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Durban could be considered South Africa’s middle child: Johannesburg is ambitious and successful, picture-perfect Cape Town is the apple of everyone’s eye, and Durban, despite its many charms, is perennially overlooked. But thanks to homegrown entrepreneurs reviving the city’s creative spirit, Durban is finally stepping out of its siblings’ shadows.
It’s all about the vaaabs in Durbs.
“It’s a good morning for some surf vibes.” “Time for coffee vibes.” “Braai vibes tonight?” You might even catch a photographer directing a model by asking for some “turn-your-head vibes.”
Good vibes are a defining feature of Durban, South Africa, a seaside city where the beaches are beautiful, the Indian Ocean water is warm, and sun is always blazing. Durban averages 320 days of sunshine a year, and whether in the form of an early morning swim or a late-afternoon stroll, the beach is a fixture in most Durbanites’ daily routines. With all these stellar vibes going on, you might assume Durban is a sleepy, laid-back coastal town that’s the domain of surfers and beach bums — and while they do make up a sizable contingent of the population, in Durban, these surfers and beach bums also double as trailblazing entrepreneurs and artists.
But that easygoing vibe means making it as a creative in Durban is no easy feat, and the hustle here can be a lot harder than many other places. “Durban is a tough place,” says Andrew Rall, a host on Airbnb who returned home to the city in 1999 after a stint in the UK and is at the forefront of Durban’s creative revival. “It’s a great testing ground. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”
If you were to do a census of talents in the booming advertising, media, entertainment, and fashion industries in Johannesburg and Cape Town, you’d discover many key South African innovators have roots in Durban, but moved farther afield to make names for themselves. These days, however, the tide is turning: Durban is thriving with visionaries like Rall returning home and spurring a grassroots effort to revive the city’s inner city and vibrant suburbs. Rall was one of the pioneers behind the Station Drive precinct, a small enclave that has, through the foresight of private developers like him, blossomed organically into the city’s de facto creative hub. There, you’ll find Rall’s own Distillery 031, ateliers for beloved proudly local fashion labels like Terrence Bray and Jane Sews, shops, cafés, and a vibrant weekly market called Morning Trade. It’s also an epicenter for the city’s First Thursdays festivities, an eagerly anticipated recent addition to the Durban social calendar with live music, art exhibitions, and food trucks.
I ask Rall what’s luring expat Durbanites back home these days. “Places like this,” he replies without hesitation. “You need a community to be creative. With areas like Station Drive popping up, it’s viable as a creative person to be here. You can make a living and have a great lifestyle — beach, weather, outdoor activities.”
Later that evening I dive into the Station Drive scene with Didi Sathekge, a host on Airbnb I meet up with for First Thursdays, a festive event that takes over the precinct once a month with gallery openings, food trucks, parties, and live music. The Johannesburg transplant arrived in Durban four years ago, but you’d never guess it; over the next few days, I follow her from Station Drive to a coffeeshop in Glenwood to a gallery opening on Florida Road, and at every stop we’re interrupted by people stopping us to say hello to her. “I’ve become a Durbanite,” she proudly proclaims over a late-night bunny chow — the iconic South African street food created by Durban’s Indian community during apartheid — at Hollywood Bets. “Being a Durbanite means you embrace balance within yourself. Because of the feel of the city, you get the best of work and play.”
Much of that balance has to do with the city’s best-known feature, that beguiling long stretch of golden sand. “The beach is the most democratic space — you’ll see women in hijab next to surfers in bikinis, homeless guys collecting recycling and born-again Christians conducting baptisms in the sea. Everyone shares the beach very happily because it’s the people’s playground,” says Raymond Perrier, a host on Airbnb with a sea-facing flat on Durban’s North Beach. Perrier, the director of the Denis Hurley Centre, is a UK expat who moved to Durban after stints in London, Johannesburg, and New York — and rates it above all the rest. “It’s just the most interesting city. All of these circles keep overlapping: religions mix, ethnicities mix, races mix.”
From the music to the art to the design, everything is influenced by the city’s intoxicating cultural cocktail. Durban’s diversity is what sets the stage for much of its distinctive flavor: the city is home to Zulu, English, and Indian cultures, and the result is a unique hybrid unlike anywhere else in the country, evident in everything from food to music to art. “If you like Africa, if you want to be in Africa, it’s a great African city,” says Rall. “You don’t have a monoculture, you’re not imitating what’s in Europe.”
The resulting creative culture is worlds away from what you’ll find anywhere else, even in Cape Town and Johannesburg — it’s less beholden to trends, more true to the city’s spirit. “Durban is a city that’s not driven by money, and people are motivated to do things out of love instead of pandering to what’s popular; it’s more honest,” says artist Aewon Wolf. I meet him in the up-and-coming Rivertown district at a cavernous, light-filled warehouse he’s transforming into a lifestyle center where Durban youths can congregate to explore their talents — practice dance, record music, or paint and exhibit their work. “In other cities there’s so much money involved you tend to stick to trends. In Durban, even if you follow trends, you’re not going to make a lot of money anyway, so you might as well stick to what you like.”
I witness Durban’s finest doing what they like across the city — in Rivertown, where I dance at a block party dominated by the city’s homegrown gqom music; at the KwaZulu Natal Society for the Arts in Glenwood, where talented local artists are on display in a sleek, airy space; at the I Heart Market on the grounds of the iconic Moses Mabhida stadium, where I browse everything from dresses to peri-peri sauce, all produced by local artisans; and in the Central Business District, where I watch local performers make spontaneous musical magic on a Saturday afternoon at Jameson’s Pub, a nondescript dive bar at the back of a shopping center.
At Jameson’s I follow artist and musician Nivesh Rawatlal as he heads outside for a smoking break during a set, and ask him what defines the city’s creative spirit . “It’s that unique Durban voice — a taxi ride, a bunny chow,” he says. “It can be so many different things.”
Spend a few days in the city and you’ll quickly acquaint yourself with that voice. Popular residential neighborhoods like Morningside, Berea, and Musgrave are lined with elegant houses and apartment blocks almost hidden amid the lush greenery; but the most coveted real estate remains the Golden Mile, the city’s iconic beach that forms the heart of the city. And hardly anything in Durban is more than 15 minutes away, which makes navigating it a breeze for residents and visitors alike. One of the best ways to explore Durban is on a walking tour with Beset Durban — what began with a casual group stroll down the beachfront to learn about the city’s famed Art Deco architecture has morphed into a cult of locals passionate about reacquainting themselves with lesser-known quirks of their city; they often join tours by the hundreds. “It was an experiment that turned into a movement,” said co-founder Jonas Barausse.
“People come to a Beset walking tour knowing they’ll go down a rabbit hole,” adds co-founder Dane Forman, a photographer. “We’re getting people off their couches and onto the streets.”
Whether you explore by foot, car, cycle, or surfboard, all that matters is that you get out and soak up the energy that’s electrifying the city. “In Durban there are so many opportunities, you feel like if you flick a match it’s going to blow up,” says Rawatlal.
You should get there before it does.
Sarah Khan is a travel writer who’s lived in five countries on three continents, most recently South Africa — where she developed a fondness for Durban’s underrated charms. You can read her work on her website or follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
Photography: Kent Andreasen and Steve Glashier
Video: Steve Glashier