As African capital cities go Lilongwe is one of the sleepiest you’ll come across. Now that doesn’t mean that Lilongwe doesn’t have an ‘edgy’ side, but its spread out nature and lack of a real center mean that you don’t have the usual traffic congestion or high-rise buildings of the bigger capitals. Unfortunately it also doesn’t have much by way of excitement or scenery either (hence you might occasionally hear it lovingly referred to as li-long-drop….charming). But if you’re visiting Malawi then there’s a good chance that you might spend a day or two in Lilongwe so I’ll cover some top tips for your stay and provide some ideas for the little there is to do in Lilongwe – as well as some easy day trip ideas!
Kamuzu International Airport (LLW) is the primary point of entry for Lilongwe and is about 25km outside of the city. The only real options to get into town are taxi or private hotel transfers (besides, you’d not likely want to attempt a bus transfer after a long flight whilst dragging your cases in tow!). Taxi drivers will be waiting to greet you outside the arrivals hall but be sure to negotiate the fare; there are no fixed prices but at the time of writing you shouldn’t pay much north of USD 25 to get to old town. Hotel transfers may be a little pricier but provide a little more assurance of actually reaching your destination in good time and one piece after a long flight.
Lilongwe is divided into two parts; the Old Town and the Capital City (also called the New Town) with the two being separated by the Lilongwe Wildlife Sanctuary (more on that later). The Capital City basically sprung up after Lilongwe snagged Capital City status from Zomba; which is further south. The fact that it has two centers (in reality it feels like multiple different hubs throughout the city) means that you’ll unfortunately spend a bit of time hunting down taxis or tuk-tuks to ferry you around. I’ve never found that particularly easy to do in Lilongwe so I usually grab the business card of the first taxi driver I use and then keep calling him to pick me up wherever I am; a tactic that seems to work pretty well. If you’re feeling adventurous (or generally like wasting oodles of time to save a couple of dollars) then you could try using the minibus service that operates throughout the city. I’ve personally never found it easy to understand. let alone try and navigate. but you never know, you might have better luck!
As you’ll see from my activities section below Lilongwe itself has a bit of a dearth of sights to see. As a result I’ve focused on easy day trips that’ll have you back in Lilongwe in time for an evening sundowner. If you don’t have your own car then the good news is that Lilongwe is home to a whole host of local and regional tour companies that can take you out for the day or arrange your entire stay in Malawi (some even have their own lodges in Lilongwe). Some of the more established companies include: Central African Wilderness Safaris, Land and Lake, Baobab Travel, Barefoot Safaris and Kiboko Travel. I can attest from personal experience that all of these are fairly responsive and so I’ve included links to their websites in the additional resources section below.
Lilongwe Wildlife Centre: When you ask anyone what there is to do in Lilongwe 99% of the time the first thing out of their mouth will be ‘Lilongwe Wildlife Centre’. The center is run by the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust who are doing great work in Malawi to combat serious wildlife crime (particularly ivory trafficking); so you know that your entry fees are going to a very worthy cause! The center itself works to rehabilitate animals across 180 hectares of woodland right in the heart of Lilongwe and has a number of self-guided walking trails (just be careful when walking along the Lingadzi riverside trail as I came a little too close for comfort to a rather large crocodile who wasn’t strictly a part of the center’s rehab program…and neither are the wild hyena that frequent the reserve!). If you’d prefer a guided tour of the center to meet some of the animals being cared for then they run every hour from 8am until 4pm; just ask someone in the restaurant, bar of gift shop at the Welcome Center.
Lilongwe Craft Market: Located by the Post Office in Old Town, it’s certainly not one of the biggest African craft markets you’ll ever visit, and I would say there are probably better one’s in Malawi (the one in Senga Bay springs to mind). But if you’re staying in Lilongwe and want to pick up some last minute gifts before heading home then this is definitely a great place to pick up some quality souvenirs, particularly wood carvings. Just make sure you don’t confuse it with the central market (which is more of a local hangout). The Central market is also worth a visit for a slice of local life and a cacophony of noise and smells (not all good let me add). Just beware that the locals aren’t always as keen on your photography as you are, and if they are happy to pose for you then they’ll probably ask for a dollar or two in return.
Tobacco Auction Floors: For better or worse tobacco plays an important part in the life of Malawi. You can visit the public gallery at the Auction Holdings warehouse to see the industry at work. Think of this as the New York Stock Exchange viewing gallery on an extremely low-tech and even noisier scale. The Auction House is just outside of town towards the airport and is open 8am-3pm, Monday-Friday during the auction season (which is April-June). The minibuses I mentioned in the tips section do head over to the area, but probably best (and certainly less stressful) to jump in to a taxi.
Lake Malawi: Lake Malawi is one of the highlights of a trip to Malawi, so that fact that it’s possible to do as a day trip from Lilongwe is really appealing. The closest part of the Lake to Lilongwe is just beyond Salima which is a mere 1.5 hour drive. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous then you could go further South to Cape Maclear but for a mere day trip I would probably stick to Salima; after all, you’d surely rather be sitting around the lake with a G&T in hand than sitting in a sweatbox of a car, right? One thing to remember is that Lake Malawi is a bilharzia hot-spot; and seeing as there are no precautionary measures that you can take and no real symptoms until the damage is done, you may decide not to bother swimming (or snorkeling, or scuba diving…etc). But that doesn’t stop you from enjoying the scenery and a spot of lunch! If you do decide to dive in and get wet then you’ll be treated to some serious underwater wildlife diversity in all the colours of the rainbow; just make sure to get tested for bilharzia once you get home!
Kuti Wildlife Reserve: If you’re planning to head out towards Salima or Senga for the day then Kuti Wildlife reserve is definitely worth adding to your itinerary and is probably (I think) the closest place to Lilongwe where you can get to see some real, wild, wildlife in a safari-esque setting. Kuti is run by a not-for-profit whose work is protecting wildlife, conserving the environment and giving back to local communities (and coincidently works alongside the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust). If you don’t fancy driving around the reserve then you can hire bikes from the lodge or walk on one of the designated trails (the bike option is great and something I’ve otherwise only done on safari in Swaziland). Given the walking and biking available it should hopefully be obvious that there aren’t any carnivores (you’d certainly hope that was the case!) but you might well see giraffe, wildebeest, zebra, warthogs, civets, genets, sable, kudu, waterbuck, reedbuck, nyala, bushbuck, impala, oribi, duiker, grysbok and monkeys…..which, all things considered, is a pretty long list of wildlife!
Safari: At 175km north, Kasunga National Park is the closest full safari experience to the Capital (and a pretty easy drive). It used to be the best park in Malawi but extensive poaching has unfortunately robbed it of that title (the elephants in the park have been particularly hard hit). That said, there is still a decent variety of wildlife (including lion, leopard and painted dogs); it’s just the chances of sightings are much lower. Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve isn’t much further (195km) and is the beneficiary of one of the largest elephant translocations ever (500 elephants are being placed in the reserve) and 1,500 animals were translocated in 2016 alone! Alongside the elephants you might also sight lion, leopard, buffalo, zebra, roan and sable antelope, waterbuck, bushbuck and many smaller species….and just like everywhere in Malawi birders will be in for a real treat (as will the anglers as fishing is a possibility at Nkhotakota)!
Dedza: Dedza is the highest town in Malawi at 5,300 ft. and lies about 80km south east of Lilongwe. The reason I added it to the day trip list is predominantly for the scenery. Dedza Mountain rises up from behind the village and in addition to providing decent hiking terrain is great for photography. For those more interested in culture than sweating your butt off on a steeply-graded hike I would recommend stopping at the Dedza Pottery where you can pick up some souvenirs in addition to a slice of cake and beer (just don’t expect lightning fast service!). You can follow up with a visit to see the Chongoni Rock Art which covers 127 sites with UNESCO World Heritage status featuring, and I quote UNESCO themselves, ‘the richest concentration of rock art in Central Africa’.
South Luangwa National Park: Confession time; South Luangwa isn’t really all that feasible in a day trip (at least not a comfortable one). Hell, it’s not even located in Malawi! That said I just couldn’t finish this post without at least mentioning that it’s entirely feasible to do a short weekend trip to what is, in my humble opinion, one of the best safari destinations anywhere on earth. South Luangwa is just a stone’s throw across the border in Zambia and is a very ‘do-able’ 5 hour drive (not including any additional time you might need to spend on the border crossing). Having myself driven the 9 hour route from Lusaka, Zambia to South Luangwa it makes a trip across the border from Lilongwe all the more appealing. If you’re interested in doing this but don’t have a car then check out Kiboko Safaris (link below) who offer really reasonable 2, 3, and 4-day rates staying at their camp just outside the park gates; if you can leave on their scheduled departure days.
Kiboko Safaris Website: http://www.kiboko-safaris.com/
Central African Wilderness Safaris Website: http://cawsmw.com/
Land and Lake Safaris Website: www.landlake.net/
Baobab Travel Website: http://www.baobabtravel.com/
Barefoot Safaris Website: http://www.barefoot-safaris.co.za/destinations/malawi/
Kuti Wildlife Reserve Website: https://www.kuti-malawi.org/
Lilongwe Wildlife Center Website: http://www.lilongwewildlife.org/index/get-involved/visit-us/