In the past, Angola was a notoriously hard country to visit – prohibitively expensive and the visa process was a special kind of nightmare. That’s all changed now and visiting this colourful Southern African city is well worth exploring.
This is not a city easily explained. From the air, Luanda looks surreal … a huge brown mass stretching to the horizon, bordered on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and spreading out in all directions from there. But once on the ground, a different perception emerges: one of an intense, vibrant city full of contrasting realities, soaring ambition, and ever-constant hustle. Luanda is a city on the move.
While the urban center has buildings that are close to 400 years old, new, sprawling neighborhoods have sprung up in the capital’s outskirts (including enormous housing developments financed and built by the Chinese) at the beginning of the 21st century, while shantytowns in downtown Luanda continue to house millions of people. Talatona, a modern suburb built by Brazilian contractors about 20 years ago, resembles Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo with its gated condominiums, modern shopping malls and a large expat population; it can feel worlds away from the unique urban landscape of the downtown area.
Besides the economy, however, the political paradigm has shifted. Long-standing ruler José Eduardo dos Santos finally stepped down after more than 38 years in power and his successor, reformist João Lourenço, set about dismantling the old ways of doing business. Perhaps the single biggest difference from a traveler’s perspective is the change in visa policy: it is now possible to get a visa on arrival provided you apply online prior to your trip, and citizens of dozens of countries, including South Africa, no longer need tourist visas for stays of up to 90 days.
Founded 443 years ago, it’s Angola’s beating heart, its cultural, economical and industrial center, and the country’s capital and largest city by far.. Originally built for about 500 000 people, Luanda’s population has skyrocketed to over eight million and it’s the world’s third largest Portuguese-speaking city.
There are several reasons for Luanda’s population growth, chief among them the protracted civil war that racked the country from 197? until 2002 saw a steady stream of refugees from the rest of the country – for better context on the war, a visit to the Armed Forces Museum, located within the walls of the 17th century São Miguel Fortress, is well worth your time.
Finally at peace and flush with petrodollars in the early half of the by 2004, Angola embarked on a frenzied reconstruction phase that is most notable in its capital city, where Chinese-built skyscrapers compete (and sometimes demolish) crumbling historical palaces built by the Portuguese several centuries ago, Soviet-style apartment blocks built by the Cubans during single-party rule, and tin-roofed shacks built by Angolan refugees. It’s a living, breathing, heaving open-air museum where change is constant and unpredictable.
Once on the ground you’ll find that Luanda can, on occasion, retain a small town feel. The city’s core, comprising of neighborhoods such as Coqueiros, Ingombotas, Maianga, Alvalade, Maculusso, Miramar and Mutamba, are where most banks, ministries, embassies and restaurants are located, as well as several museums. At night, when the notorious traffic calms down, a drive around these neighborhoods can be easily done in about 20 minutes.
For most of its existence, Luanda was defined by the slave trade. Millions of Angolans transited through its port and were sent to the America’s, most notably Brazil; until this day, you’ll find deep cultural similarities between Luanda and Salvador da Bahia, where many Angolan slaves ended up. Luanda’s rich history is one of its draws, and a walking tour organized by Associação Kalu called The Slave Route, is thoroughly recommended. Do ask for an English translator if your Portuguese is not up to scratch.
Angola has a deep, complicated history with both Portugal and Brazil, and both of these countries have prominent cultural centers in Luanda: Portugal runs Instituto Camões, their cultural center; and Brazil transformed an abandoned building in Coqueiros neighborhood which housed the city’s grandest hotel in the 1920s into the Brazil-Angola Cultural Center. Both host concerts, art galleries, theater, stand-up comedy, and movie nights, and the majority of their events are free of charge. Luanda’s modern art scene is increasingly renowned around the world and several galleries are springing up, among them Espaço Luanda Arte, Mov’Art, and Galeria Tamar Golan.
There is a popular saying in Portuguese, “Há males que vêm por bem.” It roughly translates to the term “silver lining”, a metaphor for optimism in the face of gloom. The oil price-fuelled economic crisis has seen the economy diversify away from oil into a welcome expansion of small businesses and entrepreneurship, especially in the hospitality sector. For some, there is a palpable sense of opportunity.
There is perhaps no better way to experience this new dynamism than in Luanda’s burgeoning food scene. In a city that is only now developing its tourism infrastructure, going out to eat was one of the only leisure activities for quite some time. A strong Portuguese community, Lebanese merchants, Ethiopian businessmen, Chinese laborers, Brazilian executives, Congolese traders, and several more subgroups contribute to the dining options.
Luanda once had a reputation for stuffy, over the top restaurants for oil executives with corporate expense accounts; now, the focus is very much on catering to a young, expanding middle class that is price-sensitive, savvy, experienced and demanding. Lïve Waterfront Bar & Club is a case in point. Newly opened on Luanda’s Marginal, the city’s iconic corniche, it’s an elegant, upmarket, unpretentious space offering international standards (think ceviche, lobster rolls, and shrimp tempura with guacamole) made with local ingredients. And why not head next door to Gelados Amore for the best ice cream in town? It’s made from scratch with Angolan fruit, and no one will judge you for having two desserts…
Invariably, a stay in Luanda will involve someone suggesting that you head over to Ilha do Cabo, a long spit of land jutting out to the Atlantic that forms the spectacular Luanda Bay. The Ilha offers one of the highest concentrations of seaside restaurants, bars and clubs, including Café del Mar, one of the best restaurants in town. It offers delicious cuisine with Portuguese and Angolan influences, a comfortable lounge area with overstuffed sofas facing the ocean, and a serviced beach area.
It would be a shame to visit Luanda and not try fish and seafood. Mufete, a traditional dish of grilled fish topped with a diced onion vinaigrette and accompanied by plantains, cassava and beans stewed in palm oil. It can be found everywhere but it’s especially tasty on the Ilha. Not in the aforementioned trendy restaurants, although some, like Peixe do Cabo, do serve a particularly tasty version, but rather in the Chicala neighorhood, made up of pot-holed dirt roads and tin shacks, the majority of which all claim to serve hands-down the best mufete in town.
With its concrete structure and pleasant veranda with a view of the 17th century São Miguel Fortress, Criper restaurant is a great compromise: not as gritty as the tin shacks down the street, but the mufete is just as good. Off the Ilha, another great, communal place to try excellent grilled fish while you drink draft beer from aluminum mugs and watch Premier League matches is La Vigia, in Maculusso neighborhood.
For sushi lovers there are around 30 restaurants to choose from. Five of them belong to Kook Restaurant (with two locations: one in downtown Luanda, on the Marginal, and another in Talatona) and Restaurants K, which has three locations in Talatona, Morro Bento and downtown Luanda. Between them, they consistently serve the best sushi in the city.
For cocktails and small plates, Junkembo’s terrace can’t be beat. In the heart of the Mutamba district in downtown Luanda, it’s another great example of the type of establishment that sprang up after the oil boom. Think refurbished and recycled materials, local artwork on the walls, and homegrown singers serenading a crowd of young professionals, Angolan or otherwise, from the area. Later in the night, head to the British-themed Tailor’s Bar for the best cocktails around, and finish the night at Rooftop Park for some afro-house vibes or Chill Out if you like your clubbing ocean-side. If, for whatever reason, you couldn’t make it out of Talatona, Clube S, another sea-side restaurant, bar, lounge and club, should be your destination of choice.
There is an old popular saying here in Luanda: “whoever drinks water from the Bengo River is no longer able to return to their motherland.” The elders were on to something. Luanda is the type of city that can only be understood through several visits. And at the current rate of change, the levels of excitement in the face of past struggle and conflict, and the contagious optimism for the future, it’s only natural that you leave with one eye on a return date. You might not have drunk the water, but you’ll be back.
Luanda City Guide
WHEN TO VISIT
October to March are the most culturally active months: they include Angola Restaurant Week, the AxiLuanda Food Festival, Luanda Cocktail Week, Luanda’s anniversary, and it’s very own Carnaval. Glorious beach weather too.
Luanda is generally safe and Angolans like to help out. Like any large metropolis, it has its share of pickpockets and suburban areas experience some crime. Keep your smarts about you and don’t flaunt obvious wealth especially away from the city center.
Despite Kwanza’s devaluation, Luanda is still one of the most expensive cities in Southern Africa though – expect to pay about R500 p/p for a meal in the city’s best restaurants.
Download and use the Allo Taxi app (you can’t flag down a taxi). You can navigate downtown on foot, but some areas aren’t very pedestrian friendly. Check Google Maps before you head out.
The cuisine has a strong heavy Portuguese and Brazilian influence. Expect lots of fish, seafood, and picanha steaks. The adventurous should try funge, the national dish (funge is just like fufu, popular throughout West Africa).
For all things food, drink, hotels, and bars, try the bilingual app & website inl.co.ao. Its sister site, menuacultural.co,ao is a great guide for what to do. It will help to learn a few words – like please and thank you – in Portuguese. English is not widely spoken.
FLY SAA flies direct to Luanda from Johannesburg twice a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays. Return flights are on the same days.
WORDS Cláudio Silva