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City life: Durban

A beach resort, gritty metropolis and bastion of vibrant Zulu culture. More than just a post-safari seaside stop-off, the South African coastal gem is on the rise

City life: Durban

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“Durban is a no-good town,” warns my driver as he speeds through the city centre’s sticky streets. He refuses to let me out at ramshackle markets, downtown museums and burgeoning urban hipster hubs. Instead, he wants me to look at the suburbs’ many shopping malls, the corporate names in Umhlanga Ridge’s business park and high-end hotels with multi-storey car parks.

This is a tale of two cities and my aspirational chauffeur is showing me what he thinks Western tourists want to see. But, while glossy shopping centres and big-budget theme parks are a welcome sign of investment, he’s so down on his hometown, he doesn’t give me the lowdown on downtown.

Sure, Durban is something of a snaggle-toothed cousin compared with picture-perfect Cape Town. Nevertheless, 830,000 international tourists come here each year, as a punctuation mark on Michael Caine-inspired trips to real-life historic Zulu battlefields, or as a beach break at the end of a South African safari.

With its long stretches of beach, Durban is a domestic holiday hotspot for visiting Capetonians in search of warm Indian Ocean waters protected by Africa’s only shark nets. But, while Cape Town boasts European ostentation in a polished Australasian-style setting, underrated Durban is genuinely multicultural and authentically African. The largest Indian community outside of India provides the city’s trademark cuisine, while the vibrant inner-city markets reveal its Zulu roots.

Kicking off with the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which inspired the city’s waterfront redevelopment of outdoor pools, play parks and a modern promenade, the city is on the brink of a renaissance. And as businesses and staff relocate from traffic-clogged Johannesburg to its northern suburbs, thanks to workforce logistics and a better pace of life, significant investment can be seen across the glitzy neighbourhoods of Umhlanga, Morningside and Durban North, all newly landscaped and developed as shopping and entertainment hubs. It’s here, rather than downtown (which is something of a ghost town at night), that offers the best accommodation options and even after-hours fun. Florida Road in Morningside provides Miami-style nightlife for local revellers, while Umhlanga is more geared towards expats and the holiday crowd.

Meanwhile, young entrepreneurs are beginning to realise the city’s new potential and former Durbanites are increasingly returning to their abandoned stomping grounds. Downtown’s industrial edifices are slowly being reclaimed by craft breweries, artisan food markets and boutique distilleries. In Greyville, you can eat avocado on toast in a repurposed shipping container, or sip soya flat whites in a bicycle hire shop in Stamford Hill — what could be more inexplicably du moment?

City Hall, which houses  a selection of  heritage museums. Image: Teagan Cunniffe

City Hall, which houses a selection of heritage museums. Image: Teagan Cunniffe

See & do

Moses Mabhida Stadium: To get a literal overview of the city and its northern suburbs, head to Moses Mabhida Stadium. Built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, this multi-purpose arena has much to offer besides sporting events. On the north side of the building’s iconic arch, the SkyCar funicular carries visitors to a viewing platform at the stadium’s 348ft apex, offering an unparalleled panorama. To the south, guests are afforded the opportunity to trudge up to the top via 550 steps. If you don’t fancy the schlep back down, you can instead plummet from its summit and soar above the pitch on the bungee-inspired Big Rush Big Swing.

The Golden Mile: A best-case scenario for South African society plays out on the Durban beachfront every weekend. Explore the Golden Mile on a Saturday morning where a culturally and socio-economically diverse crowd comes to surf, skate, busk and set up stall. At around four miles long, a great way to properly explore the misnomered Golden Mile is by hiring a bicycle from the foot of Moses Mabhida Stadium or the Bike & Bean cafe nearby and riding along the promenade.

Durban City Hall: Although it’s a near-identical replica of Belfast City Hall, Durban’s neo-baroque knock-off has the added extra of some great museums squirrelled within it. It’s home to the Natural Science Museum, a public library and the Durban Art Gallery, while The Old Courthouse Museum, which offers insight into Durban’s colonial history, is located just behind it, making it a perfect landing place for a whistle-stop culture fix.

Sharks Board boat tours: Visitors seeking a more legit wildlife trip than uShaka Marine World — Durban’s elaborate aquarium and theme park — should head out on a dawn boat ride with the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board Maritime Centre of Excellence. The KZNSB is in charge of keeping the coastline’s 37 beaches safe by maintaining the region’s extensive network of shark nets protecting surfers and swimmers from the perceived threat of Great Whites. Guests can watch staff tag and release trapped sharks, and liberate the variety of other marine life that sometimes gets snagged.

Durban botanical gardens: It’s worth taking a stroll here to see the prehistoric plants (its collection of endangered cycads) and orchids for which these gardens, the oldest on the continent, are most famous. However, the highlight for most visitors seems to be the tearooms’ celebrated scones, served with jam and cream. Big kids and little squirts are particularly overjoyed to be armed on entry with water pistols, so those quick-on-the-draw can use their sharp shooting skills to keep cake-thieving monkeys at bay.

Local traders filling Durban’s markets just outside the inner city. Images: Teagan Cunniffe

Local traders filling Durban’s markets just outside the inner city. Images: Teagan Cunniffe

Buy

Victoria Street Market: The epicentre of the markets at Warwick Triangle, Victoria Street is a bustling indoor Indian bazaar, the place to come for spices, incense, brassware, ceramics, silks, garments and curios. But leave your valuables in your hotel.

Gateway Theatre of Shopping: The Gateway shopping mall, located in Umhlanga, is the largest in the southern hemisphere, with over 400 shops, 70 restaurants, 18 cinemas screens and an IMAX theatre. Plus, all sorts of adrenalin-filled activities.

Shoppe: The cool kids at Shoppe curate locally produced art, quirky designs, offbeat textiles, lighting and books, as well as the homewares that hip Durbanites are going potty for.

RoofTop Night Market: Head to level five of the Musgrave Centre’s car park on the first Friday of every month from 5pm-9.30pm. Bop to live music while you shop for local gems.

Like a local

The Herb Market: Just a stone’s throw from Victoria Street Market, the pungent, kaleidoscopic herb market is a sensory smash-and-grab. Merchants caked in red pigment (a natural sunscreen) sell shamanic fare, from herbs to purple, powdered potions, used by the on-site sangomas (traditional healers). Take a guide, keep your wits about you and commit it to memory — tourists are viewed with suspicion and photos don’t come for free.

A sign of the times: Getting around Durban can be daunting for tourists. In 2007-08, the council controversially renamed many roads after partisan political figures, and many have recently been changed again. Confusingly, most locals still use the original names…

 

A brightly coloured beach bar next to uShaka Marine World. Image: Teagan Cunniffe

A brightly coloured beach bar next to uShaka Marine World. Image: Teagan Cunniffe

Eat

CaneCutters: You can’t come to Durban and not eat a bunny. The bunny chow is the city’s take on the sandwich. A hollowed out, half- or quarter-loaf of white bread filled with curry, it’s said to be how Indian sugar cane workers carried their vegetarian curry out to the fields — though its origins are shrouded in myth and legend. Nowadays, it’s popular served with mutton and chicken too, but pop into the best-bunny-award-winning CaneCutter’s in Glenwood for a ‘beans bunny’; it’s the definitive experience. T: 00 27 31 201 1603

Distillery 031: As the name implies, this place has a fantastic selection of craft spirits on offer, from Brazilian-style cachaça made from abundant, locally grown sugar cane, to gin infused with Durban’s idiosyncratic botanicals. You’ll want to try them all though, so do soak up those spirits with a little help from the carb-heavy menu of Asian-fusion soul food. Offbeat highlights include pickled onion bhajis, deep-fried truffled mac & brie cheese, and burgers drenched in katsu sauce or gochujang ketchup.

The Ocean Terrace: A curry buffet really doesn’t sound like your usual high-class option, but the Ocean Terrace’s daily (and nightly) Indian feast at The Oyster Box hotel in upmarket Umhlanga Rocks is celebrated the city over. Exotic curries are served with unusual sauces and pickles, and the usual pints of lager can certainly be eschewed in favour of expert wine pairings.

After hours

S43: Before sampling the food and cocktails at Distillery 031, craft beer fans should start their evening downstairs with drinks at S43. Home to That Brewing Co, you can get the lowdown on the intoxicating contents of those on-site vats by taking a tasting flight or sampling a few pints of small-batch beverages.

Spiga Bar: An annex to the delightful Italian cafe next door, Spiga Bar is a cool but unpretentious place to chill out, right in the heart of the pulsating Florida Road nightlife scene. Distinctly laid-back compared to its neighbours, with a culturally diverse clientele, this is a top spot for a relaxed date or people watching. T: 00 27 31 303 9511

Havana Music Café: Durban’s townships have spawned the city’s very own dance genre, gqom, an onomatopoeic Zulu word emulating the sound of a drum. Composed of droning, hypnotic, minimalist, lo-fi loops, and spliced with twitchy vocal samples over off-kilter drum beats, it sounds like David Lynch doing house music. This is one of the more easygoing clubs to experience it in its place of birth. T: 00 27 31 301 1406

Sleep

Napier House: This friendly little B&B,
in a peaceful location near the Botanical Gardens, is great value for money, while pulling off a boutique hotel vibe. An old colonial home, Napier House offers five, bright, clean and tastefully decorated en suite rooms, secure parking and a swimming pool. Don’t miss the brilliant breakfasts.

Quarters: Located in Morningside’s celebrated Florida Road, this is a great spot for night owls and those who like to be close to the action. Glamorous yet understated, fashionable yet refined, Quarters manages to combine a sleek stay with home comforts. For a similar feelin a more sedate setting, try Teremok in Umhlanga.

The Oyster Box: The grandest of all Durban’s hotels, the Oyster Box offers beachfront access, three fine-dining restaurants and upmarket Umhlanga’s top spot for a sundowner: the rooftop Lighthouse Bar, overlooking the coast. Next door’s five-star option, The Beverly Hills, is less ostentatious inside, but it boasts a more spacious outdoor pool area with near-identical views.

Lifeguards training along Durban’s busy shores. Image: Teagan Cunniffe

Lifeguards training along Durban’s busy shores. Image: Teagan Cunniffe

Essentials

Getting there and around
South African Airways flies twice daily from Heathrow to Johannesburg, with up to 13 daily connections to Durban. Several other airlines serve the city indirectly, with one connection.
Average flight time: 13h 30m.
As gentrification spreads north, many of the city’s attractions are dotted across isolated suburbs.
The quickest and easiest way to get around is either by booking a taxi with the front desk of your hotel, or using Uber, which is often cheaper and quicker. Remember that a guide may be needed in some areas of the city for the sake of safety, so check with your tour operator or hotel before setting out.

When to go
Durban enjoys around 300 days of sunshine every year. Summer (November to mid-April) is hot and humid with rain and occasional thunderstorms, while winters (June to August) are dry and warm.

More info
The Rough Guide to South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland. RRP £17.99
Lonely Planet South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland. RRP £17.99

How to do it
South African Airways flies from Heathrow to Durban, via Johannesburg, with prices starting at £1,001.

Best of South Africa Travel offers a four-night Durban city break package, staying at the five-star Oyster Box hotel on a B&B basis, including return airport transfers (car hire can be arranged), from £615 per person. Add-ons can include a two-night Battlefields trip (£390 per person), a three-night Drakensberg Mountains trip (£315 per person) or a three-night fully inclusive safari (£1,440 per person). Prices exclude international flights.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)