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Johannesburg is the place to feel the pulse of South Africa.

A city of astonishing contrasts, a huge metropolis where opulent wealth and desperate poverty live side by side, Johannesburg is the intriguing, dynamic heart of this turbulent country. If you want to see the real South Africa - and try to understand it - Jo'burg has to be on your itinerary.

Jo'burg, Jozi, eGoli or 'the city of gold' (never Johannesburg) is by far the largest city in South Africa. It's brash, fast-growing and often ugly, but it has got wealth, energy and a beautiful climate. If you take reasonable precautions and listen to the locals, you can enjoy it in safety.


Situated largely on the highveld, the big cities of Gauteng benefit from the cooling effects of altitude. Both Johannesburg and Pretoria can become baking hot in summer, but a fresh breeze can often be relied on to take the sting out of a Jo'burg January. At this time of year, cloudless days and plenty of sunshine are common. Winters can get chilly, with freezing temperatures not unknown. It has even been known for Johannesburg to occasionally get a dusting of snow. Early summer (September-October) and autumn (March-April) offer the best weather for a visit.

Holiday-makers stream out of the cities from mid-December to late January. School holidays in April, July and September can clog up popular attractions, but you can dodge the outdoors crowd in favour of some of the great arts festivals held in September and October.

A Top Day in Johannesburg

Johannesburg is a city of cars. Behind the wheel, this fast, sequestered and strange metropolis is mine. As I drive, I see why Jo'burg, Jozi, Egoli or the City of Gold has a name for each of its faces; whether it's Chinatown in Bruma, Muslim Fordsburg or Black Soweto, each is defined by dynamic commercial and fashionable shifts. I head up to Northcliff for a view of the city, and notice how it boasts the world's largest urban forest (though it's barely able to attract residents to its sprawling public parks). I explore the mega-rich northern suburbs for a sobering dose of contradiction, where mansion fortresses lie minutes from the shacks of Alexandra township, and where inner-city nature reserves mingle with cellphone towers disguised as palm trees. I am drawn at once into the shebeens (drinking dens) of the township and just as quickly into Sandton City, the apotheosis of the shopping centre, that labyrinthine paean to consumerism that Jo'burg taught me not to hate. Here I witness how the new South African family has begun to redefine the country's divisions in terms of class, not race (Jo'burg shows this shift most glaringly).

Once the stifle of the climate control gets to me, I escape to 7th Street Melville for remnants of a street culture that, for now, has vanished from the city centre at night. So it's bookshops, bakeries and restaurants until Jo'burg falls into another night and starts to buzz, then it's Berlin Bar, the best spot on the strip. I head back via the shimmering Nelson Mandela Bridge, over the Witwatersrand. It was here that gold was discovered and where the name of the country's currency comes, so it's apt to finish up my visit to Johannesburg by going back to where it all began. North of the central business district, Newtown awaits, as does Carfax, a legendary mixed club that mixes it up and kicks down.

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