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Life here revolves around the water, whether it’s the beachfront surf or the bustling harbor. There’s the sense that the city is always busy. The bright lights of the Golden Mile keep a twinkling vigil over the white sands and night surfers well after the crowded have migrated from beach to nightclub. Meanwhile, the main harbor is constantly abuzz with imports and exports from around the globe. Durban’s population of European, Asian, and African descent lend the city’s defining diversity. Magnificent mosques, bazaars, and Indian temples stand in striking contrast to the lingering remnants of British colonial architecture and colorful African markets. As does any big South African city, Durban has its share of concrete-slab high rises, overpopulated shantytowns, traffic congestion, and crime. With over 200 sunny days every year, the weather is almost tropical, and summer humidity can get oppressive. Even so, stretches of beautiful beaches and a relaxed, friendly atmosphere attract hordes of tourists, beach-deprived Jo’burgers, and wave-friendly surfers year-round. The city also offers numerous museums, and markets featuring everything from the latest electronics to traditional Zulu medicines. It is also an excellent base for exploring KwaZulu-Natal, with dozens of companies offering tours through Zululand, Swaziland, Lesotho, the Drakensberg, and the region’s numerous game parks.
Durban lies on a quasi-peninsula, framed by the Indian Ocean and the bay of Natal. The beachfront lies on the eastern edge of the city, while the harbor is on the southern border. Parallel to the beachfront is Marine Parade, home to a number of restaurants and all of Durban’s post coastal hotels. Back a few blocks from the coast are Point. Rd. and Prince Alfred Rd. (the latter runs the full north-south expanse of the cit as either Prince Alfred, Stanger, or Cato Rd.). Most of Durban’s major streets run east-west as to-the-beach thoroughfares. Victoria Embankment runs along the northern edge of the harbor. Moving inland block by block are Smith, West, Pine, and Commercial St. (home of Tourist Junction). The area around Tourist Junction is a museum mecca. Nearby on Smith St. are most of Durban’s business services. At the southern end of Commercial St. is Warwick Junction, the unofficial business hub of Durban where barter and tender is at its height in the network of surrounding markets. The other two major east-west routes, Old Fort Rd. and Argyle St., serve as direct routes to the beach from the upscale hillside neighborhoods of Berea and Morningside.
Along the shore, the beach scene is the overwhelming favorite among tourists, while the museums and parks are the star of the show in town. Durban’s City Hall is remarkable for its stunning architecture and is also home to the Durban Natural Science Museum and the Durban Art Gallery.
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Most Durban restaurants serve common fare, and thousands of small take-out joints provide cheap snacks. The city is also home to hundreds of pushcarts and trailers that vend cheap eats. One local favorite is a filling and healthy “bunny chow” – a third of a loaf of bread with the middle torn out, filled with curry.
The many cultures that have contributed to South Africa’s history have also contributed to its cuisine. At an early stage, cooking was profoundly influenced by the Far Eastern slaves who were brought to the area by the Dutch. These slaves infused traditional Dutch dishes with spices, leading to the creation of such dishes as sosaties – kebabs in a spicy marinade – and bobotie – minced lamb or beef with a top of baked egg, milk, and toasted almonds. Curries, also a product of the Malay influence, are usually served with spicy, flavorful sauces, chutney (onions and fruits cooked with spices and vinegar), and atchars (pickles).
Traditional black “chow” (food in South Africa slang) relies heavily on beans, grains, and corn. Putu, a staple of the Zulu diet, is made by cooking cornmeal (known as “mealie meal”) into a stiff, dry porridge and is eaten with amasi, a sour milk. The Afrikaners have developed their own version called pap which they serve with sweet tomato and onion relish known as sous. Cooked greens maize and roasted mealie (corn) on the cob are favorite snacks, especially in cities. Homemade brews from cornmeal, sorghum seeds, or millet are common beverages.
The Great Trek resulted in some unique ways to preserve food as the Afrikaners made the long trip across arid territories. The best-known and perhaps best-tasting is biltong – salted, spiced, and air-dried beef. Beef or lamb ribs were pickled in brine to make soutribbetjies, and scones were dried to make beskuit (called rusks in English) to be dunked in tea or coffee. Bredie, a stew of vegetables and meat, was cooked over campfires in three-legged, round-bellied iron pots. Potjiekos, or pot food, consists of layers of pork, beef, lamb, and different vegetables simmered over a low fire to blend the flavors and make the meat melt-in-the-mouth tender.
South African barbecues, or braaivleis (more commonly known as braai), also derived from the Great Trek. The staple is lamb chops, and boerewors, a juicy sausage with coarsely-chopped beef, pork, herbs, and spices. Vetkoeks (fat cakes), made from yeast dough deep-fried in oil and eaten with savory mince or Bovril (South African-style Vegemite), are a dinner favorite.
Traditional African sweets include melkert (milk tart), soetkoekies, cookies from the Cape Area, and koeksusters, small plaited portions of dough, deep-fried and then dipped in a syrupy sauce which they soak up to become very sweet and moist. These have been adopted into black culture and are called itwist.
Specialties of Durban’s Indian population include: samosa, a three-sided, deep-fried triangle with spicy meat and vegetable fillings; biryani, a blend of meat and spices marinated overnight in yogurt, and roti, a flat bread.
South Africa is home to a thriving wine industry, initiated in 1655 when the first governor of the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck, planted a vineyard and produced the first Cape wine. Cape vineyards now offer 21,000 wines from which to choose. Revelers may come across local and home-brewed specialties such as “cane,” a spirit distilled from sugar cane and frequently mixed with Coca-Cola. Beer brands in South Africa include Lion, Castle, Hansa, and Ohlssons, and are consumed with gusto at braai and sporting events. Maheu is a thick and sour homemade beer with a sorghum base.
Durban may play third fiddle to Cape Town and Jo’burg in terms of size, but it can still get as funky. Nightlife ranges from the gritty West St. beachfront and industrial areas around Umbilo Rd. to the glossy suburbs of Berea and Morningside. These diverse nightspots often attract segregated crowds.
The evolution of some South African holidays manifests how South Africa has changed over the past decade. December 16th – once called the Day of the Vow to celebrate the Boers’ pact with God that led to their victory in the Battle of Blood River – is now Reconciliation Day. Most businesses are closed on holidays. If a public holiday falls on a Sunday, it will be celebrated the following Monday.
South Africans are generally very outgoing. Many will engage you in conversation, often enthusiastically referring to the popular topic of national sports. White South African have continental manners. Initiating conversations with a firm handshake is key. Make eye contact and don’t put your hands in your pockets while talking to someone. When you arrive at the airport, you might be greeted by porters with cupped hands. These men are not begging; rather they are indicating that they will be grateful for any tip you may give them.
Always receive gifts and reach for things with two hands. Ladies don’t always go first; African men usually enter the door before women do. Greetings are usually more involved than a simple “hello” – you should ask how someone and their family is doing.
If you plan to visit a Zulu village or homestead, wait to enter until people notice you and invite you in. Do not stand when a Zulu chief or high ranking official walks toward you; your head should always be below his. Accept offers of food or drink (refusing them is insulting). Don’t be surprised if children are shy when you approach them. People who are younger than you will not make eye contact and will not speak until you address them.
Do not point; it’s rude, and it looks like you are trying to challenge someone. Indicate where objects are with an open hand instead. Making a “V” with your middle and index fingers with your palm facing your body is very insulting.