My beaten, battered, dog-eared 2001 edition of Lonely Planet Malawi opens by describing how tourism brochures hype Malawi as “the warm heart of Africa.” As much as they like to avoid generalizations, this seems particularly true as Malawians are among the friendliest people you’ll meet anywhere. It’s been 20-some years since that paragraph was written, but it still holds as true to me today as it does when I first read those words in 2004. I was preparing to leave graduate school for an internship with the Malawi Department of Fisheries and the Canadian International Development Agency. My work as a gender analyst took me throughout the country, from cities to tiny villages, and Malawi’s warm heart made for an unforgettable experience.
Malawi is a small country in southeast Africa. I have to confess, when I first applied for the internship that would take me there, I knew nothing about Malawi. In fact, I was all muddled between Maui, Mali, and Bali — I wasn’t close to any of them! The country borders Tanzania, Zambia, and Mozambique. Visiting here is easier than you might think. It’s just a short flight from Nairobi to the north, Victoria Falls to the west, and Johannesburg to the south.
Getting around is pretty easy as well. As one of the continent’s smallest countries, Malawi’s compact size and decent public transportation system mean visitors can see a lot in a short amount of time. English is one of Malawi’s official languages.
While Malawi is admittedly not a destination for a classic “big 5” safari, the country has wonderful wildlife destinations plus many other experiences and attractions that should put it on any traveler’s bucket list. Here are some of my favorite must-do Malawi moments.
1. Visit Dedza Pottery
Bringing home a full set of pottery mugs isn’t the easiest thing in the world, but I knew I would make it happen from the moment I first stepped inside Dedza Pottery. I was utterly charmed by the handpainted Malawi-inspired designs of animals, sunsets, and baobab trees, and my collection made it home intact! Factory tours are available for $4. A delightful restaurant onsite serves local favorites like chambo (fresh fish from Lake Malawi) and chicken with chips, but I loved their chicken lasagna and the moussaka best of all. Be sure to order a coffee, as they use beans from northern Malawi.
2. Explore Liwonde National Park
This wonderful national park is woefully underrated. True, this is not the kind of spot where you’ll check off all “big five” from your wish list, but there is an absolute wealth of wildlife here. Crocodiles, hippos, waterbucks, sables, buffalo, wildebeest, zebra, elephants, black rhinoceros, and many more animals are abundant. Cheetahs were reintroduced here in 2017 (the first wild cheetahs in the country for more than 20 years) and lions in 2018. The safari tents at Mvuu Lodge are a nice touch of comfort. Packages here include game drives and boat safaris, but you can just as easily explore the park DIY-style in your own vehicle. (I’ve done both with great results.)
3. Shop The Mzuzu Market
Malawi’s northernmost city, Mzuzu, has a bright, sunny, cosmopolitan vibe, owing in part to the many travelers who pass through here to and from Tanzania. I spent many happy hours browsing the clothing and fabric stalls of the main market — and I still have all the fabric I picked up there! For me, it’s one of the best shopping destinations in the country.
4. Snorkel At Cape Maclear
For decades, Cape Maclear was the spot for overlanders looking for some mid-way rest on the Cape-to-Cairo route. With its gorgeous clear waters and host of little restaurants and guesthouses, it’s easy to see why this small town on the edge of Lake Malawi was so remarkably popular. These days, Cape Maclear isn’t the only act in town, so to speak, and travelers are spoiled for choice when it comes to tourist-friendly spots. But the cape is just as pretty and relaxing as it ever was, and it remains one of the best snorkeling and diving spots in southern Africa.
Historically inclined travelers will be interested to learn that the town was named by fabled explorer David Livingstone, honoring his friend, astronomer Thomas Maclear. Meanwhile, those interested in science may be intrigued by this tidbit: For decades, Lake Malawi was reputed to be free from bilharzia (also known as schistosomiasis). This waterborne parasite causes serious health complications and is sadly common throughout Africa — including Lake Malawi. A combination of misinformation and canny tour operators let the fabrication of a bilharzia-free lake run unchallenged for some time until well-documented cases gained prominence in the 1990s.
5. Escape To Likoma Island
Lake Malawi is the heart and soul of the country, and lakeshore communities (like Cape Maclear) are vibrant, bustling destinations supported by fishing and tourism. But there’s a lot happening on the lake as well. Likoma Island is close to Mozambique that you can see the shore, but it is decidedly Malawian — relaxed, friendly, and deliciously beautiful. Likoma Island is home to some of the finest sunsets I’ve ever seen, gorgeous flowers, great bars, a stunning cathedral (the legacy of David Livingston’s influence), and spectacular baobab trees.
My impression of Likoma Island was that it was very hip (or maybe teenagers are just way cooler than me all over the world). However, as a general rule in rural Malawi, travelers should dress on the conservative side. Shorts and tank tops are okay in sporty contexts (like in diving centers), but they’re seen as being too informal and immodest in many other rural locations — though just about anything goes in cities. This is the legacy of Hastings Banda’s dictatorship, which ended in the 1990s. Travelers from that era will no doubt remember that female backpackers had to don skirts and long hair wasn’t permitted for men (and impromptu, not-exactly-voluntary hair cuts took place at border crossings).
6. Observe Wildlife At The Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary
Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city, doesn’t exactly have the most exciting of reputations. Yet as someone who lived there, I have to disagree. There’s a lot to see and do in Lilongwe! And at the top of my list is the Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary. The Lilongwe Wildlife Trust operates the nature sanctuary and it’s the only one of its kind in the country. It’s a remarkable piece of green space in the heart of the city and is well worth a visit.
I’m not the only one who loves this spot. I asked my friend and fellow travel writer Brianne Miers what she would recommend for someone visiting Malawi and she said: “I can share a recommendation for the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust facility in Lilongwe! You can tour it, go hiking, and there’s an amazing cafe. Also lots of volunteer opportunities.”
7. Appreciate History In Mangochi
The southern Malawian town of Mangochi was the first place I lived in Malawi, and it turned out to be a great ice-breaker. People would invariably tell me how lucky I was to live in such a great destination and they were absolutely right. Mangochi is positioned at the southern tip of Lake Malawi and has access to all the usual lakeside activities and amenities such as hotels, resorts, and guest houses. However, this beautiful location has a serious and, at times, very ugly past. Mangochi was once home to an early slave market and, later, a colonial administrative center known as Fort Johnston under British rule. Today, some interesting sites to appreciate include a Commonwealth War Graves Cemetary (next to the post office), a large mosque, a clock tower, a memorial to a tragic shipwreck, and a small museum.
8. Shop For Carvings
Malawi offers some of the finest wooden handicrafts and carvings in southern Africa. A signature item is the chief’s chair. You’ll find them in every size imaginable, from the gigantic to the tiny. I came home with two medium-large size chairs (which I did indeed use to sit in for years and now are more ornamental), and it’s one of the best buys I’ve ever made. In case you’re wondering what you’d do with the teeny-tiny chairs, you can use them for more than just decoration. I’ve seen them in hotel bathrooms around Malawi as a cute way to stack toilet paper and keep it off the floor!
Other items to look out for include end tables with tripod-style legs and removable, circular table tops which are reversible (mine have animal carvings on one side and game board tops on the other). I love my palm-sized wooden elephant but I slightly regret not getting a giant giraffe some 10 plus feet tall. How I would have got it home, what I would have done with it — who knows? But it was gorgeous.
Some great places to shop include Lilongwe’s old town (next to the post office), Nkhata Bay, and Senga Bay.