A first-timers guide to Durban

Like Melbourne, Vancouver and Zurich, Durban is the city of choice for its country’s citizens seeking the best quality of life. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. As visitors are now discovering, fun-loving ‘Durbs’ is not only the gateway to the natural wonders of KwaZulu-Natal, but also a place to savour Indian Ocean beaches, cosmopolitan cuisine, culture and outdoor adventures.

View of Durban from the water ©️ Filippo Romeo / EyeEm / Getty Images

Beaches and more

The shore of Durban may be lined with golden sands, but its famed Golden Mile is so much more. For starters, the beaches combine to stretch well beyond a mere mile – they run for more than three times that distance. And unlike the waters off Cape Town’s beaches, which are chilled by the icy South Atlantic, those off Durban are of a pure Indian Ocean variety, making them a pleasant temperature for a dip year round.

Each beach offers you something different, and to ease first-time visitors’ experience, the city has provided excellent signage and maps that note which activities are permitted where. Laguna Beach, for instance, is where you can jet-ski, while consistent waves make Dairy Beach an ideal place to surf. If swimming suits your fancy, head for South Beach, or if you’d rather stay dry while still staying active, Bay of Plenty Beach is the venue of choice for beach sports. Families will love the sheltered waters of uShaka Beach, where kayaking and stand up paddle boarding are also permitted. If you’ve just arrived, and feel like flopping on a lounger for some southern sun, stroll to Suncoast Beach.

Adventure activities

The natural and architectural landscape of Durban combine to make the city an unforgettable place to push your boundaries. For those wanting to challenge their fear of heights, there is no better place to start than the stunning Moses Mabhida Stadium. Constructed for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, its towering Y-shaped arch offers both a mild and extreme chance to defy gravity. Those craving a hefty dose of adrenaline can opt for the Big Swing, a 106m bungee above the football field below. From our experience, the ladder down to the narrow jumping platform is almost as thrilling as the plunge itself. Those seeking a more sedately option can ride the SkyCar to the top of the arch for the spectacular view over the city and coastline. It’s also possible to take the Adventure Walk up the 550 steps to the top of the arch.

For a much longer (and faster) fall than the stadium’s bungee jump, visit Skydive KZNfor a very scenic free-fall over the coast – just remember to keep your eyes open! The same advice stands for trips out to sea with the Natal Sharks Board Boat Tour, where you may spot great whites while watching personnel tag and release trapped sharks from the nets protecting Durban’s shore. Better yet, if you’re a PADI-certified diver, take the rare opportunity that Durban affords and dive some of the best shark sites in the world.

The surface of the waters off Durban are also ripe for adventure activities, with lessons available for surfing, kiteboarding, kayaking and stand up paddle boarding.

A turtle swimming in an aquarium at uShaka Marine World in Durban ©️ Gallo Images / Getty Images

Under the sea

With such a bounty of aquatic life living offshore, it would be surprising if a city like Durban didn’t have something onshore to educate visitors and the public about the importance of it. Built to fit this bill is uShaka Marine World. Home to one of the world’s biggest aquariums, it hosts the largest collection of sharks in the southern hemisphere and numerous other marine exhibits.

Designed to entertain as well, uShaka Marine World is also the site of the Wet’n’Wild waterpark, with rides that will leave you soaked and smiling. Just as fun, but all above water, are the ziplines, belays and swinging bridges in the Chimp & Zee Rope Adventure Park. Families can venture into Kids World, where there are plenty of activities to keep young ones amused.

Art(efacts) and culture

With a goal to ‘treasure, share and inspire’ the Phansi Museum showcases a remarkable private collection of ubuntu art. The tribal beadwork, sculptures, artwork (historic and contemporary) and artefacts are hosted within the gorgeous Victorian mansion of Roberts House. Each year the museum has five or so major openings, with new exhibits curated in its main gallery.

Durban Botanical Gardens ©️ wildacad / Getty Images

Durban Botanic Gardens

The beaches are not the only natural respite from the cityscape, and all first-time visitors will relish this 2000-sq-metre botanical garden. While you may not realise that some of its plant life is from incredibly rare varieties, you will appreciate their beauty and the accompanying wander through their peaceful surrounds. Before you set your trip’s dates, check to see if you can time your visit to coincide with the annual concert series that takes place here – it features the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Close up image of bunny chow, a dish popular in Durban ©️ Paul_Brighton / Getty Images

Food and drink

With so much to do in Durban, you will quickly discover a growing appetite. Lucky for you, the city is known for its cosmopolitan cuisine. Fresh seafood takes top billing in many places, but the city’s large population of Indian diaspora ensures that there is a flavoursome variety on most menus.

If there is one thing that you can’t leave the city without savouring, it is bunny chow. Served in a hollowed-out loaf of bread, this curry of lamb, chicken or beans has become the king of Durban’s eating scene. Given its taste, and the fact that you can eat the container, also makes it the ultimate South African takeaway. Depending on your level of hunger, you can either order it in a quarter- or half-loaf (the smaller option is enough for most people). The most legendary spot for this iconic Durban meal is Hollywood Bets.

Be sure to check out hip precinct of Station Drive for the newest arrivals on the dining and drinking scene, with plenty of independent cafes, restaurants and distilleries, such as the award-winning Distillery 031.

Make it happen

The climate in Durban is subtropical, which makes it a year-round destination. That said, the most pleasant period is from May to November, which is also coincides with the best time for safaris in KZN. Between November and February, visitors should expect humid conditions and short daily downpours.

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