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City Guide: Durban, South Africa

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 always holiday time in Durban. Well, that’s what it feels like anyway! This coastal port city has over 300 days of sunshine per year and is one of South Africa’s best-loved holiday destinations. There’s so much on offer – great beaches, funky restaurants, Zulu culture and heritage, shop-til-you-drop markets and a range of accommodation and activities to keep you busy all day long.

Durban’s promenade buzzes with life. This really is where it all happens – from families licking ice-creams on a hot day and small kids riding on plastic motorbikes (or just running around) to tweens and teens on rollerblades, skateboards or J-boards or even couples sitting on a bench watching the waves and the people. Stretching into the distance are high-rise hotels and holiday apartments – with the Golden Arch of the Moses Mabidha stadium making its presence felt from afar. In the foreground, miles and miles of coastline filled with swimmers, bathers and artists crafting works in the sand.

Don’t miss out on buying curios along the pavement from the street sellers, or spices at the Indian markets. Learn to surf or boogie board at one of Durban’s many excellent beaches and, if all else fails, the public pools provide hours of fun for everyone. Make sure you visit some of the city’s fabulous restaurants like Freedom Cafe. A trip to the yacht club is also a great idea and sipping on a cocktail with a view of the sun setting over the palm trees should be compulsory on any trip to Durbs.

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.

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.

For those who live in KwaZulu-Natal, the list of fun activities and latest chill spots is never-ending. So here’s your guide on what to do, where to go and how to make the best of your time in beautiful KZN:

City Guide – Durban, South Africa

Getting there 

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.

When to go 

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.

Language

Currency & Costs

Safety tips

Getting around – Local transport to use eg. Uber, Taxis, Tubes etc

Mobile phone & Internet access – How to connect and stay connected

 

What to eat 

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

Where to eat

Hillcrest and surrounds

The Shongweni Farmer’s Market began in 1998 and has grown immensely since I accompanied my gran to the fresh produce stalls as a young girl. It now boasts over 150 stalls in the open field venue every Saturday. With everything from art to clothing and the freshest food, it’s no wonder Durbanites head to Shongweni for their shopping fix. Be sure to check out the list of stalls and plan your car boot space accordingly.

The Durban Shongweni Club is a hotspot for KZN’s horse-riding community and is also an up-and-coming venue for Durban events. The Saddle Inn restaurant is great for a quick bite to eat while you enjoy equestrian events, live music or whatever else the club has on offer that day.

Named after the Roman wolf goddess, Lupa Osteria Restaurant has become a firm dining favourite for residents in Hillcrest. It has a vast Italian-inspired menu and a noteworthy cocktail and wine selection. My personal favourite  is the chicken escalope with lemon, white wine and cream sauce. It also has branches in Westville and Durban North.

Bellevue Café in Kloof has always been a favourite tea spot for me, especially with its fresh pastries and cakes. The menu, however, extends to other meals with a focus on artisan foods and good flavours. Even with its modern design, the atmosphere at Bellevue is easy-going and welcoming.

Overlooking KZN’s Valley of 1000 Hills, The Pot and Kettle Family Restaurant is just that: a beloved family gathering spot. The restaurant has been going strong for over 21 years. Situated along the Comrades route and with some of the best views in the province, this cosy jaunt is definitely worth a visit.

 

Umhlanga and surrounds

Not only is The Oyster Box a fantastic place to stay for some of Durban’s most beautiful seaside views, it’s also a wonderful place to spend the afternoon. Multiple dining options meet the needs of any traveller, but it’s the traditional afternoon teas that really excite. The spa also has an extensive treatment menu and emphasises luxury.

For those looking for a less jam-packed shopping experience, La Lucia Mall is a great alternative to Gateway Theatre of Shopping – although Gateway has some exciting international stores like Lush and Topshop. La Lucia Mall, although smaller, has everything a shopper needs – from clothing to deli food – and is dotted with boutique stores. There’s also a Virgin Active on the grounds (I’ve spotted a few Sharks rugby players working out there) and the park just behind it is great for dog walking.

Most visitors to Durban flock to North Beach or to the Umhlanga Main Beach, but La Lucia Beach is a quiet haven that often slips under the radar. This tranquil beach is a good option for those looking for a quiet afternoon by the sea. It’s just a short drive from La Lucia Mall, so planning a full day in the area is easy to do.

The Dutch in Umhlanga is a unique music and tapas bar that combines sophisticated dining with high-quality entertainment. It’s so much more than an events venue and is sure to get foodies and wine-lovers excited. With a fine cocktail selection and great weekend line-ups, The Dutch is one to watch.

Durban and Morningside

There are branches of Afro’s Chicken Shop situated all over Durban, making for an easy on-the-go meal in a number of areas. The great thing about Afro’s is that you’ll find all of your typical South African favourites on one menu. Think chicken strips and chips, cleverly labeled “strips and tjips” to bacon and egg rolls and ice-cream cones with flakes. The second great thing about Afro’s is the prices.

Owners Graham and Gina Neilson bought their travels to life in the form of 9th Avenue Bistro, a favourite for Durban’s foodies. The venue is full of modern design and the menu boasts creative takes on classic dishes; yet the bistro’s vibe is laid-back and unpretentious.

The Chairman is a trendy jazz bar located in the point precinct of Durban. It can easily be missed if you’re not looking for it, but that’s part of its charm. The venue has an exclusive, almost secretive element to it. The Chairman is a celebration of South Africa’s art scene and plays host to top jazz artists. This is a visually compelling hotspot for jazz-lovers and those yearning for a memorable experience.

Located on the popular Lilian Ngoyi Road, Love Coffee is a quirky and casual coffee bar. Their beverages are innovative and unique and they have a great selection of eats for diners with vegetarian and vegan requirements. What stands out most for this hot coffee company is their vintage-style mobile Kombi which shares their roasted delights across Durban, popping up at hot events.

The Boiler Room Café is 9th Avenue Bistro’s little sister which does excellent breakfasts and lunches. Located in the iconic Lion Match Factory Office Park, just a few minute’s drive from the ICC, this café is an ideal spot for a quick meal between presentations. It also hosts themed pop-up nights.

 

Where 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

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

Where to go 

The Golden Mile

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.

Moses Mabhida Stadium

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.

Ricksha Rides

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

The Gateway

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.

 

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