While Johannesburg is sophisticated and Cape Town is Euro-chic, Durban is pure African exuberance.
It’s a heady multicultural melting pot built around vibrant beach life, buzzing hotspots and gorgeous scenery bathed in heat and humidity that make even the famous local curries seem tame in comparison.
It’s an open-air lifestyle of sun, sea, sand, picnics, parties and pleasure. But it wasn’t always this way.
Durban is surrounded by historic sites where epic battles played out between the Zulus, British and Afrikaners, as they fought to control this prime location. Today the colourful blend of those vastly different cultures is enhanced by the influence of Indians who first arrived to work on the sugarcane plantations.
King Shaka International airport has a shuttle bus service and taxis into the city. The city itself is walking distance size, but hiring a car is a sensible option since public transport is not always the most reliable.
Durban is at its finest in winter from June to August, where temperatures average a balmy 24 degrees Celsius. In summer temperatures hit 30 degrees and the humidity can make you feel like you’re having a personal sauna. It’s best to avoid December when school holidays see the masses converge on the beaches. Autumn and spring (April to May and September to November) are perfect times to visit for fabulous weather and fewer tourists.
TOP ATTRACTIONS & HIGHLIGHTS
The Golden Mile
If you hate chilly seas, you’ll love Durban’s temperate waves of Indian Ocean. Yet even the waves can get a little exuberant, making the area fabulous for surfers.
The Golden Mile is a wide promenade stretching from uShaka Marine World to the Umgeni River. You can hire equipment or organise lessons for all kinds of watersports, or just admire the spectacular sand sculptures that have become a tourist attraction themselves. Sharks also like the toasty temperature, but shark nets and lifeguards are there to protect you.
KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board
If you want to know what the Sharks Board is protecting you from, visiting its centre a little further up the coast is a real eye-opener. The board operates bather safety gear at 38 beaches, and visitors can join a 6.30am boat tour to see the staff service the shark safety gear. Later risers can catch the shark dissections instead, which may bring home the damage humans are doing, as their stomachs tend to contain all kinds of plastic junk. Tel: 031 566 0400.
uShaka Marine World
This world-class aquarium and water entertainment centre guarantee wet and watery fun for all ages. Wet ’n Wild has a variety of thrilling water slides, Dangerous Creatures introduces you to snakes and reptiles, and you can feed a ray or take a shark dive. There are restaurants and a shopping area too.
Built for the 2010 Fifa World Cup, Durban’s football stadium is a glorious piece of architecture that comes with inbuilt thrills of more than the leather ball variety. You can bungee jump from its 106m tall arch, take the 550-step adventure walk up to the viewing platform (or catch the Skycar to glide upwards*) for the finest panorama of the city and the sea. You can tour the stadium too to see what goes on behind the scenes.
Avoiding sunburn is a good tactic, but don’t visit Durban without trying some mouth burn. The city is famous for its curries, and battles rage about which restaurant serves the best. For something more casual and totally wacky, try a bunny chow – half a loaf of bread with the middle scooped out and filled with curry. It honestly tastes better than it sounds. One superb curry restaurant is the Capsicum at the Brittania Hotel, built in 1879 and an attraction in itself. 1299 Umgeni Road. Tel: 031 303 2266
You can’t miss the flamboyant human-pulled carts that line the beachfront’s Golden Mile. If you do miss them, don’t worry, they’ll come and find you anyway. Durban men don’t bother with a horse, they’re strong enough to pull you along themselves, in passenger carts each more garishly decorated than the last. Truth be known, sometimes the Zulu charioteers are just as happy to pose for photos as to actually pull you anywhere in this heat. Expect to tip for that photo!
The Ricksha Bus
Durban’s open-top double-decker tourist bus is named after the unusual man-powered rickshaws, but uses a more traditional form of fuel. It runs three-hour tours twice a day, and it’s the best way to orientate yourself. The commentary gives a broad overview of Durban, its history and cultural landscape. It leaves from the Tourist Information Centre on OR Tambo Parade at North Beach. Tel: 031 368 1253
5 OF THE BEST – GREAT PLACES TO STAY
The Oyster Box
The beautiful coastline at Umhlanga attracts the beautiful people, and boasts some of the area’s priciest accommodation too. The Oyster Box hotel has 86 luxurious rooms and suites and a handful of rather special restaurants. The Ocean Terrace restaurant lives up to its name with ocean views and tandoori and pizza ovens to prepare favourite dishes that everyone agrees are worth the price and the drive. Tel: 031 514 5000
Freedom Café is a funky spot with a casual restaurant set up in a shipping container at 37-43 St Mary’s Ave, Greyville. Tel: 031 309 4434
It seems rather incongruous given that its neighbours are some gloriously restored Victorian cottages that form the stylish and quirky Concierge Boutique Bungalows for an unusual place to stay. Tel: 031 309 4453
The St James On Venice
This five-star boutique hotel is a delightful spot where old-world charm still makes room for all the mod cons expected by discerning travellers. What sets the hotel apart is its friendly atmosphere and attentive staff. www.stjamesonvenice.co.za
Southern Sun Elangeni & Maharani
If you want to be where the action is, the Southern Sun Elangeni & Maharani is right by the beaches and the nightlife, has spectacular views and a spa, three swimming pools and a collection of cocktail bars and restaurants. You might have so much fun there that you forget to go outside. Tel: 031 362 1300
The massive Gateway doesn’t bill itself as a shopping centre, but as a theatre of entertainment. There are shops and restaurants, of course, but also cinemas, a theatre, go-karts, the Wave House surfing centre and an XD Theatre where your electronically controlled cinema seat lets your body take part in the action! The perfect place to spend a day and keep the kids fully entertained.
Warwick Street Market
This popular hangout isn’t merely a market, but a cluster of nine different markets making up the whole. It started when Indian labourers began trading on the pavements, and it’s grown into a vibrant melee that even has walking tours with trained guides to share its history and make sure you don’t get lost. But getting lost is half the fun, as you wend through odd and aptly named areas like the Bovine Head Market and the Bead Market. Tel: 031 309 3880
Sundowners And Stars
There’s no agreement about which of Durban’s high-rise viewpoints is best for cocktail hour, so you’d better try them all. The Southern Sun Elangeni on the Golden Mile is a popular watering hole, and the Roma Restaurant on Margaret Mncadi Avenue has the added attraction of revolving. So if you suspect the scenery is moving, you don’t need to blame the booze.
All At Sea
Don’t just look at the sea from the city, look at the city from the sea. There are plenty of choices for boat trips, including sunset cruises, quick jaunts around the harbour or deep sea fishing expeditions. Head to Wilson’s Wharf to see what’s available.
Hills And Valleys
For a cool day out, the Valley of 1000 Hills offers gorgeous views and a more temperate climate. You can take a full day tour to see a traditional healer, women making beadwork, traditional houses and Zulu music and dancing. After the fun you may want to visit an orphanage to remind you that South Africa comes with its social issues too.
Dive, Dive, Dive
Durban’s scuba divers head to Aliwal Shoal for a spectacular marine ecosystem of colourful corals, ragged-tooth sharks, turtles, whales, rays and moray eels. Zambezi and tiger sharks may also appear in the warm, clear water that has excellent visibility. Aliwal is rated among the top five warm water diving spots in the world. There are wreck dives too, with the sunken MV Produce and The Nebo harbouring lionfish and the rare harlequin goldie.
The Fish That Run
The annual Sardine Run is an incredible natural phenomenon, in which enormous shoals of sardines migrate up the coast, followed by foraging dolphins, sharks, whales, game fish and diving seabirds. The sardines are often driven into shallow water by their predators, where eager fishermen scoop them up.