Durban is often ignored in favor of Capetown and Johannesburg, but this city by the beach is ready for the prime time.
While South Africa is most well-known for safaris and wine, South African cities are becoming destinations in their own right. Trendy Capetown is one of the hippest cities on earth right now, while Johannesburg is a sprawling metropolis that’s one of the five biggest cities in Africa and the 50 biggest cities in the world. But South Africa’s third largest city, Durban, is a fascinating and indescribable city by the beach that’s full of creative people and diverse cultures. There are Hollywood-chic boutique hotels, authentic Zulu culture, and rich Indian heritage that is best experienced through eating. With ruggedly beautiful beaches and easy access to South Africa’s off-the-beaten-path wilderness, Durban is a city that needs to be on every South African itinerary. Here’s how to make the most of your visit.
It’s impossible to visit South Africa without confronting the heartbreaking (and terrifyingly recent) history of the country. Make the KwaMuhle Museum in Durban one of your first stops. The museum, which tells the story of Durban’s history, is a grim look at apartheid and the hideous treatment of the African and Indian migrant workers and indentured laborers who built the city.
In 1893, a young Gandhi moved to South Africa and spent over 20 years in the country fighting discrimination. There are Gandhi-related sites and memorials all over South Africa, but there are a few notable sites in Durban and the surrounding area that shed light on his fascinating story. Phoenix Settlement, the onetime home of Ghandi, is located in the lush Valley of 1,000 Hills, about 45 minutes from the city.
Eat Bunny Chow
Durban is home to one of the largest populations of Indian people outside of India, and Indian culture has permeated the city. Just ask any local what the must-try dish is and they’ll all have the same answer: Bunny Chow. (It’s way harder to get them to agree where the best Bunny Chow can be found, however.) Made up of chicken or lamb curry stuffed into a hollowed-out loaf of bread and eaten with your hands, Bunny Chow is an Indian dish that’s unique to Durban.
Durban’s Victoria Street Market is an indoor maze of stalls selling traditional crafts and Indian spices. This is the place to come to buy the spices you need to make Bunny Chow at home.
Buy Herbs at the Medicinal Market
One of the most authentic experiences in Durban is a trip into the Medicinal Market, where you’ll be overwhelmed with sights, sounds, and smells you could never have imagined. Need an animal carcass to use for ancient rituals? You’ve come to the right place. Selling everything from animal skins and bones to live chickens, exotic reptiles, and brightly-colored herbs, this is this place to come to cure any mysterious ailment. Some vendors are friendlier to tourists than others, but if you’re looking for something to take home that you can actually get through customs, opt for some incense.
INSIDER TIPDo NOT take photographs of any of the healers or shop owners without their consent—it is extremely rude.
Go Bungee Jumping on the World’s Highest Swing
Every major city that intends to host a worldwide sporting event needs to take a page out of Durban’s book when it comes to creative reuse. Rather than let this $450 million-dollar stadium built for the 2010 World Cup languish, the city has turned it into a tourist attraction—even when there are no sports to be seen. At Moses Madhiba Stadium, brave tourists can don harnesses and climb to the top of the stadium, walk onto a tiny ledge, and freefall for 200 feet while swinging through the stadium. The jump is enough to make you let out an involuntary scream, but the swinging bit is pretty nice—from the top of the stadium, there are views all the way to the ocean and beyond.
INSIDER TIPAfter you’re done swinging, you’re hoisted back up to the tiny ledge from whence you jumped—this is not for wimps.
Stay in One of South Africa’s Coolest Beachside Hotels
North of Durban in the beachy suburb of Umhlanga, there’s a gem of a hotel: The Oyster Box, a tropical plant-covered boutique hotel perched on a cliff above the Indian Ocean. While the over-the-top colonial decor, art, and uniforms feel unnecessary and out of place (especially since the property is only around 60 years old) it’s still one of South Africa’s most luxurious hotels—just ask Khloe Kardashian and Nicki Minaj, who have both spent the night in the presidential suite (not together). The hotel feels both grand and cozy at the same time, with multiple pools, an indoor/outdoor setting, breathtaking ocean views, and white marble and palm trees galore.
INSIDER TIPIf you’d rather stay closer to the action, the newly renovated Hilton Durban is the best hotel downtown, with an excellent restaurant owned by South African celebrity golfer/chef/winery owner Ernie Els.
Take a Walk on the Golden Mile
Similar to South Beach in Miami or the Venice Boardwalk in L.A., Durban’s golden mile is a pedestrian-friendly stretch of urban beach that’s home to some of the city’s best people watching. Go shopping at the souvenir stalls, post up at a beachside cafe, or have a picnic while watching the waves. There’s even, oddly, a chairlift to nowhere that takes you above the palm trees lining the beach, running parallel to the coast and the magnificent art deco hotels and casinos lining the Golden Mile.
Learn About Zulu Culture
KwaZulu-Natal, the part of South Africa where Durban is located, is the heart of the Zulu kingdom and one of the best places to learn about South Africa’s largest indigenous population. At iSithumba Cultural Village, visitors can learn about Zulu culture in an authentic setting, walking around the village and meeting with a sangoma, a traditional healer. While the idea of visiting a poverty-stricken community as a relatively wealthy tourist may make you uncomfortable, iSithumba is a Zulu-owned business that employs locals and you get to learn from real members of the community while you hang out, buy a beer from the local market, and walk around.
Hang out in South Africa’s Hippest Neighborhood
The “Brooklynization” of the world may have you feeling weary of converted factories and cold-brew coffee, but Durban’s Station Drive Precinct is a refreshing take on urban renewal. In a former industrial area, Station Drive Precinct has been revitalized with all the hipster amenities, including a distillery, a vintage clothing store, a farmers’ market, a funky gift shop, a tattoo parlor, a brewery, a cafe, a florist, an art studio, and a creative coworking space. This is the creative hub of Durban, and it’s a great place to spend an afternoon eating, drinking, shopping, and meeting some of Durban’s most enterprising and creative locals.
INSIDER TIPFor a bit of South African humor, make sure to visit S43 Brewery for one of their comedy shows.
Drink Hipster Gin
Do not miss a cocktail, a gin tasting, or a snack at Distillery 031, an award-winning gin distillery located in Station Drive Precinct. Besides being an incredible loft-like space (and rooftop bar!) with delicious libations, it’s one of the best places in town to pick up a fun souvenir, like a bottle of absinthe made with local herbs.
Party Like a Local
If you eat at one restaurant in Durban, make it Max’s Lifestyle, a butcher shop/bar/beer garden/clothing store located in Umlazi, a 20-minute drive from downtown Durban. This outdoor nightclub and restaurant is what South African food is all about: Braai, or barbecued meat. But you’re not here for the food. You’re here for the bumping house music, the strong drinks, the buckets full of beer, and the endless dancing on any surface you can find. It’s hard not to enjoy yourself at Max’s Lifestyle.
INSIDER TIPThere’s an unspoken system and ritual of dining here that involves picking out your own meat and bringing it around back to the grill yourself, so go with a local or somebody who’s been before—otherwise, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb.
Head Out on the Open Ocean
With all of Durban’s cultural sites and museums, it’s actually pretty easy to forget that the Indian Ocean is right at your doorstep. Plan at least one day of ocean adventures, whether that’s snorkeling or diving at Aliwal Shoal. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to spot whales and dolphins. If you’re unlucky, the monstrous waves will make you seasick, so don’t eat a big breakfast.
See the Big 5 at a Luxury Safari Lodge
Just a few hours from Durban lies one of South Africa’s most magical private game reserves. &Beyond Phinda is comprised of five luxurious and intimate safari lodges situated in some of the most spectacular settings in South Africa. With two daily game drives for guests, Phinda has much more to offer than just the Big 5, with populations of black rhinos, cheetahs, and even sea turtles (in season). While the wildlife is the reason to visit, the lodges will make you never want to leave. The glass-walled cabins at Phinda Forest Lodge are straight out of a modern fairytale, with luxe linens, a deep soaking tub, and a private deck for enjoying sundowners.
Ride on a Historic Luxury Train
Rovos Rail, a vintage-inspired luxury train company, departs from the Durban train station for two-day journeys to Pretoria. Onboard, guests get wined and dined in style while the train meanders through the countryside, making stops at a ceramics gallery and two safari parks.