A weekend in Johannesburg

THERE’S too much history in this town.” So says my tour guide Zac as we speed away from Johannesburg airport. He’s not wrong. Just 125 years old, South Africa’s largest city has developed as though on steroids. The often bloody events that mark its relatively short lifetime read like those of a much older city. First the gold rush of 1886; then rapid industrialisation; the Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902; the early years of racial segregation; official apartheid, which began in 1960; democracy in 1994; and the “white flight” that followed, as middle class whites fled the city centre for more secure suburbs (where they have stayed, for the most part, ever since).

Johannesburg – or Jo’burg as the locals call it – is still in constant flux. Just one illustration of this are the mine dumps that surround the city’s outskirts like low-range mountains – the only variation on an otherwise flat terrain. These huge piles of sand were dumped by miners because the cost of extracting what little gold they contained was uneconomical. They quickly became a feature: local politicians planted trees on them to stop the dust turning into a sand-storms; thrill-seekers started sand-boarding down the dunes. As the price of gold has surged, mining companies are reclaiming the dumps: the cost of extraction is no longer too high. These mountains are disappearing before people’s very eyes.

Most travel writers focus on the inequality that pervades Johannesburg, and to be fair it is the first thing you notice when you arrive. White residents drive around in their air conditioned cars while black children – many of them malnourished – sell them newspapers and other cheap goods through car windows from baking hot streets. White people live in neat Los-Angeles-style suburbs to the north of the city, protected by panic buttons and high fences. Most black people – including the middle classes – live in townships such as Soweto, successors of the shanty-towns that shot-up to house cheap labour. And immigrants from other African countries populate the city centre, once a modernist triumph of sky-scrapers and commerce that had, until recently, been left for dead.

You could ascertain that inequality is still a massive problem within just a few minutes – a taxi drive from the airport to your hotel or safari park would suffice. But it is not worth visiting the city unless you can take away something else. It’s a bit like going on holiday to London and returning with nothing more than memories of red buses and black taxis. The legacy of apartheid is disturbing and upsetting, but Jo’burg is about so much more: a thriving arts scene; a fantastic music circuit; and oodles of history and culture. Many of the ex-pats who have made their home here – and they are considerable in number – compare it to New York in the 1980s; dangerous at times, to be sure, but thrilling and rewarding too.

Visiting isn’t easy. The road system is hopelessly unfit for purpose and traffic jams abound. Public transport, while improving rapidly, is not for the feint-hearted. And while Jo’burg aficionados will take you to task for mentioning it, crime is a problem; most will visit and leave without experiencing any trouble, but there are places you shouldn’t go and people you shouldn’t cross. The best way of seeing it all while feeling safe is to hire a driver-cum-tour-guide like Zac, if you can afford it, or to go on a scheduled bus tour if you can’t. Paris or Sydney this ain’t – but if you’re bored by an endless succession of cookie-cutter western cities, it is well worth consideration.

Jo’burg doesn’t sell itself very well. As soon as you exit the airport, there is a huge sign advertising Kruger National park, apparently one of the best safari experiences in the world, but no mention of what the city itself has to offer. Many people head straight for one of the hotels in the white-friendly northern suburbs before moving on to Cape Town or a safari park the next day. But it is worth spending some quality time here, say three clear days.

To rid yourself of your preconceptions, head for 44 Stanley Avenue on arrival, an uber-trendy complex of shops, restaurants and art galleries that is popular with architects and people in the creative industries. It feels a bit like Shoreditch or Brooklyn, but it’s less self-aware; any pretension is undercut by an easy-going vibe that is South Africa’s trademark.

Then head for Braamfontein, a district in the city centre that’s a shining example of why there is much to be optimistic about in Jo’burg. Once a victim of the urban decay that continues to blight much of the city centre, it is also a sign that the decline isn’t necessarily terminal. Office blocks from the 1980s, which descended into slums following the white flight, are being turned into apartments for students of the nearby university and young professionals. The walls of ground-floor lobbies have been knocked through to provide stunning shopping space that rivals the faceless malls of the northern suburbs. Such rapid change does leave some people behind. One shopkeeper told me that a vendor selling fake Puma merchandise was forced to close down because Puma itself is opening a shop nearby.

After exploring Braamfontein, go for “sundowners”, a South African word that denotes copious amounts of pre-dinner cocktails at sunset. Randlords, a rooftop bar in Braamfontein, is truly breathtaking; its panoramic views will allow you to make sense of Jo’burg’s urban sprawl.

On day two, visit Constitution Hill. Formerly the site of Jo’burg’s most notorious prison, it is now home to South Africa’s constitutional court, which is charged with upholding one of the most liberal constitutions in the world. Then visit one or two of Jo’burg’s numerous art galleries. The Circa gallery on Jellicoe is worth a visit simply for its semi-covered walkway, which plays brilliantly to South Africa’s piercing, intense light. Cap off the day with more sundowners and dinner at Westcliff Hotel, an orangey-pink relic of colonialism with a balcony that benefits from views of Jo’burg’s beautiful sunset and curious sounds from the central zoo.

Give day three over to a visit to Soweto, the South Western Township that is now home to some 1.3m people. When you first enter from the motorway, it’s hard to believe that this was once a shanty-town. Dotted on the edge of the township there are streets and streets of salubrious detached houses with luxury cars in the driveways. These are homes to the growing number of wealthy black Johannesburgers, who have chosen to build their houses next to their friends and families rather than join the affluent white suburbanites (a sure sign, if it were needed, that racial harmony is still a good way off).

To delve deeper in Soweto, take a group bicycle tour. Most people here live in small but bright homes with gardens, running water and electricity, but there are still a significant number who exist in the kind of abject poverty that is more common in Africa’s less developed countries. Nelson Mandela’s house is on every tour-guide’s itinerary, but be sure to visit the Hector Pieterson memorial and museum. The story of Pieterson, an unarmed schoolboy who was shot dead by police in 1976, is perhaps one of the most brutal chapters in the history of the apartheid regime. He was protesting, along with hundreds of other school-children, against the introduction of Afrikaans over English as the main language of learning.

Jo’burg isn’t for everyone. It is a difficult city that is hard to navigate and even harder to understand. Getting beyond the all-too recent history can feel almost impossible at times. For those who try, however, it is a real discovery – dynamic and dramatic in equal turns. I for one will return in years to come, and expect to find a city that has changed – yet again – beyond recognition.

In a city as fast and sprawling as Johannesburg, the Peech Hotel is a welcome oasis of calm. Situated in the Northern suburb of Melrose, the Peech is considered the city's chicest boutique hotel. The decor is muted, with beige and orange tones, polished concrete floors and the occasional splash of vivid African art. It's a hotel to spend some time relaxing in; the lush gardens are full of places to lose yourself in with quiet spaces, hammocks, sun loungers and a small swimming pool.

Opened in 2004, the main building has now been joined by two garden annexes, which make the most of the outdoor space. With just sixteen rooms and suites it's an intimate affair, but the excellent bistro and champagne bar (said to have the largest range of Veuve Cliquot in South Africa) bring in the locals.

The Peech has all you would expect from a boutique hotel: attention to detail, impeccable service, plus a few welcome extras, not least when it comes to technology. WiFi is free, there are Bose iPod docks in every room and they'll even lend you an iMac. www.thepeech.co.za

African Pride is the Peech Hotel's neighbour and couldn't be more different. Brash, loud and fun, it has no time for subtlety. Animal prints abound – you can dine in the swimming pool and the lighting seems to have been borrowed from a nightclub.

That's not to say this hotel doesn't offer five star luxury. The rooms are spacious, comfortable and thoughtfully designed and each has its own flat screen TV, DVD player and selection of DVDs. There's a cigar bar, coffee shop, a “tented garden” for those wanting to escape the heat and an excellent breakfast buffet.

And while usually a 24 hour hotel means you can order a lacklustre Caesar salad at 3am, here you can use the business centre (meeting rooms, computers, printers etc), order food on the veranda or drink at the Library Bar (complete with leather sofas, snooker table and extensive whisky menu). It's an interesting mix of styles and cultures that's also reflected in their "fusion restaurant", The March.

This is a hotel with personality, something you'll appreciate all the more when you venture outside to Melrose Arch, an identikit “city within a city” that's home to all the usual chain stores and restaurants. www.africanpridehotels.com