Durban is a beachside city in South Africa that boasts the continent’s busiest port. The Indian Ocean fringes the city limits, and the port has a Golden Mile of beachfront. Yet Durban remains more dynamic than your average beachside town.
Durban is renowned for being one of the most cosmopolitan cities in South Africa, and the term melting pot is not used lightly. Zulu, Indian and European Africans merge in this subtropical city; 60 percent of Durbanites are Zulu, the largest ethnic group in South Africa. Along the main precinct of Victoria Road, a mosque minaret meets a Catholic church spire above the bustling auspice of an Indian market.
The Zulu people originate from this province and changed the course of South African colonialism at the end of the 19th century under the reign of famed warrior King Shaka.
Durban is the gateway to some of South Africa’s scenic wonders, from the Drakensberg mountain range to the Valley of 1,000 Hills and the safari drives of Phinda Game Reserve.
Durban has several interesting museums if you’re interested in local art, history and culture. The Phansi Museum (pronounced “punzi”) is an impressive collection of Zulu and Ndebele artifacts in a restored Victorian mansion. The Campbell Collections at the University of KwaZulu-Natal offer a library of Africana literature and photos as well as displays of indigenous baskets, beadwork, musical instruments and more. The Natural Science Museum is worth a look to learn about local wildlife, while the KwaMuhle Museum explains the impact of apartheid on Durban.
PheZulu Safari Park is about a 30-minute drive outside the city, but it’s worth the trip for the authentic Zulu tribe experience. It begins with a dance and story performance in traditional costume. What sets the experience apart, however, is the view. Found in the Valley of 1,000 Hills, the park is one of the most scenic places in South Africa.
uShaka Marine World is one of South Africa’s most popular theme parks. Located on the coast, the park encompasses a large outdoor shopping mall, waterslide park and aquarium complete with sharks. The sharks are one of the main draws, as visitors can swim with them or stay dry and dine with them in a restaurant next to their tank.
The Valley of 1,000 Hills is an ideal drive to take away from Durban. Rent a car, or take an organized tour (such as these options from Viator) of this region, which boasts some of the most striking landscapes in South Africa. It’s not the dusty bush or plains you’d expect, but rather multiple hills that look to number a thousand from every angle. It makes for a manageable and striking road trip.
The Drakensberg mountain range is farther away than the Valley of 1,000 Hills, around two hours’ drive from Durban, and you’ll pass the 1,000 Hills region on your way. The mountains are stunning in their own right, but they also boast examples of ancient rock art created by San bushmen. The Drakensberg region is ideal for hiking and cycling.
The Umhlanga Rocks are about 20 minutes outside of Durban city, and they’re well worth the visit. A civilized beachside spot, it has a village feel with boutique shops as well as pubs and restaurants that spill onto the streets. The highlight is a stunning stretch of beach capped off with a lipstick-red and white lighthouse.
Phinda Game Reserve is an acclaimed safari experience that encompasses seven ecosystems, each drawing in different African wildlife, with five different lodges. It’s almost guaranteed that a safari first-timer can tick off some of the big five after a morning or afternoon game drive. The starts are early, around 5 a.m. We recommend staying at least a day and a half.
Want to hit the sand? South Beach is part of Durban’s Golden Mile and is an ideal place to set up for a day of family beach fun. It’s patrolled by lifeguards. If you’re looking to surf, try Dairy Beach, which is highly regarded by wave riders. It’s so good, in fact, that it hosts surfing competitions.
Durban has the highest expat population of Indians in the world, and the city’s food is a testament to this. Durban’s signature dish is the bunny chow, a hollowed-out white bread loaf filled with spicy curry. If you can’t handle the heat, ask for a mild version; most restaurants will be happy to adjust the spices.
Sundowners — alcoholic drinks imbibed as the sun sets — are a religion in South Africa. While there is no specific South African cocktail per se, anything that contains the creamy liquor Amarula offers an authentic taste of the country.
House of Curries, a local institution, is found on Florida Road, a wide street lined with bars and restaurants. It’s a casual eatery that belies the quality of its mini-bunny chows, served with three sides. There is also a chip chow: fries smothered in curry and cheese.
The Grill Room at the Oyster Box Hotel is a fine dining restaurant. The food is rich but high quality. Before or after your meal, be sure to spend time on the balcony of the bar in sunken cane chairs that overlook the beach and bright red lighthouse. Also try the oysters, sourced daily from their own oyster farm.
The Pot and Kettle is the place to go if you’re heading to the Valley of 1,000 Hills. There you’ll find comfort fare that’s uniquely South African — which includes a penchant for combining banana and bacon in toasted sandwiches and even salads.
Meat lovers should head to Joops Place, where the Dutch chef will grill or fry your steak to order as you watch. Reservations are highly recommended.
For fine dining in a relaxed atmosphere, take a look at 9th Avenue Bistro. You can try a fixed seasonal tasting menu or order a la carte. Be sure to leave room for dessert and for the local South African wines.
Shopping in Durban
Durban is one of the best places in South Africa to buy Zulu handicrafts, with a number of street markets and galleries. Foodies can browse for spices and curry powders in the Indian Quarter. And of course there are plenty of ultra-modern malls with big-name chains and designer boutiques.
Victoria Street Market is in Durban’s city center, and you’ll recognize it early, as it aspires to appear like a maharajah’s palace. While not exactly palatial, it’s as good for shopping as it is for people watching. It’s the place where the Indian, Zulu and Chinese communities come to buy and sell culturally specific wares. There’s a fresh produce market, a spice market and a craft market, called the “dry” market. If you’re looking for Zulu handicrafts, this is where to go; you’ll see drums, tribal masks, cane woven baskets, beaded jewelry and much more. Bargaining is actively encouraged.
The African Art Centre is a unique place to buy jewelry, ceramics, beadwork, baskets and other goods handmade by local craftspeople, many of whom are disabled, unemployed or living with HIV/AIDS and rely on the income they receive through the center. The shop is on Florida Road in Morningside.
If you’re in town on a Saturday, don’t miss the Essenwood Market, one of the city’s top flea markets. It’s a good spot to look for jewelry, food, clothing and other goodies.
Malls in Durban include the Pavilion Shopping Centre, with nearly 250 shops; the massive Gateway Theatre of Shopping, which boasts a movie theater, a skatepark, go-karts and mini-golf; and the upscale Musgrave Centre in the Musgrave suburb.
–written by Tara Harrison