Malawi can be best described as a gigantic organic farm where time has stood still for the last 200 years. Malawians are superbly talented farmers who have had no trouble foregoing a material life for a life living inside the huge farms that this country runs. The soil is fertile and the weather is perfect for year-round harvesting and the population is small enough to sustain the current population.
Malawi somewhat unofficially invented the marketing slogan as being the 'Warm Heart of Africa'. Malawi is the world's poorest country, but there is little extreme poverty like you see in India or Nigeria. There are precious few natural resources in this country but it will win you over with its warm smiles and curious people.
Sometimes all that interest can be just too much, though; it's hard to walk around or get out of a car without the whole neighborhood descending on you (mostly with good intentions, I was led to believe).
Malawi is 'landlocked' and surrounded by Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia. There seems to be an endless amount of rolling hills and jungly cliffs when you drive through the country.
Malawi has a surprisingly good basic infrastructure of many well-maintained one-lane roads and good electricity (though internet plays almost no role in the agricultural economy).
Hotels, transport and restaurants are very expensive in this country, as you will be the only one using them. Locals never tend to leave the country, use only bicycles or minibuses for transport and never eat out.
My Favorite 14 Things to do Malawi - Get Around
Roads are in good shape in most of Malawi, though a 4WD is a good idea for the rather badly-maintained dirt roads. It's feasible to rent and drive a car yourself even as a foreigner, though it's expensive and accidents can easily go against you. We hired drivers in Blantyre and tuk-tuks in Lilongwe (who usually charge two or three times what you'd expect even after 30-60 minutes of long negotiation).
My Favorite 14 Things to do Malawi - Safety
Malawians have a track record of being only non-violent offenders and crime tends to be opportunistic. The streets of Malawi are safe for foreigners and locals alike during the day. However, at night the cities empty out and it's not advisable to go anywhere on foot. Driving is still OK and there are precious few people looking for marks in the cities. Nevertheless, muggings are common, though carjackings are rare.
My Favorite 14 Things to do Malawi - Blantyre
Blantyre in southern Malawi is a rather picturesque city that's surrounded by green hills. Blantyre has a good amount of history from colonial times when Malawi was home to the British Protectorate of Nyasaland. Blantyre has a rather small downtown area and stretches out into the suburbs from there. Most neighborhoods I saw can be described as suburban and leafy - you have to look hard to find a shanty town (if there are any).
Right downtown in Blantyre is a big outdoor market that sells everything under the sun.
It's a good idea to get a guide or be extra cautious; I found walking around difficult, as there was way too much attention and people yelling at us. We had a tail who followed us for most of the day after that episode. It's safer than the Mercato in Addis but not by much. Come prepared and you will be OK, but be super-vigilant.
My Favorite 14 Things to do Malawi - Blantyre - Eat & Drink
Veg-Delight specializes in good vegetarian curries for the local Indian and Pakistani community (which is rather big). The curries weren't fresh but still tasted no older than a week. The spices and chili were pretty good and it's moderately priced.
Hostaria does excellent Italian food in a lovely location with a large patio. We loved the pizzas and the appetizers. Once we explained how a Greek salad should be done that was great too (as the local version involves lots of lettuce drowned in mayonnaise). The staff are friendly and prices are moderate.
Bombay Palace is said to have the best fine-dining Indian food in Blantyre. It's right outside the Protea Hotel Blantyre Ryalls. I did not have a chance to eat there, but it gets great reviews from the locals.
[caption id="attachment_61959" align="aligncenter" width="549"] Picture courtesy of Harshil Mitha[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_61960" align="aligncenter" width="566"] Picture courtesy of TripAdvisor[/caption]
La Caverna is another place in town for some good Italian food.
My Favorite 14 Things to do Malawi - Blantyre - Where to Stay
My Favorite 14 Things to do Malawi - Outside Blantyre
The Conforzi Plantation is one of the largest farms in Malawi; it grows tea and macadamia nuts and breeds chickens. The estate is mind-blowing; you will drive by (on a good road) for 20 minutes and you are still on the same farm. There is no easy visitor process and we just talked our way in to see trees and some processing facilities. We could not believe there were no macadamia nuts from the season just a few months ago; we could not buy any!
Game Haven Lodge
This is an animal preservation area with a lodge set on top of a green hill, allowing fantastic views from the patio. It's one of the best ways to spend a beautiful day - just watching the clouds move by and taking it slow. Malawi makes it possible to connect with nature because, well, there isn't anything else going on in the country really.
The food is acceptable at the lodge too.
Satemwa Tea & Coffee Estate
Satemwa is another huge farm right opposite from the Conforzi gate. No visits are allowed unless you make prior appointment with the American owners.
My Favorite 14 Things to do Malawi - Lilongwe
Lilongwe is the LA of Malawi, with big plots of land mixed up rather randomly for farming and urban use. There is no urban center but instead lots of micro centers.
The statue on top of the former president's mausoleum is a great photo - click it and move on.
The Four Seasons was likely my favorite place in all of Malawi. It's a beautiful garden oasis in Lilongwe, which brings out the best things about Malawi (everyone here seems to have a green thumb) and it's a place where you can buy plants and trees.
Besides the many plant shops, it also sells artsy wares and has a coffee shop that made me instantly forget about two weeks of mediocre food in southern Africa. We tried the hummus, the teas and several sweets, which were all excellent. Organic ingredients are used in a gentle way to extract the best natural favors. What a discovery. If you only have time for one thing in Lilongwe, go here.
Bingu International Conference Center
The Bingu International Conference Center is a spaceship from China or Kazakhstan that landed in Lilongwe. It quite literally seems tied to the Chinese investors who simply must have used an existing design and dropped it here. The building looks beautiful but is already leaking through the roof structure.
My Favorite 14 Things to do Malawi - Lilongwe - Eat & Drink
Unlike its Blantyre namesake, this is an affair to forget; don't go here.
[caption id="attachment_61980" align="aligncenter" width="566"] Picture courtesy of TripAdvisor[/caption]
This is likely Lilongwe's best restaurant and hotel deal. It's a brand new hotel that looks great (at least on the pictures) and also has good food. It's also rather cheap at under $100.
[caption id="attachment_61975" align="aligncenter" width="566"] Picture courtesy of Vanja C[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_61974" align="aligncenter" width="566"] Picture courtesy of Michelle F[/caption]
My Favorite 14 Things to do Malawi - Lilongwe - Where to Stay
Kiboko Hotel is a 'downtown' Lilongwe institution with several restaurants and lots of outdoor space. It's a good area for coffee or a drink, but unfortunately it is a terrible hotel (which still charged me $70). The tiny rooms feel more like dripping caves. The good news is that the staff are friendly and knowledgeable and all the laundry was done in just a few hours perfectly for very little money.
[caption id="attachment_61973" align="aligncenter" width="566"] Picture courtesy of Tom D[/caption]
My Favorite 14 Things to do Malawi - Lake Malawi
Due to the distances involved and the plans I made before arrival I wasn't able to go to Lake Malawi. It gets a lot of great reviews and stretches all the way north towards Tanzania. The best way to travel the lake is by a houseboat safari for a few days. However, there are plenty of islands in the lake that also call for a short visit.
Keep in mind that there are often just basic services provided in the villages and towns. The lake is home to ferocious crocodiles and worms that can penetrate your skin when swimming. The lake region also has more mosquitoes and many of them carry malaria in Malawi. Take Proguanil (about $50 a pack at Walmart Pharmacy) or spray all your body parts with a DEET bug spray BEFORE you go out (and every few hours again).