For years and years I had a love-hate relationship with Durban. If I’m honest, I didn’t think much of the city and confess to calling it the ‘armpit of South Africa’ for a very long time.
A few years back, my sister made the decision to move to Durban, and while I could’ve continued to think terrible of the place, it instead became a mission to discover why exactly this city is cool. What I did discover is that Durban is possibly one of the best hotbeds from creativity in the country, sadly though Durbanites are way too humble to shout about that and instead wait for people from everywhere else to say it.
Other than being terrible at promoting their cool factor though, I have discovered the people of Durban are some of the funniest, raddest and kindest I’ve ever met, and can even say now that I have quite a few friends living in the ‘031’ – Durban’s dialling code and a fond nickname for locals if you didn’t know.
This rather detailed post is what I’ve termed my ‘hardly-complete’ guide to Durban because I still feel there is so much to be included here, but I haven’t found it yet!
What to do in Durban
While I think Joburgers who visit Durban are mostly going for the holiday beach vibes, there does seem to be a shift towards the discovery of Durban itself. We don’t just want to lie in the sun anymore, we want to explore and get to know the city just that little bit better.
Tour the Markets of Warwick
I’ve been meaning to get something up about the Markets of Warwick forever, but in the interim, here’s the teaser: the collection of traditional, food and general wares markets at Warwick Junction in Durban have a mysterious air about them. I’ve heard terror stories of muti (traditional medicine) sellers, but also beautiful stories of interesting people.
Rather than rumours drifting in the wind, Alessio and I booked ourselves on the Markets of Warwick tour a few months back to find out exactly what was what. I had visited before with an informal group of people, but felt like I still had so much to learn!
Colourful chaos in the markets
There are nine markets in Warwick Junction – the Bovine Head Market, Early Morning Market, Music Bridge Market, Berea Station Market, Brook Street Market, Mpepho and Lime Market, Bead Market, Victoria Street Market and the Herb Market. The tours takes you through each of these with a guide who explains the purpose and history of each market, the socio-economic woes of the traders, and anecdotes of the daily bustle here.
The tour costs only R100 (the cheapest tour I’ve ever done in South Africa, by the way), and is completely fascinating. Make sure to go on a Friday when the bead market is operating. Book your spot online at marketsofwarwick.co.za.
Mphepho and lime, mined and dried
The bovine head market was quite a trippy experience!
Delve into Durban’s architecture
There exists a common misconception that the small port city of Durban is sleepy, backwater and generally unappealing. Our intent was to have this notion corrected, even destroyed. Our aim was to have it replaced with a more true and exciting notion, that Durban is worth exploring.
This is the word from the small team behind Beset Durban, a collective of clever often-bearded creatives that are sick and tired of people thinking Durban is not-so-kiff. More or less on a monthly basis, the Beset Durban team organises a walking tour somewhere in Durban that highlights the architecture, graffiti public art and other great creative spaces of the city.
The walks are free and friendly, and well worth planning a trip around.
A model of one of the distinctly-Durban houses I got to explore with Beset Durban
Umhlanga and Durban from the air
To understand the layout of Durban and surrounds, it’s good to get up high, and for this there are two options: Get onto something tall, or get in a helicopter. Luckily I’ve done both and can advise on either.
To get onto something tall, and the cheaper option, take a trip on the Skycar at the Moses Mabhida Stadium right to the top of the arch. From up above, there’s a 360-degree view of the city that will wow you if you’ve never really explored Durban!
The trip in the Skycar costs R60 per person, and is best done in the early morning or later afternoon, otherwise you may perish from the heat up there!
Get right on top of Moses Mabhida Stadium
If you want to get even higher, then I would recommend a trip in a helicopter. I have done the Durban Tour with Starlite Aviation (starts at R1800 per person), which was so much fun! We headed towards Umhlanga and then travelled all the way down the coast back towards The Bluff, the pilot pointed out tons of landmarks and it was pretty epic to see the urban sprawl of Durban.
I couldn’t get over how dense Umhlanga is!
Near The Bluff, just adjacent to the Durban Harbour
Walk the Umhlanga promenade
Because my sister lives in Umhlanga, this is generally something I’ll do once or twice each time I’m in Durban. I love the relaxed seaside feeling of trotting along this excellent pathway, eavesdropping on the conversations going on around me and generally just existing here.
I’ve seen the promenade cheerful and sunny, but also incredibly moody, it’s also a great place to catch a snap of one of Durban’s most-photographed features – the piers.
In total, the walk along the full length of the promenade and back is just shy of 5km, so wear comfy shoes and take a little cash to buy something cool along the way. If you’re feeling fancy, stop in at The Oyster Box for tea and scones.
Just before sunset on the Umhlanga promenade
Get up early to catch the surfers
Durban’s main beachfront is one of the most beautiful stretches of land in South Africa in my opinion, and one of the best things to is get up super early to watch the hopeful fishermen out on the piers and the brave surfers trying to ride the waves before starting up their daily grind.
Sunrise is the best time to shoot the Durban beachfront, the sun sets behind the big hotel and apartment blocks that hug the beach road so the light is not great anytime after 4pm.
Purple sunrise on Durban beachfront. credit: Alessio La Ruffa (and the featured image at the top too!)
Durban beachfront is also where you’ll be able to spot some pretty epic pigeon gatherings, speaking as the girlfriend of a professional pigeon spotter. Alessio’s love for these birds is an eternal burning flame, just scroll through his Instagram account for the evidence.
What I love about Durban, other than the curries and spicy bunny chows, is its refreshing food scene. While a lot of the newer restaurants follow current food trends in some way, I feel like it’s an energised version of Joburg’s food scene in many ways. Each restaurant I’ve tried in recent months has a distinct Durban attitude about it.
The sheer amount on offer at the Durban Street Food Festival was worth a trip to Durban all on its own!
Durban is home the now-famous Sugarlicious macaron ice-cream sandwiches
The Prohibition Waffle, a toasted waffle with sous vide chicken and sticky, sweet sauce at Distillery 031
This was apparent at the last Durban Street Food Festival I visited, but also at my amazing meal at Distillery 031. Also, check out Old Town Italy (we have one in Pretoria now), Four15, Glenwood Bakery and Fourteen on Chartwell.
Where to stay in Durban
Each time I head to Durban, I look for somewhere new to stay. I love places with their own personality and can recommend using Accommodation Direct to hunt down that perfect apartment or B&B. Their listings for Durban, Umhlanga and Ballito range from simple, comfy accommodation, right through to luxury stays.
Durban, if you’re reading this, I know this isn’t nearly a justification for your city. I’ve grown to love Durban, keeping mental lists on where to go and what to eat each time I visit. If you’ve got somewhere I absolutely need to be next time I’m in your city, pop it in the comments below!
This post was brought to you by Accommodation Direct, as with all my posts, opinions expressed are my own in every way.