If you think colourful, chaotic and wild Jozi is best viewed from the safety of a tour bus, you’re doing yourself and Africa’s hippest city a great disservice. Try one of these walking tours to discover its heart and soul
Johannesburg is currently undergoing an inner-city revival of delicious proportions, and one of the most fascinating ways to explore it is on foot. Hit the streets, sniff the air, sense the possibilities, meet the locals, eat, drink and talk … and prepare to have your stereotypes challenged and your heartstrings pulled.
THE HILLBROW & PONTE TOUR
by Dlala Nje
This walk through Hillbrow – widely considered Jozi’s most dangerous ’hood – starts and ends at the Ponte Towers, the city’s most iconic building. Once known as “the Manhattan of the Veld” for its many Art Deco buildings and gracious apartment living, Hillbrow is now a largely immigrant area with a population density greater than that of Hong Kong. You’ll get to discover the daily challenges of life as a poor immigrant in the City of Gold, meet local residents, have a drink at a local shebeen and end up – as in, on the 51st floor of Ponte – with astonishing views of the city.
The history of the building is riveting, from gracious 1970s apartments to the worst urban slum in Africa to a well-run and safe tower block again, and the guides tell it well. The most surreal moment is when you get to visit the pit at the bottom of Ponte, which was once covered with storeys of trash and is now completely cleared up. Dlala Nje is a community organisation that runs the tours (many of the guides live in Ponte) as well as the crèche for the children who live there. The crew at Dlala Nje also does Yeoville and Berea food tours.
URBAN FARMING & GREEN ROOFTOPS
by Joburg Places
Find out how the city is greening up by visiting inner-city gardens and parks, rooftop greenhouses and nurseries. This tour combines walking with hopping on and off the local buses – so you get a real slice of inner-city life. You’ll wander the old conservatory and new greenhouses at Joubert Park, which locals are trying to turn into a safe community space and a food -growing scheme.
Up the road, at the Outreach Foundation in Hillbrow, there’s a hydroponics greenhouse that grows the greens for the refugee centre below (and its crèche). You also visit the amazing Bambanani Food & Herb Cooperative in Bertrams, where tunnels are used to grow vegetables to feed the local community.
by Past Experiences
Walk the talk on the amazing Graffiti Tour, which gives you an entertaining and detailed account of Jozi’s thriving graffiti culture. “Graffiti is my passion,” says tour guide Jo Buitendach of Past Experiences, a specialist inner-city walking tour company – and it’ll likely end up being your passion too. You’ll get to see large-scale murals, international artworks, edgy street art, social message projects and random in-your-face people’s graffiti. And you’ll find out about the history of the international movement, its development in Jozi, the major players and the top artists. “Depending on what you’re after, the graffiti tour goes into Maboneng and Troyeville, the CBD and Newtown, and just about anywhere in between,” says Jo. “We also offer tours with some of the top graffiti artists themselves. You’ll see works by Myza420, Mars, Rasty, Tyke, Curio, Mein, Bias, Ryza, Riot, Drake, Tapz and others.”
Another popular Past Experiences tour is the Public Art Tour. Did you know there are more than a thousand individual pieces of public art, including mosaics, in the city? You’ll never see Jozi in quite the same way again.
FASHION DISTRICT & LITTLE ADDIS
by Joburg Places
For a fabulous mixed masala of fabric, food, tastes, textures and culture, take the Fashion District & Little Addis walking tour – a walk-through the long-standing fashion and haberdashery district of downtown Jozi, established in the 1890s, where you can see and buy Nigerian, Ghanaian and Tanzanian fabrics, kente cloths, shweshwe and traditional local cloths. The walk includes lunch at a restaurant in Little Addis, the Ethiopian quarter of the CBD – an intense hub with hundreds of cupboard-sized shops. The residents here are mainly from Ethiopia, but Eritrea and Djibouti too; most are traders (dubbed survivalist entrepreneurs) who fled political strife in Ethiopia in the 1990s.
Joburg Places does other tours themed around the regeneration of the city, the latest being Safari & Secret Underground Dinners, which includes a delicious meal in an old bank basement.
THE ROVING BANTU KULTURAL TREKS
by The Roving Bantu
Sifiso Ntuli, a self-proclaimed freedom peddler and the roving Bantu in the business’s name, guides this thought-provoking tour of the inner city’s western edges. It meanders through the suburbs of Brixton and Fietas – the collective name for Pageview and Vrededorp – and asks how we reconstitute fragmented communities and reclaim history.
The walk through Brixton offers a close-up look at the famous 237m-high Sentech Tower, a drink at a local shebeen, and visits to a monument to fallen soldiers, a church designed by Sir Herbert Baker, a Hindu crematorium organised by Mahatma Gandhi shortly before his departure from South Africa in 1914, the poignant Fietas Museum and the Braamfontein cemetery. The tour ends off with a soul-food lunch and live jazz at the Roving Bantu Kitchen. “Jazz and freedom,” says Sifiso, “that’s the spirit here.”
FORDSBURG STREET FOOD & HISTORY TOUR
by Eenblond Tours
Definitely arrive hungry for this spicy tour with food fundi and famous blogger Gilda Swanepoel. Fordsburg is a major centre of Indian and Pakistani culture, with a rich and often torrid history. Gilda is passionate about food, so this tour avoids the tourist traps and takes you to different street spots offering Syrian, African, Mozambican, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian food. “Many of these shops are gritty-looking on the outside, but inside are amazing spots to discover authentic cuisine, meet locals and enjoy the vibe,” she says. You’ll see local markets and spice shops, mosques and temples, and get a real sense of this fascinating neighbourhood.
Gilda also does the extremely popular Melville Food, Booze and Stories Tour, where you get to eat and drink your way through the famous boho neighbourhood, including a visit to a cocktail lab.
THE UNDERGROUND BOOKSELLERS TOUR
by Bridge Books
Led by Griffin Shea, who runs the independent Bridge Books in Commissioner Street, this tour is a mind-blowing wander through the inner city’s literary history, tracing Jozi’s informal book trade and its rich reading culture. The walk starts at Bridge Books, set in one of the city’s finest heritage buildings, and meanders through the historic financial district. You’ll visit the Joubert Street market, home to many of the 70-plus booksellers in the CBD, and De Strong Tower, importers of Nigerian chapbooks. There are spaza shops, religious shops, sidewalk vendors and fashion boutiques – all selling books. The walk includes a stop at Ernest Oppenheimer Park, where author Baeletsi Tsatsi of Naane le Moya treats you to a delightful African mythology storytelling session.