Durban has the pulse, the look, and the complex face of Africa. It may have something to do with the summer heat, a clinging sauna that soaks you with sweat in minutes. If you wander into the Indian District or drive through the Warwick Triangle—an area away from the sea around Julius Nyerere (Warwick) Avenue—the pulsating city rises up to meet you. Traditional healers tout animal organs, vegetable and spice vendors crowd the sidewalks, and minibus taxis hoot incessantly as they trawl for business. It is by turns colorful, stimulating, and hypnotic. It's also a place steeped in history and culture. Gandhi lived and practiced law here, and Winston Churchill visited as a young man. It's home to the largest number of Indians outside India; the massive Indian townships of Phoenix and Chatsworth stand as testimony to the harsh treatment Indians received during apartheid, though now thousands of Indians are professionals and businesspeople in Durban. Street names have all been updated, but the old ones remain in brackets as some maps and locals still refer to streets by the old names. By no means should you plan an entire vacation around Durban, because there is so much more to see beyond the city. Nevertheless, it's definitely worth a stopover. To get the most from your visit, get ready to explore the Central Business District (CBD), which includes the Indian District; the Beachfront; and Berea and Morningside. If you're concerned about safety within the CBD, book tours through Tourist Junction.
What's On in Durban, a free monthly publication put out by the tourism office and distributed at popular sites, lists a diary of upcoming events.
Durban offers a great array of shopping experiences, from the Beachfront, where you can buy cheap beadwork and baskets, to enormous Western-style malls such as Gateway in Umhlanga. In general, bargaining is not expected, though you might try it at the Beachfront or with hawkers anywhere. Look out for goods indigenous to the province: colorful Zulu beadwork and tightly handwoven baskets.
Durban Art Gallery
The gallery presents a vibrant, contemporary mix of local, southern African, and international work, though the main focus is on work from KwaZulu-Natal. Exhibits have included the cultural diversity of South African handicrafts, forensic investigation, a project celebrating the paternal instinct, and a multimedia display highlighting Durban's annual events with work from Mozambique, Botswana, and Angola. Look out, too, for the traditional, patterned hlabisa baskets, regularly displayed at the gallery. Exhibits change every few months.
Umgeni River Bird Park
This bird park, ranked among the world's best, is built under high cliffs next to the Umgeni River and has various walk-through aviaries. The variety of birds, both exotic and indigenous, is astonishing. You'll be able to take close-up photographs of macaws, giant Asian hornbills, toucans, pheasants, flamingos, and eight species of crane, including the blue crane, South Africa's national bird. Try to time your visit to take in the bird show, which is a delight for both children and adults, and afterward have your photo taken with Otis, a white-faced owl. Drinks and light lunches are served at the park's kiosk.
Built in 1910 in Edwardian neo-baroque style, the hall looks as if it has been shipped straight from the United Kingdom column by column—hardly surprising, since it's an exact copy of Belfast City Hall. The main pediment carries sculptures representing Britannia, Unity, and Patriotism, and allegorical sculptures of the arts, music, and literature adorn the exterior. City Hall still houses the mayor's parlor and other government offices, the Durban Art Gallery and Natural Science Museum, and the City Library. Ask the guard to let you in to see the huge theater's ornate molding and grand parterre boxes, or join an official tour run by Durban Africa.
S. A. Sugar Terminal
Much of Durban's early economy was built on the sugar industry, and even today the hills and fields around the city and along the north and south coasts are covered with sugarcane. It's not surprising then that Durban's Sugar Terminal is the largest in southern Africa and one of the most advanced in the world. A short video presentation provides background on the sugar industry, and then you'll be taken on a walking tour of the terminal. Together, the tour and video presentation take 45 minutes. It's extraordinary to see the terminal's three enormous silos piled high to the domed ceiling with tons of raw sugar. The architectural design of the silos has been patented and used in other parts of the world.
Pronounced kwa-moosh-le (with a light e, as in hen), this small museum, housed in what used to be the notorious Department of Native Affairs, tells of Durban's apartheid history. During apartheid the department was responsible for administering the movement of black people in and out of the city, dealing with the dreaded passes that blacks had to carry at all times, and generally overseeing the oppressive laws that plagued the black population. Ironically, the name means "place of the good one," Kwa meaning "place of" and "Muhle" meaning "good one" (after J. S. Marwick, the benevolent manager of the municipal native affairs department from 1916 to 1920). Exhibits provide the often heartbreaking background on this period through old photographs and documents, replicas of passbooks, and lifelike models of people involved in the pass system, including shebeen (an informal bar) queens, who had to apply for permits to sell alcohol.
The city's principal tourist information outlet occupies Durban's old railway station, an attractive brick building constructed in 1894 in Flemish Revival style. The "ngr" above the main entrance stands for Natal Government Railways. Durban Africa, the city's tourist authority, is here, and the KwaZulu-Natal tourism authority also has a large office here, so it's a good place to pick up pamphlets and information for the city and province, and book tours or trips to any of the province's game reserves.
Durban Botanic Gardens
Opposite the Greyville Racecourse, Africa's oldest surviving botanical garden is a delightful 150-year-old oasis of greenery interlaced with walking paths, fountains, and ponds. The gardens' orchid house and collection of rare cycads are renowned. The Garden of the Senses caters to the blind, and there's a lovely tea garden where you can take a load off your feet and settle back with a cup of hot tea and cakes—the crumpets (similar to flapjacks) are the best in town! On weekends it's a popular place for wedding photographs, so you'll be sure to see retinues of colorfully clad bridesmaids. Look out for Music at the Lake, which happens on some Sundays. Various musical acts perform in the gardens (there is an additional entrance fee), and people take along picnics to while away the afternoon.
uShaka Marine World
This aquatic complex combines the uShaka Sea World aquarium and the uShaka Wet 'n Wild water park. The world's fifth largest aquarium and the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, uShaka Sea World has a capacity of nearly six million gallons of water, more than four times the size of Cape Town's aquarium. The innovative design is as impressive as its size. You enter through the side of a giant ship and walk down several stories, past the massive skeleton of Misty, a southern right whale that died near Cape Town after colliding with a ship, until a sign welcomes you to the "bottom of the ocean." Here you enter a "labyrinth of shipwrecks"—a jumble of five different fake but highly realistic wrecks, from an early-20th-century passenger cruiser to a steamship. Within this labyrinth are massive tanks, housing more than 350 species of fish and other sea life and the biggest variety of sharks in the world. On land, there are dolphin, penguin and seal shows, and a variety of reptiles and amphibians at the Dangerous Creatures exhibit to be viewed for an additional fee.The extensive uShaka Wet 'n Wild water fun park comprises slides, pools, and about 10 different water rides. The intensity ranges from toddler to adrenaline junkie. Durban's moderate winter temperatures make it an attraction pretty much all year round, though it's especially popular in summer. Avoid on public holidays and call ahead during winter when hours may change.
Built in 1927 in a style that combines Islamic and colonial features, this is the largest mosque in the Southern Hemisphere. Its colonnaded verandas, gold-domed minaret, and turrets give the surrounding streets much of their character. Tours (the only way to visit) are free and can be arranged through the Islamic Propagation Center, in a room at the entrance of the mosque, or through the Durban Tourism offices at Tourist Junction. If you plan to go inside, dress modestly, as in most mosques around the world. Women should bring scarves to cover their heads out of courtesy, wear skirts below the knees, and cover their shoulders. Men should not wear shorts. A good idea is to keep a kikoi (a lightweight African sarong readily available in local markets) in your bag to use as a skirt or scarf. Men can use them, too, to cover bare legs. You'll have to take off your shoes as you enter, so wear socks if you don't want to go barefoot. No tours are offered during Islamic holidays, including Ramadan, which varies but lasts a whole month in the latter part of the year.
Bartle Arts Trust (BAT) Centre
The vibrant center (though perhaps a little on the seedy side these days) is abuzz with artists and musicians. Most days—and some nights—you can watch sculptors, dancers, musicians, and painters at work, and at night the BAT comes alive with plays, music, and African film or video festivals. The center is home to several small galleries, which showcase the work of local artists. The center contains a restaurant, a coffee bar overlooking the bay, a nightspot with live music, and shops that sell an excellent selection of high-quality African crafts, fabrics, and ceramics.