Where should you visit in Uganda as a tourist?

A friend asked me this question and I decided to turn my long email into a blog post, to somehow justify the ridiculous amount of time I spent on the email. The big buyer beware warning here is that I haven’t been to Uganda in a few years, and I haven’t does touristy things since 2007. So my knowledge is out of date. Hopefully readers can add and subtract in the comments.

  • I will begin with wildlife because that is one of the really unique and amazing aspects of East Africa. Safaris are tacky or cliche mostly to people who haven’t gone. I’ve seen them beguile even the most cynical people, including me.
  • You absolutely must go to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and do the gorilla tracking. This is an awesome tourist and conservation program, beloved by visitors as well as my conservationist and scientist friends who work there. And spending an hour with a gorilla troop is possibly one of the most memorable and amazing experiences of my life. This is partly because a silverback decided to try to intimidate me. There are few slots per day, since only three families are acclimatized to visits, and so you must book early and make this the center of your trip.
  • The other safari options in Uganda are quite good, but not on the same level as Bwindi. This is partly because Uganda is very forested and you do not have the magnificent savannah of Kenya or Tanzania. You have to stick to the trails rather than roam at will or see afar. I would suggest going to the best places in the world, which are not far away: Masai Mara (Serengeti on the Tanzania side) or the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania. (I almost wrote Tora Bora crater, which is when the US hunted and shelled Bin Laden for years. Not recommended).
  • One place in Uganda you might consider is Kidepo Valley, up on the Sudanese border. Sometimes it is safe, sometimes it is not. I can’t speak for the moment, but if hotels are operating there, it is probably fine. This is probably one of the least visited parks in the world, because for so long it was cut off by the conflict in northern Uganda. I believe it’s ok now, but you should check. I went briefly, for about 20 minutes, when a small propeller plane I was flying in was diverted there during a storm. There were no hotels or development at the time, and not much of a runway. Scores of very surprised animals cleared the way for our landing. I have always wanted to go back for a proper visit.
  • When it comes to game parks, I also love Kenya for some of it’s unique places, like Hell’s Gate, where there are no predators, so you can bike instead of drive.
  • That said there are excellent parks in Uganda to go to, and they tend to be less touristed than Kenya, which I like.Murchison Falls includes a lot of hippo and crocodiles, and is beautiful. Queen Elizabeth park is close to Bwindi, and is remarkable for having lions sleeping in trees (the only place in the world apparently). For example, this from immediately underneath the tree, in our land cruiser:

lion

  • I really recommend driving yourself if you feel up to driving on the left (or, as in my case, are married to someone with a Ugandan driver’s license). This is easiest in small parks like those in Uganda, or Nakuru and Naivasha in Kenya (which I attempted and enjoyed). There is a big difference between being a passenger and learning to navigate yourself around giraffe and buffalo. Here, for example, is me and Jeannie in a parking lot, trying to figure out how to get past this hippo and into our car. They are fast and aggressive and we are trying to plot our next move.

hippo

Getting away from the safari parks, there are a few other highlights.

  • Bushara Island Lodge is a little place with what I’d call luxury tents, on an island in a lake far in the southwest of Uganda. It’s owned by the Church of Uganda, and very close to Bwindi. Ten years ago it was one of the most peaceful little places I ever visited, and I relaxed and swam and canoed and read many books. For example:

tent

  • We also stayed on a little isolated lodge on a crater lake near Fort Portal, also not so far from Bwindi (or Queen Elizabeth park). It’s been ten years and also now seems to be a bit more developed, but well rated. We rented bikes from some random person and biked through the foothills of the Rwenzori mountains. They were the classic east Africa bikes made from steel, nonexistent brakes, no gears, and looking like something from 1920, and my hands were bruised from all the bumps for about a week. It was great.
  • I imagine you can also do trekking in the Rwenzori mountains but we never tried. A lot of people trek Mount Kenya. I personally am not a mountaineer. I like hiking flat or hilly surfaces or climbing vertical surfaces but things in between aren’t my thing.
  • I never did the whitewater rafting on the Nile. I was not impressed with the safety record, and frankly figured I could do world class rafting in a lot of places if I really wanted to. I’d rather spend my time in East Africa doing what can’t easily be done elsewhere.
  • For instance, if you do broaden the trip to East Africa at large, some of the coastal towns and islands are terrific. Lamu and Zanzibar come to mind, though they might have become more touristed since I was there. (My last big Kenya/Tanzania tourism stint was shortly after someone tried to blow up an Israeli passenger plane in Kenya, so I had nearly every place to myself.)
  • Hiking the waterfalls around Sipi in eastern Uganda was nice but nothing special. If you lived in Kampala I’d say it’s a great weekend trip but not worth going around the world to see.
  • What about Kampala? I loved my stays there, but find it hard to recommend the city to a short term tourist. If it weren’t for the traffic it would be a nice place to live (and was) but there’s not much to see. I didn’t discover a great music scene (possibly my failing) and I never toured the historical sites to do with the historical Buganda kingdom, and those could be interesting. But I think the best site burned down and I’m not sure what’s left. 
  • I personally love economic and political tourism. My work mostly involves figuring out how different businesses work, or how different political systems work. I don’t really know how to do this as a tourist. but if you’re biking around the countryside (in my Rwenzori example above) then stop and ask people to show you their farms. Or talk to people in the markets about business and how it works.
  • Finally I always suggest avoiding any slum or refugee/displacement camp tourism. I don’t think there are many opportunities in Uganda. But I have sick memories of crowds, sometimes busloads, of tourists and church groups on day tours of displacement camps in Uganda after the war. Some “slum tours” have redeeming features (graffiti tours in Medellin come to mind) but these are the exception.

Culturally I will give a few recommendations:

  • Get someone to teach you to play Omweso, a traditional Ugandan board game. It’s a lot of fun. You’ll see the boards around.
  • See if someone will take you to their church on Sunday, especially if it has lively singing. This is a really important part of life and can be really enjoyable. Of course some are also four hours long and hot and miserable. You never know what you’re going to get.
  • Book-wise, I always liked the novel Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa. But there are surprisingly few Ugandan authors compared to Kenya or Ethiopia. Even though I’m not a big fan of President Museveni, I did enjoy his war memoir, Sowing the Mustard Seed.
  • I really wish public intellectual Andrew Mwenda would write a book about development. It’s hard to point to an article that captures his charm, cleverness and playfulness. You should pick up his magazine The Independent. Here is his TED talk. Here is his blog, which is very Uganda specific. He is best on radio.
  • For food, Ugandan cuisine is fairly simple but I really love it.
    • In south/central parts of the country, any local fish in the groundnut (peanut) sauce, with matoke (mashed plantain) is probably excellent.
    • I always loved northern food the most, though it’s hard it find outside the north (maybe around Murchison). This includes greens or other vegetables stewed in sim sim (sesame) paste or groundnut sauce.
    • The beans and chapati are always good, and I like to eat with fresh avocado chopped in.
    • Season everything with the only seasonings available: salt and (if you ask for it) piri-piri (little red peppers that some restaurants keep in the back for such requests).
    • I also love the street food, including the guys on the main highway. My only gastrointestinal problems have come from restaurants. Street favorites include goat skewers, grilled maize, samosas, or rolex (chapati rolled with eggs, onion and tomato).
    • If you’re there in grasshopper or termite or white ant season, the fried bugs are actually super delicious. And I say this as someone who would not normally eat a fried bug. Finally, once you have the small sweet bananas of Uganda (only about 4 inches long) you will never enjoy a US banana again.
  • No Ugandan I know thinks restaurant food is any good compared to home cooking. If someone invites you to their home, accept.

17 thoughts on “Where should you visit in Uganda as a tourist?

  1. Adding/commenting on my own time living in Uganda:

    Kidepo is safe and highly recommended. Not sure if you can stay there yet but Uganda has been redeveloping Idi Amin’s luxury hotel that was never finished in the valley and is very impressive.

    Lake Bunyonyi in SW Uganda is beautiful and consistently ranks at the top of people living in/visiting Uganda. Not the easiest place to go to though.

    Fort Portal is easier to get to and also fantastic.

    Wildwaters Lodge near Jinja. It’s on its own island in the Nile River. Just look it up.

    I second all the food recommendations. Go local if possible. If not, Mediterreano in Kampala is a great spot. Especially is you are with a significant other. It’s an Italian place but they have a $50 steak simply because the owner wanted the best steak in Africa (you be the judge). A bunch nightlife is around there and a few other nicer restaurants if you are in search of something familiar. In Jinja, the Jinja Sailing Club is a treat. You eat on the bank of the Nile. I crave Uganda’s Indian and Ethiopian cuisine often but doesn’t beat home cooked.

    Go to church. You may only want to do it once but worth the experience. Long….

    Finally, I’ve always felt safe in Uganda and the people are incredibly friendly and warm. Treat people with respect and they will do the same.

  2. This is all good advice. But I wouldn’t miss the chimpanzee trekking in Kibale Forest, especially if you are going down to the south-west to do the gorilla trekking. I enjoyed the chimp trekking more than the gorilla trekking, though I may be the only person to hold that opinion.

    Pork joints (roast pork with cassava chips) are not exactly street food, but should also not be missed, especially in Kampala. Ask around for the best ones near you.

    Kampala doesn’t have much to see, but a good way of seeing what it does have (and getting a sense of the orientation of the city) is Walter’s boda boda tour. http://walterstours.com/

    Kidepo was fully open when I was there in late 2014. It is an astonishing place. It is hemmed in by mountains, so feels like its own world. You can also now drive there via Kitgum – a fun trip across Uganda. You can stay in UWA bandas (cheap and basic) or the luxury camp, which is more luxurious than you could expect in the location, but you pay for it.

    On books, Andrew Rice’s The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget beautifully tells some of the individual stories behind Uganda’s troubled decades.

  3. Spot on recommendations!

    To complete a ‘true’ Ugandan experience the northeast should not be left out. Ugandan is known for it’s amazing southwest with numerous world class national parks, gorilla’s, lakes and mountains…but there’s much more.

    I find the beauty of Uganda is in it’s amazing diversity combining the lush green south west with the savannah lands in the north east in the Karamoja region.

    For years Karamoja has been a destination for only the most adventurous travellers, but things have changed drastically in the last years. Since it’s save to travel and the road conditions are improving, it will be your most scenic road trip in Uganda.

    This is sounding like a promotion, but it’s an area forgotten by many but praised by the ones that have been. Without a doubt it is home to one of the last indigenous tribes in East Africa living as they lived for thousands of years. I’ve traveled through the region for a couple of months and climbed 4 amazing mountains reaching 3Km and spent time with remote tribes giving a life changing experience.

    Some operators are doing activities, but there’s one group of local enthousiast based in Moroto that are assisting travellers, backpackers, roadtrippers with local english speaking guides and reaching the hidden secrets of the region. They’re on facebook by the name of Kara-Tunga Arts & Tours.

    So yes absolutely great tips for Ugandan, but to have a complete Ugandan experience, the northeast can not be left out :)

    Cheers!

  4. As an off-the road suggestion from the (far) north east, there is a mountaintop site adjacent to the Lututero prison, about two hours north of Kitgum, where you can find the ruins of what was a summer house for Idi Amin. At the site are also a series of three concrete thrones built by Amin on the mountaintop, overlooking a spectacular view of the valley below. As far as I recall, the area was chosen by Amin as it was a place he had been stationed during his time in the Kings Rifles, and because it has a great natural pool on the mountaintop nearby.

    The guards at the prison are quite amenable to showing the site to visitors, as long as you get a letter of introduction from the area commissioner beforehand (I believe this can be done at Madi Opei, but it’s been a while). Amin’s throne is the one with the head of a lion on the arm rest.

    (Here is a pic, in case this sounds too fantastical to be true.) https://www.flickr.com/photos/richardstupart/15213363766/in/dateposted-public/

  5. I lived in Uganda for a year in 1996-97. Taught at Makerere University, which, by the way, is a very beautiful place. I was never that interested in the game parks, but we went to a few. I loved Kampala!

    Yeah, pity about the Buganda palace that burned down. That was a beautiful place.

    Make sure you visit all the churches and temples: Rubaga hill, with the Catholic Church; St. Paul’s Cathedral on Namirembe Hill; the mosque on Kibuli Hill; the Baha’i temple north of the city; the International hotel (in my day it was the Sheraton–don’t know what it is now) on Nakasero Hill. The Hindu and Sikh temples are not on hills, but rather in downtown Kampala off Bombo/Entebbe roads.

    We attended a Christ the King Catholic church in Kampala. You’re right about the singing–it’s marvelous. We were given permanent seats just behind the choir, and it was a real treat every Sunday.

    Food is good. Our favorite restaurant was on the Makerere campus–the served wonderful Nile perch with delicious matoke.

    I owned a car while I was there and got used to driving on the left, albeit not without difficulty.

    War zones aside, Uganda is a great country for the tourist! What a beautiful, wonderful place!!!

  6. A lot has changed since your visit. Many more activities, events and lodges, better roads and more training of staff. Uganda is Rough Guides no. 4 destination in the world for 2017! For adventure and travel ideas, check out my blog Diary of a Muzungu. Read my “50 reasons why I love #Uganda”

  7. Avoid food that is brought to you and is not hot!! Hotels should be carefully chosen and do some research before booking, where you would face some hardships. Otherwise, nice place to visit and great atmosphere.

  8. Hey Chris,

    This is an awesome and indeed well explained article.

    Among the top Uganda attractions that may be re-mentioned or added to your list are: the Charming mountain gorillas of Uganda, the Uganda’s Rolex.

    Recently, Boda Boda tour in Uganda has recorder great success. It’s an activity you don’t wanna miss out.

  9. Wow ,Awesome article .Uganda is the pearl of africa ,the next amazing thing is its located in the middle of the all African continent.
    Personally, i love the Bwindi impenetrable game park so much since its too much about gorilla trekking but for game drives, Queen Elizabeth is my favourite.
    To some extent uganda is said to be one of the best African safari destinations.https://traveliry.com/uganda-best-african-safari-destination/
    All in all ,thanks for the amazing article ,just had too much to say .
    some tips to guide you around uganda.https://traveliry.com/travel-tips-for-travelers-in-uganda/

  10. For someone who’s not been in Uganda for a while, you surely do your research well. Good and reliable information, I’m going to share this with a couple of friends of mine.

    One more thing, the roads Bwana. All the major countryside roads have been re-paved, it’s smooth all the way across the country. That part about driving yourself, go for it! You may want to let fresh African air blow through your hair, its a rejuvenating moment.

  11. I love this! You guys have had some pretty awesome places – all the pictures are simply beautiful. That has to be one of the most memorable, not many people get to say that they have accomplished that! Great Job!

  12. No Kidding, you spent a ridiculous amount of time on this, I love it! I hope you didn’t miss out on visiting the Kalangala Islands or Ssese islands with beautiful white sand beaches, quiet dreamy forests forests good for a walk, biking and reading a good book. If you did, make sure you check that out next time.
    Thanks for the post!