Without the allure of Cape Town or the proximity to game parks of Johannesburg, Durban is so often overlooked on trips through South Africa. If not for a National Geographic article from several years ago, I would have entirely missed it myself— thankfully, I obsessed over that article, dog-earing it and jotting notes down so that one day I could visit this incredible city, with the largest Indian population outside of India, to enjoy its curry, beaches, and inimitable culture. Here’s a quick guide to Durban, including how to get around, what to do, and where to stay.
What's in this travel guide
Getting around Durban
The cheapest and easiest way to explore Durban is by Uber. We had a car and actually found it incredibly inconvenient to search for parking, not to mention the most hectic drive of our lives through the city’s chaotic centre. Downtown Durban can also be very sketchy, so it’s best just to take an Uber or a taxi directly to your destination rather than parking 1km away and walking around unnecessarily.
There are also group taxis or little minibuses that ferry people around the city for pocket change. I would not really advise this, unless you’re in a group and you feel really confident getting around. We ended up getting swindled by a driver because we had “foreigner” practically stamped on our wide-eyed faces, so don’t make the same mistake. Thankfully, it’s a lot more pleasant on the coast, so you should be able to walk around the beach without the same uneasiness.
What to do in Durban
Lounge about on the Golden Mile
Possibly the biggest draw for South Africans to Durban is the beaches. Set on the Indian Ocean (so plenty warm) and covered in golden sand, it’s hard to escape the appeal and even harder to resist taking a dip. We visited the beach on a Sunday during school holidays, though, so the crowds were positively out of hand and we didn’t spend more than a few hours hanging around. Despite all the people, it was still a beautiful spot, framed with little curio shops, restaurants, and cafes, and I’m eager to make another visit to this expansive seaside.
Explore the bustling Victoria Street Market
For a touch of shopping and just an all around experience, visit the enormous Victoria Street Markets in downtown Durban. Two floors are occupied by beaded jewellery, wood animals, hats, dresses, Indian spices, home goods, artwork, and honestly more than I can even list. The prices are shockingly low, so expect to come home with a dozen pairs of earrings (no regrets) and quite a few stories.
Go on safari in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park
From Durban, it’s possible to book a day-trip or a multi-day safari in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, Africa’s oldest Nature Reserve located about 300km north-west. The park is perhaps best known for its large population of white rhino, but it’s also possible to get up close with all the Big 5 safari animals (lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and buffalo).
Brave the hectic Durban city centre
Although it may not be the big city you think of when someone mentions South Africa, Durban still has a vibrant (and sometimes even overwhelming) city centre filled with people, vehicular mayhem, and plenty of cheap shops selling everything from wigs to electronics. If you’re extremely adventurous, hop in one of the city taxis: little minibuses that drive as if the rules of the road are a mere suggestion (our time in the taxi did not last long). Despite the chaos of actually getting into the city, it is an adventure beyond compare and an absolutely essential part of the Durban experience.
Gorge yourself on curry and bunny chow
The quintessential Durban experience, despite all of my other excited remarks, really is just eating— dig into the phenomenal and authentic Indian curries and indulge in the Durban-style curry in a bread bowl, “bunny chow”. This dish, often just referred to as “a bunny”, is the entire reason I wanted to visit in the first place and I am delighted to report not an ounce of disappointment.
The absolute best place to stay in Durban is right on the Indian Ocean, along the Golden Mile. A number of luxurious hotels and resorts line the beach and offer great views and a long list of ammenities. For those on a budget, though, you’re likely to end up off the coast. We stayed in Berea, a neighbourhood in the hills just a few minutes out of Durban and found it to be really pleasant and safe, but still within easy reach of the city. Plus, our Airbnb was $25 a night for two people in an adorable self-contained granny flat, so you just can’t beat the price.
Travel tips for Durban
As I mentioned previously, Durban’s city centre can be really overwhelming and super sketchy, so it’s important to exercise extreme caution. Do not have your camera visible when you’re walking along the streets and don’t even hold your phone in your hand— a local woman pulled us into her shop when she saw us doing this and warned that we were making ourselves obvious targets for theft. She recommended stepping into shops to ask for directions rather than using your phone or asking people on the street.
Another popular scam in the city is men “helping” you find a parking spot and then demanding money to “keep an eye on your car” while you visit the market, etc. This is a really uncomfortable situation, but we feigned confidence and refused to pay up, worrying the whole time we were away that our car was going to be either smashed to bits or missing when we returned. Absolutely do not leave anything valuable in your car and make sure you have theft insurance! Another reason not to hire a car in the first place.
Although most restaurants and shops will accept major credit cards, you’ll still want cash (Rand) for market purchases or street food.
Durban is a good place to visit either before or after Johannesburg, as flights between the two cities are incredibly cheap (usually under $50).