Following years of war and destruction, Kampala is beginning to get back on its feet. Alf Lawrie finds a friendly and laidback welcome in the markets and clubs of the Ugandan capital
1. Kasubi Tombs
Kampala is a dynamic and exciting African capital city, but it has few conventional tourist attractions. Much of the city was destroyed in the violence following Idi Amin’s brutal regime, and until recently most tourists visiting Uganda have merely passed through Kampala on their journey south to see the mountain gorillas. But in recent years, the city’s friendliness and growing prosperity have put it back on the map. While most of Kampala’s appeal today lies in its vibrant atmosphere, the spectacular Kasubi Tombs – a World Heritage Site – provide a rare glimpse of traditional African culture in what is otherwise a built-up urban environment. A vast thatched hut contains the remains of tribal kings – modern Ugandans still think of themselves as belonging to tribes (just as the British still divide themselves into English, Welsh and Scots) and any locals you meet will be fiercely proud of their own distinct heritage. Open 8am to 6pm, admission 3,000 shillings (£0.90). Visit kasubitombs.org.
2. Speke Hotel
After you’ve finished exploring the tombs, the easiest way back into town is to take a taxi. By this time, you will probably be thinking about lunch, so head over to the Speke Hotel (pronounced “speak”). Haute cuisine it isn’t, but this magnificently preserved colonial building is one of the most charming in Kampala, and a favoured haunt of foreign journalists. Sit outside, with a view of the Jubilee Park across the road, and watch the world go by as you wait for the notoriously slow waiters to spot you. You will also be approached by the newspaper sellers. If you are after sober analysis of the latest political developments, buy The New Vision. If you’d rather read about local celebrity gossip and scandals, get the Red Pepper. Don’t worry about the gun-wielding guards at the hotel entrance – ever since a spate of low-level terrorism in the 1990s, armed guards have become a feature of Ugandan life, though incidents these days are virtually unheard of. As the day wears on, very smartly dressed female Ugandan prostitutes will arrive at the Speke, where they will sip drinks in groups as they wait for business. They are present in all of Kampala’s high-end hotels, often outnumbering the regular diners. Plot 7-9, Nile Avenue. Tel +256 41 259 221.
3. Exposure Africa
After lunch, set off from the hotel on foot. Unlike nearby Nairobi – nicknamed “Nai-robbery” thanks to its high crime levels – Kampala is a very safe city, and you need not worry about walking unaccompanied. It is rare to be approached by beggars and, these days, Kampalans are so used to Westerners that you will get little attention. Situated off the long, quiet Buganda Road is Exposure Africa, Kampala’s biggest craft market. There are 30 shops and stalls selling an impressive array of goods, from hand-woven cloths to intricate wooden carvings. The quality is high, and the prices low, but if you are a “mzungu” (a white person), expect to receive inflated quotes and prepare to haggle.
4. Owino Market
For a somewhat different shopping experience, try the Owino Market. It is too far to walk, so take a chance and jump on the back of a boda-boda, the motorcycle taxi favoured by locals – Kampala’s traffic is so gridlocked that at rush hour it is the only practical way to get about. Negotiate the fee before you jump on, and prepare for an unorthodox high-speed ride with little regard to the Highway Code. The market itself is a vast maze of little stalls, crammed along narrow alleyways under one roof. It is so large that you are almost certain to get lost at some point. Western goods – in particular, clothing and watches – are sold for anything from a few pence to a couple of pounds.
5. Fang Fang
Perhaps the best food in Kampala can be found at the ominous-sounding, but highly-regarded, Chinese restaurant Fang Fang. From the outside, it is nothing special – indeed, it’s easy to miss, hidden away inside a drab tower block. But that’s Kampalan architecture to a tee – functional and unshowy. Inside, the restaurant is beautifully decorated and filled with the chatter of 40 or 50 tables. The menu is contemporary Chinese, and the wine list extensive – booking is recommended (open 1200-1530 and 1800-2300). Roof Terrace Communications House, Colville Street. Tel +256 41 344 806.
6. Club Obbligato
To finish the day, enjoy a beer at Club Obbligato and sample the local live music scene. Locals arrive straight after work and stay until midnight. Like most Kampalan bars, Club Obbligato is unpretentious and lively, and has different bands playing every night. Old Port Bell Road, Industrial Area.