When my buddy Josh learned that I was going to Johannesburg, his immediate reaction was “Why are you going there? I heard that it is a crime-ridden city, and a woman is raped everyday!” I have to admit I felt a little bothered, and seconds later found myself asking Google if Johannesburg is a safe place for tourists. There were a lot of varying opinions—mostly leaning towards a negative view of the city—but what could I do? The tickets were already booked, and rebooking is so damn expensive, so I just thought, “How bad can it be? Crime is everywhere anyway.”
We only spent a day in Jo’burg, and I’m going to lay it on the line: it didn’t feel like the safest city to visit, and we were constantly on guard. While we weren’t robbed or held at gunpoint, we did encounter a number of things which made us a tad uncomfortable, and left a not-so-impressive impression.
But is the city beautiful? To be sure, it’s no Cape Town—charming and breathtaking at first sight—but Jo’burg is an interesting place with a unique vibe of its own. Both cities offer completely different things, and shouldn’t be compared with each other.
Porters at the O. R. Tambo International Airport
Be wary of men wearing orange tops and caps who suddenly offer their services without being asked to. We were assisted by two porters who were extremely friendly, entertaining, and helpful; they asked about our trip, carried our entire luggage, and walked us all the way to immigration. Sounds good right! The catch? They asked us for money, and wouldn’t leave until we gave them an amount acceptable to them. My dad gave each of them $50, but they refused it, and went “It’s Christmas. You can do better. Give us $100”. Too tired to negotiate, we yielded and walked away. I don’t know about you, but $200 for porter service is too much for me. What a great way to be welcomed.
There’s nothing wrong with people wanting tips for rendered services, and as seasoned travelers, we are quite used to such behavior, but this experience was plain harassment. I hope that the airport gets rid of these people, and sets up an official porter booth with published rates so that unsuspecting travelers no longer have to go through such trickery.
No to Cabs and Random Checkpoints
We were about to get a cab to take us from the hotel to the mall when the hotel owner intervened, and instead called for a private vehicle. She didn’t exactly tell us why, but I saw clear signs of worry and concern in her face. Perhaps she was trying to keep us away from sketchy cab drivers who overcharge unwarned tourists.
On the way home, our van was stopped by police officers at random checkpoints. Imagine a guy coming out of nowhere to stop you while you’re innocently walking your dog inside a private subdivision. Our driver told us that having random roadside checkpoints around the city is normal especially during festive seasons.
Despite these encounters, I am excited to share with you the best part of our time in Johannesburg—drum roll please—our one night stay at The Winston Hotel.
A Little Haven in the Midst of Johannesburg
I honestly don’t know where to start. I’m just so in love with this place that I am compelled to write about it.
The Winston Hotel is a 5-star boutique hotel located in an upscale neighbourhood of Johannesburg. I chose this hotel because the online photos looked beautiful, and I wanted my family to experience what 5-star South African service is like. Furthermore, I was able to save on previous accommodations, so why not splurge a little?
Entering the property was like stepping through the gates of a secret garden. The only words that repeatedly came out of our mouths for a good minute were “wow” and “fancy” (pronounced as wooow and fancyyy). The entire hotel is well run; everything is tastefully decorated; rooms are spacious and beautifully furnished.
The location is perfect; secluded enough to escape from the hustle and bustle of the big city, but conveniently close to Sandton City—a huge shopping center with many dining options—and the Gautrain Rapid Rail System.
The service was impeccable from start to finish. We were greeted and escorted to our respective rooms by fine young men in tuxedos; all of our transfers were taken cared of (with drivers carefully selected); and management was terrific. I was fortunate enough to meet the lovely owner, Ruth Gershoni, while having a hearty breakfast. She’s warm, engaging, and hands-on. Needless to say, I was impressed. Too impressed that I even asked for the owner’s full name.
I can babble all day about our lovely experience, but I’ll stop now and let the pictures do the talking.
Johannesburg isn’t as bad as the world thinks. Will I go back? I would love to. It’s not the perfect place for a getaway, but it is a city worth visiting and knowing. Of course there is crime, just as there is in Paris, Manila, or any other country. Just use common sense: don’t go to shady alleyways, don’t walk alone at night, and dress simply. Also, trust your gut feel and keep your wits about as you would in any unfamiliar territory and you should be fine. After all, the city is worth its risks.