The inside guide to Durban, South Africa's surfing capital

Beyond its sand and surf, the city and its surroundings offer spice markets, wildlife rich lagoons and intriguing historical sites.

Umhlanga lighthouse, with the Durban skyline in the distance. 

Photograph by Teagan Cunniffe
By Heather Richardson
Published 3 Jan 2023, 08:00 GMT

Golden sand, Indian Ocean waves and a subtropical climate it’s hardly a surprise to find Durbanites at the beach every weekend in the summer. Many travellers, however, find themselves in Durban for its proximity to the Drakensberg mountains, Big Five safari reserves or the KwaZulu-Natal battlefields. But linger longer and you’ll fi nd there’s plenty to keep you in town.

There’s no better place to start the day than along the Golden Mile beachfront, where there are plenty of spots to do as the locals do and learn to surf. Addington Beach is good for beginners, but if you’re a seasoned surfer, try North Beach or, if that’s too busy, Battery Beach.

Fancy something gentler? Hire a stand-up paddleboard and take it out on the Point Waterfront Canals behind uShaka Marine World. If you’re more of a landlubber than a water baby, however, kickstart the day with a jog or walk along the Promenade instead if you’re around on a Saturday, North Beach’s Parkrun is one of the biggest in the country. Afterwards, grab a coffee from Cafe Jiran, in the Belaire Suites Hotel. 

Fresh produce at Bangladesh market.

Fresh produce at Bangladesh market. 

Photograph by Teagan Cunniffe

North of the city centre, the Umhlanga promenade leads to the Umhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve, which is home to over 200 bird species including African fish eagles and seasonal thick-billed weavers. Wander along the reed-lined boardwalks and explore the wetlands yourself or join one of the daily guided tours. If you’re keen to pack more walking into your visit, keep an eye out for a free walking tour from Besetdurban. The local-led tours involve local pillars of the community, from architects to graffiti artists.They release details 48 hours before, so check their Facebook or Instagram pages.

Most tours of the city call into the Durban Muthi Market, where vendors of muthi (traditional medicine) sell everything from dried sage to talismans. Alternatively, wander over to the old Victoria Street Market, where hundreds of vendors sell the likes of brassware, bags and fiery spice blends with names like ‘mother-in-law hell fire'. Finish a morning meander with a bunny chow lunch  the city’s famous fast food dish of a hollowed-out bread loaf filled with curry at The Oriental in Durban North.  

Durban City Hall.

Durban City Hall. 

Photograph by Teagan Cunniffe

Outside the city centre, there are interesting historic sites that add some context to Durban. Mahatma Gandhi’s Former Residence in Phoenix is now a museum documenting his years as a lawyer in South Africa, from 1893 to 1913, where he fought for the rights of Indians. Then visit the Ohlange Institute, where Nelson Mandela placed his vote in the country’s first democratic election of 1994.

And if you’ve time to travel further, drive to Howick, just over an hour outside Durban, to the site at which Mandela was captured before his 27 years in prison. You’ll fi nd the famous sculpture of Mandela’s profile made up of 50 black steel columns  and an informative visitor centre. 

A Zulu rickshaw driver, North Beach.

A Zulu rickshaw driver, North Beach. 

Photograph by Teagan Cunniffe

Back in Durban, Max’s Lifestyle Village in Umlazi township has become an institution. It opened as a simple butchery and shisanyama (barbecue) in 2002; now it flies the flag for kasi (township) culture, with locals and tourists alike coming for the bar, restaurant and VIP lounge. It’s a fun place to sip a sundowner and try traditional dishes such as umgxabiso (tripe) with dumplings. Go during the weekend when live sport and DJs bring the crowds. Alternatively, head out to Ballito, just north of King Shaka International Airport, for cocktails by the sea at Beach Bums. If you’re staying in Ballito, have a morning swim in Thompson’s Bay Tidal Pool.  In the city, The Chairman is a popular jazz bar filled with art. Stop by for a cocktail and live music performances, but check what’s happening when you’re in town as you may need tickets. 

Published in the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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