Zambia is one of the most friendly and unspoilt countries on the African continent. Best known as home to the Victoria Falls and its incredible national parks, most travelers don’t give the capital, Lusaka, a second thought. To reach most of the country’s best attractions, though, you’ll have to pass through Lusaka. While it may not seem like the most exciting of Africa destinations, it’s worth digging a little deeper and spending some time here.
Lusaka is the largest city in the country and one of the fastest-developing cities in southern Africa. With its crowded shanty towns, unplanned streets, mishmash of neighborhoods, crowded markets, and boxy-looking high-rise buildings, it can be a confusing destination for travelers. Development seems to be going on everywhere and the roads aren’t keeping up with expansion. Peak-hour traffic is crazy, but there’s an air of optimism here — this is a town that’s on the rise.
Let’s scratch beneath the surface and get a real feel for Lusaka.
1. The Local Markets
Lusaka prides itself on its market culture and the markets are a hive of activity. With thousands of stalls operating throughout the city, you’ll find everything from motor spares to restaurants, hairdressers, fishmongers, fruit sellers, and row upon row of salaula (second-hand clothing). Salaula means to “select from the pile” and that’s exactly what potential buyers do.
With a crazy, congested street front, reaching the entrance of Lusaka City Market, the city’s biggest market, is an achievement in itself! Despite its chaotic nature, tourists don’t usually get hassled, but whilst lively and packed to the rafters, the goods on sale probably aren’t of much interest to the average traveler. A visit here is a great way to experience local culture.
If the local markets are a little overwhelming, visit the Sunday craft market in the car park at Arcades Shopping Centre. It’s a good place to spend a few hours hunting out crafts, handmade souvenirs, and gifts — if you enjoy bargaining, this is the place to be.
For holiday memento shopping, head to Lusaka Collective. This is more than just a shop, it’s a story of opportunity, collaboration, and empowerment, with a commitment to supporting small local businesses and working with grassroots artisans. Featuring ceramics, textiles, woven baskets, artwork, jewelry, and more, all products on sale are proudly Zambian, while 75 percent of proceeds goes directly back to producers. Located in one of Lusaka’s small markets, just outside the Collective’s doors, you’ll find colorful street art, a recycling project, an innovative bio-digester, and an array of traditional street food vendors — great for getting an authentic taste of Zambia.
2. The Township
Looking for a raw Zambian experience rather than a choreographed “cultural tour?” Sign up for a visit to Bauleni Compound (township) with In & Out of the Ghetto. In & Out is a small nonprofit organization that aims to empower the youth by encouraging them to take an active role in the development of their community. Join a 2-hour walking tour and gain some insights into the historical, cultural, and social background of a traditional Zambian compound. Included in the itinerary are the local markets, clinic, school, and community center, as well as the local bar and nightlife area. An afternoon spent here will give you an experience of real Zambia. Proceeds raised by the tours are used to support community projects.
3. The Wildlife
On the outskirts of town, just 18 miles from the city center, is Lusaka National Park — Zambia’s newest and smallest national park. See giraffe, eland, zebra, sable, wildebeest, and more. The park is home to the Game Rangers International Wildlife Discovery Centre, which provides free conservation education to school children. The park is also home to the renowned Elephant Nursery, where orphaned elephants are brought for rehabilitation before being reintroduced into the wild. Visitors to the Elephant Nursery can see the orphans during feeding time: 11:45 a.m.–1 p.m. daily.
4. The Art
The Lechwe Trust Art Gallery houses Zambia’s most comprehensive collection of contemporary art, with more than 300 paintings, prints, ceramics, and sculptures. The trust also sponsors local artists, giving them access to international training and experience.
The beautiful contemporary, nonprofit 37d Gallery exhibits and sells a wide range of artworks by local Zambian and international artists. Income generated from donations, commissions, sales, and exhibitions funds outreach projects for disadvantaged children, workshops, and scholarship programs.
5. The Drink
What better way to finish your time exploring Lusaka than with a sundowner? And what better drink than a Wild Dog Shempa Ale from Zambia’s first craft beer producer, Wild Dog? If beer isn’t your tipple of choice, try a gin and tonic made from Zambia’s Iconic African Gin — handcrafted and manufactured in Zambia and infused with 21 wild botanicals including baobab and water berry fruits. There’s an African proverb that goes something like this… “If you drink from a source, you will always come back.” What a perfect thought to finish your Lusaka journey with.
6. The Accommodation
Between backpackers, Airbnbs, cool boutique hotels, chain hotels, and tiny guesthouses, there’s something for every budget and taste when looking for accommodation in Lusaka. My top picks are the Agora Apartments in Lusaka’s Central Business District. The apartments are designed to give you the perks of a boutique hotel but with everything you’d expect from a contemporary apartment: one- and two-bedroom apartments with separate lounge and dining areas, fully equipped kitchens, and private balconies. Alternatively, for urban chic, Cargo88 is the brand-new creative gem in town. Its 73 rooms are made from 172 repurposed shipping containers and the hotel takes modern design and innovation to heights never before seen in Lusaka.
Lusaka has enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence in recent years and there are plenty of reasons to spend a few days in this cosmopolitan city rather than just passing through. Lusaka gives travelers an authentic African city experience and an opportunity to taste the essence of Zambia.