Malawi is an incredible country, often overlooked compared to it’s more famous neighbours. But I would go as far to say that Malawi is perhaps my favourite place in Africa (Mozambique is up there too) to go proper ‘backpacking’. Like old school backpacking.
Malawi, known as the ‘Warm Heart of Africa’ due to the friendliness of the local people, is the type of place you get stuck. The people are just lovely, the backpacker hostels are all really awesome and chilled and it’s not uncommon for someone to go to a place for a few days and end up staying for a month (like my friend Tom).
This could also be due to the fact that getting around can be a bit of an effort, so it’s often easier just to stay where you are. Not due to lack of local transport, there are mini buses going here and there all day long. But they can take a while to fill up, you often need to change buses, they stop every few minutes, they’re packed and you end up covered in sardines (ok, so that only happened once, actually twice)…
And don’t even get me started on ‘Malawi Time’. Malawi time is like ‘Africa Time’ x 10. Malawi is a frustrating place to travel at times. But for me that’s all part of the fun and makes for the best stories (in retrospect) and the most rewarding travel memories.
Malawi also attracts some cool people and the backpacking scene is pretty small so you end up meeting the same people over and over, or meeting friends of friends. Last time I was there, we met lots of solo or pairs of travellers in different places and then we all ended up meeting up as one big group for a festival on Lake Malawi. So if you can time your Malawi trip with a festival – even better!
There’s are also loads of great things to do, so if you put this all together – that is why I LOVE backpacking through Malawi.
This itinerary isn’t exhaustive and there are many other places to visit in Malawi, but it will act as a guide. To see all of the ‘highlights’ on the itinerary below you would need at least 3 or 4 weeks I’d say.
If you fly into Malawi, you’ll likely fly into either Lilongwe or Blantyre. Malawi is a long, thin country and the capital, Lilongwe is slap bang in the middle. If you start here and want to see both the north and the south, you will end up doubling back on yourself, but it’s not so bad, hit some places on the way up and others on the way down or travel by land one way and on the ferry the other. You don’t have to go to the same place twice (aside from Lilongwe usually).
If you travel overland into Malawi as part of a longer trip from Tanzania, then you could go from top to bottom and vice versa if you travel in from Zimbabwe or Mozambique (although not so many people travel via Mozambique as the northern part is said to be a bit tricky to navigate – not done it myself so I don’t know, but will report back when I do).
Most people who travel overland into or out of Malawi go via Zambia (Chipata border), which will lead you through Lilongwe, so you may have to do some doubling back on yourself anyway.
For the purpose of this itinerary, I’m going to start in the north go down to the south and then end back in Lilongwe, as usually I cross from Malawi into Zambia. But like I say, you can switch it about depending on your start and end points.
An Awesome Malawi Itinerary (Plus Things To See & Do)
– Livingstonia –
Ah lovely Livingstonia…
Livingstonia was a real surprise to me. It wasn’t somewhere I’d ever really thought about until I heard about a mythical backpacker hostel and eco-lodge called Mushroom Farm (no, not those kind of mushrooms).
Everyone I met who’d been to Malawi in the last few years raved about this place, so my friend Melissa and I decided we needed to check it out for ourselves.
Getting there wasn’t easy, but it was definitely worth the effort because we had such an amazing time.
Livingstonia town itself is kind of quiet, but charming and it’s up on top of a mountain so perfect for hiking and there are beautiful views all around. On our first night we met a local guy who invited us to his sisters dowry celebration – which is up there in my top 10 Africa travel experiences (I’ll write about it soon)!
The hostel is also super social with communal vegetarian dinners, so you can’t help but make friends!
Where to Stay in Livingstonia: You have to stay at Mushroom Farm, it’s an eco-lodge and social enterprise with a cool vibe in an epic location – what’s not to love. Call ahead before turning up in Livingstonia as it’s an effort to get there.
Cool Things To Do in Livingstonia: Hiking to Manchewe Falls, chilling in a hammock, exploring Livingstonia town and trekking to Chombe Plateau. If you’re lucky maybe you’ll be invited to a local celebration like we were.
How to Get to Livingstonia from Tanzania: If coming from Tanzania, I would spend the night in Kyela town (on the Tanzanian side of the Songwe border). People often tell you to stay in Mbeya, however if coming from Dar es Salaam or Iringa, you don’t need to go as far as Mbeya. The bus we got from Dar stopped at Kyela on the way to Mbeya.
We stayed in a place called Pataya (something… I forget and can’t find it on the inetrnet). However there was some confusion. Arriving in Kyela, we told the taxi driver that we were staying at Pataya Lodge. When we arrived, they had no record of our booking. Turns out there is two Pataya places and apparently the one we had booked (the touristy one) is by the lake, although on Booking.com it says it’s in town. The place went to is in the centre of town and run by the same people I believe (nobody spoke English that well and my Swahili isn’t that advanced so we couldn’t quite get to the bottom of it), but it’s more of a ‘local’ place which I don’t think you can book online. But to be honest, the place in town is perfectly fine. The toilets are squat toilets and the water is cold but if you don’t mind that, you may as well stay here as it’s cheaper and it’s closer to the bus drop off and the border. The manager took us out for chips mayai at midnight as we were starving, so that was very nice.
There’s also a place called Bwigaland, which you can book online which is even closer to the border but further out of town.
The next day get to the border as soon as it opens (it’s only 20 minutes or so to the border from Kyela), cross into Malawi, then pick up a mini bus heading towards Livingstonia. Tell the conductor where you are going and he will tell you where to get off the bus. You can then usually grab a ride in the back of a pick up truck going up to Mushroom Farm. You can see more details on their website.
– Nkhata Bay –
Nkhata Bay is a bustling but laidback town in a beautiful setting on the shores of Lake Malawi.
The hostel we stayed at was a little out of the town centre, but right on the lake which was perfect. Most of the activities you’re likely to take part in centre around the lake and Nkhata Bay is a great place to learn to scuba dive.
My biggest regret is not spending more time in Nkhata Bay. We were meant to be here for a few days, but hearing that the Ilala Ferry was in town, we changed our plans and then only had one full day, half of which was spent horse riding at Kande Beach (although I do not regret that).
Where to Stay in Nkhata Bay: We stayed at Mayoka Village. This is a fun hostel that is great for meeting other travellers. They have complimentary trips each week, can organise any activities you want to do and serve great pizzas. The photo above was taken from the hostel.
Cool Things To Do in Nkhata Bay: Snorkelling, diving, canoeing, stand up paddle boarding and swimming in Lake Malawi, chilling on Chikale Beach, eating at Kaya Papaya, exploring the town, shopping for fabric and horse riding on Kande Beach.
– Kande –
Kande is a village with a beautiful beach, about an hour away from Nkhata Bay. You could spend a day or two here, or do as we did and make it a day trip from Nkhata Bay.
There’s a backpacker hostel/campsite, called Kande Beach, which is unsurprisingly, right on the beach. This place is popular with the overland companies, so there’s usually a fun, party vibe. I stayed there with my overland group in 2009 and this is where I met Cheese on Toast, who I hear from reliable sources now lives in Nkhata Bay.
But the reason a lot of people come here is to go horse riding. Kande Horse is a stables run by 3 lovely Bristish girls. We went horse riding through the village for an hour and at the end, you take of the saddles, get into your swimsuit and then ride into the water. It’s awesome.
Where to Stay in Kande: You could either stay at Kande Beach, which is a good backpacker option, but I also loved the look of the accommodation at Kande Horse. It’s further from the beach, but it was in such a tranquil and pretty setting.
Cool Things To Do in Kande: Scuba diving, getting your hair braided (or maybe not), going for a local village dinner, horse riding on Kande Beach and shopping for the wooden trinkets that Malawi is famous for.
– The Ilala Ferry –
The Ilala Ferry is an experience.
Melissa and I got the ferry from Nkhata Bay, down to Nkhotakota. We were supposed to go all the way down to Monkey Bay as we were planning to stay at Cape Maclear, but after a night and a half we were kind of done with ferry life and made our escape in the middle of the night…
We spent around 31 hours on the ferry in total but part of that was spent having lunch and a sleep on the comfy couches at Mango Drift hostel on Likoma Island, which was a nice break from sitting on the hard ferry floor.
It wasn’t the most relaxing of journeys, but it was a real adventure and I am so glad that I did it. Would I do it again? Probably!
If you can’t stomach the ferry all the way down to Monkey Bay, perhaps get off at Nkotakota like we did and either stop over in Senga bay or hot foot it all the way down to Cape Maclear by bus.
– Cape Maclear –
Cape Maclear, or Chembe as it’s also known, is an incredibly peaceful and beautiful village down in the far south of the lake, in Lake Malawi National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It’s one of my favourite places to relax and as you can see from the picture above, you’ll be treated to some spectacular sunsets. There’s a good choice of restaurants and bars, so it’s also a great place let your hair down and party. Last time I was there, there was an all night party in the village for the inauguration of the new Chief. We danced all night long! The whole village was there, men, women and children and it was around 8am when I went to bed.
There are some great hiking routes with incredible views over the area, but my favourite thing to do is to take a stand up paddle board out to Thumbi Island and snorkel. Lake Malawi is home to more species of freshwater fish than any other lake in the world, including over 1000 different species of colourful cichlid (pronounced siklid).
In the afternoons, the local kids come to play in the water whilst their parents wash clothes, pots, pans, their children and themselves. Life in Chembe is very much centred on the lake and it’s beautiful.
Where to Stay in Cape Maclear: I love The Funky Cichlid. It’s in a great location, right on the beach and they often hold events including their famous New Year party!
Cool Things To Do in Cape Maclear: Going swimming and snorkelling, eating fresh fish from the lake, spending the night on Domwe or Mumbo Island, stand up paddle boarding and kayaking, hiking, walking around the village, hiking, scuba diving and going on a sunset cruise.
READ MORE: What to Pack for Backpacking Africa
– Liwonde National Park –
Liwonde National Park is one of the best, yet underrated safari destinations in Africa in my opinion.
It is to this day, where I have had my favourite ever elephant encounters on safari. For a starter, look how close we were able to get in the boats! I actually took this picture, but the boats did swap around so we got close too!
Later that evening, I woke up in the middle of the night needing a wee. That would have been fine, had it not been for the elephant munching on some leaves outside my tent.
Where to Stay in Liwonde National Park: We stayed at a delightful camp called Mvuu Camp and our safaris were organised via Wilderness Safaris. They offer camping and static tent/chalet type accommodation, right on the river. They also have a nice pool and bar area. I would highly recommend it.
Cool Things To Do in Liwonde National Park: Going on safari, both by car and by boat.
– Zomba –
Once the capital of Malawi, Zomba is a charming place in itself, but the main reason a lot of people come here is to visit the Zomba Plateau, which rises 1800m above the town.
The drive up is breath-taking and once you reach the top you won’t be disappointed either, as the area is known for having some of the best hiking and nature trails in the country.
Where to Stay in Zomba: When I stayed in Zomba, I camped up high on the plateau, but now I’d stay somewhere like Pakachere Backpackers. I’ve not stayed there yet, but hoping to go at some point this year.
Cool Things To Do in Zomba: Hiking the Zomba Plateau and seeing the waterfalls, wandering around the historical city, going horse riding, visiting the central market, taking a trip to Ntonya Mountain, bird watching, mountain biking, fishing, rock climbing, visiting Lake Chilwa or taking a cooking or dance lesson.
READ MORE: How to Plan Your Dream Trip to Africa
– Mulanje –
Mulanje is famous for two things, tea plantations and Mount Mulanje, known as the ‘Island in the Sky’.
Mount Mulanje is known to be a challenging but beautiful hike. It’s 3,002m tall and the highest peak is called Sapitwa, which means ‘unreachable’ in the local language, Chichewa. You could do more gentle day hikes, but if you’re feeling fit, there are 6 main routes up the mountain that can be done as a multi-day expedition. I haven’t climbed her yet, but it’s on my list…
Mulanje is also a good place to base yourself before you head overland into Mozambique.
Where to Stay in Mulanje: I’d recommend you to stay at Likhubula Forest Lodge. There are huts on the mountain for those who decide to climb.
Cool Things To Do in Mulanje: Climbing Mount Mulanje, visiting a tea plantation and swimming in the Likhubula Pools.
READ MORE: Top Ten Unmissable Malawi Experiences
– Blantyre –
I used to work in a few of the villages around Blantyre, so it’s a city I am incredible fond of.
It’s not the most exciting city in Africa, but it is lovely, the area is beautiful and I saw some of my favourite sunsets in Blantyre. If you are interested in history, then Blantyre is a good place to see some of the more historical buildings in Malawi.
Where to Stay in Blantyre: I stayed at a place called Fisherman’s Rest which was really nice and popular with groups of volunteers, but quite far outside of the town. If you don’t have your own transport like I did, I would suggest to stay at Doogles or Annie’s Lodge.
Cool Things To Do in Blantyre: Touring the Carlsberg Brewery, visiting Mandala House (the oldest building in Malawi) and doing a bit of shopping, visiting Malawi’s National Museum, go shopping for fabrics and get clothes made by a local tailor, going for afternoon tea at Huntingdon House Tea Plantation and going on safari to Majete Wildlife Reserve.
READ MORE: My 6 Month Africa Travel Budget
– Lilongwe –
As African cities go, Lilongwe is a pretty nice one. Not quite as lovely as Blantyre, but not as hectic as the likes of Nairobi or Dar es Salaam. It’s good place to stay for a day or two, centre yourself and stock up on anything you need before moving on.
Whenever I’m there I like to go for food at Mamma Mia. I have a weird fascination with pizza in Africa. It’s the one food I crave when I’m away (weirdly I hardly eat it at home) and Mamma Mia do very good ones!
If you don’t want to go all the way to Lilongwe from Blantyre you could stop off in Senga Bay on the way.
Where to Stay in Lilongwe: I usually stay at Mabuya Camp. It’s a great backpacker camp where you can easily meet other travellers.
Cool Things To Do in Lilongwe: Shopping for souvenirs at the craft market outside the Old Town Post Office, visiting the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, shopping and dining at the Four Seasons Centre, eating pizza at Mamma Mia’s and eating brunch at Kumbali Village.
– Route Map –
Want to experience Lake Malawi for yourself? Then come on the next Rock My Zambia, Botswana, Malawi Adventure!
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