Fun, sun, sand, surf, sea. Durban is the perfect example of big city life meeting the outdoors, thanks in part to the Indian Ocean that laps up against its and in part to the tropical weather that makes it an all-year-round holiday destination.
But Durban owes its existence and its success to the substantial natural bay that has been converted from a wild and lonely lagoon, home to huge numbers of fish, water birds, crocodiles and hippos, into Africa’s busiest port, and South Africa’s biggest. The bay was first entered by a ship, the Salisbury, by lieutenants James King and Francis Farewell in 1823. The following year, a trading house was established but it was only in 1835 that it was decided to establish a town here and to name it after Sir Benjamn D’Urban, then the governor of the Cape Colony.
These days, Durban is the third-largest city in South Africa, with large industrial and commercial centres and a booming tourism industry. Every school holiday sees droves of local tourists flock to the city, while international visitors have come to recognise Durban both as a destination in its own right and as a convenient gateway to the Drakensberg, the big-five reserves of Zululand and everything else that KwaZulu-Natal has to offer.
Durban might not be the de facto capital of KZN (Pietermaritzburg fills this role), but it certainly is in terms of commerce and population size. It is also something of a sporting hub, hosting the annual Comrades Marathon, the Dusi Canoe Marathon, provincial soccer, cricket and rugby matches, cycling races, surfing competitions and surf ski races, to mention just a few of the sporting codes represented here.
Every morning and evening, all year round, a stroll along the beachfront will reveal casual games of soccer, joggers running along the promenade, surfers, swimmers, and even a few souls doing yoga.
Despite the city’s modern feel, history abounds. Museums, monuments, art galleries and theatres are all worth visiting, as are the botanical gardens and the various markets.
Those looking for something a little different should pop into the Victoria Street market for a spicy shopping interlude, or the muti (traditional medicine) market at Warwick Junction for the chance to consult a sangoma (witchdoctor) or an inyanga (traditional healer) or just browse the incredible items on sale.
As with life in Durban, the hotel industry is centred on the beachfront, where there is a long line of international hotels. Smaller hotels, boutique hotels, bed & breakfasts, backpackers and even flats for hire are all available in Durban, catering for all tastes and budgets.
Getting around Durban is easier than many South African cities thanks to the people-mover bus system, but hiring a car will be necessary to explore the outlying areas.
Look out for
Bunny chows are a unique Durban meal consisting of a piece of bread hollowed out and filled with curry, then eaten with your hands. Every year a competition is held to find the best “bunny”, as they are known, and there are dozens of places where a phenomenal bunny can be enjoyed.
uShaka Marine World features a world-class aquarium, water rides, dolphin shows, scuba diving in tanks, snorkelling and tube rides. It is simply not to be missed.
Durban boasts kilometres of beaches just waiting to be enjoyed. You can surf, snorkel, hire a canoe, go for surfing or surf ski lessons, or just do the old-fashioned thing and laze on the beach and watch the world go by.
Markets abound in the Durban area, from the curio market on the beachfront to the relaxed little Essenwood market, the Shongweni farmers’ market and the Victoria Street Market in the centre of town. The latter offers a particularly unique experience of Indian spices and culture.
Mountain-bikers are well catered for in the Durban area. Giba Gorge is one of the best locations to test your skills and your fitness, and there is also a well-stocked bike shop and a charming restaurant.
Those in search of a bit of culture can take in shows at one of the theatres in town. The Playhouse is the grand dame of the theatre world and brings the bigger shows to Durban, while other venues for music, theatre and poetry include the Bat Centre, the Catalina Theatre and the university’s theatre.
Built for the 2010 Fifa soccer world cup, the Moses Mabhida Stadium is a beautiful piece of functional architecture. Time your visit to catch a local soccer game or take a ride in a skycar to the top of the stadium for an unforgettable view of the city. The wild at heart can do the stadium swing from the top of the stadium’s arch.
The Valley of a Thousand Hills is an area of great scenic beauty on Durban’s doorstep. A simple drive through the area is very enjoyable and there are all sorts of spots to stop to shop or eat. Traditional dancing and singing can also be experienced in the valley.
Hire a bike and cruise the beachfront. Stop in at a coffee shop or restaurant, or cycle to the end of the pier at uShaka Marine World for a sundowner at Moyo restaurant, the waves crashing below you. Another option is to hire a rickshaw for a colourful ride along the promenade.
Concerts are often organised for Sunday afternoons at the botanical gardens. Lounge on the lawns and listen to some of South Africa’s most popular bands. The orchid house is also worth visiting.
Watch rugby at Absa Stadium Kings Park, perhaps the most festive place in the world to do so. Supporters park their cars on the outlying fields, light a braai and party before and after the game. Live music entertains the crowd and the rugby players mingle after the game.