I was on a walking tour today, talking to someone about Joburg. It suddenly occurred to me there are so many insanely beautiful places in downtown Joburg that Joburgers either: a) don’t know about because the places are really hidden; or b) are afraid to visit, or would never consider visiting because they think the place is too dangerous or too trashed or just not worth the trouble.
I talk about some of these places until I’m blue in the face, but I still get the same responses: a) blank looks; or b) questions like, “But is it really safe to go there?”
So I thought I’d write an article like this, with a really click-baity title, to get your attention. Here are my five favorite beautiful, secret places in downtown Joburg. If you like beautiful, secret things (and who doesn’t?) you should visit them all.
1) Cathedral of Christ the King
Yes, it’s in Hillbrow and Hillbrow can be a little daunting. But the Cathedral of Christ the King has a parking lot with 24-hour security and it’s really not very hard to drive to. Inside, the cathedral is pristine and it’s without a doubt the most beautiful church in the city. I’m shocked by how many people don’t know about it.
I recommend visiting the cathedral in the morning, as it always seems to be open then. It’s at 1 Saratoga Avenue (technically in Berea but everyone thinks of it as Hillbrow).
2) The Johannesburg City Library
Most locals don’t realize the Johannesburg City Library, on Beyers Naudé Square in downtown Joburg, underwent a massive renovation from 2009 to 2012. It’s stunning inside and always full of people studying and reading, as every public library should be. (Read my previous post about the library.)
The library, located at the corner of Albertina Sisulu Road and Pixley Ka Isaka Seme Street, has safe underground parking accessible from Albertina Sisulu Road (formerly Market Street). Just tell the parking attendant you’re going to the library. This library is also accessible via the Rea Vaya bus and the area is very safe for pedestrians.
3) Inside Ponte City
Okay, Ponte City is no secret. It’s that giant cylindrical building — the tallest residential building in Africa — with a Vodacom ad on the top.
Many Joburgers still believe Ponte is a high-rise slum filled with garbage and drug dens and criminal gangs. Not true.
In fact, Ponte is fully legally occupied and 100% safe to visit. There is a public events venue on the 52nd floor, run by social enterprise Dlala Nje. Dlala Nje also runs a youth center on the ground floor and leads tours of the building and surrounding areas. (Read my previous post about Ponte.)
Ponte City is on Lily Avenue in Berea. I recommend visiting as part of a Dlala Nje tour.
4) The Old Johannesburg Stock Exchange
There have been several Joburg Stock Exchanges but I’m talking about the building where the stock exchange lived from 1979 to 2000, at 17 Diagonal Street.
This building was a surprise even to me until a few months ago. I knew it existed, but had no idea how beautiful it was until I visited on a tour with JoburgPlaces.
I had thought the Diagonal Street building was closed up and abandoned, like many grand old downtown Joburg buildings. In reality the building is in great shape, with a stunning atrium, and there are lots of businesses operating there.
The old JSE trading floor is closed to the public. But if you’re lucky enough to get in you’ll see the lovely stained-glass windows at the back, which were brought from the previous stock exchange and perfectly preserved.
The best way to see the old JSE trading floor is on the JoburgPlaces Money, Banks and Vaults tour. Contact them for more information.
5) The Wilds
Maybe this is cheating a little because the Wilds Municipal Nature Reserve is just outside the area I would define as “downtown Joburg”. But I have to include it in this list because the Wilds is so, so, so lovely — in fact I think it’s the most beautiful park in Joburg, by far — and I’m tired of trying to reassure people how amazing and safe it is to visit.
Park in the parking lot on Houghton Drive, and as an extra safety precaution stay in the northeastern half of the park. (In other words, don’t cross over the Houghton Drive pedestrian bridge to the southwestern section because there isn’t as much security there.)
Then go explore this glorious park with abandon, admiring every indigenous flower and plant, every colorfully painted bench, every piece of public art, and every brilliant Joburg skyline view. Listen to the trees rustling and the frogs singing and the kids laughing.
You won’t believe you waited so long.
What’s your favorite secret Joburg place? I’m always looking for more.
I’m going to revive my Jozi Top Fives series in 2019. Consider this the first post of the revival.