Its mix of sticky humidity, golden beaches, and warm Indian Ocean bestows on Durban an exhilarating subtropical energy resulting in a kind of lush urban jungle where everything grows. Not only its unstoppable gardens and sugar cane plantations, but human creativity, too. The thick, salty air slows you down, relaxes you instantly, allowing new thoughts to bloom. It’s this that makes Durban not only a proven place to unwind, but also a wellspring of artists, musicians and designers – even if most of them quickly flee to make their fortunes in bigger hubs, like Cape Town and Johannesburg.
But climate isn’t alone in fostering Durban’s unique flavour. This is also a genuine melting pot, where African, European and Asian cultural influences have mingled to produce a city that’s quite unlike anywhere else. Take a look at our ultimate Durban guide for an insight into this dynamic city.
The sleep wake cycle
Situated right on the beach in Umhlanga Rocks (a holiday village-turned-suburb 15 minutes north of the city centre), The Oyster Box is among Africa’s ritziest seaside hotels. Blessed with indigenous gardens, an enormous collection of South African art, and colonial-era décor, the hotel also hosts Durban’s prettiest spa, in-house cinema, an elegant cocktail bar overlooking Umhlanga’s lighthouse, and gorgeous bedrooms – the best of which are close enough to the water to make you feel like you’re floating on the ocean.
Part of Umhlanga’s appeal is that it’s easy to walk straight up from the beach into the heart of its village, where there are legions of cafés, restaurants, and shops. Despite being known primarily for its string of resort-like beachfront hotels, Umhlanga (Zulu for “˜Place of the Reeds’; pronounced Oom-shlan-ga) was once part of a coastal dune forest, and still maintains a close connection with nature. Sections of its long, broad beach are bookended by rocks, creating tidal pools where it’s easier to keep an eye on children, and designated bathing areas are watched by lifeguards. All along, though, you’ll find lovely spots to wade, bodysurf and admire the distant horizon.
The O’Connor Promenade runs parallel to the beach and connects at least a dozen hotels. It’s good for a walk – continue north and you find yourself on boardwalks through a protected section of forest. The Umhlanga Lagoon Nature Trail crosses the Ohlange River towards the Umhlanga Lagoon; besides abundant birdlife, there are vervet monkeys (seen scarpering anywhere in the city where there are trees) and even little blue and red duiker.
The golden mile
Durban is raw and gritty in parts, and disarmingly unpretentious. Its beachfront is an especially colourful playground, making it a great city for families. To get an immediate sense of what makes Durban tick, get there at dawn. Washed by warm Indian Ocean waves, this sumptuous strip runs between the mouth of the Umgeni River and, at the southern end, Africa’s busiest harbour. Also called the Golden Mile (early Portuguese explorers described the “˜sands of gold’), it’s lined with a broad, paved promenade and is the city’s crowd-puller, with a non-stop buzz of bronzed surfers, sun-worshippers, first-time swimmers, fishermen, skateboarders, rickshaw-pullers, children brandishing soft-serve cones, and the multitudes who come to stare and share the sun. And, during the annual May-to-July “˜sardine run’, when the water teems with migrating fish (and a phalanx of predators – sharks, dolphins, whales, large seabirds), absolutely everyone descends to watch the boats returning with laden nets.
Cruising the promenade is a quintessential experience in our Durban guide. Hire a bicycle from The Bike & Bean or hop on a Segway, or simply stroll and weave between joggers, power-walkers, cyclists, and stragglers recovering from their night on the town.
You’ll experience a kind of time-warp -1960’s Miami – dotted with fairground rides, fast-food restaurants, a bustling skate park and public swimming baths, all overlooked by a high-rise wall of sea-facing hotels and apartments. And all of this activity happens against a backdrop of people splashing in freshwater public pools, bright-hued funfair carousels, and red bucket seats on cables sailing overhead.
Vendors sell Zulu curios from sidewalk pavilions and rickshaw pullers in feathered headdresses commandeer two-wheeled carts with tourist passengers. Look out, too, for Durban’s talented sand-sculptors, who fashion impermanent artworks in lieu of sandcastles, surviving off tips from passersby.
As you go, look for Shembe congregations – white-robed members of South Africa’s oldest indigenous African church – conducting ceremonies at the water’s edge, baptising acolytes in the breakers. You may glimpse traditional Zulu healers performing fascinating rituals on the beach, or Hindu devotees tossing offerings into the sea – all symbols of Durban’s wondrous multiculturalism. And, on the piers, daredevil surfers perform another sort of worship, studying the waves before diving in with their boards.
Sharks on show
Another way to start the day is on a boat trip conducted by the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board, a research facility responsible for preventing shark attacks. Commencing from Wilson’s Wharf (at 6:30am; must be booked in advance), the main aim of the trip is to see how the shark safety nets are checked by nimble-fingered meshing crews, but while you’re out there, you get commanding views of the city and the trip in and out of the harbour is just as awesome, surrounded by yacht, tugboats, and gigantic container ships. Out at sea, chances are you’ll see marine mammals and aquatic birds, too.
For braver souls, Aliwal Shoal, about 4km from Umkomaas, south of Durban, is considered one of the world’s best scuba-diving spots. Beginner diving courses are offered here, but the big highlight is diving among sharks (without a metal cage).
If you decide to spend the day at the beach, there are two worthy spots for lunch: On South Beach, Afro’s Chicken is one you can’t miss – it’s lodged in a canary yellow repurposed shipping container, with shaded al fresco seating. Famous for its grilled chicken and chips (advertised on the menu in the colloquial “˜tjips‘), it’s great for a casual meal (great coffee, too), or a pit stop – there are even handy racks to stow your surfboard (daily 7am-5pm).
The other is Surf Riders, a beach shack-themed restaurant, just metres from the beach. The casual-sounding menu translates into great-looking meals – gourmet burgers, wood-fired pizzas, seafood platters, and scrumptious breakfasts – plus there’s a really well-curated wine list that represents several of South Africa’s lesser-known regions and under-hyped estates.
Scenes on the street
From Hindu temples and fire walking, to the southern hemisphere’s largest mosque, directly across the road from Aboobaker Mansion (where Gandhi had his first law offices), Durban’s history is curious and colourful, and best explored with someone who can put it into perspective. Guides from Street Scene lead fascinating, info-packed tours of the city as well as outlying areas. These may include bunny chow (hollowed-out half-loaf filled with curry) feasts at Hotel Britannia, a recce of Gandhi sights, or township tours with lunch at an authentic shis’ nyama.
One must-do is a walk through the markets of Warwick Junction, a chaotic, supercharged inner-city transport interchange around which there are thousands of vendors. You’ll browse edible, wearable and bizarre curiosities, wander awestruck through the traditional apothecary, and brave the Bovine Head Market, where offal and unusual cuts of meat are served with a side of pap (maize porridge) and chillies. Especially tantalising is the Herb Market, overflowing with powders prescribed by traditional healers to treat every imaginable kind of ailment. They’re not only herbal, though. You’ll also see snakeskin, dried octopus, starfish, reptiles and bugs, along with roots, bulbs and tree bark – a vast pharmacopeia of animal and plant products.
The big basket
No Durban guide would be complete without mentioning Moses Mabhida Stadium, the basket-shaped football stadium that drew huge praise for its breathtaking design during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The stadium concourse connects effortlessly with the beachfront and there are guided segway tours of the stadium itself. To engage with Moses Mabhida in more exhilarating ways, though, sign up for Big Rush, a thrilling bungee jump that plunges you into a 60m freefall before you swing above the football pitch. You can also reach the top of the “˜basket handle’ – some 106m up – either by SkyCar or by climbing 500 steps; views from up there put all of Durban into exhilarating perspective.
Adjacent Moses Mabhida is Kings Park, the city’s rugby home, where local fans support their team – “˜the Sharks’ – with near-religious fervour.
On the first Saturday of each month, the place to be is I ª Market, one of several weekend food and craft markets that have sprung up across Durban in recent years. This one, set up on the Imbizo Lawns at the Stadium, is the best, with pop up shops, food trucks, and some of the best artisanal produce the city has to sell.
If people-watching is your vibe, few spots away from the beach can compare with the bustle of Florida Road in Morningside. Here, in close proximity to Mitchell’s Park, you’ll find Mark Gold, a slick jewellery store with in-house barista. Nearby is the local HQ and showroom of internationally acclaimed jewellery designer Kirsten Goss, who made her name in London, and lives in Durban.
At the lower end of Florida Road, you’ll rub shoulders with all kinds of Durbanites at everyone’s favourite Italian restaurant, Spiga d’Oro, which pumps all day with regulars, and has lured the likes of Bill Clinton and Bill Gates, both of whom have signed their names on the graffiti-covered walls.
Within walking distance of Florida Road, is Freedom Café, a daytime restaurant that spills out of an audaciously recycled shipping container in the leafy garden of The Concierge, a tiny, great-value boutique hotel fashioned from a cluster of heritage-listed bungalows, all imbued with designer interiors. The lack of beach views is balanced by easy access to urban life.
Based here, you’ll probably want to dip into Durban’s lively café scene, head for Judd Campbell’s inimitable Coffee Tree with its emphasis on ethically-sourced produce and good coffee.
In the same neighbourhood (Glenwood), in-the-know Durbanites stock up on fresh-from-the-oven baked goods from The Glenwood Bakery bread suppliers to the best restaurants in town (they also do deliciously creamy homemade ice-cream). Right next-door is parc., an excellent spot for laid-back lunch, with deliciously different salads and sandwiches listed on the chalkboard.
On nearby Gale Street, Colombo Coffee & Tea Co. is one of the oldest tea and coffee importers in South Africa, revived under a new generation of coffee evangelists and transformed into Durban’s favourite coffee brand, served in-house at their very own industrial-style Factory Café, a must-visit for coffee-addicts.
One of the best places to sample Durban’s famous curry, is the Oyster Box Hotel, where a nightly buffet includes the city’s best selection and the chance to eat to your heart’s content, seated on the terrace overlooking the twinkling sea. Back in Durban, Indian Connection is one of several dedicated Indian restaurants serving well-prepared Durban curries (crab curry is a favourite) in a prettily preserved colonial bungalow with palm trees in the garden.
Long at the forefront of Durban’s more inventive culinary scene is Café 1999, where chef Marcelle Roberts designs novel, contemporary, regularly-changing Mediterranean menus around sharing, with dishes divided not into starters and mains, but “˜titbits’ and “˜bigbits’.
A few doors down, Roberts also commands the kitchen at more relaxed Unity, Durban’s first gastro-pub, where garrulous crowds flock for the handcrafted Cowbell pilsner. The curries and bunny chows are as good as anything in the city, and the menu is strongly focused on sustainably reared meat.
The newest hub of sociability in our Durban guide is S43, which includes its own craft microbrewery, and serves tapas and street food, gourmet burgers, salads and seriously decadent milkshakes and homemade ice cream. The weekend bar vibe is quintessential “˜Durbs’.
Sundowners and late-nighters
If you’re feeling particularly sophisticated, the perfect sundowner spot is Umhlanga’s Lighthouse Bar at The Oyster Box. After sipping cocktails on lipstick red barstools, it’s a short walk downstairs to the hotel’s legendary curry buffet.
You could also start the evening by sinking cocktails at moyo uShaka Pier Bar, a glass-walled pagoda 100m out to sea at the end of a pier. Surrounded by water, with ships ebbing in and out of the adjacent harbour and surfers charging by, it’s a slightly surreal scene.
A little bit cult and a whole lot retro, the cocktail bar at the Roma Revolving Restaurant, high up on a building overlooking the harbour, has been spinning since 1973. The menu may not have evolved much, but the views of the glittering city below never grow old.
Wrap up the night with drinks and jazz at The Chairman, a speakeasy-style lounge-bar carved from a Victorian-era building in the former docklands red light enclave known as The Point. Or, simply pick up the late-night buzz on Florida Road, always jam-packed with revellers.
Virgin Atlantic operates daily flights to South Africa from London Heathrow. Book your flight to Johannesburg today and make your onward connection to Durban from there.
Have you been to any of the places in our Durban guide? Have we left any of your favourite city spots out? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Keith Bain