The “Pearl of Africa”, Uganda is blessed with countless tourist attractions. Talk of national parks like Queen Elizabeth, Murchison Falls, Kidepo and Bwindi Impenetrable forest. Tourists visiting Uganda can take part in amazing activities like gorilla trekking, mountain hiking, whitewater rafting in Jinja, visiting lake Bunyonyi and the Ssese Islands in lake Victoria to mention but a few. Because most of these exciting activities and attractions are found in the countryside, an in depth tour of the capital Kampala is second on the bucket list for most tourists. This should not be the case given all that the city has to offer. Kampala is by far the largest urban centre in Uganda and sits on 7 major hills (Old Kampala, Makerere, Kibuli, Rubaga, Mengo, Kololo and Mulago). Before the British Colonial government turned Kampala into a major administrative centre, the area it now sits on was covered by vast grasslands and wetlands that attracted large herds of antelopes making it a favorite hunting ground for the Kabaka of Buganda (Mutesa 1). The colonial administrators named the area Kampala because of the large number of Impala that once roamed the area.
There is so much to see in this fast growing and busy city of about 1.5 million people. This article centers on the best things and attractions within and around the city as it is today. It is recommended that you set aside a whole weekend in order to see the best that the city of Kampala has to offer. The best and most efficient means of transport (though risky) around the city is by using boda bodas (motorcycle). These bikes are very efficient in traversing through heavy traffic and are very affordable.
Here is the complete list of attractions and things to do.
Old Kampala: Old Kampala sits at the original Kampala Hill. It is where the first administrative blocks were built before the city expanded and most administrative buildings were shifted to a more central location. Old Kampala stands out because of the unique old colonial and Indian style architectural buildings. It has changed a little recently with more modern shopping malls but still offers the best opportunity to see how Kampala looked then and now.
The Gadaffi Mosque: This is the largest mosque in Uganda with the capacity to accommodate over 15,000 worshippers. It was Idi Amin Dada who first started building the mosque in 1972. It was only completed in 2007 with a generous donation from Colonel Muammar Gafaffi of Libya. The mosque is built on top of one of the 7 major hills of Kampala and at the spot where the colonial capital was located. Climbing to the highest point of this mosque provides arguably one of the best views of Kampala city. The administrators of the mosque have been considerate enough to allow tourists visit the mosque and take photos at a small fee of about $3. Visitors are led around the premises by an in-house Tour Guide. Women are required to cover themselves with a headscarf (available at the offices) before touring the place.
Kibuli mosque: This is the most popular mosque in Uganda. Kibuli Mosque is regarded as the entre of Muslim activities in Uganda. It is where the top Sheiks reside. The mosque lies on one of Kampala’s original 7 hills (Kibuli) offering great views of the capital city. Prince Badru Kakungulu of Buganda donated the land where the mosque stands to the Muslim fraternity in Uganda.
The Buganda Parliament (Bulange): The Buganda parliament holds sessions every month where several issues pertinent to the Kingdom are discussed. The Kabaka (King) of Buganda only attends the beginning and last sessions of the year. His role is to open and close the sessions. In the earlier centuries before the coming of the colonialists, these sessions were held under a large tree and then to mud grass-thatched buildings. The parliament building received a major facelift with modern buildings around the time of independence. A guided tour around this building will provide fascinating insights about the history of the Buganda Kingdom, the fifty six clans and formers kings.
Kabaka’s Palaces in Mengo and Lubiri: The Mengo palace building is built on top of one of Kampala’s major hills (Mengo) and close to the Buganda parliament (Bulange). The Mengo palace has largely been abandoned since the Kabaka Mutesa II was ousted by President Milton Obote in 1996. The palace later played a terrible role during the regime of Idi Amin Dada. A notorious torture chamber was built here by Idi Amin were over 250 people were murdered at different points during his rule. Amin was ruthless to anyone he saw as a threat to his rule.
Most of the building is closed to visitor but you can request for a guided tour of the torture chamber within the palace at a fee of $3. While at the Chambers, you will listen to distressing stories of the people killed including top businessman, politicians, soldiers and basically anyone who seemed a threat to the dictator. The walls at the cambers still bare blood and human waste as a reminder of the terrible ordeal the inmates faced. The Kabaka currently stays in the Lubiri palace. Lubiru is the official palace but the Kabaka has other palaces in Banda next to Kyambogo University
The Kabaka’s lake: This Lake is 200 ft deep and is the largest manmade/excavated lake in Africa. The Lake is found in Nbeeba and was built by Kabaka Mwanga of Buganda to connect the Kings palace to Lake Victoria while also providing an escape route during major wars. The Kabaka took part in the digging process to encourage his subjects. Clan leaders of Buganda consider the lake sacred and occasionally gather to clean it. This beautiful lake is now a tourist attraction on its own and offers a perfect atmosphere for relaxation, boat rides/racing and bird watching. There are several accommodation facilities around the lake for those who wish to spend more time around the place.
Kasubi Tombs: This one of the several UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Uganda. This large grass-thatched building is a very important site to the Baganda people. It is the burial ground for 4 of their former kings. The Baganda believe that their kings do not die but simply disappear to another world. While at the tombs, you can spot the large hut holding the tombs, the royal clothing, hunting tools and other monuments of these past kings. The royal guides will share with you stories about each of the kings and the roles they played during their reign and history of the Baganda people. The site is taken care of by descendents of the Kings wives.
In case you are interested in learning more about the Baganda people after visiting the Kasubi tombs, you can also visit the less known Wamala Tombs. These tombs were built 11 kilometers away from those at Kasubi and along Hoima Road. Kabaka Suuna II is buried here. He was a very powerful King but feared for being strict and a heavy punisher. Upon his death, he was replaced by a more likeable leader Kabaka Mutesa I. The Nnamasole Kanyange tombs are also worth visiting and are close to the Wamala tombs. You might also want to visit the Katereke Prison Ditch were one of the Buganda kings (Kabaka Kalema) killed thirty of his brothers to retain control of the throne.
The Ba’hai Temple: The Ba’hai Temple is built on Kikaya hill near Gayaza road. The temple is special because it is the only one of the Ba’hai faith in Africa. It is a magnificent building sitting on a large piece of land that offers a serene environment for relaxation and bird watching. The temple grounds are also a favorite place for meditation and are frequented by people from all religious backgrounds. From its raised position, the Ba’hai Temple provides great views of Kampala city and the surrounding suburbs. If you are interested in knowing more about the Bah’ai faith, then you should attend their morning Sunday service.
Uganda Martyrs Shrines in Namugongo: The Uganda Martyrs Shrine Namugongo is located close to the Kampala-Jinja highway and is one of the most visited religious sites in Africa. In June 1886, about 32 Christians were burnt alive or simply speared to death on the orders of Kabaka Mwanga for their refusal to denounce Christianity and the Muslim faith in favor of the traditional Buganda religion. After accepting them in the beginning, the Kabaka grew to hate all foreign religions, seeing them as a threat to his rule. The Kabaka was particularly angry that the some of his pages were no longer obeying some of his orders after their conversions. The Shrines are built to remember the young and brave converts who refused to denounce their faith even after undergoing great pain and suffering. Over one million people congregate in Namugongo every 3rd of June to honor the lives of these Martyrs. The Shrines in Namugongo offer opportunities to learn something about the history of Christianity in Uganda. The Roman Catholic shrine in particular has a beautiful environment for relaxation, meditation and prayer.
Namirembe Cathedral: This is arguably the most beautiful cathedral of the Anglican faith in Uganda. It is also known as St. Paul’s Cathedral and was built in 1919 making it the oldest in Uganda. Namirembe Cathedral sits on a spot with great views of Kampala city. The Archbishop of the Church of Uganda (Anglican Church) resides in a building next to the cathedral. If you are a member of the Anglican Church and are looking for a good spot for worshiping, then this might just be the place to go to. The cathedral also has a graveyard with remains of Ernest Cook and Bishop Hannington (murdered in 1885 on orders of Kabaka Mwanga). Ernst Cook was the nephew of Sir Albert Cook (a colonial administrator) and is credited for having built the large Mengo hospital. While visiting the cathedral, don’t miss to check out a small hut housing the large drums used to call worshipers for service. You can complete your tour of the cathedral by having tasty lunch at the Namirembe guest house.
Rubaga Cathedral: Rubaga Cathedral is built in one of Uganda’s main hills offering good views of the capital. It is where the headquarters of the Roman Catholic faith in Uganda is located. Before the Cathedral was built in 1914, one of the palaces of Kabaka Mutesa I sat on the land. His son Kabaka Mwanga II later donated the land to the French Catholic missionaries. The construction of the current church started in 1914 and ended in 1925. Ironically, the cathedral was built in memory of the 22 catholic martyrs of Uganda burnt in Namugongo under the orders of the same Kabaka who gave out the church land. While on a visit to the church, do not forget to visit the burial ground of the first African catholic bishop and later Arch Bishop Joseph Kiwanuka. Entering the church is free but donations can be made at the church offices.
Jewish Synagogue and community Uganda: The Jewish community in Kampala have a Synagogue in Kibuli (along Mbogo Road). They are a community of believers who share a common love for Hashem and respecting the Torah. They gather for fellowship several times a week and spend time visiting the local community including prison inmates. The Jewish community has initiated development projects to support the public in education and health. The Galilee Community General Jewish hospital helps cover gaps in medical services in some parts of Kampala. The community also organizes teachings and books in Jewish for learners while encouraging the recitation of the Shema twice a day. If you believe in the Jewish faith or wish to earn more, why not visit this community.
Gurdwara Ramgarhia Sabha: This is where the Gurdwara Indians do their fellowship and worshiping. The temple is led by a group of Sikhs who spend their day reciting, listening to devotional hymns and having communal meals. The Gurdwara Indians have built several temples in Africa and attracted the attention of masses interested in their unique style of worship.
Owino Market: Owino Market was recently renamed St. Balikuddembe market but the locals still prefer the name “Owino”. Owino market is located near the main Kampala taxi park. It is the busiest market in Kampala and attracts thousands each day. It is a chaotic market but with traders selling almost anything from clothes, shoes, fresh fruits, food and traditional medicine. You can find second-hand designs in great condition from the best designers around the world. You can also buy your own fabrics and have it sewed by expert local tailors. Owino market will give you a different perception of the city of Kampala – especially if you are coming from the more glamorous residents in Muyenge or Kololo. Be ready to haggle to get the best price and lookout for goons who are always looking for a good opportunity to snatch your bag or jewelry. Better to move in a group or with a trusted local guide to avoid being bullied into buying something you don’t want or at inflated prices.
Apart from Owino Market, there are also the Nakasero and Wandegeya markets. Nakasero market is found within the city centre and is the best place to shop for fresh food, grains and electronics. It has all types of vegetables and fresh fruits. The market is surrounded by large storied buildings that house the best hardware and electronics shops. Wandegeya Market is located close to Makerere University. It is a favorite shopping place for University students and other city dwellers staying in the suburbs of Kamokya, Ntinda, Bugolobi and Kololo. It is said that the best Rolex (omelets and grain) is made in Wandegeya. Wandegeya market also has offices, boutiques, restaurants and some of the best joints for roasted chicken, pork and goats meat. The thing about visiting these markets for tourists is that it gives you an opportunity to understand the culture of the local people. You need to be good at bargaining to avoid being over-charged especially if you look a foreigner.
Buy A book or visit a library: Aristoc Booklex is the most popular bookstore for buying novels and Ugandan books (in English). They have grown to have two branches in Garden city and the Acacia Mall.
Craft Markets, Art Galleries and Monuments: If you are looking for local crafts for house decorations or souvenirs within Kampala, then you might be spoilt for choices. There are several permanent and temporary shops/markets that sell locally made jewelry, sculptures, paintings, fabrics and art pieces. You can visit the large crafts shop at the national theatre or go to Gerald’s Antiques for old stamps and Ugandan bank notes. Exposure Africa has beautiful jewelry and wood carvings while Uganda Crafts 2000 ltd has great paintings and traditional bitenge women’s wear of all colors. If you need more Kitenge designs then visit the Kampala Fair, Bold for African designs, Def.i.ni.tion (including T-Shirts), Banana Boat and Quality Hill (Those also include eye-catching Congolese designs).
For the best art galleries, visit 32° East Ugandan Arts Trust, the Asante Art Gallery and Afriart Gallery. Thes galleries bring together some of the best Ugandan artists to showcase their products. You might also want to check out the Makerere Art Gallery for their monthly art exhibitions and large sculptures. Other art galleries and centers worth visiting for local souvenirs are the Uganda Art Gallery near Namirembe Cathedral, Karibu Art Gallery, Umoja Art Gallery, Craft African for Kenyan/Ugandan art, AKA Gallery/Geoffrey Mukasa collection and the Nommo Gallery for quality art pieces.
Independence monument: The independence monument was built during the months leading to Uganda’s independence in October 1962. It is close to the Sheraton hotel and is a structure of a man lifting up a child towards the sky (signifying how the country was let free after colonization). The monument is made of sand, cement, wire mesh and iron bars. A lecturer of Makerere University Gregory Maloba from Kenya was the sculptor responsible for implementing the design. A more recent monument was put up at the Kololo Airstrip to commemorate 50 years of Uganda’s independence.
Lake Victoria for the beaches and boat cruise: Lake Victoria is one of the two largest freshwater lakes in the world. A boat cruise around Lake Victoria can take you to some of the best spots in Kampala and Entebbe. You can even go to beautiful islands like Ngamba and Ssese. There are a number of companies offering boat cruises around the lake at a good fee. Ensure that you go with a reputable company offering well-maintained boats. Most of the boats stop at different landing sites and islands for sightseeing, refreshment and lunch (fried tilapia and chips). If you aren’t interest in the boat cruises, you can relax and swim in the numerous private/hotel-owned beaches in Ggaba and Munyonyo. The beaches include KK Resort Beach, One love beach, Speke Resort Munyonyo, Gaba Beach Hotel, Mulungi Kabaka’s Recreation Center and Kawuku Water Sports Club. These beaches and facilities offer opportunities to take part in sport fishing, bird watching, canoeing, horseback riding and much more.
The Uganda National Museum: The Uganda National Museum was founded in 1908 by the British Governor George Wilson making it the oldest and largest museum in Uganda. The museum was built to showcases the cultural heritage and historical milestones in the country covering religion, clothing, agriculture and medicine among others. The museum has different sections, each showing the culture and natural resources of the country. Several artifacts like local music instruments and ancient hunting tools (spears, bows, and arrows) are on display for those who can pay an entrance fee of about 7 US Dollars.
The Ndere Centre: This cultural Centre is found outside the city centre in an area known as Kisasi. The centre showcases the cultural heritage of all tribes in Uganda through traditional music, dance and drama among others. The centre offers opportunities to learn how to cook local dishes and dance to local tunes. If you are not interested in learning the local dances, you can just lay back and watch beautiful traditional dance performances from the famous Ndere Troupe.
Shopping Malls: Kampala is a city with countless supermarkets and large shopping centers. The Garden City Complex is one of the most popular shopping centers in Kampala. It’s got several supermarkets, shops restaurants, bookshops and jewelry shops. Other large supermarkets include Game and Nakumatt (Acacia Mall and Oasis Malls). Most of these large shopping malls accept international credit cards.
Restaurants and other eat-outs: As the capital city, Kampala brings together tribes and cultures from different parts of the country. Each tribe has its own special dish. Why not visit one of the top town restaurants and taste some of the local dishes available like “mattoke” (smashed cooked bananas) or “Kalo” (mingled millet bread). 2K Restaurant serves the best Ugandan dishes like steemed beef and Luwombo using natural and fresh Ugandan ingredients.
An even more interesting thing to do is visit one of the specialist restaurants like Mediterraneo. Mediterraneo is an Italian restaurant offering tasty Italian pastas and pizzas. Another popular Italian restaurant/bar is Cantine Divino offering expensive wine with good food. For the best Mexican food, visit Little Donkey for their tacos, nachos and burritos. Le Chateau on the other hand serves Belgium food washed down with cold Belgium beer. Khana Khazana, Masala Chaat House, Haandi, Great Indian Dhaba prepare the best Indian food in town. Mama Ashanti prepares the best West African dishes like egusi while Yujo Izakaya specializes in Japanese food (sashimi and sushi). You can also visit Tamarai for the best Thai food or Miso Garden for Korean and Japanese dishes. For those interested in game meat (wildebeest, crocodile and ostrich e.t.c) visit the lawns. Other restaurants worth visitn g in town include Bistro for delicious pastas, Fez Brasserie near Emin Pasha hotel for selected vegetarian meals, Prunes for serving Ugandan coffee and food of every kind including goats meat.
The more established restaurant brands offer intercontinental meals and include Café Javas, Nandos, New City Annex Hotel, La Fontaine and Casablanca in Kololo.
Coffee Shops: For the best Bugisu Arabica coffee and other contemporary brands, you need to visit 1000 Cups Coffee House, Antonios or Endiro. Other great places for great Ugandan coffee include Kardamom & Koffee (for the great environment including a small bookshop) and Café Pap along Parliament Avenue for tasty Bugisu Arabica coffee. Java House on the other hand serves strong Kigezi coffee as well as breakfast, fires, sandwiches and salads.
Bars, Nighclubs and other Hangouts: Kampala is a city that never sleeps. If you want to spend your evening partying, dancing and eating then check out Deuces, Bubbles O’Learys or Big Mike’s. They all serve beer and organize local comedy shows that bring together Uganda’s middle class. For the best and most recent 3D blockbusters, look no further than Century Cinemax. The National Theatre organizes comedy nights, drama, dance, live music and movies accompanied by beer, food and soft drinks. The Otters Bar with its beautiful gardens serves beer, snacks and pizza. The Musicians Club brings together Uganda’s local artists for great live performances attended by Kampala’s working class and expatriates. Other popular hangouts include Cayenne for the best live music and DJ’s. Iguana is a favorite hangout for expatriates while the Rock Garden is considered one of the cool places to be for great rock music. The best and oldest mainstream nightclubs are Ange Noir and Club Guvnor along industrial area. Both play the latest international club hits including African music up to the wee hours of the morning.
Uganda Parliament Building: The Parliament building is located right at the city centre. A tour of the parliament building in Uganda is a good way to learn about Uganda’s current political system. You can witness the parliament in action as the Members of Parliament tackle some of the current issues facing the country while also proposing and preparing bills for approval by the president. Parliamentary sessions are open on Tuesdays and Thursday from 2 to 4pm. You need to book a spot in the visitors sitting area in advance from the PR department. Dress decently and present identification documents to access the heavily guarded premises.
Festivals: Like any major city in the world, Kampala has numerous festivals that attract people of all walks of life. The Kampala City Festival is one of the most well organized street celebrations in East Africa. It is a perfect occasion to watch Ugandans showcase their different cultural heritage through amazing performances, fashion shows, music and art. The Amakula International Film Festival on the other had is hosted by the Uganda Museum in collaboration with international and local partners around March every year. It is one of the oldest film festivals in the African continent showing both local and international features. The LaBa! Street Arts Festival brings together some of the best artists in the country in one place to sell their products in open spaces amidst fanfare and great music performances.
Makerere University: Makerere University is the oldest and largest public university in Uganda. It is one of the best 10 universities in Africa and is Uganda’s main centre for research. The University is close to the city centre and was built on one of Kampla’s original hills – Makerere hill. The University begun as a technical school in 1922 and later became part of the new University of East Africa. Under that arrangement, it began offering degrees from the University of London. In 1970, the university became independent after the University of East African split into three main universities – Makerere University in Uganda, University of Dares Salaam in Tanzania and the University of Nairobi in Kenya. The university has produced prominent Alumni including presidents like Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania, Mwai Kibaki of Kenya and the former president of Uganda Milton Obote.
Mulago Hospital: Mulago Ntional hospital is the largest hospital in Uganda. It is built 3.5 kilometers away from the main city center. Mulago hospital started as a treatment centre in 1913 before being upgraded to a referral hospital around the 1950’s. Mulago is a major research centre producing countless doctors and nurses operating across the globe. The hospital is a great place to visit and marvel at the architectural buildings on site.
Kiwatule Recreation Centre: The Kiwatule Recreation Centre is one of the best places to go for an outing with family for those living near the Ntinda, Kiwatule, Banda and Kireka areas. The centre has an amusement park with kids play areas, train rides and a large swimming pool. Adults can sit back and relax as they watch their kids swim, play and run around the facility. There is also an exclusive health and adult club. The Kiwatule Recreation Centre is popular for holding large wedding and parties.
Lugogo Show Grounds: The Lugogo Show Grounds are located away from the city centre. It belongs to the Uganda Manufacturer’s Association and hosts international/national trade shows and exhibitions.
Historical Sites: We have already discussed some of the historical sites in Kampala but one that needs to be mentioned at this point is the cemetery for commonwealth veterans in Nakawa. This is very close to the Lugogo Show grounds and the trading centre in Bugolobi. It is the burial ground for many of the soldiers who died during the colonial period. The grounds are well kept with tombs decorated with marble gravestones bearing the names of each of the soldier. The cemetery appears quiet on a normal day but receives several visitors each month.
Sports Grounds: The Mandela National Stadium (known locally as Namboole stadium) is the largest sporting ground in Uganda. This is the place to go if one wants to watch the top local teams like KCC, SC Villa, Express and URA in action. The stadium has recently played host to several large Christian crusades. Other important sports grounds include the Lugogo indoor stadium for cricket, tennis and other spots. The Lugogo Rugby Club is a favorite hangout for the youth who come to watch their favorite Rugby teams tussle it out among themselves.