Things to Do in Durban
Cape Town's Kirstenbosch gardens may be more famous, but Durban's Botanic Gardens hold the title of Africa's oldest surviving botanical gardens.
Founded in 1851, Durban's Botanic Gardens were a response to Kew Gardens' challenge of creating botanic gardens around the world. The goal was not only to furnish Kew with new plants, but also to help raise global awareness of potentially valuable plants. The first garden in Durban was established in 1849 in a different location – it has been at its current location, closer to the city, since 1851.
The gardens cover more than 37 acres and are known for their collection of cycads, ferns, and orchids. There are also several events held in the gardens throughout the year, including concerts, tea parties, and an indigenous plant fair in September.
The hokey pink and pastel stucco exterior hides the Victoria Street Market’s flurry of color, chaos and activity. Affectionately called The Vic, the two-story building is essentially an indoor flea and farmer’s market with more than 150 lively retail and wholesale vendors. Kitchen utensils, pots, luggage, clothes, wholesale products from China and carved trinkets spill into the building’s second-floor walkways, while butchers, fishmongers and fruit and vegetable vendors set up shop on the first level.
In the mix visitors will find many merchants hawking silken saris and incense, spices from fragrant and colorful barrels, plus Indian handicrafts… not your usual South African market fare. The city’s multicultural tapestry—including the largest population of Indians outside of Asia—is reflected in both the market’s vendors and shoppers, and The Vic has long been a shopping hub of the Indian community. Bring your bargaining skills for some unique souvenir finds.
Durban's Phansi Museum is a treasure of South African artifacts, both historic and contemporary, and is known as one of the world’s largest collections of South African arts and crafts. Originally located in the basement of a private home, the museum’s name Phansi translates to “below” or “beneath” and serves as a nod to that meager beginning. Today, the collection occupies three floors of a converted Victorian house.
Among the exhibits at the Phansi Museum are examples of beadwork, baskets woven from telephone wire, wooden serving platters, snuff boxes and pipes, carved statues, blankets and fertility dolls. The top floor has a display of life-sized marionettes wearing ceremonial costumes.
Set at nearly 10,000 feet (2,865 meters) above sea level, Sani Pass is the gateway between KwaZulu-Natal and the landlocked mountain Kingdom of Lesotho. Via 4-wheel-drive, experience the rugged dirt road cut with hairpin turns on a steep climb to the top of Sani Pass. Your reward is a bumpy adventure along with panoramic views.
Howick Falls is a waterfall in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, some 63 miles from Durban. It falls roughly 310 feet from the river into a pool before the river continues on.
The Zulu name for the falls is KwaNogqaza, and legend is that a huge serpent lives in the pool beneath the falls. Sangomas, or fortune tellers, are said to be the only ones who can go near the waterfall safely.
Whether you believe the stories or not, the truth is that many people have died attempting to cross the Umgeni River just above the falls. Howick Falls remains a popular tourist destination, perhaps as much due to the legends as to its natural beauty.
A stretch of white-sand beaches lined by a boardwalk on one side and the warm Indian Ocean on the other, the Golden Mile is what draws many travelers to Durban. Whether you’re looking to sunbathe, visit a few cultural attractions, or experience the city’s nightlife, the Golden Mile has it all.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999 (the first in South Africa), iSimangaliso Wetland Park encompasses 820,389 acres (332,000 hectares) of lakes, estuaries, beaches, swamps, coastal dunes and coral reefs extending for some 125 miles (200 kilometers) along the coast of the Indian Ocean.
This wide variety of interlinking ecosystems has yielded incredible biodiversity in the area — the park is home to more than 6,500 plant and animal species, including 521 species of birds, as well as African elephants, humpback whales, loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles, Nile crocodiles and hippos.
The best way to explore the vast wetland park is by boat, which allows visitors to observe the park’s wildlife from relatively close up. Diving, snorkeling, kayaking, camping and horseback riding are also on offer within the park.
The Moses Mabhida Stadium, built to host the 2010 World Cup games, is one of the country’s top sport and concert venues. Its modern architecture and massive arch set it apart on the Durban waterfront. Overlook the city from a viewing platform at the top of the arch and push your limits on the world’s largest stadium swing.
Durban City Hall, in addition to being a gorgeous historic building in the city center, is also home to several attractions worth checking out.
Built in 1910, Durban City Hall—also known as eThekwini City Hall—is a building that's hard to miss. Its exterior is decorated in a neo-Baroque style – there are sculptures representing industry, art, literature, music and commerce as well as some representing patriotism and unity. The building is almost an exact copy of the city hall in Belfast.
The City Hall obviously is home to city government offices, but visitors will want to check out the Durban Art Gallery and Natural Science Museum that are also inside. The museum features a dodo fossil, among others.
With massive water slides, impressive sea life, and white-sand beaches, Ushaka Marine World is one of Durban’s top waterfront attractions. This theme park and aquarium is home to eight different attractions. Visitors can observe sea life in the aquarium, race down slides, challenge themselves on a ropes course, and more.
More Things to Do in Durban
One of the worst defeats in British military history occurred on January 22, 1879 during the Battle of Isandlwana. The battle, fought near a hill in Zululand of the same name, took place early in the Anglo-Zulu war when a British invasion column of some 1,300 soldiers under the command of General Lord Chelmsford was attacked by a 20,000-strong Zulu army, resulting in a humiliating defeat.
Today Isandlwana Battlefield is dotted with stone cairns indicating the resting places of soldiers killed in the battle. A small on-site museum and visitors center showcases artifacts, relics and background information on the battle — a bonus particularly for those visiting the battlefield without a guide.
Surrounded by South Africa’s scenic mountains and home to wildlife, villages, and some of the best views in the Kwa-Zulu Natal region, Valley of a Thousand Hills offers a rural countryside experience not far from beaches and highrises of Durban. The valley’s mix of culture and hospitality make it a popular holiday destination for locals and tourists alike.
Zulus form the largest ethnic group in the Rainbow Nation of South Africa, and the province of KwaZulu-Natal (formerly Zululand) is their heartland. Shakaland is an open-air museum, or “cultural village” providing a first class introduction to Zulu culture. It tells the tale of its namesake, the famous warrior king Shaka, who fought both tribal rivals to finally become the area’s uncontested ruler, as well as later Zulus who fought colonial aggressors.
But it’s not all spears and battles. Shakaland gives an overview of all aspects of Zulu culture, including tribal social structures, music, dances and ceremonies. You’ll also see how the distinctive colorful Zulu beadwork is made, as well as traditional beer, an important component in festivities. All of this in an authentic village, in what is still very much a vibrant, living community of Zulus, supervised by the local chief.
Housed in the former home of an apartheid legislation enforcement body, the modern Kwa Muhle Museum transcends its unsavory history to showcase the effects that era had on the city of Durban. An insightful and informative rainy-day activity, the two-story building includes video and photographic displays, documents and reconstructed scenes that depict the shaping of city through its working class.
Permanent exhibits teach visitors about past and present labor practices, as well as different facets of the apartheid system, including the use of sorghum beer halls to fund social services for non-whites. Gallery spaces house temporary exhibitions; a National Geographic photography display recently spanned two rooms. Kwa Muhle is one of four historical museums in Durban, the others being the Old Court House Museum, the Old House Museum and the Port Natal Maritime Museum.
One of the oldest and largest mosques in the Southern Hemisphere, the Juma Mosque’s impressive minarets rise above the bustling streets and markets of Durban’s Indian Quarter. The spiritual center for Durban’s Muslims and one of the most popular attractions in the city, the mosque draws in visitors interested in its historical, religious, and architectural significance.
Lesotho is an independent country that is surrounded on all sides by South Africa – it's an enclave within another country.
The official name of the country is the Kingdom of Lesotho, and it occupies just over 11,500 square miles high in the mountains. It holds the distinction of being the only independent country in the world where the entire country is above an elevation of 1,000 meters (3,281 feet). The population is almost entirely Sotho, the people who gave the country its name.
Lesotho gained independence from the UK in 1966 – before that was it called Basutoland. The small country remains largely agricultural, and it's a draw for visitors to South Africa who are keen to see traditional Sotho life in person. Those with more time to spare can enjoy the incredible hiking and see the mighty Semonkong Falls.
The Playhouse Company is the centerpiece of Durban's theater scene, and it has been for decades. This historic theater was built in 1926 and originally showed films. In 1935, the theater was given a Tudor-style facelift and turned into a space for performing arts with five different theaters. There are venues for opera, drama, music, and dance.
Tours of the Playhouse Company building are available by appointment, if you can't get tickets to see a production in the theater while you're in Durban. It's worth visiting if for no other reason than to see the Zulu artwork that's on display in the entry hall.
The KwaZulu-Natal town of Himeville is near the dramatic Drakensberg mountains, roughly 132 miles from Durban. It's a gateway to the Sani Pass en route to Lesotho. Himeville was settled in the late 1880s, and the city's museum is housed in a building that dates from 1900. There are exhibits about the area's agricultural history and rural life in this part of South Africa.
The Drakensberg area near Himeville is popular for outdoor sports of all kinds, including rafting, horseback riding, and fly fishing. The nearby Sani Pass links South Africa with the enclave of Lesotho, though the road is difficult enough that 4x4 vehicles are required.
There are plenty of animal safaris you can enjoy in the KwaZulu-Natal province, including the Umgeni River Bird Park—a bird zoo in the city of Durban where you'll see a dizzying array of African bird life.
The bird park was established in 1984 by a bird lover who grew up in Durban; he and other enthusiasts created a place where they could educate others about the birds they loved so much. The park was set up in a former quarry and covers more than eight and a half acres. Although it did briefly close down in 2009 due to financial troubles, the site reopened less than a year later under new management.
Today, visitors can see more than 800 birds representing 200 species from around the world. The park also has breeding programs for some of the threatened birds in its collection, including cranes. One highlight of a visit to the Umgeni River Bird Park is the Free Flight Bird Show, held twice a day in an open auditorium.
In January of 1879, fewer than 200 British and colonial troops successfully defending the mission station at Rorke’s Drift against an intense attack by well over 3,000 Zulu warriors during the Anglo-Zulu War.
The conflict, today known as the Battle of Rorke’s Drift or the Defense of Rorke’s Drift, is memorialized by a well-preserved battlefield and a small museum, where dioramas and electronic displays tell the tale of the 12-hour assault. Eleven Victoria Crosses (the highest military honor in Britain) were awarded after the battle, more than had ever been handed out for one battle before.
Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park (formerly known asHluhluwe Game Reserve), in the north of KwaZulu-Natal state, is the oldest game reserve in South Africa, drawing visitors for over a hundred years. Careful conservation ensures an amazing array of wildlife such as rhinoceroses (including the rare white rhinoceros), elephants and Cape Buffalos, as well as big cats including lions, leopards and cheetahs.
The landscape ranges from flat savannah to steep hills, criss-crossed by rivers and dotted with water holes, where you may well spot the Nyala, or South African antelope. There is also a huge range of birdlife, with many species unique to this area.
Immerse yourself in the culture and flavors of India—without leaving Durban—on a stroll through the city’s Indian Quarter. Home to the highest population of Indians outside of the subcontinent itself, Durban is known for its authentic Indian food and heritage. The Indian Quarter is where you can find cultural landmarks such as the Juma Mosque and Victoria Street Market.