Top city to visit (Rough Guide), second most inspiring city (Good Magazine), one of “Four Emerging Arts Cities You Should Know” (Wall Street Journal) … rave reviews of Jobburg have been streaming in lately, all with a common thread: the rebirth of the inner city.

The City of Joburg by nightThe City of Joburg by night. (Photo: city to visit in 2015 (Rough Guide), second most inspiring city in the world (Good Magazine), one of the 50 best travel destinations for 2015 (Travel + Leisure), one of “Four Emerging Arts Cities You Should Know” (Wall Street Journal), featured in Conde Nast Traveller’s What’s Hot for 2015 edition … Johannesburg has been getting some serious attention from travel journalists in recent months.

And in part, of course, the journalists are following the crowds: Joburg was the most-visited city in Africa for the second year running in 2014, according to the MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index, receiving around 4.3-million international overnight visitors – a 4% increase on 4.1-million the previous year.

But it’s not just the numbers that are increasing. What the journalists are picking up on is a shift in the nature of the city, and consequently in the kind of traveller it’s attracting: no longer just people looking to do business, or maybe get a quick taste of apartheid struggle history before catching the connection to Cape Town or the Kruger Park.

There’s a special quality to Johannesburg that, 20 years into South Africa’s democracy, is beginning to show itself in a more accessible way. Rough Guide, in placing Joburg first in its list of “top 10 cities to visit in 2015”, praises the city for its diversity, its “crackling” energy and “pervasive social warmth” – and the rebirth of its inner city.

The Neighbourgoods Market in BraamfonteinHanging out at the Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein. (Photo:
Joburg’s drive to regenerate its central business district and other inner city areas, spearheaded by the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA), began around 2001 and has been gaining momentum ever since. And this is the common thread running through all the positive press that Jozi – as many fondly refer to it – has been enjoying lately.

“The central business district, which in the 1990s was all but abandoned by big business fleeing crime and grime, is undergoing a slow rebirth, with crime rates dropping and property investors moving in,” Rough Guide says.

“New City Improvement Districts have been implemented to oversee the cleaning, sprucing up and guarding of the central areas, most effectively so far in Braamfontein.”

Braamfontein was similarly cited by US-based Good Magazine in its 2014 Good City Index, which ranked Johannesburg as the second most inspiring city in the world.

Developments in Braamfontein, Good Magazine says, have turned this part of the inner city into a “hub for progress … a breeding ground of creativity and innovation packed full of galleries, artists’ spaces, bars and startups focused on making meaningful connections with the man on the street”.

And it’s happening fast, as Conde Nast Traveller notes in its What’s Hot for 2015 edition: “In 2010 there were only one or two places to buy a cappuccino in Braamfontein; now there are seven independent coffee bars, including two roasteries, in just one block, all doing a roaring trade as international government organisations, creative industries and retailers increasingly return to the area.”

Developments in adjoining Newtown, meanwhile, boosted Joburg’s score on the Good City Index’s “street life” measure, with the magazine highlighting the R1.3-billion Newtown Junction, one of biggest multi-use developments to open in Johannesburg’s CBD since the Carlton Centre in the 1970s.

Another inner city area that’s getting rave notices is the Maboneng Precinct, which was voted one of the world’s coolest new places to visit in 2015 by New York-based magazine Travel + Leisure.

Maboneng boasts an eclectic cosmopolitan feel, integrating mixed-use spaces that enable small business, the arts, culture and fashion to thrive. Well-established artists, including William Kentridge and David Krut, have made their working home there, as has the Museum of African Design, a multi-disciplinary exhibition and performance platform.

And the developments have only just begun. Says Travel + Leisure: “Since Joburg’s trendiest denizens have been descending by the droves, a new public space was long overdue. With that in mind, Maboneng welcomes its newest development in February – the Common Ground urban park. With sports facilities and a venue for open-air concerts and events, the park promises to be a cool community hub in an already booming part of the city.”

Neil Dundas of the Goodman Gallery – which represents Kentridge along with a host of other South African artists who are making waves internationally – told Conde Nast Traveller: “We’re entering a period of cultural awakening. The city’s established cultural calendar is being reinvented and new cultural arenas are opening up, like the annual Joburg Art Fair, which has grown tremendously.”

Rough Guide echoes this theme, noting that, with inner city areas such Maboneng having “rooted themselves as exciting cultural hubs … new clusters of forward-thinking museums, galleries and shops are set to emerge in 2015”.

Among these is the African Food and Culture Hub, one of the JDA’s current projects, which will see the creation of a new public space in the inner city Park Station Precinct. Comprising a new public square surrounded by restaurants, shops and businesses, the Hub will reflect the continent’s rich diversity, celebrating African food and culture while providing a safe zone for night-time leisure and entertainment.

Tamara Dey, lead singer of dance band Flash Republic, told Conde Nast Traveller: “Young people are flocking back to the inner city, fearlessly. It’s full of possibilities if you’re creative, free-spirited and adventurous. Joburg’s got a lot of heart, with a non-stop clash of cultures and energy – and young people are tapping into it. Joburg is the future.”