One of South Africa’s lesser traveled cities is Durban, in the Kwazulu-Natal province (KZN). Durban, while not quite as scenic as Cape Town in my opinion remains a beautiful beach-side city that is a closer and cheaper getaway from Johannesburg. With its proximity to Mozambique, it is more tropical and enjoys warmer weather year round. It is also a great stop on South Africa’s wild coast if you are planning a trip here.
Durban’s a city right on the Indian Ocean, serving as a large port of trade between South Africa and the rest of the world. It is also one of the major centers of tourism among South Africans as it is the only tropical climate South Africa has. Being on the Indian Ocean, this city experiences the humidity and extreme warmth the rest of the country does not. I ended up going with four other guys which pretty much means that doing any serious sightseeing would be moot at best.
A Little History About Durban
I can’t and won’t claim to be any expert on the history of South Africa but I have learned a few things about the country since being in South Africa. Durban was once the home of Shaka Zulu and the capital of the Zulu kingdom back in the mid 1800s and really little happened until the British settled here back in the 1840s. They were given land by King Shaka and named it Durban after the Cape area’s governor.
There were some conflicts with the Dutch settlers early on including the Voortrekkers defeat of the Zulus but eventually the British, as they were the world’s largest empire at the time, enforced their dominance and secured the area. During this period, the sugar cane industry was booming and they brought over thousands of slaves from India to work in these sugar farms. The Indian population would stay here until the present day and make up a large minority of the population in Durban after the Zulus. In fact, Durban boasts the largest Indian population of any city in the world outside of India at over 1 million.
Today, more than 4 million people live in the metropolitan area of Durban. The city is – after Johannesburg – the second-largest in South Africa. Durban disposes of extensive industrial areas and the biggest seaport in South Africa. In fact, I know for a fact all the things I had boxed up and moved to South Africa came to the port of Durban before reaching me in Johannesburg.
Getting Around Durban
Mango Airlines.We flew Mango, a discount airline similar to EasyJet in Europe. The flight from Johannesburg was a breezy 1 hr, costing about 1500R (150$) roundtrip. Mango and Kulula are South Africa’s versions of EasyJet and RyanAir so I’m sure I’ll be taking these again as I start going to Cape Town. As soon as you leave Durban’s King Shaka airport, you can feel the humidity, albeit not strong in the winter time.
We were told by everyone and their mothers in Joburg that Umhlanga (pronounced Oom-Shlanga), an area just a few km north of Durban is the place to stay. The city center of Durban is not the safest nor is it the most scenic of areas. Umhlanga offers numerous restaurants, luxurious hotels and apartments, and access to the best strip of beach in the city.
From the airport, Umhlanga is 15-20 min and the only way to get around is by car. Aside from Johannesburg and the Gautrain, no such thing as mass transportation exists in the rest of the country. People worship cars here so certainly don’t expect any sophisticated airport transportation. Since 2014, Uber has taken over South Africa and is perhaps the best thing to happen to the country. Use Uber when traveling around Durban.
From the airport to Umhlanga will cost 200-250R
Where To Stay in Durban?
Being the quick vacation getaway for the people in Johannesburg that Durban is, the options vary highly. There are your quaint bed and breakfasts, apartment vacation homes, and your ultra high end hotels all within one street. Because I was here with 4 other guys and we were here to more or less party, a romantic villa at a 5* hotel for 400$ a night just didn’t seem to be that economical.
However, if you’re here for pure relaxation with a significant other and want to impress, let me recommend the Oyster Box and Beverly Hills (they are right next to each other). We had a lunch buffet at the Oyster box that I will talk about later, realized how much we had eaten, and ended up pretending like we were guests at the hotel and passed out poolside next to the infinity pool and ocean.
These two are the most expensive hotels in Durban and will run you 300-400$ a night for the standard rooms. If you’re more of a 100-200$ a night type of person, then consider the Cabana Beach and Umhlanga Sands Hotels.
Airbnb in Durban
If you’re a group of 5 like we were, two hotel rooms just seemed like a waste of money especially since we had no intention of staying in our rooms for more than sleeping. Umhlanga is also home to many vacation homes. The nicest is without a doubt the Pearls of Umhlanga, an ultra modern and luxurious vacation home rental that stand out so much in the Umhlanga skyline that you can see it from everywhere. However, there is a 14 night minimum stay at this place and it’ll run about 250-350$ a night.
If you don’t like the idea of spending 3000$ on your vacation home rental in Durban, then Umhlanga.co.za is your best friend. Focused solely on cheaper vacation home rentals, with no minimum stay, this is really the way to go if you want to stay cheap with a large group. The site has a bunch of different apartments near the beach, able to host 4-6 people an apartment, for ridiculous cheap rates. For 2 nights at a 3 bedroom apartment, we paid a measly 1800R (180$) for BOTH nights. That’s cheaper than a hostel.
The apartments are nothing to write home about but they have beds, sheets, a balcony with views, and close to the beach. Can’t complain here. The booking process is a bit archaic however. They do not accept credit cards, only bank transfer (so not sure what you would do without a South African bank account), and at no point do you ever speak or meet with any representatives from the company.
You pick up your keys at a gas station and no one ever comes to your apartment. I could have had 10 people staying in that apartment as it was big enough for that and no one would have known.
What To Eat?
Being situated along the coast gives Durban the ability to provide some amazing seafood for very reasonable prices. In addition, with the large Indian population here, Indian food is a must have and one must especially try the Bunny Chow, a uniquely Durban Indian dish that combines Indian Curry (no actual bunny meat) in a Bread Bowl eaten with your hands (or fork for the less adventurous)!
I did some research and one of the theories of how Bunny Chow originated was during the Apartheid eras, Indians working on the golf courses were not allowed to eat off plates and one of the cooks devised a way to serve them by cutting out the inside of a loaf of bread and using that to serve. Sadly, I later learned that all the good Bunny Chow in Durban does not exist in Umhlanga since it is more of a vacation hotspot.
Obviously if you want the good local food, you must go to the local hotspots which are all located in the city center of Durban. If you’re renting a car, be sure to make this one of your top priorities! Aside from that, there are many amazing looking restaurants and some of the restaurants I hit up are (thanks again to TripAdvisor):
Located in the heart of Umhlanga, this place was just what I was looking for the first night, seafood. This place was amazing. Some of the tastiest seafood I’ve ever had for prices that make you wonder why the hell is seafood so expensive along the coasts of America. Prawns, Lobster, Langostines, and Fish are all what’s for dinner. Stay away from the meat here because this place is named Lord Prawn after all.
Just stick with seafood. Ocean Basket is another similar restaurant to this place but Lord Prawn does push out better chow. Portions are large, drinks are cheap, and just an overall great place to eat some local seafood. I ended up getting 16 queen prawns with fries for about 15$. Our bill for 5 with abundant amounts of seafood, appetizers, wine, and shots ran us about 1500R (150$)!
This place was ranked #3 in all of Durban but was the top rated restaurant walking distance to where we were staying in Umhlanga. Ile Maurice just means Mauritius in French and hence, this restaurant serves Mauritian Fare.
What is Mauritian food? A combination of African, Indian, and French flavors with primarily seafood. Good enough for me. My god the food was amazing.
Mauritian food might just be one of my new favorite cuisines. The taste is hard to describe but the base of most of the dishes is curry but not of the Indian or Thai variety, something very unique to the cuisine.
The portions here are enormous, spicy if you want it, and you’ll likely want to call it quits for the rest of the night after a meal here. Nevertheless, you’ll leave completely satisfied and wanting more. The price is a little more expensive than the surrounding restaurants but well worth it in my opinion.
Ocean Terrace at the Oyster Box Hotel
After being unsuccessful in getting any bunny chow whilst in Durban, some form of Indian food had to be done to make up for it. A few minutes of browsing on tripadvisor later, the extremely fancy hotel down the street had just what we need, an all you can eat buffet of Indian curries. This hotel is extremely nice and you can see as soon as you walk in why it is the most expensive place in the city.
The decor is fantastic, service is excellent and you’re right on the beach with pristine views. Oh and the curry buffet was quite amazing as well. There is seating outside with beach views and for 240R a person (expensive yes), you can sample and eat as much curry as you want.
There are about 10 types and are all delicious. Make sure to grab some roti and naan to go with it as well. You’ll likely succumb to a food coma afterwards so be sure to blend into the surroundings and pretend like you’re staying at the hotel and just chill by the infinity pool for as long as need be. We certainly did.
What To Do in Durban?
Durban is certainly not known for its sights and is certainly no European style capital where you can walk to everywhere. There are places to see and things to do here but the majority of the people, including all friends giving me advice for things to do in Durban, just come here for the beach. It’s a quick 1 hour flight from Johannesburg and the beaches are sandy and the water is nice. People don’t really come here for much else and hence why no one knew what I was talking about when I asked them about the top Durban attractions on TripAdvisor.
Durban is about as tropical as South Africa gets but nothing like other parts of Africa like Mauritius, Mozambique or Zanzibar. The water temperature in August was quite reasonable; not cold and certainly warm enough to swim in. I’m sure during the summer time, the water warms up more and you can expect the beach to be more packedl. The waves are stronger than other beaches I’ve been around the Indian Ocean and there is definitely some surfing to be done if that’s your thing.
While we’re on the topic of the beach, be sure to also hit up The Golden Mile, a popular tourist attraction that features well a mile of pristine beach, and various sculptures and other attractions. This place was renovated heavily for the World Cup and you can definitely tell from how well kept everything is. It is located in Durban however so if you decide to stay in Umhlanga, a cab ride or a car is required to get to it. No, you cannot walk to it from the beaches of Umhlanga.
Well we heard decent things about the nightlife in Durban but we, without a doubt, went on the wrong weekend. There’s nothing to do in Umhlanga itself because it’s meant to be a resort area catering towards families and older folks looking for a chilled weekend. There’s some things to do in the city of Durban (which is why you should make friends with a cabbie that you can just call at any time).
Florida Road was a place we were told to check out as it was a walkable street with many bars and clubs. We came here on a Friday night, went to a few different places and to sum it up, I’ve never in my entire existence seen so many dudes out at bars. It must have been the biggest sausage fest of all time, the international house of sausage for that matter. These aren’t gay guys either, just random guys hanging out.
The ratio was at best 10-1 guy to girl. Perhaps it’s better on other weekends but I’m not sure, any place that has that kind of ratio at any time of year can’t be great. Also, my friend has his iPhone stolen by teenage kids so watch out if you’re on this street.
Origin Nightclub and Tyga Tyga we were told were must check out spots. So after the failure Friday night, we decided to hit up Origin on Saturday (only open Saturdays) in hopes of salvaging the efforts from the previous night. This place was happening no doubt but we soon realized and remembered that the drinking age in South Africa is 18. Because many Durbanites go to college outside of Durban and move to Joburg after college, the majority of people going to these clubs are college kids (and probably many kids under 18).
I’ve never felt old at a bar before until well . . . now. In NYC, the drinking age is 21 and everyone is at least 22 with certain areas hotspots for the younger crowd. Nevertheless, Origin is about the only nightlife in the city as everyone from and not from Durban told us to go. It was still a good time, just be prepared to feel like an old man.
Moses Mabidha Swing Jump
Well on the top of my list of things to do, this attraction is the world’s highest/longest/largest swing jump located in the large Moses Mabidha soccer stadium. Unfortunately, over-achieving Friday and Saturday nights led to very under achieving Saturday and Sunday days so we did not make this. It was however by all means, something we wanted to do. It’s a 60m (200ft) free fall, traveling at like 120km/h (70mph), over the entire football stadium. Sounds awesome. Next time. Hopefully.
Summing it up
Well Durban is certainly a great place to get away for a weekend, to relax by a beach, and eat some good seafood. However, I’d reckon this place is better suited for a family to get away from Joburg for cheap. It was certainly a beautiful city but the nightlife was quite awful and with the time that I have here, there are much better beaches on the horizon for me (Zanzibar in 1 month!).
Nevertheless, if you’ve moved to South Africa, Durban is a place you should check out for at least one weekend and then you can formulate your own opinion instead of going off mine. Oh and be sure to get some bunny chow!