Thriving, modern and chaotic are the three adjectives that best describe the dynamic city that is Kampala. Since its low point in the 1980s, when political violence rocked the city, it has bounced back with a vengeance and has much to offer the adventurous urban tourist, whether you plan to just stay overnight en route to somewhere else, or if you decide to stay a few days and immerse yourself in its rhythms.
Orientation and Overview
This city of 1.6 million people is built on seven rolling hills (more or less) just 10km from Lake Victoria. Neighborhoods and landmarks coalesce around the hills, which emanate from a pulsing, high-rise city centre and are topped by mosques and churches.
Kampala Road is the main shopping area, and the heart of the downtown area. Much of the tourist activity, accommodation, shopping and dining is centered around the upscale Nakasero Hill area, which rises north from Kampala Road. Here you’ll find an abundance of fancy hotels, restaurants and bars, as well as embassies and government buildings.
- National Museum
- Kabaka’s Palace
- The Uganda Museum is located at the foot of Kololo Hill in the neighbourhood called Kamwokya.
- The Kasubi tombs, where the remains of the Kings of Buganda are buried, was a major tourist site. However, these were extensively damaged by fire in March 2010.
- Wamala tombs, where the remains of some of the earlier Buganda kings were buried including Kabaka Ssuuna 11 (1836-1856). During his time he had 148 wives and produced 218 children!
- Nommo art gallery
- National Theatre
- Gaddafi National Mosque (in Old Kampala). Enjoy the 360° view of Kampala
- Parliament of Uganda (and independence monument)
Green and pleasant Kampala is famous for its garden restaurants. You’ll find them all over town, nestled between the hills and turning out delicious food in lovely, lush settings. Kampala’s garden restaurants cover all kinds of cuisine, from in-house hotel eateries to local and international specialties. Try The Bistro, set partly indoors and partly al fresco, where you can tuck into breakfast burritos, mojitos (not at the same time, probably) or pizzas. La Fontaine in Kisimenti does simple, comfort food such as steaming bowls of pesto pasta and chicken quesadillas. And The Lawns at 34 Impala Avenue in Kololo has excellent steaks and is a nice place for a pre-dinner cocktail too.
But there’s far more to the Ugandan capital than green cuisine; there are swank urban eateries, authentic ethnic fare, quaint bakeries, sushi bars, and American-style diners. Try the appropriately-named La Patisserie in the new shiny Acacia Mall in Kololo, where you can pick up all sorts of sugary pastries, as well as coffee and gelato. On the other side of the same mall, Cafesserie sells delicious hot buns, blueberry cheesecake and chocolate creations. Directly opposite is Milestones, which sells cinnamon swirls, skinny baguettes, coffee and books. Or you could head to Bean Café on Gbagba Road in Kansanga, where the sandwiches are purported to be the best in town.
With a sizeable Indian population, it’s no wonder that Kampala has some fantastic Indian restaurants. Khana Khazana in the Kololo neighborhood of the city is consistently rated as one of the best – and most atmospheric – Indian restaurants in town. Haandi (7 Kampala Road) focuses more on the food than on the surroundings, but it’s a hit with the Indian community, which is always a good sign. Ashiani in the Bugolobi area is a cheaper option, and we hear good things from its regular customers.
Besides Indian, Kampala has a great selection of other international options. Yujo, a relaxed sushi bar on Kyadondo Road manages to blend everything that’s great about sushi with unpretentious surrounds. For Italian cuisine, try Mediterraneo on Acacia Avenue; it has a good selection of pizzas and pastas, as well as some top-notch grilled fish dishes. Meanwhile, the Fez Brasserie at the hip boutique Emin Pasha Hotel goes all out with international fusion food like rooibos tea-smoked Nile perch, roasted pork belly and papaya salad, and cashew-crusted tilapia filet.
Don’t forget to try some Ugandan street food and local specialties such as matooke, posho and cassava.
From flashy malls to sustainable fashion, Kampala has one of the best shopping scenes in Africa. The Ugandan capital may not have the scale of Nairobi or Johannesburg, but it certainly packs a punch when it comes to homegrown fashion labels.
Kampala has several malls, notably the swish Acacia Mall in the Kololo neighborhood, which opened in 2014. It has three levels of shopping, including hip designers and great places to eat. Kisimenti, a nearby favorite among expats, is also home to some fashion gems. And there are also local markets galore. So whether you’re looking to save or splurge, it’s worth checking out some of the following places:
Owino Market: a great stop if you’re looking for bright East African fabric, houses a small army of tailors who can turn around designs within hours, You can also pick up vintage clothing here.
Kampala Fair: Creates some of the most wearable African fashion in the region. The flagship store in Kampala is stocked to the rafters with lovely dresses, shirts, hoodies, skirts and tops, all beautifully-cut and fashioned from colorful prints. Also has serious sustainability credentials.
Good Glass: This eco-friendly brand creates gorgeous kitchen wares from recycled and sustainable Ugandan materials, included wine bottles, whisky bottles and other discarded glass. It operates as a social enterprise as well as a store.
Definition: Ugandan fashion label definition wouldn’t look out of place for sale in Brooklyn or the Shoreditch area of London. But all of its products are conceived and made in Africa, from funky blue necklaces and oversized bracelets to tanks and tees emblazoned with Ugandan slogans.
Bold: If you love wax print and creative African fashion, it’s worth stopping by Bold, on the upper level of Kampala’s shiny new Acacia Mall. This large store stocks new collections and exclusive pieces by designers from Uganda and other parts of East Africa.
Hotels in Kampala range from grubby backpacker hostels to gilded five-star palaces, with the majority of accommodation falling somewhere in between.
The Backpackers hostel is located on three acres in the semi-central Rubaga neighborhood, while the other popular budget option, Red Chilli Hideaway, is out at the edge of the city in Butabika.
Mid- to high-end hotels include major African and international chains as well as home-grown mom-and-pop operations. Some standouts include:
- The Kampala Serena, a lush oasis of tranquility. The 17-acre property of tropical gardens, flowing streams and waterfalls is a welcome escape from the bustle of this busy city, but conveniently central so you don’t have to battle with traffic to get into Kampala.
- Protea Kampala (in Kololo). Unusually for a capital city hotel, it has spacious rooms, good amenities, and there’s an excellent breakfast buffet that will fill you up for the whole morning.
- One of the best places to stay bar none is the Kabira Country Club, which offers a great location the leafy suburb of Bukoto, lush green gardens, lovely rooms and plenty of atmosphere.
Getting there and around
There is currently no airport in Kampala, so air travellers must fly into Entebbe International Airport, which is 42 km (26 miles) from the city center. Many international airlines offer service directly into Entebbe, while others fly to regional hubs such as Nairobi or Dar es Salaam, from which you can catch a connecting flight. Eagle Air or United Airlines (not the U.S.-based carrier) can fly you to Kampala from other parts of Uganda.
To get into the city by land from neighboring cities or countries, there are also long-distance bus services. The busses arrive and depart from the station at the corner of Allen and Nakivubo roads.
Kampala is infamous for its mind-boggling traffic, and sometimes it seems that everyone in the city is always going somewhere, all at the same time. Your three options for short trips are boda bodas, taxis, or special hires. Boda bodas are motorbikes which can accommodate one passenger on the back (and sometimes more). While they are the cheapest and quickest way to get around, they are also the most risky, and only the most intrepid tourists use them. Taxis (or matatus) are actually mini buses that transport 14 people at a time on fixed routes around the city and beyond. They are mostly used by locals, but tourists can ride them with guidance from a local or hotel concierge. There are two major depots for minibus taxis: the Old Taxi Park is located at the nexus of Burton, Luwum and South streets, and serves all parts of the city and country to the east; the New Taxi Park is situated at the corner of Mackay and Namirembe roads, and serves destinations to the west and north. The most common mode of transit around Kampala for tourists is the “special hire” or private taxi cab, which can be found at most central locations, or at major hotels. Some have meters, but most don’t, so be sure to agree on the fare before you get in. Haggling is acceptable, and most destinations can be reached for 15,000 – 20,000 USh.
Visas: Nationals of most countries require a visa to enter Uganda. The exceptions are Angola, Comoros, Eritrea, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, Madagascar, Rwanda, Burundi, Seychelles, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Antigua, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Fiji, Gambia, Grenada, Jamaica, Lesotho, Malta, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, St. Vincent & The Grenadines, Tonga, Vanuatu,and Cyprus. Consult your local Ugandan embassy or consulate to see if you need to get one in advance, or if you can acquire one upon arrival.
Vaccinations: Proof of yellow fever vaccine is required for entry.
Money: The currency in Kampala is the Uganda shilling (Ush). It is best to exchange money at the airport as soon as you arrive. Major banks include Citibank Uganda, Stanbic Bank, TransAfrica Bank and National Bank of Commerce. Banking hours are generally Monday to Friday from 8:30-14:00. Credit cards are accepted at larger hotels and stores, but you should always have cash on hand for smaller establishments, taxis and tips.
Safety: Kampala is very safe as far as African capital cities go. Women should not walk alone at night and everyone should hold tight to their valuables (and not flash money or jewelry), but other than that it is not a hotbed of crime by any means.