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Green, graffitied and punctuated with exploding purple jacaranda trees, the city offers an energy that Cape Town cannot. Here's where to eat 

Maria Yagoda
October 30, 2017

No one would say that Johannesburg exists “in the shadow” of Cape Town, but the two South African hubs can feel like they're in different countries. For one, Cape Town sits on the lush coast, surrounded by the country’s most famous wineries, and Johannesburg, much farther inland, is a denser center of industry and design. (Cape Town's population is estimated to be 3.7 million and Johannesburg's, 4.4 million.)Yet the latter city has struggled to establish itself as a global tourist destination in the way that Cape Town has. Ocean views and vineyard proximity have, historically, given Cape Town a major advantage—not that it's a competition. In the minds of Johannesburg residents, their city offers something unique, if complicated, that tourists are beginning to notice, however gradually. Green, graffitied and punctuated with exploding purple jacaranda trees, the city offers an energy that Cape Town cannot. 

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The capital of South Africa, Johannesburg has long been dogged by perceptions of being dangerous. On a recent visit to the city this fall, I was warned by several people—South Africans and Americans—to be extra careful when walking around the city. When I told people I was staying there for a few nights, the response was often, "Why?" 

The city isn't polished or gleaming; you see empty, abandoned buildings, many of them old factories and warehouses. Here's why: During apartheid, a web of laws were passed to keep black people out of the inner city, leading to the creation of the crowded, suburban settlements called "townships" lining the urban center. One 1950s law, in particular, led to the hasty de-centering of Johannesburg as a culture and industry capital: no Johannesburg comany could employ more than six black workers. As a result, people sought cheap black labor in the suburbs, so businesses fled the city center, lending Johannesburg some of its charactaristic run-down aesthetic. Tour guide Gerald Garner told Travel and Leisure of the law's impact, "And so the factories left Johannesburg. The buildings emptied out. Maboneng is a prime example of a place where that happened."

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Now, Maboneng is one of the hottest neighborhoods in Joburg, with a flurry of new restaurants, bars, cafés, hotels that are revitalizing the area and bringing industry back to formerly abandoned buildings. Increasingly, tourists are traveling to the city to see first-hand the colorful, intricate street art enlivening buildings, fences and bridges, as well as the growing numbers of bars and restaurants that pay homage to Johannesburg's history and art while serving food that rivals Cape Town's very best.

Here, where to eat and drink in Johannesburg.

The Cosmopolitan (24 Albrecht St, Jeppestown, Johannesburg, 2043)

Before the space was purchased a year and a half ago, the former hotel was an empty building housing a brothel. The Cosmpolitan now houses an art gallery called Hazard, as well as a tea shop and jazz restaurant and bar called Sphere Monk Restaurant and Bar, which offers "an affordable fine-dining experience." Don't miss the trio of tartare: beef, springbok and ostrich. 

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Urbanologi (1 Fox St, Ferreiras Dorp, Johannesburg, 2048)

Classifying itself as "urban garde cuisine," Urbanologi is the single most inventive place to eat in the city. Located in an airy former warehouse in Ferreirasdorp, the oldest part of Johannesburg, the food is playful and sophisticated and undeniably rooted in place. Think venison tataki, lamb rump with rose geranium poached quince, beetroot tartare and crispy fried black pepper pork belly. 

Love Revo (299 Fox St, Jeppestown, Johannesburg, 2043)

A lovely spot to enjoy coffee, beer or popular local dishes like prawn curry or chicken livers and toast, Love Revo offers cozy views of the area's street art and is a piece of art in itself—the "ceiling" of the open-air roof deck is made of umbrellas. 

Blom Plek (11539 Citroen Circle, Johannesburg, 1829)

A tempting selection of hearty classics—curries, stews, spicy chicken liver, chicken feet and traditional African dishes—make this restaurant (and self-described "premium lifestyle lounge") an ideal spot to unwind and refuel after a vigorous walking tour.