Subtropical heat, golden beaches, craft distilleries and spicy curries: Durban is an intriguing mix of urban South Africa and the Indian subcontinent, with a generous sprinkling of hipster culture thrown in. From surf to spirits, we reveal six reasons you should make time for this sunny city.
“Durbs” has a rep for being cooler than Cape Town and Jo’burg, and the city has an enviable list of hip places to stay and eat. First up is a fabulous boutique hotel, The Concierge Bungalows, with its attached Freedom Café built out of a shipping container. Then there’s Distillery 031, knocking out locally flavoured spirits (African Rosehip gin anyone?) and the Unity Bar and Brasserie, which brews its own Cowbell Pilsner and grills a mean steak.
Last but not least, make a trip to the Artisanal Bakery in Glenwood, Durban’s answer to New York City's Williamsburg or London's Dalston. The locals here know their sourdough from their focaccia.
Unlike the frigid waters around Cape Town, Durban’s coastline is lapped by the warm currents of the Indian Ocean allowing you to swim or surf without a wetsuit. The best breaks are found at South Beach, where Saffa surfers congregate in the morning before grabbing chicken and tijps (chips) at local institution Afro’s Chicken.
South Beach is just one of many surfing hotspots along the city’s revamped “Golden Mile”. For families, Addington Beach is the best place for some gentle body boarding. If you’re a total “kook” (beginner), book a surf lesson with Ocean Ventures.
Get your historical bearings at Francis Farewell Square, dominated by Durban’s Neo-Baroque City Hall. This is where the swampy trading post of Port Natal was established in 1824 on land ceded by Zulu King Shaka. In 1899, Winston Churchill took to the steps of City Hall to tell tales of his escape from a Boer War POW Camp (a plaque marks the spot).
Across the park, littered with the statues of bewhiskered Victorians, is the Old Court House where a 24-year-old Mohandas Gandhi practised law and caused some consternation by refusing to remove his turban.
A few blocks north, the Kwa Muhle Museum details the indignities of apartheid experienced in the city.
Home to the largest concentration of Indians outside of India, Durban sometimes resembles a mini Mumbai with its sari shops and spice merchants. Aside from the atmospheric appeal of the Indian Quarter, with its mosques and Art Deco architecture, the real highlight is the food.
As well as tasty samosas stuffed with sweet potato and chutney, don’t miss Durban's most famous dish, bunny chow – a hollowed-out loaf of white bread stuffed with curry stew (mutton or chicken rather than rabbit). You’ll find it at any hole-in-the wall curry wallah, but one of the best is served at the Oriental in the Workshop Shopping Centre. Wash it down with the bright pink rose-flavoured milkshake Bombay Crush.
Durban’s townships are as much a part of the city experience as golden sand and bunny chow. Pootling around in a tourist hire car is probably not the best move, however, so it’s worth booking a guided tour with Street Scene. Their township itinerary takes in two areas – Inanda and KwaMashu – and includes a traditional barbecue lunch or shisha nyama (the Zulu version of the South African braai).
To sample some township nightlife head to Max’s Lifestyle in Umlazi where the sound systems crank out Kwaito House and stripped-down Durban speciality “gqom”.
To escape traffic-clogged, downtown Durban head to Umhlanga Rocks, which resembles a kind of Malibu or Hamptons by the Indian Ocean. The grande dame of the scene here is the Oyster Box hotel, a 5-star Colonial-style retreat with swishing paddle fans, towering palms and black and white chequerboard floors facing some prime beachfront.
Afternoon Tea at the hotel’s Palm Court is a local institution, while in the evening you can spot dolphins from the Lighthouse Bar.
Andy visited Durban as a guest of South African Tourism and flew with South African Airways. For more information check out southafrica.net.
Top image: City skyline in Durban, South Africa © lcswart/Shutterstock