For first-time visitors to Africa – and for anyone who is drawn to nature and outdoor adventures – Malawi is a wonderful destination.
This tiny sliver of a country has many superb places to visit, offering scenic diversity, from the vast, idyllic Lake Malawi and the zebra-dotted high plains to the epic heights of Mt Mulanje and the escarpment views at Livingstonia. Accounts of the legendary Malawian friendliness are not overexaggerated, and once there, you will find there are ways to experience this welcoming country while keeping your costs down.
Here are the best things to do on your trip to Malawi.
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1. Find the Big Five at Majete Wildlife Reserve
After decades of terrible poaching, the restoration of Malawi’s parks and the reintroduction of species make it a great country to see wildlife without the mind-bending expense that is required to go on safari in some neighboring countries.
Once poached to virtual local extinction, the wildlife at Majete has made an astonishing recovery, thanks to the management of the African Parks conservation organization, which ringed the park with a high fence. With the reintroduction of lions, the park is now a prime destination for seeing the Big Five, as well as skittering warthog families, impala, waterbuck, and much more. Accommodations range from a simple campsite to a super-luxury lodge. Thawale Camp is a lovely midrange option, focused on a watering hole where animals gather in glorious diversity and abundance from dawn onwards. It’s a magical experience.
Planning tip: For wildlife viewing, the dry season from April to August is the best time to visit. From September, the heat begins to build, and the rains start.
Lake Malawi’s fishing boats are iconic © Joschka_Woeste / Getty Images
2. Watch the sunset at Lake Malawi with chambo and chips
You simply haven’t seen Malawi until you’ve seen the lake. This long, languorous body of water offers amazing opportunities for lounging, swimming, and snorkeling to view the bright, biodiverse, and astonishingly colorful cichlid fish below the surface. Sleepy resort villages are dotted along the length of the lake, where the best of the lodges blend in an unostentatious way with the surroundings, made from natural materials. They offer the simple pleasure of grilled fish, such as the ubiquitous chambo with chips, and proximity to the water. Settlements like Cape Maclear have some great Malawian-owned lodges, allowing you to give back in a direct way, and the community has a project where you can eat with local people and buy their handmade products. Nkhata Bay is the hippest and most sociable town on the lake.
Lake Malawi’s fishers use canoes dug out from tree trunks, and their distinctive shape is a lake icon, reproduced in carvings and curios. At lakeside settlements such as Senga Bay, you can arrange a boat trip, best timed to end with the glow of a lake sunset.
Planning tip: For transport, the MV Ilala ferry runs up and down Lake Malawi weekly. Though the schedule is anything but reliable, the ferry is an affordable and fabulously scenic way to journey between the villages and islands.
3. Escape on the lake at Likoma Island
Once travelers get to little Likoma Island, they often find it hard to leave the sandy beaches and interior dotted with baobabs and mango trees. In this remote place, the unexpectedly vast Cathedral of St Peter is the must-see sight. Kaya Mawa Lodge is one of the most attractive in the country, with its stone rooms and timber terraces opening onto beaches with stunning sundowner views. The island has a good scattering of affordable rest houses too.
Hike the trails between the mountain huts of Mt Mulanje © wilpunt / Getty Images
4. Hike up the peaks of Mt Mulanje
Mulanje is the third highest mountain on the African continent, a granite massif cut with deep fissures that soars above the surrounding tea plantations: it is aptly dubbed “the island in the sky.” With its wooded ravines, high waterfalls, river pools and 20 separate peaks, Mulanje is strikingly beautiful and imposing.
Planning tip: Plenty of well-organized guiding operations can help you make the tough 9842ft (3000m) ascent to the high peaks, and you can stay in simple mountain huts linked by looping trails. There are excellent climbing opportunities as well as a multitude of hiking routes.
5. Party at the Lake of Stars
Malawians love to party, and the annual Lake of Stars festival is the biggest party of them all. You can stay glamping style or bring your own tent, and then drink, dance, and party under the night sky. Authentic Malawian music can be disappointingly hard to come by at the festival, where derivative styles like gospel rap sometimes dominate. But if you get a chance to hear Blantyre-born star singer and guitarist Faith Mussa, don’t miss it.
6. Walk up to the escarpment edge at secluded and historic Livingstonia
The village of Livingstonia is one of the earliest colonial settlements in Malawi, located high in the hills that rise above the northwestern shores of the lake and boasting a cool climate that the founding Scottish missionaries could adapt to. Hiking from the lake shore up the wooded hills to reach the remote settlement is part of the adventure. Well before you reach Livingstonia itself, a high cluster of imaginative lodges has grown up to take advantage of the dizzyingly beautiful views on the escarpment. The Mushroom Farm, perched on the edge of the vertiginously steep slopes, is a model of sustainable tourism, with a gorgeously abundant permaculture garden, farm-to-table food, and deep community roots. From here, you can stroll to the spectacular Manchewe Falls.
Livingstonia itself, where the only accommodations are much more spartan than that of the lodges, was founded in the 19th century. Visit the Stone House Museum to discover the history of the town and wander the quiet streets with their cluster of quaint administrative buildings.
The Shire River is ideal for watching wildlife in Liwonde National Park © Jonathan Gregson / Lonely Planet
7. Have an unforgettable encounter with elephants in Liwonde National Park
Set on the banks of the wide Shire River, Liwonde National Park offers fabulous wildlife viewing. A stay in one of the lodges within the park boundaries brings you within thrilling – and occasionally terrifying – proximity to nature. Many of the lodges have regular nightly visits from elephants, who chew the thatch on the lodge roofs as you attempt to sleep. Another unforgettable experience here is a Shire boat trip past yawning, diving hippos.
8. Chill out for a couple of days in Zomba
The town of Zomba has no standout attractions, but it makes a lovely place to spend a few days, especially in combination with hikes on the plateau that looms over the town. Zomba has some good eating places and a backpacker lodge that’s a classic traveler hub, and the market sells beautiful chitenge cloth from which local tailors can create bespoke garments for you.
Planning tip: Book your stay in Zomba Forest Lodge on the plateau, which provides gorgeously remote accommodations and outstanding food. The owners are planting trees on the surrounding slopes, which have been hard hit by deforestation.
9. See zebras cross the grassland at Nyika National Park
The isolated Nyika National Park is a world away from the sweltering Shire plains. Nyika features sweeping grasslands dotted with orchids and roamed by zebras, where – if you’re lucky – you might hear the distinctive cough of the leopard. You can stay in the beautiful wooden Chelinda Lodge, warmed on chilly evenings by log fires, or in one of the simpler forestry buildings nearby, known as Chelinda Camp.
10. See rescued wild animals at Lilongwe Wildlife Centre
The country’s capital city isn’t the most characterful place in Malawi, but if you’re looking for interesting things to do in Lilongwe, the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre belongs at the top of your list. Located in a dense tangle of woodland that cuts an attractive green swathe through the city, the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre is dedicated to rehabilitating wild animals such as baboons, servals, bushpigs, and hyenas, and returning them to the wild whenever possible. It provides a wonderful educational experience for visitors and is a lovely respite from Lilongwe’s rather scattered streets, with beautiful walking trails and an excellent cafe.
Planning tip: Entry fees for non-Malawian visitors are K2000 per adult, K1000 per child. Additional donations are welcome and go towards supporting the rehabilitation of animals here.