An abundance of underground bars and pop-up cafes, top contemporary art galleries, gourmet coffee shops, eye-catching graffiti and some of the most adventurous street fashion around make Johannesburg a magnet for hipsters, trendsetters and the alternative crowd.
If you have just one day to spend in Gauteng, follow Johannesburg’s cool crowd to the fashionable regenerated district of Maboneng. With two days at your disposal there’s also time to see what Soweto’s hipsters are up to, while three days will give you the opportunity to really get under the skin of the city’s exciting underground arts scene.
Start your morning in Maboneng with a delicious Middle Eastern breakfast at the cute Israeli food cafe, Eat Your Heart Out, on Maboneng’s main street. Here you can also pick up some cool homeware items designed by T-shirt brand Love Jozi.
Browse for local fashion and design items at boutique stores such as Anisa Mpunqwe’s Loin Cloth & Ashes (where the designer's statement dresses in bright African fabrics are a favourite of American singer Solange Knowles) and Stitch & Steel, which specialises in eye-catching African wax-print clothing in contemporary designs and also stocks a range of clothing for hip kids.
Explore Arts on Main, an industrial building that has been cleverly converted into galleries and artist studios. Stop in at David Krut Projects and Bookstore to see the impressive print workshop and to browse an excellent selection of art books and prints. For edgy urban exhibitions visit Goethe On Main. The gallery is operated by the Goethe-Institut, renowned for its rich cultural programme. Stop at photography studio Iwasshot in Joburg :) to buy must-have notebooks and sketchpads emblazoned with unique Joburg street scenes, plus box-framed photos. The store supports former street children who have learned photography skills and now spend time documenting the city in their photos and also taking pictures at corporate events.
Over on Commissioner Street is the Museum of African Design, which hosts a regular programme of new exhibitions focusing on contemporary African art, fashion and street culture. Follow Alice’s white rabbit downstairs to find March Hare, a speakeasy-style coffee and cocktail bar in the basement of the museum.
For lunch, stop at The Blackanese, a friendly hangout serving sushi and grilled fish with an Afro-fusion spin. Head chef and owner Vusi Kunene is renowned for offering sushi-making classes and his laid-back "pocket-sized" restaurant has been mentioned as a destination in the New York Times.
To see a different side to this multicultural neighbourhood book a walking tour with MainStreetWalks. Based in Maboneng’s boutique backpackers, Curiocity, and run by young locals with an eye for the unusual, the tours offered will take you beyond the regenerated Maboneng area in search of the new street art and graffiti, and include a visit to the Mai Mai healers' market, home to traditional healers and the many herbs and medicinal plants used in their work.
Catch the sun setting over the city’s skyscrapers from the comfort of a hammock at the Living Room, a rooftop bar with an eco-friendly ethos and some of the best city views in Maboneng.
Che Argentine Grill is an atmospheric restaurant in an old warehouse where the steaks are grilled in traditional style over a huge wood-fired grill. The home-made chimichurri sauce is legendary.
After dinner catch a theatre production at Maboneng’s POPArt theatre, which specialises in hour-long new works by emerging writers. Pick up a bottle of craft beer in the adjoining Chalkboard cafe to drink while you watch the show.
For a nightcap, opt for cocktails in the petite courtyard at Lenin’s Vodka Bar, which boasts the best vodka selection in the city.
Start your day at 44 Stanley, a collection of 1930s industrial buildings that have been transformed into a pretty series of courtyards filled with olive trees. For breakfast choose from the fair-trade coffee roastery Bean There, the artisan bakery Vovo Telo or Salvation Cafe. Browse the many little boutiques and galleries selling designer clothing, ceramics, antique furniture, contemporary art and second-hand books.
From here get on the highway and head south to Soweto. To see what Soweto’s hipsters are up to visit the Thesis Concept Store in Mofolo, a hip fashion and design store selling hats, T-shirts and hoodies by the cult brand, Soweto Thesis Lifestyle.
Enjoy a traditional South African braai (barbecue) at the lively Chaf Pozi shisa nyama, which sits in the shadows of the iconic Orlando cooling towers. Watch as daredevil adrenaline junkies bungee jump from the towers, or for the ultimate selfie climb up to the viewing platform yourself.
Soweto’s most famous street, Vilakazi Street, is a happening spot every day of the week. Stop at the Soweto Travel Bar for a drink and to see the latest pop-up exhibition; pick up a barista-brewed cappuccino at the slick Thrive Cafe; and look around the small Mandela House museum, where Nelson Mandela once lived with his then wife, Winnie.
Back in Johannesburg pay a visit to 27Boxes in Melville, a boutique shopping centre built from shipping containers. Shop for quirky local brands such as Love Jozi, whose cool T-shirts reference the Joburg skyline, or Krag Drag, a fun clothing and gift store with a witty take on South African culture.
For dinner head to The Countess, a steampunk-inspired restaurant inside the 27Boxes centre. House-smoked spicy pork ribs and gourmet burgers are the order of the day.
After dinner wander along Melville’s buzzing party strip, 7th Street, and stop in for craft beers at one of the many alternative retro-chic bars, such as Hell’s Kitchen or Jo’anna Melt Bar.
Braamfontein is Gauteng’s undisputed hipster heartland. Start your Braamfontein morning with a breakfast sandwich and locally roasted coffee at Post cafe-bar, where the music comes courtesy of vinyl on the record player.
For the latest South African contemporary art visit the cutting-edge independent galleries, Stevenson and Kalashnikovv, and the highly regarded Wits Art Museum, which regularly showcases historical and contemporary African art.
For a great value lunch, stop at the cute Love Food kitchen and cafe and pile your plate high with wholesome, home-made dishes from the lunchtime harvest table buffet.
For vintage and contemporary vinyl, visit quirky record store Aware Records.
To get a perspective of South Africa’s apartheid history, visit the Constitution Hill complex. Now a museum and the home of South Africa’s modern Constitutional Court, it was once a colonial fort and a prison. Chill out with a milkshake or a smoothie at The Hill, a friendly cafe in the old prison yard. Before leaving, climb the old fort ramparts for a dramatic view of the Johannesburg skyline.
For inner-city sundowners, the corner of Juta Street and De Beer Street is the most happening spot. Take your pick from the retro-chic Bannister at the Bannister Hotel, slick craft beer and cocktail bar Anti-Est, or Kitchener’s, a historical pub with a fun-loving crowd and old-school house and hip hop soundtrack.
For dinner and some of the best jazz around, book a table at Braamfontein’s highly regarded jazz club and bistro The Orbit. Don’t be surprised if concerts finish late – impromptu jam sessions with famous audience members are a regular occurrence.