Malawi is a land of lakes and plateaux, delineated by the great ridges of the East African Rift. The nation is long and thin, snaking its way like a rare Nyika lizard around the lands of Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique.
The most defining geographical feature has to be that long finger of blue: Lake Malawi. Dominating the north-eastern edge of the nation, this belt of cobalt mountain waters has long been the lifeblood for the locals here. A haven for fishing and commerce, it supports rustic bamboo villages and old colonial hubs bearing the names of folk like Livingstone.
Today, snorkelers and kayakers, wildlife lovers and others come too, hitting spots like the Lake Malawi National Park and its exclave islands to boot.
Inland and the story is different.
There are otherworldly vistas of cave-carved mountains to conquer, sweeping savannahs and lush tropical woods, all peppered with elephants and waterbuck and all the other quintessential African beasts you can imagine!
Lets explore the best places to visit in Malawi:
1. Liwonde National Park
The most accomplished wildlife spotting and safari area in all of Malawi makes its home along the courses of the Shire River.
A vast reserve of flood plains and wetland swamps, of swaying grass fields and baobab groves, it’s a picture of the beautiful backcountry of East Africa.
A smattering of good holidaying lodges offers easy access to the park, where walking and motorized safaris showcase everything from bush elephants to side-striped jackals, hyena packs to impalas, waterbucks, baboons and more.
There’s also a great diversity of flora to witness, from huge and waxy orchids to pretty lily-spotted ponds.
A business-minded metropolis of nearly one million people, Blantyre is the only real rival to Lilongwe when it comes to competing for the crown for the economic kingpin of the nation.
However, history also runs deep here, and the town boasts more than 150 years since it was first established by missionaries working for the Church of Scotland – hence the moniker: a namesake of Blantyre on the edge of the highlands back in the UK. Visitors can come and spy out old structures like the Mandala House, or get a feel for the invigorated Malawian economy at the Malawi Stock Exchange and the various tobacco packing factories that have popped up in recent decades.
3. Kasungu National Park
The Kasungu National Park is one of East Africa’s more off-the-beaten-track nature reserves.
Encompassing a whopping 2,100 square kilometers of land, where the rolling plateaus of western Malawi give way to the borderlands with Zambia, the area is a mosaic of swaying savannah and bush, sporadic miombo woodland and dusty plains.
Once known for its booming population of African elephants, Kasungu has been hit by hefty poaching problems in recent decades.
However, a clutch of lodges around the lake waters of Lifupa have helped raise the ecotourism profile, and safari going here is now all but back on track.
Set to the distinct scents of recently-harvested tobacco and wafts of petrol fumes from the endless streams of traffic that pulse through the dusty streets, this nigh on one-million-strong capital represents the beating political and commercial heart of Malawi.
Linger a few days and you’re bound to unearth its wonders, which range from a particularly well-kempt nature reserve on the edge of the city (the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre) to a heady marketplace that throbs with haggling sellers touting everything from stacks of green mangoes to whittled wood figurines to multi-coloured pulses right throughout the week.
There are also oodles of lively local beer bars to kick-back in with a regionally brewed Carlsberg when you get thirsty!
5. Lake Malawi National Park
Once trodden by the revered Scottish expeditionary and missionary, David Livingstone, the lands of the Lake Malawi National Park are a must for both nature lovers and history buffs.
Nestled between he verdant, sylvan hillsides that ring the shores of the country’s largest lake, they encompass both freshwater habitats (famed for their uniquely evolved fish species) and swathes of land to boot.
Baboons and antelopes can be spotted strolling the shore, while a clutch of great safari lodges can be found on the reserve’s various islands, from pretty Domwe to handsome Mumbo.
There are also the relics of old missionary settlements to see.
6. Nyika National Park
A world of montane landscapes that extends across great swathes of the central Malawian plateaux, the Nyika National Park is the largest of its kind in the entire country, and one of the most unique natural habitats in East Africa besides.
Known as the source of headwaters for many of the region’s river ways, it’s a place of verdant grass plains and colourful orchid beds, where elephants roam and water buffalo coalesce between the scrub.
Horse riding safaris are uber-popular with visitors, while hiking and bird spotting remain other major draws.
Shrouded by the dusty mountains of the Malawian north and clutching to the far-flung edge of great Lake Malawi just a short jaunt from the Tanzanian border, the welcoming little town of Karonga is a great place to spend a night or two in this less-visited corner of the nation.
Expect banks, good bus connections and a clutch of earthy little guesthouses: all you’ll need to stock up before moving on.
And then there are the fossils, which are perhaps Karonga’s single most impressive claim to fame.
These come in the form of huge Malawisaurus remains, now lurking in the exhibition rooms of the local Culture and Museum Centre.
Nkhotakota sits nestled right in the heart of Malawi’s central backcountry.
Verdant and pretty, it’s dressed in green dashes of miombo woods, cut-through by several winding rivers (each on their way to join the waters of Lake Malawi itself) and backed by its eponymous Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve.
It’s here that most travelers will head, to seek out the acclaimed safari lodges that clutch the edge of the waters, to wonder at tropical birds and see elephants, buffalo and maybe even leopards in the wild.
9. Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve
Rising like a great backbone of stone from the dusty plains of southern Malawi, just a stone’s throw from the border with Mozambique, the hulking mass of stone and rock that is the Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve has to be one of the country’s most breathtaking.
Hailed as the highest peak in the nation – and the region as a whole, in fact – its whopping height of 3,000 meters above sea level is enough to host a whole array of different habitats.
The most famous is perhaps the woodlands of the endangered widdringtonia African cypress tree, which pepper the ridges sporadically as they rise to meet the sky.
The gateway to its eponymous plateau, Zomba sits on the edge of the Shire Highlands.
Once the hub of British Central Africa, the town has a rich colonial past, with interesting little frontispieces belying the Anglo influence on corners throughout the place.
However, it’s the wildernesses that erupt around the city that draw most of the travelers.
These come peppered with rare cypress trees and juniper bushes, and roll out to meet verdant forests and highland lakes as they go.
Many opt to hike to the summit of the great escarpment, where sweeping views of Mulunguzi River and the Shire River can be enjoyed from the lookouts.
11. Likoma Island
Enveloped by the waters of Lake Malawi, but nestled on the Mozambican side of the border, the picturesque reaches of Likoma Island are an exclave of Malawi proper.
Famed as the onetime headquarters of Livingstone, the spot is steeped in colonial history.
This is evident with the likes of the Gothic rises of the Likoma town cathedral, and in the steady stream of tourists that head this way.
However, many also come for the natural side of things.
Why? Well, Likoma is also famed for its crystal-clear shore waters and unspoilt coastline, where the occasional fishing skiff offers the only interruption to a day spent snorkelling in the company of cichlid fish.
The largest settlement in northern Malawi comes in the form of frenetic Mzuzu; a large and uncompact city that serves as the transport hub for the whole Mzimba District.
Popular with travelers stopping over on their way to the Tanzanian border, the city is also a great place to stock up and rest before trips to the northern banks of Lake Malawi, to the manmade Viphya Forest, or the acclaimed Nyika National Park.
The city itself has some interesting botanical gardens, and oodles of adventure tour providers that can organise treks in the surrounding mountains and hills.
Mangochi is the hub for perhaps Malawi’s most-visited section of lakeshore.
It runs south to north between the town and the aforementioned Lake Malawi National Park; a dash of palm-peppered Swahili fishing towns and accomplished resorts.
However, there’s also history here, and it’s still possible to see the great Hotchkiss gun that once downed the German naval ship Hermann von Wissmann in WWII, wonder at a colonial clock tower raised by Queen Victoria, and trace the old past of the Malawi-Zanzibar trade routes from centuries gone by.
Chitimba is one-part rustic Malawian lake village and one-part upcoming safari lodge.
Nestled along the sandy stretches of shoreline that fringe Lake Malawi south of Mzuzu city, it’s got pretty much unrivalled access to the dramatic Rift Valley landscapes that dominate the region here.
The hiking is top-notch, with tracks weaving in and out of the undulating hills and the dusty bushlands.
There’s excellent wildlife spotting too, along the tracks heading up to Manchewe Falls and Mount Chombe, not to mention a chance to have a cultural encounter with a traditional East African shaman!
Known primarily for its rich histories and pre-historic arrays of rock art, the UNESCO-attested spot of Chongoni is perfect for any culture vultures traveling through Malawi.
Reaching heights of nearly 2,000 meters above sea level with the peaks of the Dedza mountains, the area has revealed evidence of habitation since the early Stone Age.
This is found in the caverns at spots like Chentcherere and Namzeze, displaying animist religious elements and the old artworks of East Africa’s onetime hunter-gatherer nomad people.
The far-flung reaches of Mphunzi Mountain form the westernmost extend of the UNESCO area, and have some of the most impressive frescos to boot.