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Locals enjoy lunch overlooking Gandhi Square in Johannesburg (Photograph by Jon Hrusa, Corbis)

A New Golden Age in Johannesburg

Celebrated journalist Todd Pitock started his family and effectively his working life in Johannesburg. He left in 1993, but having returned yearly since then, he now realizes that Johannesburg got really good only after it wasn’t his city anymore.

Here’s his take on the South African city’s new golden age in the wake of losing its most celebrated native son:

In 2013 Johannesburg was Africa’s most visited city, according to the MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index. Here visitors get caught up in a vital mingling of pan-African culture, energy, and entrepreneurial spirit. It’s a place so edgy that “sharp sharp” is a term of affection, like “cool.”

“To get any true sense of South Africa,” says local guide Gerald Garner, “you have to spend time in Johannesburg’s city center.” The city center has seen in the past few years a rejuvenation that seems implausible.

From its beginning as a gold rush town in 1886, Johannesburg—or Egoli (“place of gold”) in Zulu—has been where people go to make their name, including Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, who both came as commercial lawyers. Johannesburg is where Mandela committed himself to the revolution to end apartheid.

After South Africa’s first multiracial general elections in 1994, as President Mandela’s new “Rainbow Nation” struggled with healing and growing pains, Johannesburg contended with a long period of crime and decay that lasted through the early 2000s.

Now the city is gaining momentum along the comeback trail. Once again, young people are leading the way as urban agents of change.

My new favorite Joburg places include the student-dominated Braamfontein district, whose Neighbourgoods Market, open Saturdays, started with artisanal foods and expanded to designer clothes and jewelry. On the last Friday of each month a bike ride starting here and routing through the city draws a thousand riders, part of a global cycling movement called Critical Mass.

The Maboneng Precinct development turned derelict industrial buildings into galleries, shops, and restaurants (such as House of Baobab, which serves a Sunday “Afrikan” buffet and offers drumming evenings on Mondays). The centerpiece is Arts on Main, a multimedia cultural space in a repurposed warehouse that also holds a weekly food and design market. And at 12 Decades Hotel, each of the dozen rooms highlights a different decade of the 127-year-old city.

Eloff Street perhaps best embodies Joburg’s story.

Once the top property in the South African version of Monopoly, the street declined to the point that gamemakers removed its name entirely from the board. Now Eloff is returning to its former glory, with high-end fashion retailers like Kurt Geiger opening outposts.

On a pedestrian lane between storefronts, an informal market sells everyday items, and a clutch of dexterous hairstylists get creative with wigs and hair weaves, usually working in teams of three to a customer, to get their mostly young professional female clientele ready as quickly as possible.

I never visit Johannesburg now without pangs of regret that I ever left. I’m acutely aware of not having lived here at the right time—which is, I am convinced, right now.

This article, written by Todd Pitock, appeared in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow Todd on Twitter @toddpitock.