I’ve always thought of the Red Bus as a touristy thing. You hop on, hop off, get your bearings, see as much as possible in your short holiday time. I’ve also always thought of it as part of those obvious tourist destinations, like Rome, New York, London and Cape Town. But Johannesburg?

By Edward Robbins.

The truth is, however, that a Red Bus in Joburg is the perfect fit. It has opened up a city that most people don’t know or – mistakenly – don’t care to see. The city has been insulted, maligned and downplayed for so long that even us South Africans have started to believe all the terrible rumours about the place.

Most tourists still fly into OR Tambo International Airport, and get the hell out again, on their way to Kruger National Park or Cape Town.

That is slowly changing, however. Word is getting out – you can hear it in the way people talk about the city. They admit they actually like living there. I even heard an Austrian tourist who, despite all the warnings not to, stayed a week in Joburg and lamented that it wasn’t enough time to see everything. Media overseas are suddenly dubbing Joburg “one of the hippest, coolest cities” in the world.

But you don’t undo decades of bad publicity overnight. So for anyone who still has their doubts, the Red Bus is the perfect way to get reacquainted with Joburg. It takes you to the heart of the city, but – especially those who might be a bit nervous to walk its sidewalks – you stay above all of it. And there’s no better way to see a city’s tall buildings than from the top of an open-roofed bus.

On my latest visit to Joburg, in June, I wanted to see what was happening downtown, the CBD, that so-called “no-go area” (often so-called by people who have never been there, but let me not get into that). I had heard that like Maboneng, Newtown and Braamfontein, downtown was getting its act together.

I drove into the city one day and parked near Cramer’s Coffee (a great long-established coffee shop on Main and Harrison streets, the perfect place to start an early-morning stroll downtown).

From there I walked along Main Street, which has been turned into a kind of pedestrian mall, with mining paraphernalia and information dotting the walk, all the way to the magistrate’s court. From there I wended my way back along Albertina Sisulu (the old Market Street) to the library and zigzagged back to my car.

The walk was great, but I wanted to see more. Only when you start walking through downtown Joburg do you realise how massive it actually is. Cape Town’s CBD seems like a dorp next to it. So I booked a ticket on the Red Bus.

The bus’s Red City tour takes a circular route that lasts about two hours if you don’t get off, which is just what I wanted. I began in Braamfontein, even though you can start or end anywhere. From there we headed towards Constitution Hill, past buildings like the very New York City-like one pictured below, 222 Smit Street, where you can get access to the Gautrain.

Then, after picking up two women at the museum there, we headed down Harrison Street into the city.

For anyone into architecture, Joburg’s downtown is a trove of gorgeous buildings, some dating back to the early 1900s and many of which have been recently bought – there are SOLD signs on many blocks – or are for sale.

And then we drove past the Carlton Centre and out of the city, to the vast (and to me, unknown) south.

We drove in the shadow of leftover gold mine dumps, past Rosettenville race course, and then west to Gold Reef City and the Apartheid Museum.

Of course there was lots more than this – and City Sightseeing is starting a new tour through Rosebank and Sandton soon. But for anyone who thinks they know Joburg – and for those who want to find out more – it is probably the best two hours you can spend.

For more information on City Sightseeing’s Red City Tour (and it’s city/Soweto tour), go to their website.