Travel & Tourism
Malawi may be a small country, but its many climate zones offer travelers plenty of opportunities to hike, bike, and swim—not bad for a nation that one can traverse in a short space of time. Explore the beauty of Lake Malawi, Africa’s third-largest lake, observe wildlife and vegetation in the country’s several national parks, and view neighboring Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia from various vantage points throughout the country.
Whether you make Malawi your main destination or just a stop on a greater journey, there is enough to do to keep you busy for a few weeks. Make sure your camera is ready for action because you will have the chance to fill multiple albums. We love Malawi. It’s in the heart of Africa, and it’s certainly worth a spot on your itinerary.
What to Do in Malawi
1. Lake Malawi: Constituting one-fifth of Malawi by itself, Lake Malawi is hard to miss. It’s an excellent spot for watching eagles, kingfishers, and cormorants diving for fish, and the lake is popular with swimmers, snorkelers, and scuba divers. The best way to explore the lake is by organizing a trip through a reputable tour group; check with your hotel and do your research.
2. Viphya Plateau: If hiking and biking are more your style, then the Viphya Plateau is the place for you. Despite the “plateau” moniker, this area has rolling hills, valleys, and forests and is a great place to cool off for a few days as you explore the numerous walking trails. We recommend checking out Viphya Forest, the largest manmade forest in Africa.
3. Mount Mulanje: Rising more than 9,000 feet (2,743 meters) into the air in southeastern Malawi is Mount Mulanje, a large granite massif, popular with rock climbers and backpackers alike. A system of trails leads up Mount Mulanje, covered in beautiful and fragrant cedars. For overnight travelers, there are sleeping huts along the trails. At the top of the mountain are views of tea fields and, on a clear day, neighboring Mozambique. We recommend traveling with a guide; check weather conditions before you set off, as temperatures can drop unexpectedly.
4. Liwonde National Park: At the southern end of Lake Malawi is one of the country’s best-known parks. Running through Liwonde is the Shire River, a natural attraction for crocodiles and hippopotamuses. The park’s most notable residents are elephants, though, hundreds of them; you won’t miss a sighting. The park covers more than 200 square miles (322 kilometers,) so it is worth spending a few days there and hiring a guide to show you show you as much as possible. Get ready to spot the Big Five, the five animals considered the most difficult to hunt—lions, African elephants, Cape buffalo, leopards, and the black rhinoceros.
5. Likoma Island: This site is one of the continent’s most beautiful islands, home to an abundance of baobab trees. From Likoma Island, one can spot Mozambique, and there are excellent opportunities for snorkeling and scuba diving in Lake Nyasa. Although swimming in Lake Nyasa can be one of the most refreshing activities of the day, always ask the locals where the best places are ; you won’t want to intrude on a group of crocodiles.
6. Old Town Lilongwe: The Old Town of the nation’s capital is a great place to explore markets, view mosques, and grab a bite to eat as you make your way to Lake Malawi. Try to get to the neighborhood’s food market early in the morning, so that you can see merchants preparing fresh fish. Numerous restaurants exist throughout the city, so take your pick and load up before heading out.
7. Nyika National Park: Nyika, the largest national park in Malawi, located in the northern region of the country, is home to the biggest concentration of leopards in the country, in addition to the many zebras, antelope, and warthogs that run free throughout the park. Because of its altitude, this park is one of the cooler areas in Malawi, and we recommend planning your visit for between November and May. By contrast with most safaris, you can take a walking safari of the park as there are no lions in the area, but you shouldn’t be overconfident: you must be accompanied by an experienced guide.
8. Cape Maclear: Ironically, a place that was once reputed to be a quiet fishing town on Lake Malawi is now one of the largest backpacker destinations in the country. Cape Maclear is rich in guest houses, restaurants, and activities for visitors to engage in. You can watch the fishermen collect the day’s catch, go snorkeling, or take a kayak out on the water. Try some fresh fish for dinner, and then grab a beer at a local bar before enjoying a good night’s sleep under the stars.
9. Blantyre: As Malawi’s most populated city and the country’s center of commerce, it is worth at least a day’s stop; it has a goodly-size array of decent-priced hotels and dining options. Shopping abounds, and if you are feeling up for it, hire a guide and explore the three peaks around the city, Soche, Ndirande, and Michiru. Be sure to plan a cuppa with some of the locally grown tea before continuing on your journey.
10. Livingstonia: Founded by Scottish missionaries in the 1890s, Livingstonia gives you an idea of what colonial Malawi looked and felt like. With beautiful redbrick architecture and picturesque surroundings, Livingstonia is a place to relax after a period of hiking and exploring. Be sure to check out the town’s main church and also local shops for carved wooden souvenirs. If you are interested in learning more about missionaries in Malawi, especially in Livingstonia, be sure to visit the Stone House museum.
11. Shire River: The largest river in Malawi. The river has been known as the Shiré or Chire River. It is the only outlet of Lake Malawi and flows into the Zambezi River in Mozambique. Its length is 402 kilometres (250 mi). The upper Shire River issues from Lake Malawi and runs approximately 12 miles before it enters shallow Lake Malombe. It then drains Lake Malombe and flows south through Liwonde National Park where large concentrations of hippopotamus are common along its shores.
12. Mvuu Camp: Overlooking a broad stretch of the Shire River (pronounced Shiree). The camp is a clever mix of stone and canvas chalets and specially-designed family tents.
It has a profusion of hippos, crocodiles and the amazing birdlife of the Liwonde National Park, Mvuu Camp operates a river trip that takes guests 30 km along the Shire River, offering an excellent chance to see both game and birds amongst the ever-changing vegetation. Mvuu Camp is ideal for families or guests on a budget and offers a friendly and relaxed atmosphere.
13. Mumbo Island: A pristine and deserted tropical island floating on the expansive waters of the Lake Malawi National Park. With a maze of massive underwater boulders, innumerable species of colourful cichlid fish and calm, clear water, the National Park offers what many consider the best freshwater snorkeling and SCUBA diving in the world. Mumbo Island is only 1km in diameter and has never been populated so it remains in a pristine, natural state.
14. Domwe Island: This is the largest unpopulated island in Lake Malawi, with a circumference of 11km and a highest point 400m above lake level. It is separated from the mainland by the narrow Ilala Gap which, due to fluctuations in lake level over the millennia, has been dry on several occasions. As a result Domwe Island, unlike all other Lake Malawi islands, is well populated with mammals which have crossed onto the island during these dry times.
When to Go
With elevations of as much as 10,000 feet in the mountainous regions and valleys as low as 600 feet, Malawi has a diverse climate. Without a doubt, the best time to visit the country is during the dry season, May through October, when it’s hot during the day and cooler at night. While this weather is conducive to exploring the outdoors, a visit during the rainy season (November through March and April) will mean fewer tourists and an opportunity to see the country’s fauna at its finest. Just make sure you come prepared with rain gear: low-lying areas, such as the Shire Valley, tend to become their hottest and most humid during the rainy season. Also, the mountainous areas in the south are some of the wettest in all Africa, with an average annual rainfall of between 60 and 80 inches.
If you are looking for arts-based events, check out the amazing Lake of Stars Malawi music festival, which takes place this year October 15–17 on Lake Malawi. Held in one of the most intimate settings in the world, this festival offers music and art by some of the best performers from Malawi and the rest of the African continent.
Getting In and Around
Visas: Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months after your planned exit date. If you are visiting Malawi for 90 days or fewer, you will not require a visa. However, as of 2007, a three-month, single-entry visa costs $70; a six-month, multiple-entry visa costs $150; and a one-year, multiple-entry visa costs $250. For more information, check out the State Department’s page on Malawi.
If you are traveling from or transiting through a yellow fever–infected area, you will be required to show a yellow fever vaccination certificate. Please check with a medical professional or travel clinic to learn whether you will need such documentation.
Transportation: Flying into Malawi frequently involves a transfer through another country, often South Africa. The two standard airports for international flights are Chileka International Airport, outside of Blantyre, and Lilongwe International Airport, in the country’s capital.
The most common means of transportation within the country are buses, minibuses, and coasters, which are medium-size buses. You can expect every sort and size of local bus to be crowded, and the ride can be unpredictable, depending on weather and road conditions. Shire Bus Lines buses make for a more comfortable ride and travel speedily between Blantyre and Lilongwe. We recommend that you ask your hotel for information on other reputable intercity bus services.
Mobile Phones: Cell phone use in Malawi is very widespread; we recommend that you buy a cheap phone for your time in the country. If you have an unlocked, SIM card–enabled phone, plan on buying SIM cards within Malawi. Top-up credits are available in every city. We remind you: sending text messages is always cheaper than making calls, especially because receiving messages is free.
Safety and Security
Concerned about your safety as you plan travel to Malawi? We at Africa.com, together with our friends, family and colleagues, travel extensively throughout the continent. Here are the resources we consult when thinking of our safety in Malawi:
Africa.com comment: Very timely and frequently updated. Perspective assumes that you ARE going to travel to Malawi, and seeks to give you good guidance so that you understand the risks and are well informed.
Africa.com comment: An annual ranking of the 54 African countries based on their relative personal security as determined by a highly qualified staff of an African foundation, funded by a successful African philanthropist. See where Malawi ranks relative to the other 54 nations in Africa.
• U.S. State Department Travel Advisory on Malawi
Africa.com comment: Can sometimes be considered as overly conservative and discourage travel altogether to destinations that many reasonable people find acceptably secure. On the other hand, they have the resources of the CIA to inform them, so they know things that the rest of us don’t know. See what they have to say about Malawi.
1. Malawi is a landlocked country smaller than Pennsylvania, with a population of more than 15 million. The capital of the country, Lilongwe, is located in the central region of the nation, and the most populous city, Blantyre, is in the southern region.
2. The Malawi currency is the Malawi kwacha (Zambia also calls its currency the kwacha). Every kwacha equals 100 tambala; the coins include one-, five-, and 20-tambala pieces. The symbol for the kwacha is KW.
3. Some of the most popular newspapers are The Nation, the Daily Times, and the monthly Chichewa-language paper, Boma Lathu.
4. The main languages of Malawi are English and Chichewa. Many Bantu languages, such as Chilomwe, Chiyao, and Chitumbuka, are spoken.
5. Smoking is currently allowed in public areas. Tobacco is Malawi’s most important cash crop.