As one of the safer and most historically significant parts of central Johannesburg, Braamfontein is a must for any South Africa itinerary. There are monuments in this area that encompass the spirit of the nation, alongside modern, trendy restaurants and pleasant walkways.
Like much of central Johannesburg after the fall of Apartheid, the area of Braamfontein (which means “blackberry fountain”) started to fall into decline. But with the hugely significant Constitutional Court of South Africa and many other important buildings associated with South Africa’s newfound freedom close by, government initiatives have reversed the stagnation to help redevelop it.
The result is that gentrification is bringing with it a hip vibe, as new start-up cafes and music venues are added to the traditional restaurants and bars that were already around. The taste skews towards the younger crowd because of University of the Witwatersrand (aka Wits) campus neighbouring Braamfontein to the west.
The eastern side of Braamfontein consists of Constitution Hill along with all the important and significant buildings that grace it. The hill itself is crowned with a robust fortress with white walls and a carmine roof, that is protected by fortified embankments. This is the Old Fort, which has served most of its life as a prison and has seen lots of changes over time. It was white male prisoners who are thought to have first been held here.
Soon the fort was serving a defensive role against the British invasion during the Boer War but failed to prove substantial enough. The fort soon served as a prison once more, this time for anybody who displeased the Brits. As time passed the site was expanded, including the addition of a Women’s Gaol. As apartheid sank its dirty hooks into the system in 1948, the race of inmates changed. Soon it became known as the Robben Island of Johannesburg. Inmates included Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, although their time behind bars here was separated by many years.
A new era for South Africa
Today many the relics of this era are still visible, standing as reminders of past mistakes and the political failures of previous ruling classes. The Constitutional Court was built using bricks taken from dismantled wings of the prison; they once represented captivity and now represent freedom and order. The remains of the old prison stairwells have been encased in glass as a reminder that South Africans have overcome oppression.
This is not the only reason that the old prison is one of the most captivating museums in the city. The eternal flame burns across from the court’s entrance, celebrating 15 years since the Constitution of South Africa was signed in 1996. It was one of the most remarkable turnarounds in political history. Sure, there are still many shortcomings in South Africa in terms of equality, but the ideals are as strong now as ever they were.
Elsewhere in Braamfontein
Wits Art Museum showcases some excellent African artwork, some of it historic, some of it more contemporaneous. There are in fact a few other good museums around Wits University campus, such as the Origins Centre Museum, with exhibitions about the early humans in Africa. Cross Nelson Mandela bridge to the south from here to get downtown where there are many more museums and important Johannesburg sights.
For curated, live entertainment, Joburg Theatre, built in 1962, hosts a range of events in its four performance spaces that include dance, music and ballet, among other energetic performance pieces.
On the note of security, the question begs, is Central Johannesburg safe? It’s not an easily answered question because many areas still are not. Add the fear and distrust aspects and the misinformation that is commonplace with regards to Johannesburg travel and it’s hard to find a sensible answer. Although Braamfontein is most assuredly safer than other central districts, it would be unwise to head out on foot alone at night. Other than that exercise caution and common sense. During the day there is very little to be worried about in Braamfontein and certainly not up on Constitution Hill. Anybody who tells you otherwise has probably not visited the area for a decade or so, since the rejuvenation began.
The presence of some decent quality hotels, linked to global brand names, is one sure signifier that the Braamfontein area is safe enough a place to spend the night. Protea Hotel Parktonian (120 De Korte Street) is one such example that belongs to the Marriott chain. The hotel has some excellent facilities for guests including a pool, gym and balcony at the top of the building with an excellent view over the city. Suites have a separate lounge and bathroom along with useful items such as a desk and mini-fridge.
The Devonshire (Corner of Melle and Jorissen Streets) is a classy three-star hotel, decorated and upholstered in neutral colours. Rooms supposedly come with wifi, but it only really works in the common areas, such as the lobby, bar and restaurant areas. Rooms have private en-suite bathrooms, air-conditioning and heating. Breakfast is not included in all tariffs, so check that it’s included before booking if you plan to eat at the hotel in the morning.
The best budget option in the Braamfontein area is Once in Joburg (20 Melle St.), a popular spot that has a good range of dorms and private rooms available. They call themselves a poshtel (posh hotel), which is apt. Dorm rooms have up to four beds in them and there are female only rooms for those seeking greater privacy. Alternatively, there are twin, triple and double rooms available, each with their own private bathrooms. Communal facilities on-site include a kitchen, bar, and a terrace with BBQ facilities so that you can get your own braai on.
Bannister Hotel (9 de Beer St.) rounds out the list of accommodation in Johannesburg’s Braamfontein district. This is a good value option for private rooms. The hotel has its own bar and restaurant, and you can also call for room-service if you’d prefer a more relaxed meal. Rooms are en-suite and some toiletries are provided. There is also a small desk space in most of the rooms. Bannister Hotel is the closest on this list to Wits University.
Restaurants, Bars & Cafés
Kitcheners Carvery Bar (71 Juta Street) is a Johannesburg institution. Founded in 1906, this excellent pub and food joint by daytime is a great place to get a relaxed lunch, liquid or otherwise. Come nightfall however the venue is transformed into a club, with DJ-led events running at least three nights each week. The theme is variable with a comedy night often held here on Tuesdays; disco and electronica have also been known to rouse the crowds within the walls of Kitcheners.
When in need of a pick-me-up, Father Coffee (73 Juta St.) is one of the most popular places to get yourself a caffeine fix in Braamfontein. Although the spot itself is small, with just a couple of seats and tables arranged around the room, the place is always full of people buying coffee to go, due to the unfaltering high quality of coffee they serve up. You can also buy their own signature Father blends in-store or online.
For something completely exclusive, Randlords (41 de Koort St.) is a 22nd-floor rooftop bar that literally lords it over the rest of the competition. This spot is frequently closed to the public and reserved for private parties, but on those rare occasions when it is open (1-2 times a month), it makes for one of the most impressive nights out in Braamfontein.
For jazz nights, good food and late opening hours, The Orbit (81 de Korte St.) ticks each of those boxes and is one of the most popular spots in Braamfontein. The menu keeps on getting better and has good options for both meat lovers and vegetarians (the latter being quite a rarity, even in Joburg). Try the beetroot done three ways salad for a surprisingly authentic and delicious healthy option. Then sit back and feed your brain too, as some of South Africa’s most exciting emergent jazz talent brings the venue alive. There are live performances most nights starting between 8-11:30pm.
Another popular spot in the Juta/de Koort street region over by Wits University is Great Dane (5 de Beer St.), which is known as a party bar. The venue is only open three times a week, but when they do open, it’s from early to late, starting off by serving up gourmet hotdogs, before morphing into party central. Occasionally they will host much bigger parties, but the vibe in general keeps this place high on people’s lists of where to be seen in Braamfontein.
At the far side of Wits University campus there is a small cluster of shops and cafes, among which is Pichulik (44 Stanley Ave.), a great little fashion accessories shop. Katherine-Mary Pichulik is an innovative designer and her beaded or woven earrings, cuffs and chokers are bold and elegant. There are various collections now and her work is well respected in fashion circles.
Shoe shops come in various guises, but limited-edition sneakers are hard to come by. If you’re all about them kicks though, the footwear section of the Anatomy Store (73 Juta St.) is going to satisfy that individuality urge. Most of the big brand names are represented and there are some unusual and unique styles of sneakers among their collection.
Vinyl lovers should head over to the same area as Pichulik to seek out Mr Vinyl (Shop G14/D, 44 Stanley Ave.), which stocks an excellent range of vinyl spanning eras and genres. This cool shop is especially relevant to Braamfontein considering the prevalence of live music in the area. Music forms the backbone of life in these parts and buying vinyl, as all true music lovers know, is the epitome of music worship.