This is your ultimate Malawi travel guide, with everything you need to know for your first visit. Among African countries and tourist destinations, Malawi is one of the best kept secrets. In this guide, we will be blowing the lid off that giving you the starter guide to travelling through Malawi.
A bit about Malawi
Malawi is a small landlocked country in Southeastern Africa, sandwiched between Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania. It has been coined the name ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’ thanks to being one of the most peaceful countries on the continent and having what visitors often describe as the world’s most friendly people. Although historically Malawi has been less visited than its neighbors, in the past few years Malawi has risen in popularity, finding its way onto several high-profile top-10 must visit lists, including travel publishing giant Lonely Planet’s highly-esteemed top-10 countries to visit in 2022.
The Malawi Travel Guide
Brimming with untamed flora, exotic fauna, and locals with a zeal for sharing their culture, Malawi is an ideal destination for intrepid travelers, outdoor lovers and cultural enthusiasts. Amongst the country’s countless breathtaking Great Rift Valley backdrops— the towering mountains of the Mulanje Massif, the tropical grasslands and woodlands of the famous Miombo ecoregion, and the captivating waters of Lake Malawi, just to name a few— visitors will find themselves transported back to a time when nature was largely untouched.
Getting To and Around Malawi
Overseas visitors have the option of flying into one of Malawi’s two international airports, Kamuzu International Airport or Chileka International Airport, both serviced by Ethiopian Airlines, Kenyan Airlines and Malawi’s very own Malawian Airlines. Kamuzu International Airport is situated in the Malawian capital of Lilongwe. Chileka International Airport is situated in Blantyre, Malawi’s second largest city, located in the southern region. Most travelers opt to begin their travels in Lilongwe, making their way outwards to the southernmost or northernmost attractions of Malawi.
Traveling Within Malawi
Due to Malawi’s small size and lack of complex road networks, self-drive is a feasible and highly-affordable option to travel the country. Car rentals are available in all of Malawi’s major towns (4-by-4 is recommended) and there are several gas stations and stop-overs stocked with cold drinks and crisps along the M1, Malawi’s main single carriageway that traverses the entire length of the country.
That being said, many of Malawi’s tarmacked roads are poorly maintained and lined with crowded trading centers and local markets that spill into the road. While adventurous drivers will find navigating the pothole laden, goat filled roads to be an exciting challenge, the faint of heart may find it overwhelming. Alternatively, many Malawi based safari companies such as Ulendo Travel Group offer guided transfers, driver packages and chartered domestic flights
Malawi also has a variety of coachline bus services that provide transfers between major cities; these include Sososo, AXA and Kwezy buses. Tickets can be pre-booked or purchased on the day of travel. More venturesome or budget travelers can travel using the mini-bus system— a massive network of informal public transport offering both inter-city and intra-city transfers.
Malawi is consistently ranked as one of the poorest countries in the world. About 80% of the country’s population of 19-million work in the agricultural sector— many of them subsistence farmers. Trade in Malawi is conducted using the Malawi Kwacha; the exchange rate to the US dollar usually fluctuates somewhere between 750-900 Malawi Kwacha. Although the number of businesses that accept credit cards, debit cards and bank transfers is growing, cash is still the preferred mode of payment and the only option for visitors looking to buy curios from road-side souvenir shacks, street food or merchandise from local markets. ATM’s are widely available in larger towns, however it is advised to withdraw money in advance when traveling to more remote areas.
‘Chichewa’ is the main language spoken in Malawi, followed by eleven other Bantu languages and English— a permanent remnant of being a former British colony. Speaking English is common amongst staff in the tourist and service industry. However, in rural areas knowledge of English varies. Although many Malawians are willing to converse in English, they are highly appreciative when visitors attempt to greet them in their native languages.
Malawi is exceptionally safe compared to African mega-cities like Lagos, Accra, Johannesburg and Dar-Es-Salaam. Most locals are more than willing to assist visitors with directions. Visitors tend to stick out if they deviate from the common Bantu-African phenotype and subsequently may find themselves followed by groups of fascinated children, giggling and playfully chanting “Mzungu” (white person).
While it is uncommon to be mugged or pickpocketed in Malawi, it does happen occasionally. Visitors should ensure all their valuables are tightly secured or hidden when visiting crowded areas such as the local market or bus depots. Most premium hotels will provide a safe in the room to store valuables; making use of the safe is advised. During the day, major towns are vibrant and alive with pedestrians, cyclists, vendors and more, but at night the streets empty significantly such that walking after dark is not recommended.
While being a tropical country comes with many upsides, the downside is that Malawi is prone to several endemic infectious diseases. In particular, visitors should be concerned about Malaria and Bilharzia (also known as Schistosomiasis). Fortunately, there are numerous precautions travelers can take to prevent the risk of contracting these illnesses.
For Malaria, travelers have the option of taking antimalarial drugs, these can be purchased prior to arrival in Malawi through a travel doctor or they can be purchased and initiated within the first day of arrival in Malawi— the latter option being significantly cheaper. Most pharmacies in Malawi and large supermarkets sell insect repellent and most hotels provide mosquito nets to prevent malaria and to keep unwanted pests from disrupting sleep.
Bilharzia is contracted by swimming or wading in infected waters and is endemic in several parts of Lake Malawi. Visitors who opt to prevent contracting Bilharzia by not swimming in the lake may book a lodge or hotel with a swimming pool. Those who can’t resist splashing through the freshwater waves or snorkeling alongside thousands of brightly coloured Lake Malawi Cichlids (the majority of visitors are in this group) may book a trip to one of Lake Malawi’s Bilharzia free/low-risk Bilharzia zones. As a final precaution, visitors can take the oral anti bilharzia drug, Praziquantel, a few weeks after swimming in the lake. The drug is extremely affordable and is in stock in most Malawi pharmacies.
Food and Dress
Malawian cuisine is simple. It is made with minimal to no spices and a minimal range of ingredients. The staple is nsima, a thick porridge-like meal made from ground maize. Traditionally, meals will include nsima accompanied by a side of meat or one of the many varieties of fish found in Lake Malawi and local vegetables.
Other snacks include locally grown ground nuts, cassava, maize and one of the many succulent fruits that grow naturally in Malawi such as mangoes, sugar cane and tangerines.
Tap water is usually not safe to drink for visitors unless the hotel or restaurant serving the water has stated otherwise. To avoid water borne illnesses visitors are advised to boil water first before drinking or opt for bottled water.
When to Visit
Malawi has two distinct seasons— rainy and dry. The dry season (early May to late October) is the most popular among tourists. Safari is particularly recommended between July and October when bush cover is lower and animals congregate to the few watering holes that remain, making for excellent game viewing.
Malawi ‘winter’ which occurs between May and August. It’s cool, dry and of course mild compared to other countries.That being said mountainous regions can drop to very cold temperatures so visitors should be prepared for the cold or plan to visit these areas during the warmer months.
The best time to visit Lake Malawi is between September and October when it is dry and warm.. Although many lodges offer appealing low-season or wet rates during Malawi’s rainy season (November to April), the weather during this time can be extremely hot, wet and erratic and many areas flood making traveling the country by road more difficult.
Experiencing Malawi’s Capital — Lilongwe
Malawi is split into three regions, the central, northern and southern region, all with their own distinct characteristics and share of incredible sites to see. The central region hosts Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe.
Lilongwe is not known for its thoughtful urban design. On the contrary, the city is a sprawled out and uncoordinated collection of commercial clusters consisting of concrete office buildings, shops and informal markets— connected by a somewhat erratic network of traffic prone tar and dirt roads. That being said, certain parts of the city have their charms, particularly the low-density residential areas and various pockets of greenery sprinkled throughout the city.
While Lilongwe is a starting point for most visitors, the city itself does not have too much to offer in terms of tourist attractions and many visitors spend just a day or two here to rest prior to moving on to more exciting adventures outside the city.
Old Town Market
If in Lilongwe for a day or two, visitors can pay a visit to Old Town Market, a historic outdoor market next to the city’s Indian and Pakistani commercial hub. Old Town market is an absolute feast for the senses. Visitors that are able to make it past the wall of pungent odors that mark the market’s entrance will be in for an unforgettable and authentic Malawian experience.
Inside the market visitors will find anything and everything for sale— dried fish, knock off jewelry, live guinea fowl, second hand tires, locally farmed vegetables, brightly colored local textiles— the list goes on. Visitors that like to immerse themselves in new cultures will enjoy exercising their bargaining skills and swapping stories with the locals. After an hour in this market, the chaos of city life beyond its walls will seem like a calm retreat.
Lilongwe Wildlife Center:
Visitors need not wait until they are on safari to experience Malawi’s wildlife, they can experience a taste of it right within the boundaries of Lilongwe. The Lilongwe Wildlife Center is a relaxing outdoor center situated in the heart of the city. Sitting right alongside the muddy Lingadzi River, the expansive reserve of indigenous forest provides a safe haven for many species of wildlife and offers opportunities for recreation and exercise with over 4km of private and scenic nature trails.
Ufulu Gardens Hotel:
From shabby local lodges to 200-room executive hotels, there is no shortage of places to stay in Lilongwe. A popular choice amongst visitors is Ufulu Suite Gardens Hotel. The family run hotel and conference center is just a 20-minute drive from Kamuzu International Airport, and is situated in Area 43, one of Lilongwe’s safest and most affluent residential areas. The stunning tropical gardens that enclose this hotel provide guests with a dreamy and relaxing environment to recuperate after a long day of traveling. Amenities include a fully serviced restaurant which serves a variety of western and local cuisines, a massive pool area and the choice of a luxury room and premium furnished apartments.
Dzalanyama Forest Reserve
Just 2 hours outside of Lilongwe, is Dzalanyama Forest Reserve, a beautiful and peaceful forest composed mostly of miombo woodland. Dzalanyama Forest offers visitors a true recluse from the stress and chaos of the world. Day visits are possible, but considering the arduous drive— the majority of which is on a bumpy dirt road through local villages— an overnight stay is highly recommended.
The charmingly rustic Dzalanyama Forest Lodge is the only option for accommodation in the reserve. Set beside Makata Stream, the lodge will inspire guests to unplug. Fully solar powered and equipped for self-catering or catered guests, the main building still maintains many of its colonial architectural charms.
Visitors can spend the days trekking through the highlands, fresh streams and waterfalls or picnicking amongst the sounds of rare bird species such as the Olive-headed Weaver, Miombo Pied Barbet, Boulder Chat, White-tailed Flycatcher, Black-eared Seedeater and Stierlings Woodpecker. There are several marked hiking, walking and mountain bike trails across the forest.
Ntchisi Forest Reserve
Ntchisi Forest Reserve is a tropical woodland paradise. Due to its remote location and conservation efforts, the forest has remained mostly untouched and relatively undiscovered by tourists. It is often referred to as the last real rainforest in Malawi. Visitors will feel the magic and liveliness of this forest the minute they step through the official boundary.. The sky-scraping lush trees and expansive canopies, brightly coloured wild flowers, uncountable flocks of birds, menacing troops of samango monkeys, baboons and bush pigs and clusters of strange fruits and wild mushrooms are an experience that is not to be missed.
The only accommodation in the area is Ntchisi Forest Lodge, a wonderfully peaceful lodge set in an old colonial building dating back to 1914. Life at the lodge is simple and reminiscent of the old times. The lodge is run on solar and meals are made from local ingredients sourced from farmers in the nearby village— the perfect example of how tourism can be used as an instrument to promote sustainability and uplift local communities.
Cultural Experiences and History
Dedza Chongoni Rock Art Area
Situated amongst the breathtaking granite hills of Dedza about 1.5 hours from Lilongwe, the Chongoni Rock Art Area features 127 caves, natural shelters and towering rock slabs that house ancient rock paintings painted by the BaTwa hunter-gatherer during the late Stone Age. The tradition persisted up to the 20th century. Chongoni Rock Art Area is an astounding example of a people’s determination to maintain their cultural traditions over many centuries— and it has been named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On a sleepy escarpment in the Northern region of Rhumpi, bordering the cloud covered mountain tops of Nyika Plateau and overlooking the spectacular Northern shores of Lake Malawi, is the historical town of Livingstonia. Named after legendary Scottish missionary, Dr. David Livingstone, Livingstonia Mission was founded in 1894 by missionaries from the Free Church of Scotland. The missionaries established the top academic institution in the region at the time, with many of its graduates moving on to become influential historical figures in Malawi and in several neighboring countries. The town is full of several colonial buildings with fascinating architecture that transports visitors to another age.
Getting to Livingstonia by car can take up to 8 hours depending on the weather and the final leg of the trip is terrifying— think several kilometers of bumpy, rocky hairpin bends.. Visitors who wish to break up the trip can spend the night in Mzuzu, Northern Malawi’s largest city.
Just a 4 hour drive from Lilongwe and lies Zomba, the former colonial capital of Malawi and one of the historic and outdoor gems of Malawi’s southern region. Although it’s the fourth largest city in Malawi, Zomba is distinguished from the others by its calm and organized atmosphere. Zomba has an abundant supply of fresh mountain air due to its close proximity to Zomba Plateau. Zomba was the home of the colonial administration in Malawi, of which many remnants remain. The most famous examples include the former Cobbe Barracks which used to house the King’s African Rifles, a clock tower World War I memorial and the Gymkhana Club, the old residency of the first commissioner of Nyasaland (colonial Malawi).
What Zomba lacks in size, it does not lack in culture and entertainment. The town has several unique businesses such as the Chocolate Factory, Malawi’s one and only chocolatier, Mama Mandevu Kitchen, a local restaurant that serves mouth-watering traditional dishes, Pakachere, a funky and colorful backpacking joint that serves up nourishing vegan food, and Casa Rosa, a charming restaurant lodge that serves up delicious homemade Italian cuisine.
There are also several opportunities for visitors to enjoy the natural beauty of Zomba plateau. These include hikes to catch panoramic views of the valleys, numerous waterfalls to explore such as the famous Williams Falls, opportunities to stroll, berry pick or horse ride in the lush forests and Mulunguzi Dam, a stunning dam and pristine picnic spot. Visitors will leave completely refreshed.
Wildlife Reserves and Safaris
Liwonde National Park
Liwonde National Park is situated in the Southern region of Malawi and is an incredible example of the benefits of large scale joint conservation efforts. The park has been the host of massive translocation, reintroduction, and transformation projects that have restored it from a deteriorating land plagued by poaching to a thriving natural wonder that hosts some of Africa’s most sought after safari species.
The park is set on the breathtaking backdrop of the Shire River, the lifesource and jewel of the thousands of species that inhabit the area. Liwonde National Park is now recognized as one of southern Africa’s premium destinations for safaris. Whether out in the grassy savannah trying to spot a cheetah, lion or elephant or enjoying a sundowner on the banks of the Shire, every moment in this park is magical.
Majete Wildlife Reserve
Majete Wildlife Reserve is situated in the low-lying plains of Chikwawa in Southern Malawi, tucked along the magnificent and lively Shire River. Similar to Liwonde, this park was the host of an extraordinary restoration and conservation project, courtesy of African Parks. Prior to 2003, the park had been stripped of all wildlife and was the subject of mass deforestation. 19-years later, Majete is home to over 12,000 large mammals including the famous ‘Big Five’. The story of the rise of this park from the ashes of unsustainability to becoming one of the top safari and conservation destinations in the region is truly inspiring.
Cape Maclear and the Islands
It would be an utter crime to travel to Malawi and not visit Lake Malawi, the third largest freshwater lake in Africa. Its expansive waters resemble that of the oceans or the sea. Lake Malawi has several nicknames including ‘Lake of Stars’, named after the fishermens’ lanterns that look like sparkling stars in the distance at night.
Experiences at lake Malawi are as diverse as the wildlife that inhabits its waters. Visitors seeking a quiet recluse can head to the private Mumbo or Domwe Islands in the south-end of the lake. And if visiting during the low season, visitors may even be lucky enough to have the entire island to themselves.
Visitors after a good time can opt for the bustling shores of Cape Maclear. Cape Maclear is set against a spectacular backdrop of forested and granite mountains lined with sandy beaches. It is home to several eclectic lodges and a bustling fishing village. One of the most popular activities is a visit to the nearby Thumbi Island to snorkel beside schools of thousands of Malawi Cichlids and watch the guides feed the islands resident Fish Eagles.
Nkhata Bay is another popular lake destination. It is known for its clean blue waters and fun, laid back atmosphere. At the town center visitors can explore the buzzing fishing market and historic port— home of the Ilala, Malawi’s largest ship that has been ferrying passengers across the lake to neighboring countries since 1951. Just a few minutes from the port, there are several beach lodges nestled into the forested, rocky headlands and overlooking the dreamy blue waters below.
Mountains and Hiking
Due to receiving less traffic, Malawi’s top hiking destinations have remained largely unspoilt and are not overly commercialized and touristic. They offer visitors a peaceful, significantly cheaper and unique opportunity to revel in the unmatched beauty of untouched nature, an experience that is becoming rare in more popular destinations like Kilimanjaro.
The two most legendary mountains to hike are Mulanje Massif and Nyika Plateau. Mulanje is easily accessible from Blantyre, Malawi’s southern capital. The dramatic granite slabs of Mulanje Massif loom over lush green tea plantations down below, creating a truly spectacular image.
Mulanje Mountainis the subject of many local legends, including mystic stories of the spirits that roam the mountain’s cloud covered plains. Visitors can enjoy the many waterfalls, exotic wild flowers and quaint rustic cabins as they make their way up to the legendary peak, Sapitwa (meaning don’t go there in Chichewa).
Situated in Malawi’s northern region along the Zambian border, the Nyika Plateau is vastly different to Mulanje. Set in a massive national park consisting of over 3200km squared of rolling highlands and grasslands, Nyika offers visitors an otherworldly experience.
Due to the lack of dangerous predators, visitors have the liberty of freely strolling or biking alongside the several wild species that inhabit the mountain— Burchell’s zebra, eland, roan, reedbuck, blue duiker, klipspringer and bush pig. The large mammals are preyed on by the hundreds of leopards that also roam the plateau, though the leopards are notoriously stealth and difficult to spot so visitors need not worry.
After spending a few days relaxing and exploring the several fresh water dams and mini forest clusters that are spread throughout the plateau, visitors can head out on one of the many hikes. The most famous one being a strenuous 3-day trek from the middle of Nyika Plateau to the town of Livingstoni. The hike follows the historic Livingstonia trail that was once frequented by the famous missionary and explorer, Dr. David Livingstone. The simultaneous proximity to the heavens and wildlife is a once in a lifetime experience.
And there you have it for our Malawi Travel Guide. You are now armed with the information you need to make your way through its various destinations. Start planning your trip to Malawi while this secret travel gen remains a secret.