48 Hours: Johannesburg

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The jacarandas are blooming in South Africa's largest city, as spring turns into summer. Richard Trillo explores the diverse attractions

Travel essentials

Why go now?

Johannesburg (Joburg or Jozi if you prefer) is glorious in late November – as spring turns to early summer and purple jacarandas bloom all over the city. It should be perfect weather for Australia's cricketers to meet South Africa at Joburg's Bidvest Wanderers Stadium from 17 to 21 November (cricket.co.za). Meanwhile from 25-27 November, the city hosts the outdoor FoodWine Design Fair, devoted to small producers (foodwinedesign.co.za).

Click here for 48 Hours in Johnannesburg map

Touch down

British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), South African Airways (0871 722 1111; flysaa.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com) fly from Heathrow.

The main airport, named for OR Tambo, is 20km east of the centre. The fastest way to the city is on the Gautrain (pronounced "how-train"; join.gautrain.co.za). This rapid rail runs to Sandton station (1) in 15 minutes, every 12-20 minutes from 5.30am to 8.30pm, for a one-way fare of R105 (£8).

Airport Shuttle (airportshuttle.co.za) operates a door-to-door service from here to other points in the city for R150 (£12). The company also runs shuttles direct from the airport, a journey that takes anything from 30 to 90 minutes; from R350 (£28). Metered taxis, from R250 (£20), are a safe 24-hour standby.

Get your bearings

Johannesburg sprawls for more than 40km, linked and divided by motorways. Many areas were regenerated for the 2010 World Cup, but there are still some dodgy suburbs on the northern edge of the Central Business District (CBD); avoid casual exploration of Hillbrow, Berea and Joubert Park.

The CBD is now a safe and accessible district of shops, offices and cultural attractions. To the north, the affluent suburbs of Melville, Rosebank and Sandton are a reminder of the city's huge wealth disparities. To the south, the once-notorious district of Soweto ("South Western Townships") is a burgeoning city in its own right, with a population of 1.3 million, and plenty to justify a stay.

Public transport is patchy: Metrobus services (joburg.org.za/bus; fares from R7.90/£0.60p) run radial routes to and from the CBD. Hiring a car with GPS is recommended. Avis (00 27 11 923 3660; avis.co.za) offers rates from around R400 (£32) per day.

The Johannesburg Tourism Information Centre (2) is at Park station (00 27 11 333 1488).

Check in

For something quite out of the ordinary, check into the all-suite Saxon Boutique Hotel (3) set in sprawling gardens at 36 Saxon Road, Sandhurst (00 27 11 292 6000; saxon.co.za). A double with breakfast will set you back R7,600 (£603).

Joburg has a huge variety of mid-range accommodation, from the Soweto Hotel (4) (00 27 11 527 7300; sowetohotel.co.za), which offers B&B from R1,110 (£88); to a boutique stay at The Peech (5), 61 North Street, Melrose (00 27 11 537 9797; thepeech.co.za) where B&B starts at R2,050 (£163); or the artistic comforts The Melville House (6), 59 Fourth Avenue (00 27 11 726 3503; themelvillehouse.com), where B&B starts at R880 (£70). At the budget end, the funky Lebo's Soweto Backpackers (7), 10823 Pooe Street, Orlando West (00 27 11 936 3444; sowetobackpackers.com) has room only from R325 (£26).

Day one

Take a view

A 50-floor elevator ride to the Top of Africa viewing deck surmounting the Carlton Centre (8) on Commissioner Street, takes you to the top of the tallest building in Africa (00 27 11 308 2876; daily, 7.30am–7pm; R15/£1.20). Gaze across the cityscape and, on a clear day, out to the Magaliesberg Mountains.

Take a hike

Sightseeing in the CBD is no longer the mugger's gift it might have been a decade ago. Now you can wander the following route under the watchful eyes of security cameras and uniformed security staff.

Leaving the Carlton Centre (8), walk a couple of blocks west along pedestrianised Fox Street and one block south to enter pretty Gandhi Square (9), now a bus station surrounded by shops and pavement cafés. Working at the magistrate's court that stood here a century ago, Gandhi developed the ideas of passive resistance that were to prove so influential in the ANC. His statue stands on the north side.

Walk out of the square's west side and stroll two blocks along the tree-lined Main Street (10). Then turn left on Harrison Street for three blocks and you come to the modern Standard Bank Art Gallery (11) on Frederick Street (00 27 11 631 4467; standardbankarts.com; Monday to Friday 8am–4.30pm, Saturday 9am–1 pm, closed Sundays; free), displaying contemporary African art and a fine collection of historical crafts from across the continent.

Return north up Harrison Street, passing stately old architecture for five blocks to Market Street. At the Gauteng Legislature (12) that governs the province, turn left and walk west for five blocks into an interesting old residential area retaining some Victorian architecture among the steel and glass towers and a jumble of older-style shops along Diagonal Street (13). One block north, on the corner of Diagonal and President Streets, is the Museum of Man & Science, a fascinating shop selling traditional medicine, or muti.

Walk west a couple of blocks along President until your reach Miriam Makeba Street, then turn right for two blocks and turn left on Jeppe Street to enter the broad Mary Fitzgerald Square (14), at the heart of the Newtown Cultural Precinct. On the north side of the square stands the famous Market Theatre (15) of anti-apartheid days (00 27 11 832 1641; markettheatre.co.za) and the strikingly beautiful Museum Africa (16) (00 27 11 833 5624; Tuesday to Sunday 9am–5pm; free).

Lunch on the run

Pause at Sophiatown (17) on Mary Fitzgerald Square (00 27 11 836 5999; sophiatownbarlounge.co.za) for an ostrich burger and fries for R75 (£6). Steal a moment to look at the restaurant's photographic record of the old Sophiatown suburb, famed for its nightlife and activism.

Window shopping

Sandton City (18) is Joburg's top mall, but The Mall of Rosebank (19) runs a close second and has more atmosphere – come back on Sunday for the enormous rooftop crafts market. In Soweto, don't miss the wildly futuristic Maponya Mall (20).

An aperitif

If you're in Soweto, there's only one place to go for a sundowner – the roof terrace of The Rock (21), a large club on Vundla Street in the Rockville district (00 27 11 986 0182) which has unobstructed 360-degree views across the rooftops. Try a Windhoek beer from Namibia at R15 (£1.20) a bottle – or share a bottle of excellent local Pinotage red wine at R90 (£4.75) a bottle.

Dining with the locals

Gently sloping Vilakazi Street is Soweto's ritziest main road (Nelson Mandela's former home, now a museum, is here) and there are several good restaurants where you'll eat well inside or at pavement tables in predominantly Sowetan company.

Try Restaurant Vilakazi (22), 6876 Vilakazi Street (00 27 11 936 7432; restaurantvilakazi.co.za) for chicken liver with samp (maize and beans) at R45 (£4) or lamb shank with dumpling at R110 (£9).

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

The modest, red-brick Regina Mundi (23) in Soweto will always be linked with the anti-apartheid struggle. The biggest Catholic church in South Africa, this A-frame "people's cathedral" can hold up to 8,600 people. Glorious voices fill the church most of the time; visitors are always welcome. Sunday mass is at 7am and 9am.

Out to brunch

Make for one of Joburg's most appealing green spaces, Zoo Lake (24), where Moyo is the perfect family-friendly chill-out spot, with multiple dining and lounging areas (00 27 11 646 0058; moyo.com). The weekend brunch buffet is served from 8.30–11.30am at R85 (£7). Be sure to sample "slap pap" (maize porridge) and the scrambled eggs with sweet chilli and pastrami.

A walk in the park

The delightful Melville Koppies (25) (00 27 11 482 4797; www.mk.org.za) is a ridge of hills above the city that provide a habitat for local wildlife and preserve the remains of stone-age and iron-age settlements. Informative guided walks costing R30–50 (£2.50–£4) take place every weekend.

Take a ride

Explore Soweto by bicycle, accompanied by a local from Lebo's Bicycle Tours (7), 10823a Pooe Street, Orlando West (00 27 11 936 3444; sowetobicycletours.com). Trips take in the key historical sites of the district and often finish with a snack of boiled cow cheek and maize pap and a slurp of sorghum beer in a tiny drinking parlour or shebeen. Tours from R320 (£25) for two hours; guests at Lebo's Soweto Backpackers (7) pay R270 (£21).

Cultural afternoon

The beautifully conceived and meticulously executed Apartheid Museum (26), Gold Reef Road (00 27 11 309 4700; apartheidmuseum.org; 9am–5pm daily except Monday) is one of Africa's best contemporary museums. Right from the entrance, with its White/Non-White ticket lottery, this absorbing presentation of one of modern history's darkest epochs makes for a compelling and moving visit. Admission R55 (£5).

The icing on the cake

The Cradle of Humankind (27) – a Unesco World Heritage site an hour's drive northwest of the city – offers fascinating cave visits and museum experiences at Sterkfontein and Maropeng (00 27 14 577 9000; maropeng.co.za; daily 9am–5pm). Combined tickets cost R190 (£15) and include a guided descent into the limestone caves where hominid fossils, charting human evolution, have been found.

The nearby museum features eerily lifelike, hirsute models of pre-humans. Beneath the impressive grass-covered dome of the Maropeng visitor centre you're taken on a well-designed and highly stimulating journey from the creation of planet Earth to the story of human evolution and diversity.

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