Long known as a quick overnight stop for safari-bound travelers, Johannesburg has evolved into a dynamic metropolis worthy of an extended layover. Though the city famously imploded in the 1990’s, Joburg has reemerged with a thriving arts and culture scene, thanks to the innovative designers and developers who have led the city’s revivification. Plus, last summer’s World Cup brought new infrastructure and a clutch of sophisticated hotels and restaurants.
Check In: The all-suite Saxon Boutique Hotel, Villas & Spa (doubles from $1,167), set on six acres of landscaped gardens in the northern Sandhurst neighborhood, is just a 15-minute train ride from the O. R. Tambo International Airport, thanks to the new Gautrain (gautrain.co.za; $14) mass-transit system. The Saxon is where Nelson Mandela completed Long Walk to Freedom following his release from prison in 1990. In nearby Sandton, just steps from the Gautrain, the Great Value Radisson Blu Gautrain (doubles from $184) opened in May, with bright, spacious guest rooms and a popular outdoor terrace. Another recent arrival is the sleek Radisson Blu Hotel Sandton (doubles from $350). All 290 guest rooms have large windows that overlook the skyline and surrounding veld.
Lunch: Hop in a cab for a five-minute drive to Moemas (lunch for two $24), a pocket-size café and bakery in upscale Parktown North. Photo-ready sweets like raspberry-coulis meringues and bread-and-butter pudding are the top sellers—but don’t skip the inventive salads, such as dill-infused couscous with butternut squash and caramelized onions.
Art: The burgeoning gallery district in Parkwood is anchored by David Krut Art Resource, which hosts rotating exhibitions by experimental artists including U. K.-born painter and sculptor Boo Ritson, and has a well-curated selection of art books. Stop nearby at design studio Maker to see furniture and ceramics by cutting-edge local product designers such as Dokter & Misses. Gallery 2 recently relocated here from Sandton—look for colorful woodblock prints by Western Cape native Joshua Miles. Across the street is a branch of the country’s premier Goodman Gallery, which represents established regional artists such as Kudzanai Chiurai, an exiled Zimbabwean painter based in Johannesburg. In neighboring Rosebank, striking Circa on Jellicoe, known for contemporary South African art, is surrounded by 400 thirty-foot-tall variegated aluminum “fins” that reference a protective Zulu kraal, or livestock enclosure.
Dinner: Parkhurst’s restaurant row—a bustling stretch of Fourth Avenue—is a rare walkable block of the city, with everything from sushi to rustic Italian fare. The casual, antiques-filled Attic (dinner for two $56) serves an eclectic menu (French guinea fowl risotto; Namibian mussels; Scottish salmon) inspired by the travels of globe-trotting owners Thom Hughes and Martin Jacoby.
Breakfast: The revitalized eastern edge of the Central Business District is now home to Arts on Main, a stylish shopping and gallery complex that’s lured top local artists such as multimedia icon William Kentridge, who opened studios here. Snag a table in the tree-shaded central courtyard at Canteen (breakfast for two $26) for the “Canteen breakfast,” with eggs, lamb sausage, mushrooms, and tomatoes.
Culture: The Apartheid Museum, south of the city center, is an invaluable primer on apartheid-era race divisions, as well as the 19th-century gold rush that brought prospectors from around the world. Traveling shows have included a recent cut-paper silhouette installation by New York City–based artist Kara Walker.
Lunch: Head back into town for lunch at the Melrose Arch mall location of mini-chain Tashas (lunch for two $32), Joburg’s liveliest lunch spot, and take in the scene over the thyme and white wine–infused chicken pot pie, made fresh on order and served with crisp fries.
Shopping: Joburg has no shortage of malls, but the 44 Stanley complex, in Milpark, has the area’s best shopping, thanks to its many boutiques that showcase creative young talent. Be sure to check out the breezy, sophisticated dresses and shirts by local Tiaan Nagel and the retro furnishings—restored record players and old wall clocks—at Vintage Cowboys.
Dinner: It’s 20 minutes up the M1 highway back to Melrose Arch for a pan-African dinner at Moyo (dinner for two $46), where diners order sosaties (curried, skewered beef), braised springbok shank, and Ethiopian beef marinated in fenugreek, a clover-like herb, while taking in live African-influenced jazz and folk music.
Drinks: The century-old Kitchener’s Carvery Bar (drinks for two $5), in Braamfontein, once hosted the titular commander of Britain’s Boer War force; with a dance floor, disco ball and a healthy supply of the local Castle Lager, it’s now a favorite with the design crowd—and the best place for a toast in this vibrant city.
Diane Vadino is a writer based in New York.