Durban: This unsung city is on a winning streak
City Slicker: Tourists will benefit from the legacy of the World Cup in Durban. Emily Dugan offers ideas for new and returning visitors
Sunday 30 January 2011
Now the World Cup circus has trundled out of South Africa's third largest city, you can enjoy all the benefits it brought without the crowds: improved roads, a new airport, a brilliant public transport system and spruced-up shops and restaurants.
There are subtler improvements, too: to make sure the city was up to international tourism standards, staff in Durban's hotels, restaurants and tourist sights were given free training in customer care by the local council.
While international tourists flock to Cape Town, Kruger and the Garden Route – and most business travellers rarely make it past Johannesburg – Durban is often overlooked by non-South African visitors. This is great news for holidaymakers who do make the journey, because it means that, outside South African school holidays, the city is relatively quiet.
With a subtropical climate, extensive beaches and a unique hybrid of African, European and Asian culture, Durban is an ideal place to escape the drudgery of the UK in winter. To make it more enticing, at the time of writing the pound to rand exchange rate remained heavily in Britain's favour.
...a wander through the Indian quarter With the biggest Indian population outside the subcontinent, this is one of the most vibrant parts of the city. At its heart is the Juma Masjid Mosque, the biggest mosque in the southern hemisphere. Its gold minarets and marble hall mark it out from the rest of the grey commercial district. Outside prayer-time, a friendly guide should be easy to find. Explore the surrounding streets, too, making sure you sample a Durban "bunny chow": half a loaf of bread with the centre scooped out and filled with curry.
...the Tourist Office (the Old Station Complex, 160 Pine Street). Not so much for the advice – though staff are helpful – but because it is housed in the old train station where a young Mohandas Gandhi took his foremost stand against apartheid and bought a (whites-only) first-class ticket to Johannesburg. There is an impressive statue in the lobby to commemorate the moment.
....haggling at the market. Victoria Market, in the centre of the city, is a bit rundown and touristy, but it's still one of the best places to pick up local crafts. If you carry on walking on to a rather intimidating overpass, you get to the more authentic Muthi Market, where various "witch doctors" pedal everything from snake skins to crocodile's teeth for medicinal (and occasionally vindictive) potions.
...a delve into the region's history. Go to the Gandhi Museum and see the house where the father of Indian independence spent 21 years of his life, or visit some of the Zulu battlefields, which are an easy drive away.
...the coastline. Durban is home to some of the country's best beaches. If you fancy doing more than sunning yourself, try a surf lesson with Shaun at Learn2Surf, which he runs out of the Marine Lifesavers Club on Durban's beachfront. uShaka Marine World, Africa's biggest aquarium, is a great place to take the children. Eat dinner with sharks swimming around you and explore shipwrecks or hit the theme-park rides.
Once the grottiest bit of town, Durban's docklands is now being completely transformed. Styling itself on the tourist success of Cape Town's waterfront – and hoping for the business pull of London's Canary Wharf – it still needs to fill up with people. But its location next to uShaka Marine World makes it an increasingly attractive place to visit, helped by the fact that restaurants, bars and hotels are cropping up all the time. The latest of these is the Docklands Hotel (signaturelifehotels.com). With modern interior design inspired by industrial shipping, a wall devoted to graffiti art on the ground floor and brushed steel is the fitting of choice. The adjacent Wodka restaurant (signaturelifehotels .com/restaurants) is where guests take breakfast. But its contemporary setting and the good quality international cuisine it serves have made it a hit with Durbanites, too.
Moyo uShaka Pier Bar
Moyo has gained a reputation in South Africa as an irritating pseudo-tribal chain awash with foreign tourists. Thankfully, in Durban most of the cheesy features have been abandoned but the good cocktails and prime location on the pier, with ocean views, make it worth a visit.
Moses Mabhida Stadium
This magnificent stadium was purpose-built for the 2010 Fifa World Cup and is the tournament's most visible legacy. Even if you don't like football, you should still call in because the mini funicular railway over its arch now offers the best views of the city.
Gateway Shopping Centre
No doubt thanks to an attempt to deal with an expected army of WAGs, the World Cup also spawned the mother of all shopping malls. The Gateway Centre, to the north of Durban, is the largest in the southern hemisphere. Built in 2001, Gateway was expanded to cope with the expected boom in trade for the football tournament.
People Mover Buses
It may seem pedestrian, but the biggest change for visitors is probably the arrival of the bus on Durban's streets. Previously, if you didn't have a car you had to either rely on the crammed minibus "taxis" or expensive private hires. Now, bright-green People Mover buses and easy-to-spot stops grace the city. For 30p you can get to most places in town in a swankier bus than you would find in London.
A city renamed
Not all of the recent developments have been so well received. An attempt to overhaul the city's road names to honour political heroes has sparked fury in the suburbs. Perhaps the most vociferous opposition came from residents of a predominantly white and wealthy street known as North Ridge Road. It has now been renamed Peter Mokaba road after the poet who wrote the song "Kill the Boer".
How to get there
South African Airways (0871 722 1111; flysaa.com) offers return flights from London Heathrow to Durban via Johannesburg from £659.
KwaZulu-Natal Tourism Authority (00 27 31 304 4934; durban.kzn.org.za).
Deborah Quin, Special investigator, Missing Persons Task Team
"Buds on the Bay [budsonthebay.co.za] is a great place to eat. Very low key and right on the water. My favourite dish is the prawn bunny chow, a variation of a Durban delicacy."
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