into the early hours. A destination boasting boutique shops, opulent spas and suave art galleries.
Having landed in Johannesburg in the early hours we found ourselves with two days to spare before our flight east to Durban, and 48 hours to explore one of South Africa’s most underrated cities.
We began with an early breakfast at the Balalaika Hotel in Sandton. This luxury resort is renowned for its scenic, country style surroundings, a property renowned across the city for its sumptuous cuisine and five star service. With this in mind we dined on a scrumptious English breakfast whilst taking in the views of the manicured gardens.
After a breakfast banquet that we wished didn’t have to end we tore ourselves away from the table and hailed a taxi for the 30 minute ride to one of Johannesburg’s most popular attractions, Gold Reef City.
This former gold mine turned theme park boasts an array of adrenalin-inducing rides and historical exhibits alongside a 24 hour casino. Thrill seekers will love the Tower of Terror which plunges riders 50m into a disused mine shaft, and the Golden Look which throws riders around a twisting track 40 metres into the air. Having sampled a number of the rides we headed for terra firma in the comfortable surrounds of the casino.
Here guests are treated to an array of slots, tables and sports betting facilities, while the high rollers are invited into Salon Prive. It must be said that service here is beyond the call of duty, as staff go out of their way to attend to your every need. Of course this is to ensure you spend as much time (and money) in the casino as possible, however it’s a welcome change from many of the cold, sterile casino’s I’ve visited in the past.
Having hedged our bets and ridden our luck for long enough we headed out of the park and onto the apartheid museum – a mere five minute stroll from the park.
It’s a bizarre contrast, from the excited screams of the park and flashing flights of the casino we were suddenly transported into a far more serious and sobering attraction. The apartheid museum is a harrowing memorial to South Africa’s struggle for equality, offering a number of exhibits created by curators, film-makers and historians.
Whilst it’s hard not to visit with a heavy heart the museum does what it sets out to do, giving a forthright and unbiased insight into the darkest period of South African history. Granted this trip was not an uplifting experience however it was one that as a visitor to South Africa I felt needed to be made, and one I can highly recommend for those who wish to gain a greater understanding into the history of South Africa.
Following our visit we took a taxi back to the centre of town and, after a long morning, it was a welcome visit to our lunch venue, the Atrium Bar at the Intercontinental Sandton. This suave and sophisticated venue is the place to see and be seen in Johannesburg, and has a reputation for sumptuous cuisine and cool cocktails. Thankfully the reputation was well deserved, the Sea Bass was exquisite and the soothing jazz made for a unique lunchtime atmosphere. After an extended lunch break it was time to remind ourselves we had little time enjoy the city and thus had to tear ourselves away from the laid back vibe and head back out to further explore the city.
Our next stop was just a stone’s throw from the hotel, the Sandton City shopping mall – home to designer boutiques and luxury outlets. Boasting the likes of Armani, Hugo Boss and Swarovski the mall is a shopaholic’s paradise and was a marvellous way to spend a few hours mingling amongst locals and tourists alike.
My shopping spree was cut short (probably for the best considering my credit card bill!) due to a pre-planned evening at Back2Basix, a rustic bar offering live music by alternative Afrikaans bands. The atmosphere here was laid back and authentic, a far cry from many of the “run of the mill” nightlife venues in other cities I’ve travelled to. This was a traditional South African evening and a fantastic way to end our first day in the city.
Our second day began with a friendly reminder from our hotel concierge that our flight to Durban was booked for 7 that evening, and that we would be required to arrive at the airport two hours before departure.
We headed off for a pre-booked tour of Robben Island, something I had personally been looking forward to since our arrival in the city as, having watched a number of documentaries on the island, I was keen to experience it in person.
The short half an hour ferry ride was smooth sailing and, thanks to our guide highlighting points of interest during the crossing, felt more like a part of the tour as opposed to mere transportation.
Trips here last approximately 2.5 hours and ours included a tour of the prison, a talk from a former inmate and a bus ride with commentary around the ex-facility. It’s hard to sum up the eerie atmosphere afforded here, however there is something to be said for the sheer size of the prison and isolation felt when looking out across the sea from the gates.
Arriving back on the mainland it was time to freshen up at our hotel and head out for a spot of lunch / dinner. Our table was booked at the popular La Belle Terrasse and Loggia at the Westcliff Hotel.
Boasting sumptuous cuisine and breath-taking views of the city the restaurant was understandably busy, however service was efficient and friendly and our meals were even more delicious than those enjoyed at the Atrium Bar.
Sadly our trip to Johannesburg had to come to an end, and as we departed for the airport I was surprised at just how little information there is on the city, and how many people had informed me there would be little to do here. Perhaps its reputation as a “stop over town” has been a detriment; however Johannesburg is, in my opinion, as impressive as of South Africa’s magnificent cities.