Malawi’s greatest asset is its people. They are wonderfully friendly and warmly welcoming. All visitors are met with smiles and a truly genuine and long-lasting welcome. With a population of over 18 million, Malawi is one of the more densely populated countries of this part of Africa. Most of the population is rural, living largely in fascinating traditional villages.
Many of today’s Malawians are descendants of the Bantu people who moved across Africa and into Malawi for hundreds of years up to the fifteenth century. There is a rich cultural mix in Malawi with the Chewa being the most numerous tribe, at 34% of the population according to the 2018 census. Others include the Lomwe (19%), Yao (13%), Ngoni (10%) and Tumbuka (9%). Each tribe has contributed to the modern Malawi scene, whether it be in dress or dance or language. Masks are commonly used in various dances and ceremonies and these are usually tribe-specific, the best known being the Gule Wamkulu, performed by the Nyau of the Chewa. Traditional (African) doctors still attract many people and the two main ‘modern’ religions, Christianity and Islam, frequently exhibit a continuing adherence to traditional beliefs.
All travel in Malawi will include some element of cultural experience and that often becomes the highlight of any visit. This is not so much colourful singing and dancing performances (though there is some of that), but more about natural interaction with local people that allow visitors to learn about daily life in Africa, and to make friends across continents. A visit to a local village can easily be arranged at most lodges or hotels all around the country, whether they are in a town, forest reserve, National Park or on the lakeshore. These are always real villages, whose residents have an established relationship with the lodge in question, and who welcome the interest from visitors in their daily life.
African markets are known for their colourful vibrancy and Malawi is no exception. The larger towns and cities have bustling markets that can be easily visited, and even clusters of roadside stalls in the rural areas offer a taste of the liveliness and friendly banter that come from making a purchase. As well as markets selling all manner of food and homeware items for the local market, there are also a few craft markets around the country that offer some of the high quality products produced in Malawi. Wood carving is a speciality and Malawi is know for its ‘Chiefs Chairs’ .
Although not yet major country attractions, Malawi has a few sites of historical interest as well as a few museums that give greater insights into the country’s history and history. And an opportunity for a ‘flavour’ of colonial times comes from the tea tasting on offer at some of the estates.
As a developing country in Africa, Malawi has a high proportion of its population that are in need of extra assistance in order to have opportunities in life that others around the world take for granted. As such, there are plenty of opportunities for its visitors to make a genuine, positive difference by getting involved in community volunteer projects.
Performances of Malawi’s traditional music and dance are offered to their guests by many lodges around the country, giving local performers the chance to showcase their energetic skills. But the country is also witnessing a growth in modern-day music and the arts. The big cities, especially Lilongwe are the places to catch the latest groups and performers, including some Malawian musicians who have now carved themselves international reputations.
Cultural Places to Visit
Village visits and day-today cultural interaction are available across the whole of the country and can be arranged by almost all lodges and hotels. Some which have established particularly strong links with their local communities include lodges in places that are visited primarily for reasons (lake beaches, highland scenery, wildlife safaris), but the cultural interactions still become the highlight. These include Viphya Plateau, Chintheche, Ntchisi Forest Reserve and Liwonde National Park. Similarly, community volunteer projects can be found around the country and can be organised through the local tours & safari companies, but there are particularly good opportunities at Viphya Plateau, Chintheche, Dzalanyama and Fisherman’s Rest just outside Blantyre.
Malawi has a few places of specific cultural and historical interest, including original mission stations and centres of excellence for handicrafts. Of its modern-day larger towns, Blantyre, Zomba and Mangochi have a number of historical buildings, monuments and museums. Lilongwe and Mzuzu are of interest for their markets and in the case of the latter, to see the division between the Old Town and modern Capital City as well as its growing music scene. If visiting Blantyre, take the time to visit The Society of Malawi. Situated in the historic Mandala House, the society protects a true treasure trove of the country’s history. With thousands of books and resources safely stored away, it provides an opportunity to find out a bit more about Malawi that perhaps many tourists don’t ever discover.
Along the Lakeshore, Monkey Bay and Nkhata Bay are bustling ports, whilst Nkhotakota is of historical significance and now has a renowned pottery. To the north, Karonga is the site of an interesting historical and archaeological museum. The link between missionaries and the Lake is strong, with sites of the Livingstonia Mission marked by graves at Cape Maclear and Bandawe, near Chintheche, before it reached its final and current location near Chitimba in the north. Across the Lake, Likoma Island is a wonderful place to interact with local people, and also see its magnificent missionary-built Cathedral – the same size as Winchester’s! Even further east, the Manda Wilderness Reserve on the Mozambique shore has been set up with the full involvement of, and for the benefit of, local communities and so is a great place to learn about and interact with those local communities.
Artistic skills, old and new are on show in and around Dedza. North of the town is the Chongoni Rock Art area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the densest cluster of stone age rock art found in central Africa. And at the edge of the town is the Dedza Pottery, where today’s artists and craftsmen can be viewed producing a variety of items then found all round Malawi or sold for export. Artistic skill is also on display at Mua Mission, almost directly down the escarpment from Dedza. Mua is a mission station whose students create the finest wood carvings in the country, if not the whole of Africa, and is also home to a fascinating cultural museum.
The large agricultural estates, sugar at Dwangwa and the Lower Shire Valley and tea at Thyolo are interesting places to visit also. As well as being able to see the daily workings, the tea estates in particular have fascinating colonial histories.
Malawi’s people are its greatest asset - friendly, welcoming, colourful and vibrant. As well as the natural daily encounters with Malawians, there are widespread opportunities to visit real villages.
Tea is Malawi's second largest export, with acres of tea plantations in the south of the country. The Satemwa Tea Estate at Thyolo is a tourist hotspot for those wishing to take part in tea tasting.
Malawi has a wide range of performance arts to show its visitors from traditional dance to up and coming hip hop artists.
There is much to see of Malawi’s history, beginning with the pre-history remains of the Karonga district and the Stone Age rock paintings near Dedza. Elsewhere, the colonial period is preserved in buildings dating from the David Livingstone era.
Malawi's bustling and colourful local markets sell everything from fruit and vegetables to arts & crafts, meat and traditional dress.
Becoming a volunteer in Malawi's communities goes along way to provide a better future for Malawian people.
Cultural Places to Visit
The largest urban area in Malawi, the conurbation of Blantyre & Limbe, is the country’s commercial capital.
Chintheche offers some of the best beaches on Lake Malawi, with a collection of luxury lodges right by the shore.
In the forested granite hills around Dedza is the Chongoni Rock Art Area, a UNESCO World Heritage SIte. this is the densest cluster of ancient rock art found in central Africa.
Dedza is a town of interest for a variety of reasons. At 1600m (5300ft) it is the highest town in the country and sits in a beautiful landscape of forests and highlands.
Thirty miles north of Nkhotakota is the settlement of Dwangwa, a useful place to stock up and refuel when travelling up and down the lakeshore.
Dzalanyama is approximately 40 km from Lilongwe and covers the steep range of hills which bear the same name. It's a beautiful natural environment to explore and enjoy.
Karonga is one of Lake Malawi's most northern towns. It is home to a wonderful new museum of cultural history and archeology.
Likoma Island sits on the far side of the Lake Malawi in Mozambican waters. The island is home to stunning beaches and lodges, with access by boat or aircraft.
Lilongwe is Malawi’s capital. The Old Town is distinct and has the appearance of a traditional African settlement, whilst the City has much in common with other twentieth century urban developments around the world.
Livingstonia is a mission station established in 1894 by Robert Laws, a disciple of David Livingstone. Sited at 3000ft above Lake Malawi, there are stunning views across the Lake.
Liwonde is perhaps the most popular of all of Malawi's game parks. The River Shire flows along its western border, allowing boat safaris to discover the Big 5 and an array of birdlife.
The Lower Shire Valley is an extension of the Rift Valley and home to no less than three national parks/wildlife reserves.
A massive 100,000 ha area of Mozambique land which runs to the eastern shore of Lake Malawi forms the Manda Wilderness Community Reserve.
Mangochi is sited between Lakes Malawi and Malombe and has a number of historical monuments dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century.
Monkey Bay is considered to be one of Malawi's main lake ports, and is where the famous Ilala ferry docks and begins its weekly sojourn up and down the Lake
Mua Mission is famous for the quality of the wood carvings produced and sold there. The standards are superb and the prices very reasonable.
The capital of the north is Mzuzu, with an interesting bustling market and is growing rapidly, with a selection of lodges close by.
Nkhata Bay is a small sheltered harbour on Lake Malawi's northern shore. It is a focus for the fishing industry but becoming increasingly important as a tourist centre.
Often, but confusingly, described as the largest traditional village in Africa, Nkhotakota is rich in history. Visited by Dr Livingstone in 1863, it was then a major centre for the slave trade.
Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve is one of the two large wildlife areas in Central Malawi. A true wilderness, it has a promising future after recent mass restocking.
Ntchisi Forest Reserve contains some of the last remaining indigenous rainforest in Malawi. Some trees tower thirty metres overhead.
Tea has been grown at Thyolo, south-east of Blantyre, since 1908 and the primly trimmed bushes (strictly, trees) give the whole area the appearance of a neatly kept but vast garden.
The forested Viphya is a wonderful area for those seeking a combination of stunning scenery and solitude, with opportunities for trekking, mountain biking and various other activities.
Zomba Town is in a beautiful setting below the plateau of the same name. This was the original capital of Malawi and the first settlement of the colonial administration.
Malawi's Other Experiences
Lake Malawi is the jewel in the crown of the country’s tourist attractions, “discovered” by the missionary-explorer Dr David Livingstone just over 150 years ago.
Malawi is blessed with a rich diversity of flora and fauna and is teeming with wildilfe and big game, in no less than nine National Parks & Wildlife Reserves.
Malawi has a massive diversity of beautiful landscapes. The highest peaks in Malawi touch 10 000ft (3 000m) while the lowest point is barely above sea level.
Malawi has much offer when it comes to events, with musical, cultural and sporting events throughout the year.
As well as the various outdoor and water activities, Malawi offers a few organised sports and wellness activities.