Johannesburg's City Center is a vibrant juxtaposition of the first and the third world. The central part of Jo'burg (as it is known among locals), whose tall skyscrapers stand as a reminder of a previous era of commerce, has been returned to Africa. Most businesses have migrated to the northern suburbs, transforming downtown into a cacophony of African hawkers and traders who line the grids of streets in a colorful profusion. Vendors display shiny fruits and vegetables, young women scoop out pap (maize) and sauce, and Indian merchants sell brightly-colored clothing. The crime rate in this area is high, so visitors are encouraged to take sensible precautions: walk in a group, don't carry valuables, and don't walk around at night or on weekends in areas where there are no crowds.
The Standard Bank Collection of African Art provides some cultural relief in the City Centre with its display of art from across the continent. To gain perspective of the city, visit the Carlton Panorama at the top of the Carlton Centre on Commissioner Street, or head underground, where you can also find the Carlton Centre Shopping Mall. This is Africa's tallest office building; it gives visitors an excellent view of the city and its yellow mountains (which are actually mine-dump hills).
Newtown & Fordsburg
Lying just west of the Central Business District (CBD) is Newtown, an area dominated by the revamped Victorian-era Market Theatre Complex. Originally a market for Indian traders, today this is a fascinating collection of alternative shops, theaters, galleries, bars and coffeehouses. Highlights include Museum Africa, an excellent showcase of individual citizens' contributions to Johannesburg's development, and Gramadoela's African Restaurant, which cooks authentic local dishes. The French Institute of South Africa is also located here.
Continue along Bree Street to Fordsburg and find Jo'burg's Little India–the Oriental Plaza. This enormous bazaar consists of 275 stalls selling fabric, clothes, household goods, Indian spices and food.
Yeoville & Orangegrove
East of the City Centre is the multi-racial Yeoville neighborhood. This area is dominated by Rockey Street, a laid-back assortment of shops, cafés, restaurants and bars. Secondhand bookstores and tattoo parlors lie side by side, while bead shops rub shoulders with rock clubs in this cosmopolitan quarter.
Continue east through Orangegrove along Louis Botha Avenue and be sure to stop by the Victory Theatre, a playhouse built in 1933 on what was then farmland. Continue traveling along Louis Botha Avenue and arrive in Norwood. This district is well-known for its buzzing restaurants and cafés. Try the Faff, a restaurant featuring fusion food with European, Californian and Australian influences. This area is equally famous for communities that have cut off entire blocks in the face of escalating crime.
South Africa's most famous township lies southwest of the city. Soweto is a vast sprawl of houses, shacks, huts and dorms whose standards range from plush to woeful. Like other townships that exist on the fringes of South African cities, security is poor, but it is possible to visit with a tour group. Tours usually include stops at Nelson Mandela's former home, now a museum, and the Hector Pietersen Museum, dedicated to the young boy who was the first fatality of the June 1976 student uprising. Stop at the reputable Wandie's Place restaurant for an authentic taste of Africa. Soweto is also the home of the newly upgraded Soccer City Stadium, one of the venues for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Leaving behind the CBD and venturing north, one travels towards Johannesburg's more affluent neighborhoods. The leafy suburb of Parktown is a perfect way to explore the colonial history of early Johannesburg. Many of the city's mining magnates of the late 19th Century lived in ornate mansions designed by the renowned architect, Sir Herbert Baker. These homes are now national monuments, that can be visited through the Parktown-Westcliff Heritage Trust.
While the suburbs just north of the city are older and more established, those further north are modern and dynamic, but possess less in the way of distinct character. Rosebank, Sandton and Houghton are some of the neighborhoods here that are replete with ultra-modern shopping malls and business districts, like the shops at Nelson Mandela Square and the Rosebank African Flea Market—nirvana for shoppers and diners, and a major hive of commercial activity.
Among the many fine restaurants is Vilamoura Sandton, offering award winning Portuguese-style seafood. Drop by Nino's in the Rosebank shopping mall for a coffee and some people-watching, or the Liberty Life Theater on the Square in Sandton for cultural inspiration. In the northern 'burbs, tall, mirrored, futuristic office blocks reflect the city's vibrant life.