Greetings, Internet Stranger, and welcome to the Approximately Top 10 best things to do in Durban, South Africa. Durban is South Africa’s third-largest city, which to an American like me makes it analogous to Chicago, our third-largest city.
But as delightful as Chicago is, Durban has many wonders that Chicago never dreamed of having. Does Chicago have spectacular beaches? Durban does. Does Chicago have amazing sea creatures and fascinating reptile houses? Durban does?
So join me for a day of the best things to do in Durban and you might just find that while it’s third in population, it will be first in your heart.
Best Things to Do in Durban
How To Get There
Now, I wish I knew where you lived, Internet Stranger, because I could send you a beautiful box of South African wine. But sadly, I do not, and so I can’t tell you how to get from your home to your day of the best things to do in Durban.
But I can tell you that I used a lovely airplane to get from my hometown NYC to Johannesburg, and then I took a shorter flight to Durban. I recommend Expedia for the best way to find the cheapest flight to South Africa at the best time of day. It’s really easy to see all your options for flights by using their website. That’s how I learned it would save me money to take a round trip ticket to Johannesburg and then go to Durban, rather than doing a round trip from NYC directly to Durban.
Just click here to start looking for the best possible deals on your flight, so you can head out to find the best things to do in Durban ASAP.
Best Things to Do in Durban
Where to Stay?
Durban can be a little confusing for a first time visitor, so I strongly recommend the Avondale Boutique Hotel. It’s in a convenient location within walking distance from many of the best things to do in Durban, it’s super safe, and there’s a delicious breakfast served every morning. Durban is famous for its Indian food, so take advantage and try the marvelously spicy eggs.
Best Things to Do in Durban
What to Pack
- Cute sandals for strolling around the best things to do in Durban
- Practical boots if it rains, which it did when I visited Durban. These are cute enough that you can wear them to a restaurant and it won’t attract attention.
- An umbrella that will keep you dry as you explore the best things to do in Durban.
- A cell charger so you have enough power to take photos of all the spectacular marine life in Durban.
- The best travel adapter so you can plug in all your electronics in South African sockets, even if you are American like me.
- The best vintage swimsuit for enjoying the fabulous Durban beaches.
- A great spray sunscreen that’s easy to apply even for a solo traveler like me.
- My favorite guide to South Africa, including Durban.
- Durban is in the state KwaZulu-Natal, so it’s a good idea to read something about the history of the Zulu before you arrive.
- I always travel with travel insurance from World Nomads. You never know when something might go wrong, especially in this day and age, and you don’t want to get stranded in a foreign country without help. But with travel insurance, you’re protected even if you’re attacked by a gaggle of vicious penguins while looking for the best things to do in Durban.
Best Things to Do in Durban
Morning: uShaka Marine World
uShaka Marine World is definitely the most popular attraction in Durban. When you head down here on a sunny day, it might feel like the whole city is here! But that’s no reason to stay away! You can hardly say you’ve tried the best things to do in Durban without visiting uShaka.
There’s many different sections to uShaka, but I recommend spending the whole morning at uShaka Sea World, which is like the aquarium. I didn’t visit the popular water park uShaka Wet ‘n Wild because I don’t like going to water parks alone. (No one to watch my stuff while I get wet.)
But if you want to do Sea World and Wet ‘n Wild in one day, just move the Durban Botanical Garden to another day. And if you’ve decided to follow my exact itinerary, just continue following me for…
1) What’s the best thing to see at uShaka Sea World?
My favorite part of Sea World was the indoor aquarium that’s full of fascinating sea creatures. You might worry that you’ll miss the animal shows outdoors if you go in the aquarium, but don’t worry!
The indoor aquarium doesn’t take a ticket or anything when you go inside because you already paid your admission to get into Sea World. So you can enter and exit the aquarium as you please. Plus the staff will announce upcoming showtimes so you have plenty of time to get there.
Some of the coolest creatures in the aquarium include the upside-down jelly, which you can see in my photo above…
The St. Joseph’s shark, which is a cross between a shark and a bony fish. The sign said that makes it a chimera, but I don’t believe that because chimera are definitely a monster that I’ve fought in a Final Fantasy game.
Some endangered seahorses that are native to South Africa. (How can a seahorse be endangered? We don’t eat them. Who are these mean people who are murdering innocent seahorses? Is there a Seahorse Zodiac Killer out there?)
And here we have the stonefish, which looks like a stone but is in fact a deadly poisonous creature. That seems like a dangerous combination. Maybe this is the one who’s been killing the seahorses? (Seahorse killer, qu’est-ce que c’est, ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah.)
2) What’s the best animal show?
I think the seal show is definitely one of the best things to do in Durban. Seals are so smart, and it’s full of cute jokes like when the trainer said the seal’s biggest enemy in the wild was a shark, and the seal dove in the water and gave himself a little pretend shark fin while the Jaws music played.
The trainers also had a little demonstration with the seals to show how trash in the ocean can be deadly to them. They had the seal play with a hoop and said to imagine the hoop was trash. Then the seal flopped down and played dead.
(Really the seal was fine. But how traumatizing for any kids in the audience who were really convinced the seal had died. I bet they never throw their trash away again.
3) Who are the cutest animals?
Well, I’m biased, but I think it’s the penguins. Look at them all snuggled up there! Some days you can see a penguin feeding, but that wasn’t available when I was there. The penguins are mostly rescue penguins, and they have signs all around about how they try to rehabilitate them and release them into the wild. But some of the penguins can never be fully healed, so they just live a life of luxury in the aquarium forever.
You might be weirded out to see penguins in such a warm place, but these are African penguins, so they like it. They’re not like the Emperor penguins or the Happy Feet penguins or any other kind of Very Real type of penguin you might find in Antarctica.
The gift shop has great postcards, by the way, so stop by and support the aquarium and you can take a cute picture of one of the penguins home with you!
24 Hour Treat: Surf Riders Cafe
After a full morning at Sea World, you’ll want to pick up some lunch. I strongly recommend leaving Sea World and heading down the beach a short distance to Surf Riders Cafe. You can get a refreshing meal while you stare at the ocean. My watermelon and calamari salad was super fresh and so huge that I couldn’t possibly eat it all.
The waitress at Surf Riders was also memorably friendly. She recognized that I was not South African from my accent, but she couldn’t place where I was from. I have a pretty standard American accent, so this surprised me. But she said they don’t get so many Americans in Durban, so it was harder for her to tell.
So if you’re American and reading this post, head on down to Durban before the rest of the US discovers it!
Best Things to Do in Durban
Afternoon: Durban Botanic Gardens
Our day of the best things to do in Durban continues at the Durban Botanic Gardens. This place is one of the oldest botanical gardens in all of Africa, and it’s completely free to visit.
But, if you don’t mind spending a little money, I suggest booking a 30 to 60 minute golf cart tour. The guides are amazing and knowledgeable, and the money goes to supporting the garden. The price was very reasonable when I went, and I didn’t book in advance. But if you want to be safe, just reserve your tour in advance here. Then get ready to learn…
Approximately Top 5: Durban Botanic Gardens
1) Cannonball Tree
Our first stop on the 60 minute tour was the cannonball tree. This tree has some of the ugliest fruit I have ever seen, but the flowers smell amazing. They’re like a cross between a jasmine and a rose. Plus my guide showed me how to take a beautiful picture of the flower, which was helpful. You might have noticed that my photography skills are not anywhere near my writing skills.
2) Sunken Garden
One of the prettiest places in the Botanic Gardens, and therefore one of the best things to do in Durban, is the Sunken Garden. My guide told me that the British, who first created the Durban Botanic Garden, really enjoy sunken gardens, so that’s why one is there. He said it’s because the weather’s not always good in England, so the sunken garden protects the plants. Well I’ll be! This is the first I’ve ever heard that it rains often in England.
This garden was extra pretty on that day because an Ethiopian family was there having a destination wedding. You can see it in the background of my picture. One of the nice things about taking the tour is that the guide took a bunch of non-selfies of me, which can be hard to get when you travel alone.
3) The Loneliest Old Man in the World
The Loneliest Old Man in the World is actually a tree. He belongs to a species of plant that needs a male and female plant to reproduce, but all the females in his species died out. That’s why he’s so lonely. Fortunately, some Tree Yenta Scientists are working hard to create a female for him. Matchmaker, matchmaker make Tree a match!
Because this tree is so rare, he’s worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, so he needs to be under constant surveillance. Someone needs to write a new Ocean’s Eleven movie about a group of thieves trying to steal this tree, stat!
4) Prettiest Bird in Durban
And here we have the prettiest bird in Durban, the Southern red bishop. Of course, I can’t guarantee that he’ll be there when you go because he is a bird, but if he is there, you should be able to take his picture. He’s not at all shy.
If the Southern red bishop isn’t there, at least you’ll get to see these kissing trees. My guide said they just grew together this way by accident, but I choose to believe they did it on purpose because they are in love.
5) Paint Tree
And here we have the tree that my guide said was his favorite in the whole garden. That’s because the bark looks like it’s made out of a grillion different types of paint. Look up close at the bark and you’ll see it’s true.
I could hardly believe this tree was real. It seemed like maybe my guide had applied the paint himself in order to prank unsuspecting visitors. But apparently the tree actually grows like this. I ended up being very glad that I took the tour because I discovered all these wonders I wouldn’t have found on my own.
Best Things to Do in Durban
Evening: Dinner at Chef’s Table
Can I guarantee that Chef’s Table is the best restaurant in Durban? Probably my lawyer won’t let me. But I certainly can’t imagine there being a better restaurant, and it’s surely one of the best things to do in Durban.
The food on the tasting menu was phenomenal, the wine pairings were perfectly on point, and the price was extremely reasonable, considering the quality. Let me walk you through what we’re having tonight.
First was the “Driftwood of the Day”, which was a nice nod to Durban’s place on the water. This lovely amuse bouche was just a simple yet satisfying tuna tartare on a rice cracker.
Next we have a pink prawn curry with rice, labneh, and curry leaf. I especially liked the flavor of the curry leaf, which was a new ingredient for me.
This dish was called The Whole Mussel, and it was served with apple and mussel broth. A bad mussel is the worst, but this was possibly the freshest mussel I have ever eaten. Plus, I enjoyed that the wine pairing was from the Muratie vineyard, which I had visited in Cape Town. Drink as much South African wine as you can in South Africa as my grandmother always used to say.
This minimalist dish is duck with liver, cherry, and a shiitake reduction. It reminded me of a particularly memorable duck dish I had at Taillevent in Paris, only this was much more reasonably priced. The best part was the crispy skin. Very unfair that the most delicious part of any bird is also the least healthy.
For our final main course, we have a gorgeous lamb with mint, summer squash, and tomato. I always think of lamb as being a food better suited to cold weather, but with the mint and summer vegetables, it was just perfect for a hot Durban summer in January. That’s why they call it Hot Lamb Summer.
Cheese courses seem very popular in South Africa, and this was an especially tasty one because it was a pungent goat cheese surrounded by beets prepared many ways. We had normal beets, powdered beet, dehydrated beet, here a beet, there a beet, everywhere a beet beet. But then, beets are nature’s candy as Doug Funnie always used to say.
Finally we have one of the cutest desserts you will ever see. On the menu it was called a Christmas ornament, and it was made with white chocolate and dates. How nice to have a lovely little miniature Christmas pudding all your own! At first I didn’t understand why there was a Christmas dessert in the summer, but then I remembered that it was January and all made sense.
Oh Southern hemisphere! One day I will understand your ways.
Those are the Best Things to Do in Durban!
What do you think are the best things to do in Durban? Are you ready to start booking your hotel in Durban? And is that stonefish really a serial killer? Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY have 24 hours with the best things to do in Durban.