Edgy and vibrant, South Africa's sprawling commercial hub perfectly symbolises the new nation. Oh, and the weather's gorgeous, says Frank Partridge
WHY GO NOW?
Because it's approaching high summer in Africa's most dynamic city, where the weather, a mile above sea level, is comfortably warm rather than unpleasantly hot.
Johannesburg is no thing of beauty, unlike Cape Town, but it's an intriguing and exciting - if edgy - mix of race, culture and opportunity as South Africa remodels itself as the Rainbow Nation. The city's also about to get a makeover ahead of the 2010 World Cup: go soon and beat the bulldozers - but be careful about personal security.
Four airlines fly non-stop from the UK. British Airways ( www.ba.com), South African Airways ( www.flysaa.com) and Virgin Atlantic ( www.virgin-atlantic.com) from Heathrow; Nationwide Airlines ( www.flynationwide.co.za) from Gatwick. Emirates ( www.emirates.com) flies from Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow via Dubai.
Jo'burg International Airport is 24km from the city centre. Shuttle buses leave every 30 minutes to the Rotunda, in the city centre, and the northern suburb of Sandton, but onward public transport is unreliable. The taxi fare from the airport to the centre or inner suburbs is about R280 (£19.30).
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Built over a flat plain, with no rivers or hills to impede its expansion, Johannesburg has become the largest inland city in the world, sprawling across 2,300 square kilometres. A steady walk from the outermost suburbs to the centre would take three days. When you get there, the main point of orientation is the 270m-tall Telkom Joburg Tower, in Hillbrow. Unusually, most of the attractions are outside the centre, but the downtown districts of Braamfontein and Newtown are developing fast and challenging the monied, predominantly white suburbs. The main tourist office (1) is an attractive, glassy building in Newtown (1 Central Place; www.gauteng.net); it supplies free maps. It opens 8am-5pm from Monday to Friday.
Most of the international-class hotels are in the affluent northern suburbs - especially Sandton - but an eye-catching central newcomer is the Melrose Arch (2) ( www.proteahotels.com), set in a gated cluster of shops and restaurants. Interiors are daring, mixing modern and retro; bedrooms are luxurious. Double rooms start at R2,580 (£178) per night, with breakfast an extra R130 (£9) per person.
Melville, the artsy district close to the centre, has few hotels but plenty of good guest houses. Among the most stylish is The Melville House (3) at 59 Fourth Avenue ( www.themelvillehouse.com), owned and run by the local author Heidi Holland. Bed and a splendid cooked breakfast for two costs R660 (£45).
Colonial style is celebrated at A Room With a View (4), at 1 Tolip Street, with fine views. Double rooms, including breakfast, start at R700 (£48). The pricier rooms have balconies or conservatories ( www.aroomwithaview.co.za).
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Among many attractive options in Melville, try Spiro's Café (5) on 7th Street. Rosebank's African Craft Market (6) is packed with food stalls. In Soweto is Sakhumzi (7) at 6980 Vilakazi Street, where you can eat your buffet lunch in the open air, next door to Archbishop Desmond Tutu's house.
The 1976 schoolchildren's revolt against the teaching of Afrikaans in schools turned into a much wider uprising when 13-year-old Hector Pieterson was shot dead by riot police. Hundreds died in the ensuing 11-year struggle, and the events are documented at a museum and memorial (8) in the heart of Soweto (open Mon-Sat 10am-5pm; Sunday 10am-4pm; admission R15 (£1). It was unveiled by Nelson Mandela, who was living nearby when he was arrested in 1963. His modest house is also a museum (open 9.30am-5pm daily; admission R20/ £1.40). Both have become places of pilgrimage.
The weak rand and the locals' love of US-style malls make Jo'burg a great shopping city. Every suburb has at least one large mall; Rosebank has a series of them, as well as the African Craft Market (open 9am-6pm daily), above the Rosebank Mall (6), which specialises in arts and crafts, and a massive Sunday flea market. Sandton Square (9) is the city's equivalent of Knightsbridge.
Melville is the place to be as night falls. Pick from a string of lively venues around 7th Street and 4th Avenue (5). Buzz 9 has a good selection of cocktails in a modern setting.
DINNER WITH THE LOCALS
Gramadoela's (10) on Bree Street, with its shady courtyard next to the Market Theatre, has a celebrity clientele and a diverse menu. It's renowned for its seafood, game and curries. In the modern development of Melrose Arch (2), the main branch of Moyo at Shop 5, The High Street ( www.moyo.co.za) captures the spirit of African cuisine and design. There's live music every night, and the menu features dishes from across the continent, with exceptional tagines from Morocco and barracuda from Mozambique. Reservations for both restaurants are essential. In Soweto, where you can eat and drink for about half the price of downtown Johannesburg, Nambitha (11) is the stand-out. Main courses, such as mogodu served with peanut butter spinach, pumpkin and rice, cost around R45 (£3.10).
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
Soweto's cavernous, beautiful Regina Mundi Catholic Church (12) at 1149 Khumalo Street is as much a political shrine as a place of worship, with portraits of Mandela, Tutu and Steve Biko and scars of the apartheid struggle left unrepaired. Bullet holes in the ceiling and the altar testify to police raids when demonstrators gathered in the church. The church has some exquisite stained glass, and a plaque describes it as "piercing the darkness and restoring hope". Tours take place every day between 8am-6pm, except when services are being held. Sunday services can attract up to 2,000 worshippers.
TAKE A RIDE
Jo'burg is two cities in one: the former township of Soweto, with its three million population, is a metropolis in its own right. It's far from the finished article, disfigured by clusters of squalid shacks, but there are many signs of progress: smart new housing estates; tree-lined, well-lit streets; three giant malls being built; and better public transport than Johannesburg proper. It's best to book an organised tour. Moratiwa Tours ( www.moratiwa.co.za) is safe, reliable and well priced; a half-day costs R350/£24.
OUT TO BRUNCH
Sunday brunch is a speciality in La Belle Terrasse at the Westcliff Hotel (13) at 67 Jan Smuts Avenue, which serves a hot and cold buffet between 11.30am-2.30pm at R240 (£16.50) each. This is the place for traditional eggs Benedict or a full English breakfast.
A WALK IN THE PARK
Johannesburg boasts of having 10 million trees, but most of them are in private gardens; there are few green areas for casual recreation. Zoo Lake (14) was open to all races throughout the apartheid era and remains a popular and safe spot.
ICING ON THE CAKE
There's no more powerful symbol of the emerging Rainbow Nation than the new development at Constitution Hill (15) in Hillbrow. On the site of the notorious Number Four prison, where Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi were held, now stands the highest court in the land. Up to 2,000 black citizens were " processed" every day at the height of apartheid. A museum (open 9am-4pm Mon-Fri; 9am-12pm Sat and Sun; entry free) commemorates events; there are tours and art displays, and you can sit in the public gallery when the court is in session.