No two streets in a city are alike. And no two famed streets are popular for the same reason. Some are the centre of a city’s nightlife, others are remarkable for their historical importance, while others still are great for shopping – think Oxford Street, London.
South Africa’s cities are no exception to the rule. From Vilakazi Street, famous for housing not one but two Nobel Prize winners, to vibey Long Street in Cape Town, there are a myriad reasons to visit the country’s city streets. Here are some of the most famous streets in South Africa …
DIAGONAL STREET, JOHANNESBURG
Johannesburg’s Diagonal Street sprawls for six square kilometres, overflowing with skyscrapers, some of them the tallest on the continent – including the Carlton Centre, Marble Towers and 11 Diagonal Street (the huge glass building built in 1984 to a height of 80 metres, owned by Absa Bank, and synonymous with Johannesburg). Diagonal Street is the reason Jo’burg has the skyline it has. It’s been described as both iconic and eclectic. Iconic for its skyscrapers, eclectic for the mishmash of contrasting building types and styles, and vibrance (Diagonal Street is renowned for its history of racial tolerance).
It’s been at the heart of the city since before the Standard and Diggers News of 1897 mentioned it, and, whilst its row of Victorian-style shops that run around and into President Street (a range of shops that sell anything from household goods to hats and clothing) recently received a new bright pink facąde, there is little that can alter the uniqueness and chaotic history of this part of Jo’burg.
DONKIN STREET, PORT ELIZABETH
A more diminutive version than examples in the bigger cities of Cape Town or Johannesburg, but no less historically rich, Donkin Street is a series of newly renovated, original Victorian-style townhouses (there has been some question over the authenticity of the restoration as it went ahead without heritage approval). They stand directly across from the Donkin Reserve (originally proclaimed an ‘open space’ by the acting governor of the Cape Colony, Sir Rufane Donkin and known as the ‘balcony of the city’).
Donkin Street forms part of Art Route 67, a self-guided architectural tour of historical Port Elizabeth, and the Donkin Heritage Trail. Historical highlights of the road include the old lighthouse, a series of old Victorian churches, and a large pyramid built in memory of Donkin’s deceased wife. The whole street was declared a national monument in 1967.
LONG STREET, CAPE TOWN
Famous as the city’s bohemian haunt, and one of the oldest streets in the city, Long Street lies in Cape Town’s city bowl its Victorian-era buildings, complete with wrought-iron balconies, filled with second-hand book stores, antique stores, ethnic restaurants, trendy shops, backpackers, clubs and bars, the oldest mIssion church in the country (SA Sendinggestig Museum complete with the only surviving example of a steeply pitched lime-concrete roof), and the Palm Tree Mosque.
Any visitor to Cape Town will spend at least one morning, or evening, strolling its length, particularly the section from the junction with Buitensingel Street to Strand Street. From rooftop bars to the Purple Turtle (the iconic purple building on the corner of Shortmarket and Long Streets), through cosy cafés to quirky side streets, like Longmarket, this longest street in the inner city – reaching from the harbour up toTamboerskloof – is easily Cape Town’s most iconic.
VICTORIA EMBANKMENT, DURBAN
Another example of a long street that serves as something of a promenade for Durban, Victoria Embankment wraps right around the waterfront and presents wonderful views out over the bay. Also known as the Esplanade, and recently renamed Margaret Mncadi Avenue, the Victoria Embankment is a mishmash of original Victorian landmark buildings and more modern glass and concrete skyscrapers, once a rather swish and much sought after street address and built in 1897.
Various historical highlights include the Da Gama Clock (designed to mark the 400th anniversary of Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India) on the eastern end of the embankment; the national monument Dick King Statue (he of the 10-day legendary ride to Grahamstown when Durban was under siege); and the Durban Club, one of the only remaining original buildings of the embankment. But you will also find Wilson’s Wharf, the Maritime Museum and the BAT Centre worthy of a visit.
VILAKAZI STREET, SOWETO
Right in the heart of South Africa’s largest, and the world’s most famous, township (so big, it’s practically a city in its own right) Vilakazi Street is where Nelson Mandela spent the first couple of nights upon his release after 27 years of imprisonment, with his former wife, Winnie Mandela. Number 8115 Orlando West was also where he lived between 1946 and 1962. Since his release it has been converted into a museum, now known as Mandela House Museum – a popular stop for tourists and visitors to Johannesburg.
Just across the road from his home, is The Arch’s (retired Archbishop and social rights activist Desmond Tutu) residence. He still maintains a home here, and it has found its way onto most tours of Soweto. His role as ‘South Africa’s moral conscience’ means he is well loved the world over. Also visit Uncle Tom’s Hall, and the Hector Pieterson Museum.