When I first started telling folks I was heading to Johannesburg, you would have thought I said I was headed to war.
“Girl, be careful out there!”
“I hear it’s dangerous. Don’t go out at night!”
“It’s sorta hood. Kinda like Brooklyn.”
What? Have you been to Brooklyn lately? I mean sure, if you wander onto the wrong block wearing a fanny pack and looking like a lost puppy, then yes, you may be a target for a less-than-friendly welcome to the Big Apple. But right up the street there’s a nice organic gluten-free coffee shop that can probably give you directions back to your Red Bus to Manhattan.
The dichotomy between 90s hip-hop Brooklyn and vegan yoga Brooklyn is what I’ve grown to love about this place. And the same intersection of gritty street culture and gentrification is what made Johannesburg feel so wonderfully familiar when I visited for the first time last month. I spent most of my time in the neighborhoods of Maboneng, Braamfontein, and Soweto, and on multiple occasions felt like I was right at home in my own backyard. Here are a few awesome reasons why these 2 cities are both places I could call home forever:
THE WEEKEND MARKETS
30 seconds into my visit at the Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein and I was in foodie heaven! It’s just like Smorgasburg in Williamsburg with more selections and a full bar with craft cocktails. I stared at a massive vat of Paella so long that the cook probably thought I was gonna dive into it, and their grass-fed biltong is so flavorful it makes you forget you’re walking around with a paper bag full of meat shavings.
The vibe is very similar to any market in Brooklyn, with some coming to actually eat or shop, and others simply there to people-watch in their fedora hats and fancy sneakers. Do yourself a favor and come hungry. Your belly will thank you and you’ll come away with a deeper appreciation for the diversity of this underrated city.
THE STREET ART
Within 3 blocks of my Airbnb apartment in Maboneng I found enough artwork on the streets to curate a gallery at Target First Saturday in Brooklyn. Everything from photorealistic portraits to statement typography can be found on the streets of Johannesburg, with a cultural pride that was extremely refreshing. While some pieces have obviously been commissioned by local artists, many of the coolest pieces are found in guerilla style installations in obscure locations around the city.
THE BIKE CULTURE
You’re not really a Brooklyn hipster unless you spend weekends navigating the rugged streets of Fort Greene on your vintage bicycle and end with unlimited mimosas at brunch. My first day in Jozi I noticed a bike rental place near my apartment, but without knowing my way around, wrote it off as a great way to end up on the news in a foreign country.
Lo and behold I returned to Brooklyn only to discover Fixin’ Diaries, a hip bike crew who had just launched #BrunchAndRide trips for ladies! There’s also Soweto Bicycle Tours that offer daily rides for visitors to the township. If you have a free day in Johannesburg (or Brooklyn for that matter), take to the streets on a bicycle to get up close and personal with the culture that makes these cities so great.
THE ECLECTIC FASHION
My first afternoon in Maboneng I felt like I had walked onto the set of a Solange video! The ladies rocked afros and cool natural styles, and wore the same African-print pieces that have become so popular here in recent years. They were only outdone by the gentlemen, who sported colorful slacks and crisp blazers with vintage accessories to top it all off.
With both cities attracting so many budding artists and designers, Street Style has replaced Fashion Week as the place to find the hottest trends that real people actually wear. No matter how peculiar your style choice may be, you’ll be right at home at these hotbeds of cultural rebellion, where different is the new black.
THE STREET MEAT
You know it’s officially Summer in Flatbush when the Caribbean jerk stands pop up on sidewalks around town. There’s always some guy on the sidewalk roasting in the sun, inhaling clouds of smoke and scotch bonnet pepper until the meat is grilled to perfection.
In Johannesburg these outdoor grills are called Braii stands, and that same dude dying of smoke inhalation is still there, tending to the meat until it’s just right. While the seasonings and side dishes are different, the men gathered around the grill waiting for fresh braii to hit their takeout boxes was a familiar scene that made the streets of Johannesburg feel even more like home.
While the urban renaissance taking place in both Johannesburg and Brooklyn comes with growing pains, the kindred energy in these cities was a welcome reminder that communities around the world are often more similar than we realize. Whether you’re visiting from Brooklyn or elsewhere in the country, don’t be deterred by the negative press surrounding the city. Like most gems, you have to dig through a little dirt to get to the best treasures, but it’s always worth it!
Have you visited Jozi in recent years? What was your experience? Headed there this year and need more tips? Leave a comment below!