Despite its small size, Malawi is one of the continent’s most geographically diverse countries encompassing the below-sea-level shores of Lake Malawi, the towering tropical mountains of the Zomba Massif and the rolling landscapes of the Nyika Plateau. What’s more, the country is renowned for its legendary friendliness! Here is a travel guide to one of Africa’s most welcoming destinations.
Get immersed in the natural wonders of Lake Malawi
Stretching from the Tanzanian border in the north to that of Mozambique in the south, Lake Malawi is Malawi’s watery backbone. While the entire Malawian lakeshore is enchanting, the lake is most unspoilt at the UNESCO World Heritage listed Lake Malawi National Park.
Known for its remarkably diverse population of colourful cichlid fish, the national park is an ideal place to go scuba diving or snorkelling in crystal-clear waters. The best place to do so is around the sandy-beached resort town of Cape Maclear where Lake Malawi National Park tour guides take you to the best spots to plunge in. The national park also encompasses a number of tropical islands that offer an idyllic getaway from the mainland. Beyond the lake itself, the national park stretches deep inland and is home to an astounding variety of birdlife and primates that can be observed in safari tours.
Visit the auction houses of Blantyre
Named after the town in which the Scottish missionary David Livingston was born, Malawi’s largest city Blantyre is the country’s beating heart. The city may feel far removed from the idyllic shores of Lake Malawi but it remains deeply rooted in traditional Malawian culture. At the downtown craft market, you can browse local wares, including hand-carved figurines, masks and musical instruments. However, the city’s most memorable experience is undoubtedly a trip to the national tobacco auction where a visitor’s gallery gives you a glimpse inside the rowdy and raucous bidding process.
Get close to the big game at Liwonde National Park
Regarded as Malawi’s premier safari destination, Liwonde National Park is home to a dazzling cast of Africa’s iconic big game species. The Shire River, where crocodiles, hippos and over 500 elephants congregate in the murky waters, dominates the west of the park and is best explored via a mid-afternoon boat safari. To the east, the savannah is home to an abundant population of sables, antelope and zebra while thrilling night safaris can reveal packs of spotted hyena and side-striped jackals. From its foundation in 1973 to 2018, Liwonde National Park lacked any permanent big cats but the recent rehoming of cheetahs and lions from South Africa in the park make now the best time to explore this majestic game reserve.
Majete Wildlife Reserve
Pushing up against the Mozambique border, Majete Wildlife Reserve has seen a decade of unprecedented growth. Until recently overshadowed by Liwonde National Park, Majete has been run by African Parks who have overseen a vast increase in the reserve’s biodiversity. Today, lions, hyenas, antelope, hippos, elephants, black rhinos, leopards and more roam the reserve’s pristine miombo woodlands, savannah and marsh landscapes. Majete has been made more accessible with the construction of numerous roads through the park allowing for thrilling self-drive safaris, which can also be undertaken with the assistance of national park scouts. What is more, activities ranging from boat safaris along the upper reaches of the Shire River to adventurous bush camping and tranquil bird watching walks are all available.
Climb Mount Mulanje, one of southern Africa’s highest peaks
A monolithic granite massif towering nearly 3000 metres above the surrounding verdant plains, Mount Mulanje is Malawi’s most iconic vista. Many visitors come to simply admire the mountain’s precipitous valleys, lush tropical forests and plunging waterfalls from the base but the entire massif is also accessible via hiking trails that offer some of southern Africa’s best hill walking. While on the mountain, make sure to look out for blue monkeys, rock hyraxes, black eagles and buzzards alongside the endemic Mulanje cedar trees, which grow to a colossal forty metres tall.
Explore Malawi’s ancient art at Dedza
Dedza is best known for the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Chonogoni Rock Art Area, which is spread over 127 locations in the surrounding granite hills. Dating back to the late Stone Age, the enigmatic rock paintings are one of Malawi’s most enthralling attractions and can be visited independently or with a local guide who will help interpret the rich symbolism of the artworks. What is more, the town of Dedza remains a centre for the arts in Malawi with the craftsmen of the Pottery Lodge transforming the clay soil into some of the country’s finest earthenware, which is available for visitors to purchase.
Take a dip at Kande Horse Stables
For one of Malawi’s most unforgettable days out, visit the Kande Horse Stables. Set on the shores of Lake Malawi, Kande Stables is a working farm that offers guided bareback horse riding tours of the surrounding tropical countryside. For the best experience, take a tour of the area’s golden sand beaches and ride your horses into the azure waters of the lake itself for a truly memorable dip.
Relax at Chintheche Beach
Sitting along Lake Malawi’s northern shore, Chintheche is Malawi’s premier beach and is the perfect place to unwind. The rolling waves, tropical backdrop and Caribbean white sand make it easy to forget that you are hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean. Unsurprisingly, the beach is one of the country’s favourite destinations for locals and tourists alike with a host of camping, lodging and water sports facilities available to suit all tastes.
Explore Malawi’s dark history at Karonga
Stretching along the coastline of Lake Malawi and fronted by a band of dazzling golden sand, Karonga looks like paradise. Despite this, the town has a dark history as the country’s main slave-trading port, which can be explored at the Cultural and Museum Centre. Beyond this infamous past, the museum also showcases an eclectic collection that ranges from the skeleton of the Malawisaurus dinosaur to artefacts from the country’s independence struggle.
Sample Malawi’s finest coffee in Mzuzu
The streets of the northern Malawian town of Mzuzu are filled with the delightful smell of roasting Arabica coffee beans, which is the town’s most famous export. While the town itself offers little in the way of tourist amenities, Mzuzu is well worth a stop-off en-route to Nyika National Park to get a taste of its aromatic coffee that can be found in nearly all cafes, bars and restaurants in town.
Pick the perfect souvenir at Nkhata Bay Market
While Malawi is peppered with delightful craft markets, undoubtedly the best is found at Nkhata Bay. Numerous tents straddle the roadside selling everything from hand-carved nativity sets to decorative bowls and masks etched with elaborate images of baobab trees. In short, there is something for everyone at Nkhata.
“Over the past decade, Ross Cameron has travelled extensively across Europe, Southeast Asia, North America, North Africa, and the post-Soviet space. As someone who has a real passion for these regions of the globe, he is able to offer an expert opinion that highlights the best off the beaten track destinations.”
Image details and licenses:
Cape Maclear: https://flic.kr/p/j13fSH (Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), Majete Wildlife Reserve: https://flic.kr/p/SK4Gds (Mickaël T., CC BY 2.0), Mount Mulanje: https://flic.kr/p/pUVV4q (David Davies, CC BY-SA 2.0), Karonga: https://flic.kr/p/oCUtW9 (Davy Demaline, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)