'Joburg speeds, you know,' said Johannesburg Tourism spokesperson Laura Vercueil. Picture: Antoine de Ras
'Joburg speeds, you know,' said Johannesburg Tourism spokesperson Laura Vercueil. Picture: Antoine de Ras
Dinner at Turbine Hall. Pictures: Hasmita Nair
Dinner at Turbine Hall. Pictures: Hasmita Nair
The dining room at the Apprentice Apartment.
The dining room at the Apprentice Apartment.

Johannesburg - When you think “Joburg CBD”, what comes to mind? Sadly, there are some who still associate the inner city of Joburg with crime, urban decay and hijacked buildings.

This may have been the case five years ago, but now the area has been transformed into an arts and culture hub, visited by an eclectic mix of people. This urban rejuvenation is taking the city by storm, and the CBD’s tourism potential is limitless.

With this in mind, a group of people who either own buildings or are involved in tourism in the city formed Johannesburg City Tourism Association (JCTA), an organisation promoting and developing tourism and hospitality in the inner city and surrounds.

Their goal is to put the city centre on the map as the must-experience precinct, and to facilitate a perception change among Joburgers themselves, giving them confidence to visit the inner city and the freedom to explore everything on offer.

The primary target market for this project is the inner-city workforce – the thousands of people who drive to and from their CBD offices every day and never think to step outside.

Secondary target markets include Joburg’s suburban population – people who live anywhere from Sandton to Soweto, who never spend recreational time in the city, as well as former Joburgers and international visitors.

Last weekend, the JCTA hosted more than 60 local and international journalists in the inner city, as a prelude to the Joburg City Festival it is co-ordinating from August 25 to 31.

During this festival, the city will come alive – restaurants and shops will stay open till late and there’ll be exciting events taking place in public areas, covering music, comedy and adventure.

If the media weekend was anything to go by, this festival is going to be world-class.

Journalists were exposed to the diverse tourism offerings of the inner city. The weekend started with sundowners at the Apprentice Apartment in Commissioner Street, a glamorous 800m2 penthouse on the sixth floor of National Bank House, with views across the Jozi horizon.

The venue is available to rent for dinner parties and cocktail evenings, and comes complete with a 16-seater dining room table, a 20m balcony and a Jacuzzi. After mingling over champagne and canapés, guests walked to the Rand Club, one of Jozi’s oldest buildings, and enjoyed a surprise city activation by the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra. The Rand Club has a regal, old-world feeling about it; Joburg was only a year old when the club was founded 126 years ago, when the men who made a fortune during the gold rush needed a place to spend their money. The present clubhouse is a gorgeous Edwardian masterpiece, and was a gentlemen-only club until a few years ago. Rand Club now focuses on functions such as weddings and birthdays, as well as conferences.

Next, it was on to the Reef Hotel, a four-star hotel that has relaunched its restaurant, Top 5.

The name comes from the five previously disadvantaged amateur chefs working at the restaurant, who are doing their apprenticeship at a local culinary school. The restaurant is contemporary and slick; a great spot for a business lunch.

The next morning, the journalists – most of them – were up bright and early (others enjoyed Reef Hotel’s rooftop bar a bit too much and needed more than one wake-up call), and were split into smaller groups, ready to explore the city.

My group was set to go on a walking tour of the city, with Joburg Places founder Gerald Garner, who believes that the best way to explore the city is on foot.

A tour is only as good as a tour guide, and Garner’s passion for and knowledge of the city made every moment of the tour enjoyable, despite the unco-operative weather.

We visited some of the city’s historic buildings, including the Barbican – an art deco New York style building. When Old Mutual bought it in 1995, it was in a state of disrepair, because squatters had overrun the site. Old Mutual has since spent R55-million to restore it, and it is now used partly as an art exhibition space.

In-between showing us the landmarks, Garner told us about Joburg’s history, taking us from when gold was discovered at Langlaagte in 1886, through to the events that unfolded which led to the Anglo-Boer War and, later, apartheid.

His descriptive storytelling had us imagining the opulent, thriving city that once was. He explained how the city became “lost Joburg”, when factories and businesses moved out of the CBD and buildings were left to squatters.

We also visited the newly restored Johannesburg City Library, which has 700 000 books and freeinternet, and couldn’t help but be inspired by the students poring over their study material. Other interesting sites on the tour included the Constitutional Court, Gandhi Square and Chancellor House. During apartheid, Chancellor House was one of the few buildings that could be rented to African tenants, and it came to be the original location of the law offices of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo in the 1950s. In the ensuing decades, the building deteriorated, until the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) bought the building and turned it into a sidewalk museum, showcasing memorabilia and archival document displays about its historical significance.

Another great initiative by the JDA, which we also got to see, is Ernest Oppenheimer Park, a beautiful landscaped garden dotted with benches, next to a basketball court.

The tour I was on focused on the regeneration of the city, but there are many other tours on offer that cater to specific interests.

Tour operator Past Experiences offers graffiti, shopping, and photographic tours, and those focusing on architecture and political history.

Other groups visited the SAB World of Beer for a tour, and the Absa Money Museum, the only banking museum in the country. The museum houses a collection of various forms of money used through South African history, including cowrie shells, Venetian glass beads and gold coins recovered from sunken ships.

Following the morning tour, we visited Fashion Kapitol in the Fashion District. After browsing the weekly Saturday market, we watched a fashion show, where young designers displayed their creations.

It was then on to a networking session at the JDA’s offices at The Bus Factory. Journalists got to “speed network” with various inner-city tourism players. One thing that struck me was the commitment and belief they have in the inner city; they are willing to do whatever it takes to make it the tourism hub of Joburg. Passion like that is contagious.

We left feeling inspired and ready for some fun on the rooftop, or Skylevel, of the Parktonian Hotel in Braamfontein, where we were treated to 360º views of the city, accompanied by cocktails and snacks. During the Joburg City Festival, the Skylevel will be open to the public; for R75, visitors will receive a flame-grilled kebab and a drink.

As if we hadn’t eaten enough by this point, the next event on the itinerary was an underground dinner at Turbine Hall, the original Joburg Jeppe Street Power Station and the last and largest of three steam-driven power stations built in Newtown to supply electricity to the city.

In 1961, the plant was shut down, and by 2000 it was occupied by more than 300 squatters.

Today, the building houses the offices of AngloGold Ashanti and is home to the medieval Turbine Hall, a first-class conference and wedding venue. Every Friday night, Turbine Hall is open to the public, and offers a four-course dinner at R330 a head.

The final destination on the agenda was the Maboneng Precinct, which has a variety of retailers, restaurants and activities in the immediate area, the most popular being Market on Main – a food and design fair that takes place every Sunday from 10am to 3pm and the first Thursday of every month from 7pm to 11pm.

Main Street Walks, a walking tour concept, encourages people to rediscover the inner city, offering a “picnic in the sky” at a cost of R180 per person. Visitors get a blanket and a picnic basket which they can fill at Market on Main. They then hop on to Mabo’go, Maboneng’s private shuttle service, and visit the Carlton Centre, where they have a picnic on the 50th floor.

The media weekend showed only some of what Joburg’s city centre has to offer, and it is only the beginning.

There is no doubt that the Joburg City Festival, optimally scheduled the week after Joy of Jazz and the week before Arts Alive, will bring all the tourism offerings together, in an explosive week of fun and enlightenment.

* Read more about Jozi on Hasmita Nair’s Jozillicious blog.

l For more details on the Joburg City Festival, follow @JoburgCity on Twitter, e-mail [email protected] or call Gerald Garner at 082 894 5216

l To book a walking tour of the city, visit www.joburgplaces.com, www.mainstreetwalks.co.za or www.pastexperiences.co.za

l To book a Friday evening dinner at Turbine Hall, visitwww.theforum.co.za

l For information on Maboneng, visit www.maboneng precinct.com - Sunday Independent