Despite being one of the coolest, safest, and most affordable places in southern Africa, Malawi is often overshadowed by its larger neighbors Tanzania, Zambia, and Mozambique. Known as “the warm heart of Africa,” this friendly nation of 17 million packs a big punch for its small size. The country is full of forests, beaches and lakes to explore, along with plenty of cultural activities and festivals to participate in. From kayaking over a crystal clear lake to dancing all night under the stars, here are 15 incredible things to do in Malawi when you visit.
1) Explore Lilongwe
Lilongwe has all the trappings of an African capital city — historic buildings, access to amenities, international dining, a healthy nightlife scene, and sizable expat community. While the city is second to Blantyre, it is still a great introduction to Malawi. Two activities all visitors should put on their itineraries are the Lilongwe Wildlife Center and the Kumbali Cultural Center which features food, drinks, traditional dancing, and music.
2) Learn about the history of the slave trade in Nkhotakota
Nkhotakota played an important role in the East African slave trade. It was here in this small lakeside town that the explorer David Livingstone came to meet with Swahili Arab slave traders in an attempt to end the practice. Now, the town provides a great weekend escape from Lilongwe with numerous small resorts dotting the sandy shores of beautiful Lake Malawi. Check out the pottery collective for an interesting cultural experience.
3) Discover colonial Zomba
Zomba used to be the old colonial capital of Malawi until the first president, Hastings Banda, moved it to Lilongwe. The town has an excellent market as well as finely preserved colonial buildings, some of the best in the entire country. Zomba is the perfect place from which to set out to see the scenic Zomba Plateau, which has beautiful scenery, plus peaceful cottage lodges, waterfalls, and mountains.
4) Hang out on the beach at Cape Maclear
Cape Maclear is the ultimate backpacker’s destination on Lake Malawi. This fishing village is about as laid back as laid back can be. There is not much to see in the tiny town itself, but plenty of accommodation options. Cape Maclear is all about the beach, and besides a plethora of water activities like cruising and kayaking, the area is absolutely perfect to kick back, order some fish, and have a few beers while staring out over the lake.
5) Scuba dive at Likoma and Chisumulu Islands
These two tiny islands are Malawian but actually just a stone’s throw away from Mozambique’s western shore. With a twice-weekly ferry, both islands are all about chilling out and relaxing, like many other places on the idyllic lake. Likoma in particular has some great lodges which offer responsible eco-tourism facilities as well as the full range of water activities including scuba diving.
6) Hike up Mount Mulanje
The highest peak south of Kilimanjaro, Mount Mulanje is one of Malawi’s best natural features. The stunning peak rises to 3,000 meters (almost 10,000 feet) and provides incredible views of the landscape and neighboring Mozambique. While not the most strenuous of hikes, it is most definitely a challenge, and guides and porters can be hired by the day. There are several huts along the route which provide basic shelter, bedding, and cooking facilities, but you must bring your own food and water.
7) See wildlife in Ntchisi Forest Reserve
Set smack in the middle of the country and the East African Rift Valley, the Ntchisi Forest Reserve is one of the last remaining areas of tropical rainforest in southern Africa. In addition to wildlife like monkeys, hyenas, antelopes, and a wide array of birds, the plant life endemic to the reserve is also a big draw. There are multiple trails of varying lengths, and the Ntchisi Forest Lodge can arrange cultural tours of community projects in the area as well.
8) Soak up the views at Lake Malawi National Park
One of the highlights of the country, Lake Malawi National Park is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but also the only national park created for the sole purpose of protecting fish and aquatic life. Set off from Cape Maclear or nearby Monkey Bay to explore the area or just soak in the views.
9) Sip some tea at Thyolo Tea Estates
For over 100 years tea has been grown in the lush Thyolo district of southern Malawi. As you drive through the hills, you’ll be surrounded by undulating waves of green of all shades. There are plenty of lodges available where you can rest and try different tea, including at the estate at Hunnington House, which was built by a tea planting family in 1928.
10) Climb up Viphya Plateau
The Viphya Plateau stretches most of the length of Malawi, between Mzuzu and Lilongwe. While the word plateau conjures images of flat expanses of open land, this area is full of rolling hills, lush forests, and stone mountains jutting toward the sky. There are plenty of spots where you can get out and enjoy nature and go hiking, biking, and rock climbing, among other activities.
11) Discover ancient art at the Chongoni Rock Art Area
The Chongoni Rock Art Area is situated in central Malawi and is comprised of no less than 127 sites of indigenous art from the Late Stone Age and Iron Age. The UNESCO World Heritage site features various depictions of animals, patterns, and shamans. Hire a guide for the day in order to get a detailed and in-depth understanding of the cave art, the area, and the people who used to inhabit it.
12) Go kayaking across Lake Malawi
Almost 600 kilometers (350 miles) in length, Lake Malawi is the second-deepest and third-largest lake in Africa. Most African countries have at least one primary or defining feature, and in Malawi it’s the lake, and its seemingly endless stretches of beautiful beaches. Almost every small resort and beach town has plenty of opportunities for water activities, and boat trips, kayaking, water skiing, and sailboarding are all popular activities — not to mention drinking and dancing the night away with fellow revelers until the sun comes up.
13) Get scuba certified
One of the best things about Lake Malawi is the water. It’s clear, calm, fresh, and contains diverse marine life, making it an ideal spot to get scuba certified. There are plenty of PADI-certified operators and instructors all along the length of the lake, and most mid-sized resorts offer courses ranging from a few days to a week. And if you don’t have the time or cash, you can always snorkel!
14) Kick back at the Lake of Stars Festival
The Lake of Stars was the name explorer David Livingstone gave Lake Malawi when he visited the region. Others say the name comes from the way fishermen’s lights reflect off the surface at night. The Lake of Stars Arts Festival is a three day international event held on the shores every year. Dozens of bands and DJs converge on the lake every fall, while thousands of revelers come from all over the world to get down and party on the shores.
15) Learn about different cultures
With dozens of ethnic groups and languages, Malawi has some of the most interesting people and communities in southern Africa. English is the lingua franca here, a carryover from the colonial British days, so interacting with people is much easier than in say, neighboring Mozambique. There are many tour guides who will be able to take you to traditional communities and observe the practices and customs that most of the people follow.
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