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Parc Cafe unites foodies in Glenwood, one of Durban's oldest suburbs. (Photograph by Krista Rossow, National Geographic Travel)

Insider’s Guide to Durban

Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sighted Durban’s harbor in 1497. It’s now home to Africa’s busiest cargo port and 3.5 million residents who can trace their roots around the world.

Here’s an inside look at how to make the most of your time in South Africa’s third largest city.

> What to See:

Explore the city’s anguished history during apartheid at the KwaMuhle Museum, located in the erstwhile Department of Native Affairs, where policymakers drafted the Durban System of racial segregation that laid groundwork for the national apartheid program. Interactive exhibits tell the story of black subjugation, forced relocation, and total disenfranchisement while documenting the anti-apartheid movement, its tortuous and eventually victorious path, and its many heroes.

For an immersion into the arts, crafts, and culture of the Zulu, Xhosa, Shangaan, Ndebele, and other African peoples, head to the Phansi Museum, where beadwork, fertility dolls, telephone-wire baskets, walking sticks, and more help unlock the mysteries of native traditions.

The British sugarcane industry initiated the immigration of laborers and merchants from western India starting in the 1860s, establishing what is today the largest concentration of Indians outside of India. Mahatma Gandhi developed his philosophy of passive resistance and his political skills over a 21-year period working as a lawyer in South Africa, many of those in Durban. The Inanda Heritage Route links the Phoenix Settlement, which Gandhi founded in 1904 as a communal experimental farm, and the Ohlange Institute, founded by the African National Congress‘s first president, John Dube. It was here that Nelson Mandela voted in 1994’s groundbreaking democratic election that swept him into office.

Last but not least, make sure to check out up-and-coming Glenwood. “Friendly hipsters”—it sounds like a fantasy, but not in the city’s trendiest suburb, a low-key bastion of beards, brunches, and bungalows. Magnetic attraction draws the moustachioed set to all-day breakfasts at Parc, a spectacle of locally sourced, seasonal dishes. Corner Café is an art-filled diner that’s “saving the world, one cappuccino at a time.” The Glenwood Bakery is an oasis of artisanal aromas from the city’s best coffees and breads. Sit down for sandwiches, or walk away with crispy croissants.

> Where to Stay: 

Urban Durban has its share of designer dens, but few rival the Concierge Boutique Bungalows for modern style mixed with sunny substance (and dachshund motifs). A dozen guest rooms, some with private garden verandas, sit beside the courtyard of Freedom Café within a heritage-listed block. Breakfast is on the house, so just roll out of bed and order a latte served with a wiener-dog-shaped cookie on the side.

On the beach in uMhlanga Rocks, the Beverly Hills hotel brings a breezy coastal California feel to the Indian Ocean. Overlooking the stony shore that gives this tony town its name, the 88-room hotel is a magnet for romantics and an oasis for spa-seekers.

Next door, the Oyster Box is a wedding cake of a hotel and the perfect place to set your kids free (though management may disagree). It’s easy to imagine Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire twirling about in this over-the-top inn. Sea-facing family rooms are ideal for little ones, though parents might opt for coastal cabanas with four-poster beds or two-tier suites with private plunge pools and ocean views.

> What to Read: 

In Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton, a Zulu village priest confronts the contradictions of segregated South Africa in the 1940s as he attempts to find his son, jailed for a crime against a white man, and reconcile the beauty and tragedy of his homeland.

> Travel Trivia:

  • Essential Durbanisms include howzit (hello), ngiyabonga (thank you), and sizobonana (see you later).
  • Sardine shoals swim north to the coast of KwaZulu-Natal during the annual Sardine Run (May-July), one of the largest marine events in the world.
  • The oldest plant in the world may be a cycad. Find it at the Durban Botanical Gardens.

This piece, written by George W. Stone, first appeared in the May 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine to accompany a feature he penned for the issue entitled “Into the Zulu Kingdom.”