Nestled at the southernmost tip of the African continent, South Africa is a nation known for its varied topography, rich history, and cultural diversity. It’s got big game national parks, lush wine territories, and craggy capes, but South Africa is also home to more than one dynamic city.
Cape Town is the bustling capital. Set beneath Table Mountain with its busy harbor and sprawling beaches, it’s a picture of natural beauty, but it’s also a cosmopolitan hub with trendy galleries, rooftop bars, and world-rated restaurants. Durban, on the other hand, is equally picturesque but with an urban edge. Idyllic surf spots punctuate the “Golden Mile”, but its colonial history and thriving Indian culinary scene have all helped to put it on the map.
If you’re stuck between Cape Town and Durban, we’re here to help. Our guide looks at all the thing that makes these cities unique from the beaches to the costs and everything in between. Will it be South Africa’s “mother city”, or its “curry capital”? Let’s find out.
Cape Town or Durban: General Vibe
They might both be coastal cosmopolitan hubs with sprawling beaches and commercial centers, but Cape Town and Durban are very different, and miles apart. The South African capital is located on the shore of Table Bay in the far southwest of the country. Lapped by the cool waters of the South Atlantic, Cape Town has a Mediterranean appeal with all the urban amenities you could want from a capital city and stunning surrounding scenery too.
In contrast, Durban is situated on South Africa’s east coast, further north than Cape Town, and more tropical in feel. The city looks out over the Indian Ocean in Natal Bay and is marked by its blend of cultures. African, Indian and colonial heritage have all influenced this thriving seaport and the mesh of architectural styles and active Indian community make Durban what it is today.
The cities are more than 1,500 kilometers apart, so it’s unlikely that you’ll get to see both on your South African getaway, but choosing just one could be harder than you think.
First things first, Cape Town is the larger and more populous city of the two. This is unsurprising for a capital, but Durban isn’t too far behind. The latter is the third-biggest city in South Africa, after Johannesburg and Cape Town, and has a sizeable population of 3.7 million, compared to Cape Town’s 4.6 million. Durban is one of the largest cities on Africa’s Indian coast. Still, Durban has a decidedly slower pace than South Africa’s capital and this is the main difference in the general feel of the cities.
The people of Durban are characteristically laid-back. They don’t rush, whether that’s through conversations or walking. Durban is a surfer town at its core, despite recent urban developments. The Golden Mile as its locally known, has been a big pull factor to Durban for decades. This popular stretch of beachfront is not only reserved for surfers but scenic walks, urban life, and warm tropical waters pull thousands of tourists, and Durbanites, every year.
That said, South Africa’s capital is historically more popular with visitors, welcoming some 3 million tourists a year, compared to Durban’s one million. Cape Town is always busy, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s often voted one of the most beautiful cities in the world with its picturesque harbor and mountainous scenery to viral that of Rio de Janeiro, but Cape Town offers a bit of something for everyone with world-rated restaurants, trendy bars, upscale rooftops, and laid-back beaches. It’s hard for Durban to compete.
Cape Town is less conservative than Durban too with a welcoming gay scene and happening nightlife. Still, Durban has its Indian influences to thank for its famous culinary delights and its often dubbed the “curry capital” of South Africa. These cities are unique in their own right, but neither will disappoint if you’re looking for a healthy blend of adventure and modernity.
Cape Town or Durban: Safety
There are tons of reasons to visit South Africa and it is more popular than ever, but that isn’t to say the security situation is straightforward. South Africa has always been a country riddled with poverty and crime. Its reputation has been tainted by a history of violence, political instability, and apartheid. The nation, as a whole, demonstrates high crime rates of all natures, from carjacking and robberies to sexual assault and homicide. While a lot of these issues are internal and might not affect tourists, even South Africa’s busy and modern cities aren’t problem free.
Safety should be something you prioritize on your trip to South Africa. Neither Cape Town nor Durban are off-limits, but some neighborhoods might be, and you could have to take extra precautions and do more planning in one than the other to ensure you and your family avoid all possible risks.
Tourists hear stories of Cape Town and are instantly put off, but you shouldn’t be. Security in Cape Town has always been a subject of contention and crime has continued to rise in certain districts, despite its considerable popularity. It’s advised that visitors book taxis in advance, especially from the airport, don’t wear flashy jewelry, don’t walk around at night, and avoid visiting townships – the segregated public-housing estates designated under apartheid that now make up most of South Africa’s slums – outside of organized tours. However, Cape Town is the safest major city in South Africa and, statistically, Durban has more problems.
Cape Town is much safer and cleaner than downtown Durban. Durban is even deemed more dangerous than notorious Johannesburg, with a 2022 Crime Index of 80.60, compared to Johannesburg’s 80.55, and Cape Town’s 73.13. However, Durban’s worst problem is corruption and most tourists should be able to avoid issues if they take adequate safety precautions.
Police presence is heavy in Durban, especially around the touristy beach strip. Petty crime and harassment from beggars are still common, but terrorism is virtually non-existent. The risk of violent crime to visitors traveling to the main tourist destinations is also low, but Durban isn’t safe at night and there are more districts that foreigners are advised to avoid than in Cape Town, so this could be a factor if you’re traveling with children or on your own.
Winner: Cape Town
Cape Town or Durban: Things to Do
There is no shortage of things to keep you and your whole family busy in both Cape Town and Durban, but Durban caters more towards the adrenaline junkie crowd, while Cape Town scores a good balance between urban activities and the great outdoors.
Table Mountain and its aerial cableway, or the five-hour scenic hike if you’re up to it, are two of the big tourist attractions in the immediate Cape Town vicinity. The sweeping views of the city and busy harbor from the top of Table Mountain are unmissable. There’s also the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a buzzing and atmospheric mixed-use district and cultural hub in Cape Town. And if it’s more hiking and nature you’re after there’s Cape Point Nature Reserve and Lion’s Head just outside the capital.
However, Cape Town’s rich history is also a big pull factor to the city. From the Jewish Museum to District Six, and the Diamond Museum, there are tons of places to explore Cape Town’s varied past. One of the most notable locations is Robben Island, the iconic prison that once housed anti-apartheid activist, and later prime minister of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. The prison is now a living museum and regular boat trips transport tourists to the island in Table Bay every day.
Still, Durban doesn’t disappoint on the cultural front. With its ethnic diversity and unique blend of beliefs, visitors get the chance to explore Zulu culture, Indian cuisine, natural history, and even the Hare Krishna religion all at the same time. Nelson Mandela’s capture site in Durban is now also a specialty museum. The real pull for many visitors to Durban is the captivating wildlife and adventurous activities on offer though.
Durban is subtropical and the Indian Ocean, along with the surrounding savannah populated by big game, has a lot to do with its appeal. Surfing, shark cage diving, bush safaris, and hiking are all big attractions in Durban. There’s also the exotic Durban Botanic Gardens showcasing native African plant species and the modern and sprawling uShaka Marine World with its theme park rides and aquarium.
The cities have a lot of activities in common and you can explore amazing African wildlife in both, but the nature of their appeal is still slightly different and the culture certainly sets them apart.
Cape Town or Durban: Cost
South Africa is a surprisingly cheap country. Safari getaways and long-haul flights might come with a hefty price tag, but the South African Rand is weak, making South Africa very affordable for American and European tourists. South Africa is also cheap to live in, and sometimes considered the cheapest English-speaking country in the world, but cheap to live in doesn’t always mean cheap to vacation.
For example, consumer prices, without rent, are around 0.70 percent higher in Durban on average than in Cape Town, this might sound like a small discrepancy, but with Durban’s generally low costs in another area, this makes living here potentially less appealing. Local purchasing power is 6.29 percent lower in Durban than in Cape Town too, and although your rent might be cheaper in Durban, there’s less variety in accommodation, and utilities, like heating, water, electricity, and even mobile and internet tariffs, are all more costly in Durban.
That said, Durban isn’t an expensive place to live, and it’s even cheaper to vacation in. Based on the expenses of other travelers, you can get by on around R789 ($44) a day in Durban, compared to closer to R1,434 ($80) in Cape Town. These costs include accommodation, food, transport, and entertainment.
In Durban, you can bag a hostel bed for just R376 ($21) a night, and a double-occupancy room in a budget hotel for R753 ($42). In Cape Town, hostels start at R556 ($31) and hotels closer to R1,111 ($62) a night, but there is slightly more variety in Cape Town and more upscale options at reasonable prices, thanks to all the competition.
Local transport like buses, the Metrorail, and even taxis, aren’t too different in price, costing travelers around R197 ($11) a day in Durban and R251 ($14) in Cape Town. However, Cape Town’s public transport is more efficient, clean, and safe, so the four-dollar difference might be worth it.
Mid-range restaurants are similarly priced in Durban and Cape Town, and you should expect to spend around R600 ($33) for a three-course meal for two, without alcohol, in both cities. However, Durban is one of the best street food cities in the world and a huge culinary destination, without being pretentious.
Indian street snacks are celebrated by Durbanites, and casual curry dens are much more commonplace than the harbor-view restaurants you’ll find all over Cape Town. For these reasons, you could spend just R300 ($17) per day on food in Durban, but closer to R610 ($35) per person in Cape Town.
Still, with the exception of globalized cuisine, Cape Town has more variety and there’s something to suit every budget, while Durban is the decidedly cheaper holiday destination overall.
Cape Town or Durban: Weather
Cape Town might be Africa’s southernmost capital, but the seasons are turned upside down, and summer visits from December to February, with cooler weather and rainy days dominating from June to August. On the other hand, Durban is subtropical. It’s still in the Southern Hemisphere, experiencing hot, humid summers at the same time that Cape Town does, but winter is mild, dry, and frost-free.
January highs hover in the late 80s in Durban, while January in Cape Town – also the capital’s hottest month – experiences an average daily high of 76 degrees Fahrenheit and lows of 63. It rarely dips below 60 degrees Fahrenheit in Durban all year round, while average lows in July in Cape Town hover at 48 degrees Fahrenheit with highs of just 63 degrees.
However, Durban gets its rain during the summer (November to March) while Cape Town is rainiest in winter (July to September) and Durban actually receives twice as much rainfall, with a yearly average of over 1,000 millimeters compared to Cape Town’s 505 millimeters.
Durban gets very humid in summer too and Cape Town doesn’t. Still, sumptuous year-round sea temperatures and sun-soaked beaches make Durban’s weather more alluring than the Mediterannean Western Cape. The average annual water temperature on Cape Town’s Atlantic coast is just 64 degrees Fahrenheit, while Durban’s Indian Ocean averages as much as 10 degrees hotter. For blue skies and reliable heat, Durban trumps Cape Town.
When is the best time to visit Durban?
Winter in Durban is typically the best time to visit. Since Durban is in the southern hemisphere, its seasons are flipped and winter runs from April to September, with pleasant temperatures that are cooler than in the summer, less rain, blue skies, and limited humidity. Durban is subtropical and the sizzling summer months (December to March) can be very rainy and humid, even though it is warmer with highs of 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
How many days do you need in Cape Town?
You could spend weeks in Cape Town and still not see it all, but we recommend at least five days to explore the South African capital and its surroundings. If you have 7 – 10 days to spare, you can throw in a few days of safari adventures or another stop in South Africa.
Can you swim all year round in Durban?
Unlike Cape Town, a great thing about Durban and the lifestyle on South Africa’s east coast is that you can swim almost all year round with sun-soaked beaches, subtropical temperatures, and warm waters that rarely dip below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Durban’s beaches are great for surfing and other water sports too, but many of the Kwazulu-Natal province’s beaches have also been awarded Blue Flag status meaning the waters are safe, clean, and manned by lifeguards, perfect for families.