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Offbeat Durban: The Hipster Soul of South Africa.

things to do in durban, hayani, playhouse theatre durban

Looking for things to do in Durban? Pop-up restaurants, a traditional outdoor church, local theatre and more offbeat Durban adventures!

If Cape Town is the pretty face of South Africa, Durban is its hipster soul.

 The infectious spirit of the locals, the alternative curry culinary experiences and the artistic bent of the city blew me away. I fell in love the moment I saw its long white coastline, caressed by the deep blue Indian Ocean. It’s Zulu name eThekwini encapsulates this perfect confluence of water and earth.

Here are some quirky ways to experience offbeat Durban:

Delve into the local art scene

My friend Andrea Rees (who runs The Heart of a Woman project near Cape Town) stumbled on a tweet about Hayani while we were in Durban.

We landed at the local Playhouse Theatre that night, the only outsiders to catch a phenomenal two-man play. It traced the stories of two young boys and how their lives have changed over the last two decades in South Africa.

Even though part of it was in the native Xhosa language, the incredible depiction of the characters and the raw emotions of the audience gave me some much-needed perspective into this complex country.

Refer to the Playhouse Theatre facebook page and keep an eye on the #meetSouthAfrica hashtag on Twitter to find out what’s happening in the vibrant arts scene of Durban when you’re around.

Also read: 50 Epic yet Offbeat Things to do in Cape Town

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Offbeat Durban | A still from Hayani. Photo by The Playhouse Company.

Eat at a pop-up rooftop restaurant

On our first evening in Durban, South Africa Tourism invited us to an alternative culinary experience on the rooftop of a building, with splendid nighttime views of the central business district.

We walked through a deserted building, along candle-lit staircases and corridors, to an obscure rooftop – the most eclectic dinner venue I’ve been to yet.

Fusion food, including the spicy chakalaka soup, mini bunny chows and rooibos ice cream, were prepared live by Zak and Tonic, young Durban chefs whose brainchild is this popup. It appears in different urban settings, on a beach or in the backdrop of the mountains!

See the Zak and Tonic website for a public popup dinner that might match your travel dates.

Also read: An Experiential Guide to New York City

Zak and tonic, pop up restaurant south africa
Offbeat Durban: Popup rooftop dinner with Zak and Tonic and the #meetSouthAfrica bloggers.

Observe a weekend church in the outdoors (truly offbeat Durban!)

Once upon a time, the native tribes of South Africa worshipped their ancesters. They believed the spirit of the dead looked after the family and must be revered.

Although most of these tribes have converted to Christianity, they maintain their connection with nature by holding outdoor churches. On a weekend afternoon, look for small groups of people dressed in white, gathered in a park or the beach. Observe how they reconnect with the higher powers – an otherworldly sight I glimpsed on a mystical Sunday afternoon in Durban.

Also read: Why You Need to Visit South Africa

Durban outdoor prayer, what to do in durban, things to do in durban, offbeat durban
Things to do in Durban | Outdoor prayer gathering in Durban. Photo by Sandra Cohen-Rose.

Get messy with a bunny chow (not exactly offbeat Durban though)

No, it has nothing to do with rabbits or Chinese food!

A bunny chow is simply a hollowed-out loaf of bread, filled with spicy curry (typically chickpea) and covered with a piece of bread in lieu of a spoon. Thanks to the city’s large Indian-origin community, it has become a Durban food icon! 

Legend has it that the bunny chow was created by first-generation Indians who worked on the sugarcane plantations in South Africa, as a convenient and waste-free way to carry their curries to work. I indulged in a bean bunny (stuffed with chickpea curry) off a street cart, and was amazed at how delicious and messy it was. Offbeat Durban or not, almost a right of passage in the city!

Take your pick from this bunny chow trail in Durban.

Also read: How we *almost* got stranded at the South Africa – Lesotho Border

bunny chow, south africa vegan food
Things to do in Durban | Mini bean bunnies off a street cart in Durban.

Experience the Zulu way of life in a township

Heed the warnings, but don’t make assumptions about South African townships until you’ve visited one yourself.

I was pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome I received on my brief visit to Mamelodi Township (near Pretoria), and to hear that it was once the jazz capital of the country!

I didn’t have time in Durban, but I had shortlisted this trip with Tekweni tours. The goal was to get a taste of life in a township with a guide who grew up there, and which contributes part of the revenues to the community. Don’t treat it like a safari, and don’t shove your camera into people’s faces. Go with an open mind, make friends and soak in the chill, reggae, welcoming vibes!

Also read: 15 Responsible Travel Tips for Authentic, Meaningful Experiences on the Road

what to do in durban, durban activities, things to do in durban
Offbeat Durban | Street art in South Africa, by Mr Coe.One. Photo by tsn92.

Chill in Durban’s quirky cafes

I’ve seen my fair share of quirky cafes around the world, but Freedom Café raised the benchmark. It’s housed inside a glass-walled tin container, surrounded by shaded courtyards. Offers free Wifi and a delicious breakfast. The perfect place to inspire creativity or to while away an afternoon.

I also heard about The Factory Cafe and The Corner Cafe. Wish I had more days to explore Durban’s alternative café scene!

Also read: 15 Awesome Mumbai Hangouts, Green Corners and Cosy Cafes

freedom cafe durban, what to do in durban, durban cafes, offbeat durban
Things to do in Durban | Is Freedom Cafe the coolest or what?

Soak up beach vibes on an Instawalk

Get in on the new social media craze, connect with locals and fellow travellers, and pick up a tip or two to improve your photography on an Instawalk! These photography walks are designed to capture the essence of this alternative coastal city. 

On my Instawalk, I met a Zambian photographer living in South Africa, a third-generation couple of Indian origin with incredible stories about growing up in Durban, and folks I’ve tweeted with regularly. it’s more about the people you meet than the photography (and honestly it doesn’t even matter if you use Instagram!).

See #IgersDurban on Instagram to find upcoming walks.

Also read: Why You Need to Drop Everything and Visit Iran Now!

Durban promenade, activities Durban, Durban sunset
Offbeat Durban | The promenade of Durban at sunset.

What offbeat Durban adventures have you had? What things to do in Durban are you most looking forward to?

Note: I visited Durban on invitation from the South Africa Tourism Board, as part of the #MeetSouthAfrica blogging campaign. Opinions on this blog are always my own.

Featured image by The Playhouse Company.

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13 Comments

  1. Sarika says

    Would love to eat at a pop-up restaurant one day! Hopefully the concept picks up in India.

  2. john obrien says

    hi Shivya, really enjoyable writing. must go there! thank you.

  3. Priya says

    Very nice….Did you find it difficult to communicate with the localites? Are they comfortable with English?

  4. Yes, very much! Most of them speak atleast some English. I would love to stay longer and learn one of the native languages though; very fascinating 🙂

  5. Pingback: In Photos: Incredible Moments in South Africa. | The Shooting Star

  6. theheartlesstravelled says

    South Africa, Durban in particular, has been high on my list for so long! In saying that, reading this article introduced even more super cool and interesting stuff about Durban that I didn’t know about and now I just want to book the next flight there!

    I’m also a huge bunny chow lover so the idea of a bunny chow trail sounds like absolute heaven!

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