Evolution of Braamfontein
Braamfontein welcomes you to its hub
You should be standing in front of the Joburg Theatre on Hoofd Road. This is a good place to start, because today we'll walk through one of Joburg's cultural hubs,Braamfontein... Or, "Braam", as locals call it.
Many people seem to think that Joburg is a dangerous and heartless city, but if you open your mind, she'll speak to you. Today, we'll experience the liveliness of her streets and people.
I'm Tamara, and I have worked and enjoyed this area for five years. I have worked as a reporter on local theatre, and reviewed launches and events in the surrounding bars, and over the years I have come to know how Braamfontein transforms from day to night. Today, I will take you on an insider journey, and you'll see the best eateries, live music venues, dancing spots, art galleries and where to buy vintage threads. I will expose you to the best coffee beans, spontaneous entertainment and to the people behind the scenes.
Let's get going now. If you're facing the Joburg Theatre, follow the road to the right, alongside the building. While you go, I'll explain how this will works.
VoiceMap uses your location to play commentary automatically. I'll give you directions to keep you on track, so you can just focus on what's around you. There might be some silence from time to time, and if you feel lost you can take a quick look at the map, but otherwise just put your phone away and enjoy the hustle and bustle of this lively part of Jozi.
The theatre we've just left is an important part of Joburg's cultural scene. At any given time, there are musicals, tributes, comedies, plays and performances. I have seen a salsa celebration, Disney on Ice, a tribute to African musicians and the future stars of the Chinese ballet take the stage.
The theatre is also home to the Joburg Ballet. It has showcased the likes of Gizelle, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. I have been very fortunate to attend many dress rehearsals at Joburg Theatre and the Joburg Ballet studios to take photographs. Their studios are made up of large glass panels that look over the area of Braamfontein. When they dance, it's like they're dancing for the whole city.
I find the ballet fascinating and admire the hard work and effort they put in at each show. It's worth supporting, and the productions are world-class, so if you have time, I'd highly recommend seeing a show there.
Office parks and hip young urbanites
Several years ago, there wasn't much happening in this area, except office blocks like the one on your left. But since then, things have changed and the city has progressed.
Nowadays, office parks have changed into working spaces. As trendy and hip young people started working in Braam, edgy retail outlets, pop-up stores, graphic design collectives and artisanal coffee shops started to pop up all around the area.
Most of my friends work from co-working spaces in Braam, doing many different projects from a variety of clients and brands.
Gone are the days when an office space meant working at a cubicle, bound to a desktop and gathering around the water cooler for the latest gossip. Now we work at open desks off our laptops where we can see and talk to our colleagues at any moment.
Right onto Joubert
Straight ahead of you is a building called Constitution Hill. When you reach it, turn right onto Joubert Street. We're making our way towards central Braamfontein, and while you walk, I'll tell you more about Constitution Hill.
It was built in 1892, and functioned as a prison. Black male prisoners were held here, and it also had a women's prison and cells for people awaiting trial. The Constitutional Court of South Africa is just behind Constitutional Hill, so it makes sense that the prisoners were nearby to attend court.
Today, it is used for many different things. There are archives, venues for hire, festivals, cultural experiences, exhibitions and tours. The building has been upgraded and redeveloped, and now it focuses on heritage, education and tourism programmes.
Each time I have visited the space, I have experienced something different.
I once went to a Norman Catherine exhibition with his pieces displayed by the windows, walls and outdoor walkway. His sculptures have surrealistic elements into his work, and use humour with a dark overtone to confront the horrors of apartheid. Placing his work in this space actualises the history of Constitutional Hill, reinventing the meaning and context of the area. I left the exhibition feeling cut up and segmented by my role in South Africa. I happened to be studying Fine Art at the time and found myself responding to the new experience in my work. To this day, the substance in his work makes me feel both alive and defeated at the same time.
I have also visited one of the prison cells for a photography exhibition on Bob Marley. The images depicted his personal life... playing soccer, smoking a spliff, and spending time at home with his family.
In recent years, they have also hosted the event Sub Urban State, a big annual party with local DJs. For the first year, they hosted their events on a rooftop in Maboneng Precinct. Now they operate from Constitutional Hill's prison courtyard that boasts a view of the Johannesburg skyline.
Keep walking down Joubert Street. Soon, it'll become De Korte Street. We're heading into the hustle and bustle of Braamfontein, where the hip, young, urban cultural scene is booming.
To your right is one of the Rea Vaya bus stations. People who use the Rea Vaya system have smart cards that they can upload credit on. Selected stations have free wi-fi, so commuters can get online while they wait for their bus.
Part of the redevelopment of the area is improving public transport, and the Rea Vaya bus is one of the new options.
They are also making the precinct bicycle friendly by putting cycling lanes alongside the roads. The cycle lanes are clearly marked, but the minibus taxi's don't seem to let that stop them from using them. It makes cycling the city a little more of a thrill than most cyclists would like!
Johannesburg has a big cycling scene, and you'll often see cyclists in the area. There's an event called Critical Mass where cyclists gather in a group once a month in the evening time and cycle together to different spots around the city. I've even seen the Metro police join in on the fun.
Follow the curve of the road onto De Korte
As we follow De Korte Street around the bend, notice how busy the area becomes. We are heading into the middle of Braamfontein.
The area used to be in quite a state, with rubbish in the streets, broken sidewalks, high crime rates, and awful traffic congestion.
This is where the Braamfontein Improvement District comes into play. They watch over and maintain the public space, and employ cleaners to keep the streets and facilities clean at all times. Public Safety Ambassadors are placed around the area to ensure people feel safe and protected in the city. If you ever have any questions throughout the tour, be sure to ask an ambassador to point you in the direction you are looking for.
Just keep going along De Korte Street.
As you walk further into the central area of Braamfontein, notice the abundance of big trees and greenery.
We often refer to Joburg as the concrete jungle, but it is actually rumoured to be the world's largest man-made forest. While it might not technically be a "forest", the city must be one of the greenest in the world. It's filled with trees and shrubs. There aren't many parks, but many buildings set up a courtyard with pot plants, vegetable gardens and shrubbery.
People take advantage of the shade from the trees during their lunch breaks and after hours, especially during summer.
You'll also see metal sculptures of trees dotted around the area. They were designed by Claire Regnard, a part-time visual art teacher. She once said, "the difference between the tree sculptures is that one can touch and even speak to them, unlike art in a museum."
Living in the city
Keep straight on De Korte Street.
Most of the buildings around you operate as student housing, dormitories and offices. People choose to live here because everything is nearby - shops, bars, restaurants, and workplaces. There are a few technicons and colleges around the area, and the University of Wits is in the vicinity too, so there are always a lot of students around. Because of the trendy developers in the area, there is no such thing as basic dormitories or communal living. Nowadays students stay in modern compact penthouses.
What is really great about doing a tour on foot is that you won't miss out on all the activity. I find that when I am travelling this route by car, I always want to stop at every block to explore all the different spots.
Notice the rustic old buildings next to the modern shops and businesses. The area has a diverse and playful nature, where people from all over Africa unite.
As you walk, listen out for the accents... there are Nigerians, Kenyans and Zimbabweans who specialise in different trades. There are also French, German and Sudanese people too.
It's a real city feel. You'll find a shebeen, fast food joints, new age businesses, African barber shops and boutique design shops, all side-by-side.
Braamfontein evolves from a farm
While you are walking to your next destination, I am going to tell you a little bit about the history of Braamfontein.
The Braamfontein you see today is mostly unchanged since the eighties. But back in 1853, it was first established as a single farm.
During the economic booms of the 1930s and 1950s, many businesses relocated to Braamfontein. Blocks of houses and old churches were demolished to make way for commerce. Wits University was established in the 1920s. The expanding Johannesburg train station swallowed the old Wanderers club and sport grounds in the 1940s. The Civic Centre development in the late 1960s took up a whole grid of suburban houses. Slowly but surely the suburb became a business hub, with residential flats and supporting business to cater for students at Wits and the thousands of office workers that flock here during the day.
You should be able to see WWF South Africa in front of you. Stay straight on De Korte Street as you cross over Melle Street.
You will see Motherland Coffee Company on the corner. Opposite this store is Braamfontein's very own jazz club, The Orbit. We won't stop there now, so I'll tell you about it while you walk down De Korte.
The Orbit used to be called Peg’s Cosy Corner and was an intimate venue where musicians and jazz aficionados would hang out, listening to music till late at night over some drinks.
Today, the Orbit hosts local and international musicians, slam poets and jam sessions. It also has a fine dining bistro, and dinner and live music here is a great night on the town.
Braamfontein is known for its lively entertainment and music scene.
Look down the alleyway to your left as you walk past. That's where you'll find the Neighbourgoods Market on Saturdays. If you happen to be here on a Saturday, it's worth checking out. Otherwise, just keep going along De Korte Street.
The market came to Johannesburg when the developer of Braamfontein, Adam Levy, approached the guys who manage the Biscuit Mill market in Cape Town. He wanted a market with a similar feel in the middle of Braamfontein that would encourage people to drive to town on the weekend and spend time in their city.
My partner and I used to sell wine, port, and raw chocolate when the market first opened and loved setting up in the morning and swapping stories with the rest of the traders. When the market would come to an end each week, we would barter our leftover product for smoothies, Dutch pancakes, pies and biltong.
By noon, the market was packed and people struggled to get past each other. Most of the people there would head straight to the rooftop to enjoy platters of food and cocktails. Because of the safety restrictions, the building would only allow a certain amount of people through at a time, so whenever we looked outside, I would see a queue of visitors as long as the alleyway waiting to get in.
University of Witwatersrand
Stop on this corner for a second, and look up to the right. You'll see Jorrisen street up there - that's where Wits University is. We're not going up there, but I wanted to point it out.
So, let's turn left to walk down Bertha Street.
I remember my first year attending varsity. Everything was so new and full of interesting creative people. I was studying Fine Art, so my day was split into four hour sessions of drawing, learning about film narrative and three hour breaks drinking wine with my peers. The first year out of school can be quite daunting, but I was surrounded by musicians, drama students and artists, and that made my experience here all the more exciting and stimulating.
Wits is a huge university, by South African standards, and there is a big demand for student housing in the area. As I mentioned earlier, each year, more students move in and add personality to the Braamfontein hub. The youth are at the forefront of the trends and keep the city inspired with new ideas.
Turn left now, onto Juta Street.
We are going to pass the Stevenson Gallery on the right. It has hosted a series of solo and group exhibitions that engage with contemporary art practice in South Africa as well as Africa and its diaspora.
This gallery, along with Kalishnikov Gallery situated at the building behind 20 Juta Street, which I will get to in a moment, offer different contemporary exhibitions on a biweekly basis.
Braamfontein has introduced a new concept called First Thursdays which originally started in Cape Town. Every first Thursday of the month, all the galleries, restaurants and cafes open up late. The whole atmosphere changes in Braamfontein. People drink wine in the closed off streets and watch public displays of art or musicians gathering on sidewalks. The city is alive with its people and showcases a different vision and nightlife for the area.
Stope on the corner for a minute, where Juta and De Beer Streets meet. This is where the party happens.
Kitcheners Bar, also known as Milner Park Hotel, is the second oldest pub in Johannesburg. It also the oldest building in Braamfontein and one of the few remaining buildings in Johannesburg built before 1900. They still have most of the original fittings and wallpaper, which adds to the unique experience. Kitcheners leads the way to establishing Braamfontein as a left-of-centre clubbing and bar destination.
Next to Kitcheners is the recent addition to Braamfontein's entertainment scene. Great Dane offer gourmet hot dogs and you dance quite literally on the City of Gold, as the dance floor is made up of 5 cent pieces. People make their way to the bar for networking, developing contacts and having a good night out. It's intimately prettified with dartboards as art pieces and lampposts hanging outdoors.
We're almost at the end of our walk now, so carry on along Juta.
This is where our walk will end. You will see Doubleshot Coffee & Tea to the left. They are known for their artisinal coffee beans and tea blends.
Further up the road is Velo, which offers an assortment of craft beer, freshly pressed juices and wholesome meals. Next to Velo is 86 Public, a gourmet pizzeria.
I hope you enjoyed my link into the city. Any of these places in front of you are worth a stop. So get yourself a bite and beverage and take in the lively mood and ambiance of the foodie culture celebrated here.