In 2015, I packed up two suitcases and left New Jersey for a job at a private school in Johannesburg, South Africa. Lonely Planet in hand, I boarded the plane ready to compile the mother of all to-do lists for my new stomping grounds. While travel guides are great tools for checking off all of those “need-to-see-because-mom’s-gonna-ask-about-it” landmarks and activities, they miss the mark when it comes to the nitty-gritty, daily experience. Limiting your travel itinerary to the recommendations of a google-sourced guide is like reading only the chapter titles in a book—you may understand the gist, but you’ll miss out on the real value.

So after spending over a year navigating the remarkable, dangerous, and expressive city of Johannesburg, I’ve assembled a list of the things you should know that you won’t find scrolling through TripAdvisor or flipping the pages of a brochure. This list is by no means exhaustive but will hopefully offer some ideas aimed at encouraging an intentional, authentic experience in The City of Gold.

1. Let’s talk cities. Something that almost every South African will tell you is that each city in the country has it’s own unique personality. How closely you identify with and understand those urban personas will likely determine your happiness during your trip.

If Cape Town is the beautiful, capricious chick, Johannesburg is her uglier but more sincere and reliable sister. Pretoria is your football-obsessed cousin who lives in the country and Durban, the relaxed surfer friend. Knowing how each city and it’s people interact with one another will give you a leg up in finding your way.

Johannesburg is the financial and career hub—people are there during the peak of their working lives before retiring on the coast. Joburg boasts about having a friendlier population (less clique-y than Cape Town) and a more rough-and-tumble attitude.* In any gentrifying neighborhood (Ferreirasdorp, Braamfontein) you’ll find a clash between residual apartheid-era constraints and burgeoning counterculture. Johannesburg is a topographically unremarkable mass located smack in the middle of nowhere, so art markets, underground bars, and festivals replace beach activities and seasonal attractions.

*hint: when in doubt, keep this in mind: Johannesburg is to Cape Town what New York is to LA.

2. From A to B. If you look up “transportation in Johannesburg” you will find sites telling you that the best way to get around is by taking the minibus taxis. Pro tip: DON’T TAKE THE MINIBUS TAXIS. First of all, if you don’t know the hailing system (which is a combination of hand gestures and anti-mugging protections) you will not get to where you are going. Secondly, the minibus taxis in Johannesburg are notoriously dangerous. Drivers survive on wages earned based on time, which means they won’t waste a second by stopping at a red light (called ‘robots’) or yielding on a highway merge.

Your best bet? Uber. Uber in Johannesburg is by and large the best way to get around if you don’t have a car. Drivers are friendly, cost is low, and the convenience factor can’t be overlooked. Uber also offers a unique opportunity to get some facetime with friendly locals. My suggestion? Sit in the front, put away your phone, and talk to every uber driver you have—the benevolence and warmth of strangers in Joburg is something I can’t adequately describe, you’ll just have to see for yourself.

And if your phone battery dies *gasp* find the nearest zebra cab.

Rugby game in Joburg.

3. The Hood(s): Africa itself is a land of extremes, and Johannesburg offers a concentrated, unique glimpse into this urban polarity. Neighborhoods of the rich border townships and high-crime areas, while old Jozi suburbs sit next to gentrifying art districts. Here’s your breakdown of just a few of my favorites:

  • Soweto: The largest neighborhood in Johannesburg and a must-visit. Soweto has a rich and painful history—take the opportunity to appreciate its origins in the museums and on tours, then solidify your education by spending time with the people born and raised there. Jump off the Orlando towers, eat kota, check out Kliptown, drink at a Shebeen.

  • Braamfontein: Braam is brimming with art, music, and style. This upmarket area is a go-to for WITS graduates and night owls, and carries a slightly more authentic feel than its sister district Maboneng. Be sure to take part in First Thursdays—art galleries and museums stay open late the first Thursday of each month so you can get your beers with your Battiss.

  • Maboneng: Maboneng is the gentrified neighborhood that caters to tourists and locals alike. Though some parts can feel overly contrived, there are true gems hidden throughout this part of town. Check out the Museum of African Design before heading over to shop some homegrown streetwear brands on Main Street.

  • Melville: This area of town is perhaps one of the most underrated. Melville is a happily unpretentious area that is frequented by young liberals. Cruise the shelves of Love Books to satisfy your intellectual cravings before heading to La Santa Muerte to sate your actual cravings. Stroll Fifth and Seventh Ave, shop 27 Boxes, make new friends at Hells Kitchen.

  • CBD/Hillbrow: Visitors are usually warned against venturing into the city center due to the high crime and poverty. But, as locals will tell you, TIA: This is Africa. Crime and poverty are as much a part of the city’s makeup as braais and rugby. Explore this misunderstood area by booking a tour and visiting Constitution Hill and Ponte Tower. This is also the best place for some lekker fast food.

View of the Soweto Towers through a cracked window.

4. Meeting people. The most sought-after goal of travel I hear from nomadic friends is getting the elusive "local experience". When you're on the road, the fact of the matter is that you aren't a local, so the best strategy is to team up with one.

My secret for immersing myself in South Africa (before I made friends with my coworkers) was Tinder. Yes, Tinder––the dating app. I swiped myself into friend groups and dated my way through hidden spots reserved for Joburgers only. Tinder is most common among South Africans, whereas other apps like Bumble will give you mainly international visitors. Swipe away but be clear with your intentions. People in South Africa are some of the most welcoming and hospitable in the world, and more often than not they will be happy to show you around and introduce you to their crew if you simply ask.

5. Turn up. Between bungee jumping the Soweto Towers and shopping in Sandton, you’re going to need to stop for a cold one. Welp, let’s just say beer is not South Africa’s forte. That being said, here’s everything you need to know about getting dixie-fried in the motherland:

  • South Africans can DRINK. Challenge an Afrikaner to a drinking match and prepare for liver carnage.

  • Bartenders always measure the amount of liqueur in every drink. If you want an American-style mixed drink, be sure to ask for a double.

  • Tipping: leave your smaller change for a few drinks or tip 10% on the tab.

  • It is not uncommon to be at a bar where the crowd is predominantly one race. Coming from New York/New Jersey, this really stood out to me. Don’t mention the observation to your South African squad but maybe suggest an area like Braamfontein or Soweto for your next big night out.

  • Drinking and driving in Johannesburg is an unfortunate regularity. Cops are easily bribed so traffic laws are rendered ineffective. Recognize this and stay safe.

  • Weed: by no means is smoking weed as common or popular in Johannesburg as it is in the US. That being said, there’s a small weed culture in Joburg bolstered by Reggaeton and car guard dealers.

  • Kick it like it’s 1994: you can smoke cigarettes in some bars in Johannesburg so if you smoke, enjoy the throwback and if you don’t, be sure to pack eyedrops.

Recommended Watering Holes:

  • Kitcheners, Braamfontein

  • Sir James van der Merwe, Kramerville

  • Hell’s Kitchen, Melville

  • Lenin’s Vodka Bar, Maboneng

  • Ratz, Melville

  • The Union Bar, Pop-up bar- different locations

  • Good Luck Bar, Ferreiras Dorp

  • The Living Room, Maboneng

  • Chaf Pozi, Soweto

  • The Orbit, Braamfontein

All of the above are meant as suggestions and can hopefully give you insight into the cultural heartbeat of this city. If I am to offer any advice, it would be this: Think big during your trip. The main value to be extracted from a place, in my opinion, comes not only from the contents of the itinerary but from developing a relationship with the place itself. Don’t force yourself to have the most fun, nonstop experience—seek out what’s under the city’s skin and how it can make you different.

The best job in the world! Me and a few of my students.