City Guide: Blantyre

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What to do in one of the oldest cities in southern Africa. 

Named after the town where David Livingstone was born, Blantyre is one of the oldest cities in southern Africa. Founded in 1876 by Scottish missionaries, the city has a fascinating history, with numerous heritage sites and old buildings worth visiting. 

It was once a core destination for the ivory traders and is now the heart of Malawi’s commercial sector. Today, Blantyre and the town of Limbe make up a stretch of urban landscape where commerce and industry are of key importance. 

It was once promoted as “the warm heart of Africa” and that reputation remains; Malawians are incredibly gentle, welcoming and friendly – a major asset to the local tourism industry.

What to eat 

Fresh fish and fruit are a big part of the staple Malawian diet. Don’t leave the country without tasting its famous fish and chips – ask for “chambo and chips”. Try the staple maize porridge (nsima) or if you’re feeling adventurous, the sun-dried mice on sticks sold on the side of the road by Mouse-Boys. Malawian coffee is a huge treat and is on offer all over Blantyre. 

Where to eat and drink 

With the widest variety of restaurants in Malawi, Blantyre has a good selection of eateries to suit all budgets. 

If you need a good old-fashioned gin and tonic, look no further than the Sunbird Mount Soche or the Protea Ryalls Hotel. The former is near the centre of the city, set in a tropical garden, while the latter is the spot to see and be seen. With a coffee shop, two restaurants and a great pool, the 21 Grill is said to be the place to dine when visiting Blantyre. The free Wi-Fi is an added bonus. 

Blantyre Sports Club dates back to 1896 and is another popular spot for a drink. With a gym, pool, golf course and tennis and squash courts, it is also child friendly. Guests can pay to use the facilities. A day-membership is on offer giving access to the restaurant and bar. Sunday lunches at the Blantyre Sports Club are something of an occasion. 

The story of Carlsberg Brewery is that a thirsty Danish foreign minister visited Malawi during the 1966 independence celebrations and apparently wasn’t taken by the local beers. This gave him the idea for the Carlsberg Brewery, and the rest is history. Visitors need to book for a tour of the brewery. A local guide will explain the production process. The highlight: a beer-tasting at the end. 

Where to go  

Hiking: Blantyre is surrounded by three mountains – Michiru, Soche and Ndirande – that can be hiked to the summit. Hikers have been mugged along these trails, so you should only go with a guide, which you can arrange through your accommodation. 

Shopping: The Crossroads Shopping Centre on the Mchinji roundabout is a great place for shopping. It’s where the locals shop, and you can pass the time looking at local wares and chatting to hawkers. 

Victoria Avenue: This central street contains all original administrative buildings, built in the quintessential colonial style with thick brick walls and green corrugated tin roofs. Not all are in the best of shape, but they’re charming. 

Spiritual Inspiration: The Church of St Michael and All Angels was constructed by the Scottish missionaries and their cronies between 1888 and 1891. This incredible brick building is definitely worth a visit and is located on the original Scottish mission site of Chileka Road. Then there’s also the ornate Shree Satyanarayan Temple with its classical columns and delicate artworks and antiques. 

Mandela House: Mandala House’s claim to fame is that it is the oldest remaining building in Malawi. Built in 1882 as a home for the managers of the Mandala Trading Company, it’s a colonial masterpiece complete with gorgeous wraparound verandahs and endless views of the beautiful gardens.

Have tea and scones (or a good strong Malawian coffee) at the Mandala Café, browse the La Galleria Art Gallery or quietly explore the Society of Malawi Library and Archive (this incredible body of work includes books, journals and images that date back to the 19th century). 

When to go 

Rainy season is from November to April, and the dry season runs from May to October. The humidity is pretty high in October and November before the rains arrive. Temperatures are around 26°C during summer, and winters are generally rather mild.

Language 

The official languages are English and Chichewa, with English being well received in most urban and tourist areas. You’ll get a warm smile if you use a couple of Chichewa phrases such as zikomo (thanks), chonde (please), or moni (hello). 

Costs 

The currency is the Malawian kwacha (MK). Daily costs range from under US$50 to over US$150. At the craft and curio stalls geared towards tourists, bargaining is expected.

Some vendors may initially ask for double the price they’re willing to accept but haggle until you arrive at a mutually agreeable price. Try not to have the attitude that people are trying to rip you off. If the price seems fair and affordable to you, there’s no point in bargaining someone down just for the sake of it.  

ATMs have become more common and credit cards are accepted in larger hotels, shops and restaurants. Banks are clustered around the intersection of Glyn Jones Road and Victoria Avenue. Standard changes cash and travellers’ cheques and has 24-hour ATMs, as does the National Bank of Malawi and its second branch. 

Safety tips 

It’s not safe to walk around the city alone at night – there’s a high risk of mugging. Always use a taxi after dark. Also watch your valuables around the busy bus and minibus stations. Bag-snatching occasionally happens in daylight. 

Getting around  

Public transport consists mainly of minibuses and local taxis. The city is safe and walking around is definitely an option. There are metered taxis outside the more luxurious hotels in town.

Chileka International Airport is about 14km miles from the CBD, and you can easily catch a taxi from the airport. It might also be a good idea to organise a transfer to your hotel. You can find private-hire taxis in front of the Sunbird Mount Soche and Protea Hotel Ryalls, and at the bus stations.  

Mobile and Internet access  

Malawi’s telecoms system is underdeveloped, but mobile networks have the city pretty much covered. Internet access is expensive and slow. The top hotels have Wi-Fi in some public areas. You can buy a SIM card at the airport if you want to make cheap local calls and airtime is sold at kiosks on just about every street corner.

Getting there 

SAA flies to Blantyre and Lilongwe from Johannesburg three times a week. Visit flysaa.com.

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