Things to Do in KwaZulu-Natal
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.
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.
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.
On August 5 1962, on a stretch of the R103 just outside Howick in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province, armed police flagged down a car and arrested the driver, Nelson Mandela. The former president had been on the run from the South African apartheid government for 17 months and his capture marked the beginning of his 27-year imprisonment and what he called “the long walk to freedom.”
Until quite recently, this unassuming spot was marked only by a simple bricked zone with a plaque, but in 2012, on the 50th anniversary of this historic event, the significance of the area was marked with an impressive steel sculpture and a newly created visitor center.
Designed by artist Marco Cianfanelli in collaboration with the architect Jeremy Rose, the sculpture is the centerpiece of the new memorial site. It is made from 50 steel columns of varying heights. At first glance, the poles appear to be randomly suspended, but on approaching the sculpture, they merge to form an image of Mandela’s face.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Shakaland is a living history museum and cultural village that displays the traditional way of life of the Zulu people. Set in the Zulu heartland of KwaZulu-Natal (formerly Zululand), the village offers a look into a bygone era. Tourists can watch traditional tool making, take part in a beer tasting ceremony, and watch Zulu people perform songs and dances in traditional attire.
More Things to Do in KwaZulu-Natal
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Midlands Meander isn’t a single attraction at all, but rather a network of more than 150 artisans, activities, restaurants, lodging and tours that have banded together to promote the rural but creative Midlands Region of KwaZulu-Natal.
Halfway between Durban and the land-locked country of Lesotho, residents offer “slow tourism” experiences including the chance to watch artists at work, taste locally grown and produced foods, experience inspiring landscapes and meet small business owners. Dozens of art galleries and shops showcase locally-made paintings, batiks, weavings, pottery, beadwork, wrought iron, wind chimes, candles and even functional items like hammocks and locally-sourced leather shoes.
Foodies will enjoy the chance to try locally crafted beer and wine, Peel’s Honey, the oldest honey label in South Africa, or creamy goat cheese at the Swissland Cheese Farm. Golfing, fishing, horseback riding, tubing and other local attractions like the Karkloof Canopy Tours, which allows guests to zoom through forest at more than 40 miles per hour, can make a day trip turn into a week-long adventure. Also popular are Howick Falls, whose local lore ties it to seasonal storms, and the roadside sculpture and mini-museum that commemorates the location where Nelson Mandela was captured and sent Robben Island in 1962. Even accommodations are quirky and unique Sycamore Avenue Treehouses rents private abodes tucked into a forest.
The association that unites the forest and village sites of the Midlands Meander puts out an annual route map offering several itineraries options based on Interest. Tour companies depart Durban and take in a selection of what’s on offer.
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.
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.
Intrepid travelers with a love of the outdoors will find that a truly memorable experience awaits them on trek through the Royal National Park. An easy 7 km trail winds through this impressive gorge, past thick forests and the stunning Tugela Falls. Well-marked paths guide hikers to a bouldering wonderland and a terrifying (but safe) chain ladder over a rushing river where incredible views of the Africa’s second-largest falls will inspire.
Travelers in the know say it’s best to start the hike early to avoid the blazing hot afternoon sun, and packing plenty of water is a must. Remember, the falls run dry during winter, so while the hike still offers stunning mountain range views, the raging waters can only be found during summer and spring.