When imagining your first — or next — trip to South Africa, where does Durban rank in immediate interest compared to Cape Town or Johannesburg? Indeed, the two mighty cities are the more sought-after destinations, yet certain facets suggest Durban should be third to none. Gorgeous beaches here are blessed with warm, swimmable Indian Ocean water — unlike the frigid Atlantic currents surrounding Cape Town — and the tourist attractions on offer, which include a world-class aquatic theme park, are considerably more family-friendly than those in Johannesburg. Durban has also trumped its popular sister cities on 2015’s Quality of Living survey, and remains the best bargain destination of the three.
Durban is a cosmopolitan soup of three million people, with a strong Zulu heritage melded with Indian culture — Durban has the most overseas Indians of any city in the world. Those in the know visit for the year-round pleasant weather, curry-spiced cuisine, an outstanding world-class beachfront, and an unhurried, friendly atmosphere. Grossly underrated as it may have been before, hosting the 2010 FIFA Games brought the spotlight it deserves. Finally, it’s no longer a secret that Durban is a destination worth adding to your South African itinerary.
Where to Stay
The post-industrial Three Cities Waterfront Hotel and Spa leads the Durban Point area’s gradual facelift, and is conveniently located moments away from some of the city’s prime beachside attractions. The 83-room hotel also hosts Wodka, a trendy New York-style restaurant that has become a haunt for discerning locals. For something quirkily hip, The Concierge offers design-led boutique bungalows situated near Florida Road, Durban’s “it” strip of dining and nightlife. The fairly new hotel delivers fun, eclectic luxury at a tremendous value, and has become an instant hit with travelers — especially young millennials — over the last few years.
After your hotel breakfast, start your day on the Ricksha Bus, a thorough three-hour city tour for under a tenner. Leaving at 9 a.m. at North Beach, Durban newcomers hop aboard the topless double-decker bus and receive a live, guided overview of city’s major sights, neighborhoods, and attractions. You’ll be able to see the pretty (Golden Mile beachfront, trendy Florida Road), the gritty (downtown/central business district), and many other points of interest. If you’d rather take the afternoon ride, it leaves at the same meeting point at 1 p.m.
Before hitting Durban’s top-rate beaches — and/or their marine theme park — sit for lunch and drinks on North Beach at Circus Circus Beach Café, a popular pit-stop along the gorgeous beachfront promenade. There’s plenty of alfresco seating to view surfers and other beachgoers while enjoying your meal. Selections are plentiful and eclectic (burgers, seafood, flatbreads, and international selections), portions are generous, and value is spot-on.
From Circus Circus, sand and ocean is but a promenade away. Wander or laze as you’d like along the Miami-esque Golden Mile, an unbelievably long crescent-shaped stretch of golden beaches, hotels, and restaurants. Sunbathe, surf, take a walk on the piers, or hire one of the flashy rickshaw operators at the ready to give you a hopping good time down the promenade.
Mind your time, however, if you want to visit uShaka Marine World, an enormous water park and entertainment complex prime for sightseeing, dining, and “slip and sliding.” Walk through the oversized Zulu hut replicas to shop and dine in the uShaka Village Walk, and proceed to uShaka Sea World, where you’ll find the world’s fifth-largest aquarium. Check the times listed in bulletins around Sea World so you can catch an amphitheater-style seal, dolphin, or penguin show, or watch shark or reef predator feeds from the safe confines of the aquarium. Travelers wanting to make a splash will delight in uShaka Wet ’n Wild, a world-class waterpark with rides like Jika Jika, a family rafter for the tame, and Drop Zone — the Southern Hemisphere’s tallest free-fall water slide — for those who prefer the insane.
After you’ve dried yourself off, go upscale without the expense at the Panorama Bar and Pool Deck, a chic restaurant and lounge at Elangeni Hotel with spectacular high-rise views of the ocean and coastline. Though the menu offers light bites and familiar entrées, Panorama’s a great starting point to try a bunnychow, a definitive Durban food favorite. Speaking much to the Indian influences on South African cuisine, Panorama’s bunnychow is a “mini loaf” (traditionally, a hollowed quarter loaf of white bread) stuffed with a lamb, beef, or bean and potato curry with a zingy assortment of sambals. It’s a filling dish that will set you back less than $6 USD.
Start your second day at the massive Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban’s instant icon built for the FIFA World Cup 2010 games. Even if you’re not into visiting sports venues, the featured attractions and impressive scale are sure to pique your interest. The SkyCar rolling along the stadium’s exterior arch will take you 347 feet above the city, delivering an all-encompassing view of the skyline, coastline, and Drakensburg Mountain range tens of miles in the distance. For the intrepid, try your luck at Big Rush, the Guinness Book of World Record holder for world’s tallest swing. Housed completely inside the cavernous stadium, the 288-foot-tall swing will swoop you in a 721-feet arc spanning the length of the venue. If you’d rather stay a bit grounded, their Stadium Tour would suffice… peek into locker rooms used by star soccer players, and step onto the field and imagine 65,000 spectators jubilating at your presence.
Mini Day Trip Options
There are plenty of worthy attractions beyond Durban’s compact city center, and it’s worth a quarter-to-half-day trip to venture out even if on a short visit. If you’re not driving, enlist one of Durban’s many knowledgeable tour operators, such as Ntandokazi Tours, to guide you around. History buffs should hit the winding Inanda Valley and experience the Inanda Heritage Route (also named Woza eNanda). The KwaZulu-Natal province has done an excellent job preserving and curating significant historical sites and artifacts in the region. Tourists will soon realize Cape Town and Johannesburg aren’t the only important cities for major sociopolitical events in South Africa; it was at a high school in this Durban suburb where Nelson Mandela famously cast his vote in the nation’s first democratic election in 1994, and where Mahatma Gandhi lived and kick-started his passive resistance movement.
Not a history buff? You might prefer to visit the PheZulu Safari Park, an attraction-rich park dramatically set atop the — quite literal — Valley of a Thousand Hills. There are soft-core safari drives at their Game Park where you may spot wildebeests, giraffes, and zebras along the valley’s lush hills; displays and daily shows with deadly snakes and ravenous crocodiles at the Reptile Park; and, at the PheZulu Village, you can experience the region as a villager by exploring traditional thatched family huts and participating in a lively outdoor Zulu dance performance with the breathtaking valley as the backdrop. If at any point you’re feeling peckish, the park’s Boma Restaurant has burgers, traditional eats, and even crocodile dishes with sweeping views of the hills.
For a truly authentic (and carnivorous) South African township dinner/lounge experience, one ought to head to a shisa nyama (isiZulu for “burn meat”) where locals congregate at butcheries and enjoy several tasty barbecued meats with deep house beats and a jovial atmosphere. Max’s Lifestyle in the Umlazi township is perhaps the most popular and tourist-friendly in Durban, featuring a massive covered patio area with plenty of tables and locals; it’s at its liveliest on Sundays. Best with a group, pick your meats (steaks and sausages are a must), wait for the staff to “braai” — or barbecue — the meats for you, pick up your drinks, and enjoy a truly unique dining experience.
A completely different alternative to Max’s Lifestyle’s fresh meats and beats is Market, one of central Durban’s most innovative and celebrated restaurants. Market is tucked unassumingly behind an upscale gift and homeware shop, which shares the same romantic, classic European courtyard. Like nearly all Durban restaurants and attractions, Market is an excellent value for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — their ever-changing menu features starters such as twice-baked butternut soufflé topped with caramelized onions and gorgonzola drizzle, and mains such as herb-rubbed beef rump or open ravioli with butternut creamy cashew nut and honey sauce. Their separate casual plate line-up is more imaginative… think prawn, tomato, and baby spinach tagliatelle, or pan-fried calamari, quinoa, feta red pesto, and macadamia salad.
No nightlife enthusiast should miss the chance to stroll along Florida Avenue, Durban’s more low-key, civilized answer to Bourbon Street. You’ll find attractive restaurants, coffee shops, and bars galore in this trendy stretch, where the buzz lasts from morning to late. Go to SideBar for cocktails with a Lower Manhattan vibe, Spiga for the city’s most beloved Italian fare, explore pub culture at Dropkick Murphy’s, or dance the night away at the fun and flirty Cubana Havana Lounge.