48 Hours in…Kampala, Uganda
By: Douglas Cruickshank
Kampala is a great 48 hour city, also an excellent 48 day city, 48 week city, and 48 month city. It’s a “Why leave?” city, so mapping out 48 hours here is particularly challenging, but I don’t scare easy. I’ve savored all those temporal increments and will continue to. In 2009 I came, I saw, I fell in love — with the place and a woman, the divine Nattabi, mother of my young son, Mukisa — and decided this was home.
Let’s assume you’ve never been to Kampala before and for some crazy reason you are only giving yourself 48 hours here (you need a check-up from the neck up). Whatever. Here we go:
You arrive at Entebbe mid-day, jet lagged like a motherf***er, but rarin’ to go. Why not make your first stop Goretti’s on the beach of Lake Victoria. Get a drink to take the edge off and order one of their magnificent pizzas while you watch the fisherman bring in the catches and the monkeys climb all over the nearby hotels. Strike up a conversation with a local — your waiter/waitress is one — and ask him/her what’s the first thing you should do in Kampala. Once refreshed and reloaded, have your driver take you into Kampala about 45 minutes away if you’re lucky. Wave to statehouse as you depart Entebbe; it’s home to President Museveni. Who knows, he might be out raking leaves on the lawn. Not.
Once you’re in KLA, as the locals call it, to get the lay of the land, go directly to The Great Mosque and climb the minaret for one of the best 360 degree views in the city. As you make your way down the dizzying spiral staircase (depending on the time of year you may be accompanied by jillions of leaping grasshoppers), say thank you to Muammar Gaddafi. He paid for what is one of the largest mosques in the world.
About now, it should be tea time, or coffee time, if you prefer, and time to sample some of the planet’s best coffee, or the first wine of the afternoon if you wish. In any case, Cafeserrie at Acacia Mall is the place for both, and some righteous snacks as well.
Recharged? Good, now it’s time for a walk. Leave the mall, turn left and stroll down tree-lined Acacia Avenue, home to great clubs, fine restaurants and pleasant hotels. Keep walking past the golf course and up the hill to Parliament where, if it’s a typical day, little is happening as most of the MPs are dozing in their chairs. Stop into the National Theater and the attached crafts market. There are many nice parks in this area with nice men holding nice machine guns to keep all the nice citizens of Uganda out of the parks their tax money pays for. End your walk at Mama Ashanti on Kyadondo Avenue in Nakasero where you’ll have terrific Ghanaian food in a serene environment. I’d love to tell you all the dining possibilities there, but I only ever have one dish: whole grilled tilapia. It is so good I’ve never been able to bring myself to order anything else. Goes down very well with Uganda’s favorite beer, Nile Lager.
Plan to finish dinner by 6:30, so you can make it to the Ndere Center in time for the 7pm opening of some of the greatest tribal dancing to be seen anywhere in Africa — three hours of it! I’ve lived here for nearly 9 years and still go to Ndere whenever I can. Do not miss it, nohow.
Day 2. For breakfast, go to Endiro in Kisimente where you can get your coffee fix and your wi-fi fix simultaneously. Then make the short drive to Kibuli Mosque on Tank Hill, It’s the oldest mosque in the city and its minaret offers a great view and some light morning exercise. Now that your warmed up, it’s time to visit the mad maze that is the Owino Market. Get in touch with my wife first — she will guide you and also make sure you get the best deals on the psychedelic kitenge fabric, traditional bark cloth, fried grasshoppers and most anything else you can think of.To immerse yourself in history, next visit Mengo Palace, home of the Buganda king, the Kabaka. Afterward, stop by the Kasubi Tombs where generations of Buganda kings, their wives and concubines have been buried. It was damaged by fire in 2010, but is now being rebuilt; it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and not to be missed if history is your thing.
Before lunch, go up to Maisha Gardens (which means”life” in Kiswahili, one of more than 50 languages spoken in Uganda; don’t fret, the official language is English), a gorgeous private park funded by film director Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding, Queen of Katwe, etc.). If you are there on a weekend, you’re likely to run into live music, a poetry or storytelling event (Uganda has a lively arts and literary scene). Afterwards, go down the hill to Cassia Lodge for lunch and another spectacular view of the hills and lake that are KLA’s most attractive and distinctive features. Tired? Too bad, you’ve only got 48 hours so resting ain’t in the budget. Buck up and go to 1000 Cups of Coffee for a pick me up. Following that, walk to the nearby crafts market to pick up gifts (there are also some decent shops at the airport if you need more presents before you leave).
Chill a little, then, early evening, go over to Theater Bonita for the acclaimed comedy show. After the show head over to Mediterraneo on Acacia Avenue for superb Italian food in a sparkly, lyrical environment. Dance off that dinner with a couple hours of shaking a tail feather at Big Mike’s, Bubbles O’Leary’s or one of the wild joints in Kabalagala where you can watch the ladies in the world’s oldest profession plying their wares. Stay the night at Le Bougainviller in Bugolobi, a bit of Provence in the midst of Kampala. Get yourself out to Entebbe the next day for lunch at Two Friends, then catch your flight and ask yourself why the hell you only gave yourself 48 hours in this splendid tropical haven.
Douglas Cruickshank served in the Peace Corps in Uganda from 2009 to 2012. He is raising a darling young blog at http://nownowornever.blogspot.