It's not without its problems, South Africa's City of Gold. But look beneath the surface, and beyond the headlines, and you'll see a metropolis as fascinating as any in the world.
WHY GO NOW?

South Africa has survived its second democratic election and the mood is resolutely upbeat. The locals party hard, and Johannesburg has great food and music and, at this time of year, piercingly blue skies and hot, hot weather. Yes, it's also a violent city (see Get your bearings) but don't let that deter you. You'll be rewarded with an improved understanding of how deeply apartheid scarred this country, and the commitment, throughout society, to the task of reconciliation. Go and enjoy this vibrant city - just be careful, as you would in any world metropolis.

BEAM DOWN

South African Airways, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic all fly direct to Johannesburg from Heathrow, though fares are likely to be lower if you transfer in Madrid, Athens or Dubai. Between now and Christmas, finding a bargain is going to be tricky. But once 2000 begins, the cut-throat competition should begin once again; fares are likely to be as low as pounds 350. Bridge the World (0171-911 0900) quotes a fare for Virgin Atlantic of pounds 521 departing 3 January, and on Alitalia, via Milan, pounds 376. British passport holders don't need a visa. Some hotels and B&Bs offer a pick-up service from the airport. If not, the Magic Bus (00 27 11 394 6902/3) arranges transfers every half hour to the major hotels in Rosebank (1) or the northern suburbs for just R75 (pounds 7.50), or R195 (pounds 19.50) to your door. Its booth is just two minutes' walk from international arrivals in Terminal 3.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Johannesburg owes its nickname, City of Gold - and its existence - to the discovery of a seam of gold under the highveld in 1886. By 1889 it was the largest town in southern Africa and it's still growing. The wave of violence in recent years means that people avoid the city centre if possible, and many businesses have relocated to the northern suburbs of Sandton (2) and Rosebank (1). The South African Tourism Board (3) in the international arrivals terminal at Jo'burg airport can supply up-to-date maps (00 27 11 970 1669). Alternatively, call their UK office: 5-6 Alt Grove, Wimbledon, London SW19 4DZ (0181-944 8080).

CHECK IN

The northern suburbs are the safest place to base yourself. Sandton and Rosebank are closest to the action but Parkwood (4), Parktown North (5), Craighall Park (6) and Dunkeld (7) are nearby and offer an insight into how locals live - behind very big walls, mainly. Hotels such as the Balalaika (20 Maude Street, Sandown 2146: 0027 11 322 5000, from R805/pounds 80.50 double room), Sandton Sun (5th Street, Sandton: 00 27 11 780 500, from R1,670/pounds 167 double room), and Rosebank Hotel (13 Tyrwhitt Avenue, Rosebank: 00 27 11 447 2700, from R640/pounds 64 double room) are fine, if somewhat anonymous, but B&Bs are fantastic value and many include a substantial English breakfast. Try the La Bougain Villa (6 Smits Road, Dunkeld West: 002711 447 3404, e-mail: fay@labougainvilla.co.za, from R170/pounds 17) or Rutland House (48 Rutland Avenue, Craighall Park: 00 27 11 880 3364, from R190/pounds 19) or call the South African Tourism Board (0181-944 8080) or Portfolio's `Bed and Breakfast Collection' and `Retreats Collection' (0961 191237: www.portfoliocollection.co.za).

TAKE A RIDE

It is unwise to walk too far, and after dark it's essential to drive to your destination. The simplest option is to hire a cab - don't try hailing one in the street, it's much safer to telephone a reputable company whose drivers should have a good grasp of the city. Collect numbers from the Tourism Board Office in the airport's domestic arrivals terminal or ask at your hotel or B&B. You could hire a car (most major companies operate here), but it's far more relaxing not to have to worry about taking the right route. Jo'burg's drivers can be aggressive and erratic and `taxis' - minibuses - have the unerring knack of stopping and disgorging passengers when you least expect it. However, if you do hire a car, plan your route meticulously, and if you get lost, park on a garage forecourt, say, before consulting your map. Don't just pull in at the side of the road - you'll be a sitting target.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Street vendors sell roast mealies (corn cobs) for about R2 (20 pence), but you're unlikely to find them on the main thoroughfares. A better bet is the food quarter of Rosebank flea market (8) every Sunday, where you can find just about anything from Boerwors (sausage), freshly squeezed juices, Chinese and vegetarian salads to sushi, Thai and scrummy, hot cinnamon doughnuts - all freshly chopped, stirred or fried. Sit at a table, close your eyes, and you could be standing in London's Spitalfields market - until the Zulu drumming kicks in.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

MuseumAfrica (9), in the heart of the Central Business District (121 Bree Street, Newtown, 00 27 11 833 5624: open Tues - Sun 9am to 5pm: R5 (50p) adult, R2 (20p) child), opened in 1994, in what used to be Jo'burg's main fruit market. The huge space is used to explore episodes in the history of South Africa. Currently, a small exhibition focuses on Gandhi and his time in SA, and includes early maps of the city showing the pre-apartheid division of its residential areas along racial lines.

WINDOW SHOPPING

There are times in Johannesburg when the first and third worlds exist in surreal juxtapositon. Get your hair cut in Sandton City (10) by barbers who set up stalls in tented gazebos on intersections around the mall, then wander around stores ranging from the purely functional to galleries, bookshops, jewellers and designer clothes (Gucci and DKNY). When you get footsore, head for the open-air Square (modelled on an Italian piazza) with its many restaurants and cafes and ponder the power of the capitalist dollar.

ICING ON THE CAKE

Jimmy's Face to Face Tours (00 27 11 331 6109/6131/6132 or, after hours, 00 27 82 416 4979) was set up to introduce whites to Soweto (16), the largest black city in Africa. It may seem tasteless treating Soweto as a tourist attraction, but to see South Africa without visiting a township is pointless. Other operators also offer tours but Jimmy's remains one of the best guides to the informal housing and the middle-class areas, Mandela's home before he went underground, the fortified house that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela built for Nelson, the miners' hostels and witch-doctors' stalls. Tours take three hours. Pick-ups are from Rosebank and Sandton hotels, 8am or 2pm daily. Adults pay R150 (pounds 15), under-12s R75 (pounds 7.5).

A WALK IN THE PARK

Not a good idea unless you're with locals who know the lie of the land. South Africans have an `outdoor culture' and inactivity is considered fairly reprehensible. So in Johannesburg, rather than walk, they `do gym', and do it in style, wearing a fair quantity of gold jewellery. Old Ed's (15) (9th Avenue, 00 27 11 483 1298), the Health and Racquet Club in Houghton is a fine example. As big as an aircraft hangar, it has rows of machines and weights, and two swimming pools. At peak times it's packed with people working equally on their abs and social lives. A day pass is R50 (pounds 5).

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO MARKET

Rosebank flea market (8) is one of the most accesible markets in town. Tanzanian, Ivory Coast, Zimbabwean and Kenyan traders converge on the rooftop car park of Rosebank's shopping mall every Sunday to join local Ndebele traders and more cottagey South African handicraft sellers. Bowls piled high with aromatic spices vie for your attention with biltong, recycled glasses, candles, masks, baskets, carved stools and energetic Zulu dancers. Check out Baker Street (9), for wooden bowls, masks and quirky automata.

DEMURE DINNER

Sam's (13) in bohemian Melville is one of the best restaurants in the city (00 27 11 726 8141, 11 7th Street, Melville). All dishes are starter size, so you can graze without over-indulging. Grilled calamari with peri- peri jelly (R24.10/ pounds 2.41) and chocolate mousse (R17.50/ pounds 1.75) are worth the journey alone. Melville used to be the only area where you could amble from cafe to bar for jazz, cocktails and great food, but now it has competition on Grant Avenue in Norwood (14) which boasts 40-odd restaurants. Ruby Grapefruit for sushi; Georges on 4th for European; or Esp-resso for pizza, are among the best.

AN APERITIF

Locals unaminously nominate Jabulani's bar at the Park Hyatt Hotel (11) (11 Oxford Road, Rosebank, 00 27 11 280 1234) for the best cocktails in town. Besuited businessmen dominate it during the week, but at weekends a younger crowd enjoys the high-African glamour and impeccable service of this moodily lit bar. The bar food is good - try the salmon and avocado bruschetta - and a substantial range of cigars is available. If you want to smoke your stogie somewhere a little more funky, you could try out the overstuffed sofas and highly effective ventilation of the Cigar Room (12) at the bottom of the TA Centre nearby in Tyrwhitt Avenue.

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