While most safari-goers wouldn't put the city of Durban, South Africa on their bucket list, I just spent several days there and really enjoyed myself. Durban is a modern, cosmopolitan African city that perfectly reflects South Africa's cultural complexity with strong African, Indian and European influences. I found the city fun, diverse and full of activities.
Other things working in Durban's favor include being set in the province of KwaZulu Natal with Southern California-style weather year-round, some of the best surfing in the world and great safari experiences just a few hours drive away (here are a few KwaZulu Natal safari recommendations).
So here is some of what I discovered to do in Durban:
Cruise the promenade! Revamped in time for the 2010 World Cup, Durban's fully paved promenade (pictured above) runs the full length of the inner city beaches for almost 4 miles (6kms) from the mouth of the Umgeni River to the harbor mouth at Ushaka. It's a hive of activity on weekends with locals jogging, walking dogs, cycling, riding skateboards or roller-blading and a choice of cafes make for convenient refreshment stops along the way. If you want to rent a bike to explore the promenade, the Bike and Bean near Suncoast Casino has bikes and beach equipment to rent and serves a killer coffee!
Learn to Surf! Durban has some of most consistent surf breaks in South Africa and with epic year round conditions, it's no wonder it has produced some legends in the surfing world. The city's southern beaches are protected from larger swells and with expert coaching from one of the local surf schools (like Roxy/Learn 2 Surf Durban), and the added bonus of warm tropical waters, it's the ideal place to learn. If you area already a surfer you can rent a board and surf in the center of the city in Durban's Golden Mile or head 2 hours south to less crowded beaches like Umzumbe on KZN's South Coast. If surfing is not your thing, there are a host of other water-based activities available at Ushaka Marine World, from kayaking and snorkeling, to learning to dive and boat trips. Ushaka is also incredibly family friendly and a great place to spend some time if you are traveling with kids.
Durban city tours with a twist. Durban's has a fascinating history and even a classic city tour will be interesting, but instead I would opt for a tour with Street Scene a local tour company that employees local 'Durbanites' as tour guides. Their more unique offerings includes a Township tour (pictured above) where you walk through Mahatma Gandhi's house, visit Ohlange High School where Nelson Mandela cast his vote in the first democratic elections, visit a family home and knock back a beer before having lunch at a local tavern. Another fun option is Street Scene's tour that explorers the city's street art scene.
Take the leap on the world's tallest swing at the Moses Mabhida stadium. An 80m (262ft) free fall arcs 220m (721ft) directly over the center of the stadium and is a must for adrenaline junkies. If you can manage to open your eyes while experiencing this intense rush, you'll get a chance to marvel at the unique architecture of this iconic World Cup soccer stadium. For a toned down version take the sky-car to the top of the stadium or walk across the arch.
Explore the Valley of 1000 Hills. Just 20 minutes outside of Durban, this aptly named area of stunning cliffs and valleys has been home to the Zulu people for centuries. There are a few companies that offer tours but you could also rent a car and drive out there and explore on your own, it really is beautiful. I would definitely recommend a pit stop at Indigo Skate Camp, a cool local youth program founded by a former pro-skateboarder which also offers hiking and biking in this beautiful area led by local youth tour guides. (This video explains more about Indigo Skate Camp's Mission)
Indigo Skate Park
Day trip through Lesotho. Add another stamp in your passport with a day trip through Lesotho over the Sani Pass. Go on a high altitude adventure to The Kingdom of the Sky, Lesotho. You'll stop at the Highest Pub in Africa for a drink and a hearty meal, and spend some time in a rural Basotho village. If the weather permits, you'll get to take in a magnificent view of the Drakensberg mountain range below. Street Scene also offers this day trip in addition to their unique tours of Durban.
Mount Moreland Barn Swallows. Between October and April (but best in November and March) up to 3 million Barn Swallows can be seen every evening over Mt. Moreland and their Lake Victoria wetland roost (20 minutes north of Durban). Be sure to be there about a half an hour before sunset. If you are staying at one of my favorite hotels, the Oyster Box in Umhlanga, they can make sure you head out with a delicious sundowner picnic basket.
On the promenade I loved Circus Circus Beach Café as a place to grab some simple, fresh food and rub shoulders with locals. In addition to being next to a skate park, they have playground for kids and tables with great views of the ocean.
Eat a traditional Bunny Chow or 'bunny.' This fast food dish consists of a hollowed out loaf of bread filled with curry. Originating in the Durban Indian community with its roots dating back to the original migrant workers - this dish is traditionally quite spicy and is definitely best eaten with your hands!
On my list for next time is to explore KwaZulu Natal's Microbrew Scene.
Where to Stay:
I already mentioned the Oyster Box which is a stunning boutique property in the upmarket neighborhood of Umlanga just north of central Durban.
I also like the Southern Sun Elangeni & Maharani. This is not a boutique hotel, it is big, but the ocean views are stunning and it is perfectly placed on the Promenade to put many of these activities I mentioned above in walking distance. The first picture in this post was take from the 18th floor of the Elangeni.
All in all I had a great time in Durban and think it is a worthwhile place to spend a few days before or after a safari, especially for younger travelers who want to get a feel for every day, urban South Africa.