Established on rolling hills some 10km off northern Lake Victoria shores, Kampala is the conventional African capital. More verdant than many of its regional counterparts, not relatively so populous or chaotic as others —but practically the familiar contrast of a bustling compact high-rise city center rising from a leafy suburban sprawl, increasingly organic as one reaches its rustic periphery. It has a contrasting atmosphere of modern urban bustle and time-warped tropical languor. Kampala is linked to Entebbe’s international airport by a smooth-surfaced highway passing through a lush cover of broad-leaved plantains that make for a fascinating introduction to Uganda.
Coming by air, you’ll land at Entebbe International Airport (EBB, 3km from the town center, and if your main interest is natural history, then you’d be well advised to stay over in Entebbe rather than heading on to the capital. Kampala is the pulsating heart of Uganda’s cultural and intellectual life, nightlife. It also lies at the international and domestic long-haul bus network hub, making it an attractive base for independent travelers seeking a taste of urban Africa.
Exploring Kampala City, Uganda’s Economic and Social Hub
The capital city, an economic and social hub of Uganda, is also the country’s largest urban center with a population of 3.1 million (Microtrends 2020). Kampala, like Rome, was originally built across seven hills. Today, that figure is more like two dozen hills.
Although Captain Fredrick Lugard is generally considered the founder for setting up camp on Kampala Hill in 1890, the surrounding hills had lain at the political center of Buganda Kingdom for several decades before Lugard’s arrival. Kasubi Hill, only 2.5km northwest of the modern city center, served briefly as the capital of Kabaka Suuna II in the 1850s. It also housed the palace of Kabaka Mutesa I from 1882-84. Mengo Hill formed the capital of Mutesa’s successor Mwanga, as it has every subsequent Kabaka.
Kampala lies at the Kingdom of Buganda’s political and geographical heart, home to the Baganda tribe, which makes up the largest Ugandan ethnic group. However, they represent only about 17 percent of the population.
In the first decade of the post-independence era, most people widely regarded Kampala as the East African community’s showpiece: a big garden city with a cosmopolitan atmosphere and bustling trade. It was also a cultural and educational center of note, with Makerere University regarded as east Africa’s academic heart. Under Amin, however, Kampala’s status started to deteriorate, especially after president Amin forced the Asian community to leave Uganda in August 1962.
Kampala today is practically unrecognizable from its pot-holed, war-scarred incarnation of the mid-1980s. The main shopping area along Kampala Road could be that of any African capital and has recently been supplemented by a clutch of bright, modern skyscrapers, supermarkets, and shopping malls. The area immediately north of Kampala Road, where foreign embassies and government departments rub shoulders with pioneer tourist hotels, is smarter than any part of Nairobi or Dar es Salaam. An image compromised somewhat by the scavenging marabou storks that flop gracelessly between their treetop and lamppost nests.
Horrendous traffic apart, Kampala is a pleasant enough city, remarkably safe by comparison with the likes of Nairobi or Dar es Salaam. Its glut of restaurants, nightclubs, bars, cinemas, and other modern facilities has made it a popular place for Africa safari overlanders and safari backpackers to hang out for a few days. Its attractions are perhaps less compelling to fly-in tourists with more significant time restrictions.
Attractions in Kampala
Most Uganda travelers restrict traditional sightseeing within the city limits, the Kasubi Tombs and the National Museum, but several other worthwhile interest sites lie within day-tripping distance. These include organized excursions to raft the White Nile grade five rapids near Jinja or visit the chimpanzees of Ngamba Island and more low-key goals such as the Entebbe Botanical Garden, Mabira and Mpanga forest reserves, and Mabamba Swamp.
In addition to these conventional attractions, be sure to take a walk through the city’s various other quarters for a fascinating (if somewhat depressing) cross-section of the extremes of wealth and poverty that characterize so much of Africa. The overcrowded back streets running downhill from Kampala Road, congested with hooting minibus-taxis and swerving boda-boda drivers, reveal a more representative facet of Kampala. The city as most of its residents see it —yet, even so, the rundown streets sparkle with an economic dynamism that was absent as recently as 1995.
Further from the city center, and again very different, are the green and hilly outer suburbs, which come across more like an overgrown village than a capital city.
The Landmarks Around Kampala
Uganda’s capital covers a 189 sq km (46,702 acres) landscape of distinct hills separated by swampy valleys draining into Lake Victoria. Many of these hills bear landmarks that mean that you need never get completely lost in Greater Kampala. Which I wouldn’t say for the region’s other cities like Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
Kampala’s most obvious reference point is the modern mufti-storied city center on Nakasero Hill. It is surrounded by more discreet but no less identifiable landmarks on neighboring summits.
Kampala city center
Kampala’s modem city center sprawls across a valley about 2.5km east of Kabaka Mwanga’s former capital on Kasubi Hill, immediately east of Lugard’s original fort on Old Kampala Hill — boasts little in the way of compelling sightseeing. The most important cluster of architecturally noteworthy buildings is centered on the acacia-lined Parliament Avenue on the city center’s east side.
On Parliament Avenue itself, the imposing though not precisely inspiring Parliament Building, built during the colonial era and still the seat of national government today, is a vast white monolith entered via an angular. Some might say rather ugly concrete arch to commemorate independence in 1962. On the same block lies the so-called White House, occupied by the Kampala City Council, while immediately to its east, on De Winton Road, stands the National Theatre and attached African Crafts Village.
Arguably more attractive than any of the above is the Railway Station, which lies on Jinja Road about 200m further south. It was built in the 1920s but has fallen into virtual disuse since the ministry of transport suspended all rail passenger services out of Kampala a few years ago.
For those seeking leafy respite from the city center, the attractive Sheraton Gardens, entered via a gate near Speke Road and Nile Avenue’s junction, was initially set aside to commemorate King’s jubilee George VI but is now effectively managed as an extension of the Kampala Sheraton.
The Independence Monument on Nile Avenue, just outside the fenced gardens, is well worth a minor diversion — a tall, attractively proportioned neo-traditional statue of a mother and child.
Old Kampala Hill
Planted just a few hundred meters southwest of the city center, Old Kampala Hill attained initial significance as Lugard’s 1899 encampment site. Since the 1970s has provided central Kampala with its most dramatic reference point. Enclosed within the oval Old Kampala Road, fine colonial-era buildings of Asian design mushroom the hill, generally somewhat rundown or strikingly renovated.
Old Kampala is most notable today as the focal point for Kampala’s Islamic community and the sight of an imposing new Uganda National Mosque. The imposing mosque project was initiated by Idi Amin in the 1970s and stalled after the dictator’s overthrow. In 2007 the mosque was opened under the name Gaddafi National Mosque following the leader’s contribution to the project’s completion. It was renamed the “Uganda National Mosque” in 2013 following the death of Colonel Gaddafi. Uganda National Mosques can sit up to 15,000 people in one sitting, the largest in the region, and is the headquarters of Uganda Muslim Supreme Council.
The impressive mosque is worth a visit: the Public Relations Officer at the mosque will be happy to arrange a tour; dress appropriately (a Ush10,000 donation would seem appropriate).
Due south of Old Kampala, the Kabaka’s Twekobe Palace stands on the broad, low hill of Lubiri. The ill-fated Kabaka Edward Mutesa was driven from this palace in 1966 by Idi Amin on Obote’s orders. The army subsequently occupied the site until 1993, gaining a reputation for terror. Hundreds were taken through its gates by Amin and Obote’s agents, never to be seen again, while ill-paid and ill-disciplined troops terrorized the leafy suburbs of Rubaga and Mengo. This circular area, a full kilometer in diameter, remains mostly undeveloped and is conspicuous as a green expanse, enclosed within a crumbling brick wall in an area of low-rent housing and workshops.
Tourist visits are not officially sanctioned, but for a small consideration, the caretaker will show you around the hill, on which the ‘attractions’ include Idi Amin’s specially constructed underground cells and execution chambers, where there’s some movingly defiant graffiti scrawled in charcoal by the doomed inmates if you have a translator.
Namirembe and Rubaga hills
Lubiri is neighboring by Namirembe (Mengo) and Rubaga hills in the southwest, elevated by the Anglican and Catholic cathedrals. The imposing dome identifies St Paul’s on Namirembe hill (more modest than its London namesake but still striking) and Rubaga Cathedral by two bell towers. Mengo and Rubaga are Kampala’s oldest suburbs affluent in history and historic architecture, including the Royal Palace.
St. Paul’s Cathedral Namirembe (now Church of Uganda) is perched atop Namirembe Hill, roughly 1.5km west of the city center off Albert Cook Road. It is one of the most impressive colonial-era constructions in Kampala and offers superb views over the city center and suburbs. Built entirely by Baganda artisans, albeit under the supervision of a British missionary, the cathedral could encave a congregation of 3,000 people.
The cemetery contains the grave of Bishop Hannington, murdered near Jinja in 1885, as well as that of Sir Albert Cook, a pioneering medical doctor. He arrived in Kampala in 1896 and wrote extensively about Uganda’s early colonial era.
The Catholic St Mary’s Cathedral Rubaga, commonly known as Rubaga Cathedral, lies 500m south of Albert Cook Road along Mutesa Road but is neither as old nor as impressive as its Church of Uganda equivalent on Namirembe hill.
The Namirmeber-Rubaga area offers various budget accommodation that is popular with independent travelers and visitors of religious orientation. Although it’s one of Kampala’s most pleasant suburbs, it is far from the liveliest. Mengo exists in a slight time warp, being owned in large part by the Churches and old, conservative Baganda families, and land changes hands slowly.
Less than 500m past the turn-off to Namirembe, the Bulange Building — traditional seat of the Buganda Parliament — stands on the south side of Albert Cook Road, directly opposite the junction with Sentema Road. It is one of the most impressive colonial-era buildings in Uganda. Though its high roof, capped with a trio of spires, is visible from the main road, you’ll have to leave Albert Cook Road to correctly see the building. You’ll find the main entrance at the head of a straight, tree-lined avenue known as Kabaka Anjagala (translated: the king loves me), which runs for a mile to Lubiri Palace on the facing hill.
Entrance to the Bulange is allowed unless the building is in official use. A venerable and well-informed old gentleman with the title of Sergeant of Arms to the kabaka will be more than pleased to show you around. You may be charged about Ush20,000 for a tour around the Bulange building or invited to buy a Buganda kingdom lapel pin for the same amount.
About 200m downhill from the Bulange, two exotic giant tortoises dawdle around the gardens of an impressive old building, once the home of Stanley Kisingiri, one of the infant king’s regents, Daudi Chwa. Local wisdom is that they are around 500 years old, but they came to Mengo as recently as 1945. A rather annoying caretaker will charge you what he can to see the reptiles.
Moving northeast from Namirembe, the white bell tower of Uganda’s oldest university is visible on the green ridge of Makerere Hill. More than three decades ago, the academic community regarded Makerere University Makerere as east Africa’s intellectual heart, which title it has embarrassingly lost to obscurity. Unfortunately, the building that holds the iconic tower got burned by accidental fires in September 2020, but it still stands and hopes to rebuild it.
Baháʼí Temple on Kikaaya Hill
Looking north from Kisementi and Kira Road, the striking Bahai Temple is conspicuous on a grassy hill of the Gayaza road. The Kampala Bahá’í Mother Temple of Africa, also known as the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, is the only Bahá’í temple on the continent and one of only nine around the world. The temple on the hill opened in January 1962. The Baháʼí Temple on Kikaya Hill, 6km from Kampala on the Gayaza Road, is the only worship place in Africa. It is the spiritual home to the continent’s Bahel, adherents to a rather obscure faith founded by the Persian mystic BaliTu’llah in the 1850s.
The lower part of the building consists of a white nonagon roughly 15m in diameter, with one door on each of its nine shaded faces. An immense green dome tops the temple, made with glazed mosaic Italian tiles and a turret that towers 40m above the ground.
The interior, which can seat up to 800 people, is illuminated by ambient light filtered through colored glass windows and decorated with lush Persian carpets. Otherwise, the temple’s decoration is in line with the Baha’i belief that it would belittle God’s glory to place pictures or statues inside His temple. A solitary sequence of Arabic text repeated on the wall at regular intervals approximately translates to the familiar Christian text Glory of Glories.
Immediately behind Kisementi, in the eastside, is leafy Kololo Hill, the city’s highest hill and the site of many embassies and diplomatic residences. Steeped in serenity, Kololo is busking with some of the top city’s attractions and hangouts like the famous Kisementi Bars, Acacia Mall, Kololo Airstrip, Uganda National Museum, Centenary Park, hundreds of upmarket hotels, embassies, and diplomatic residences.
South of Jinja Road, a cluster of white minarets and palm trees mark Kibuli Mosque, where Uganda’s first Islamic visitors settled in the mid 19th century.
Just south of Kibuli is the upmarket Muyenga Hill. Posh homes mushroomed on Muyenga hill during Kampala’s 1990s’ renaissance. It is now popularly known as ‘Tank Hill’ after the conspicuous municipal water reservoirs on its summit. Muyenga is an effective beacon for Kabalagala and Ggaba Road’s nightspots at its base.
The most relevant suburb for visitors is undoubtedly Ggaba Road, which runs through southeastern Kampala to Lake Victoria. Notable areas along, or just off, this 7km road corridor is the lively suburbs of Kabalagala and Kansanga (home to the city’s densest concentration of streetside bars and restaurants) and smart residential areas on Muyenya, Bunga, and Buziga hills and beside Lake Victoria at Munyonyo.
Hotels to suit every conceivable budget and requirement are found along Ggaba Road, ranging from Kansanga cheapies to the sumptuous lakeside Commonwealth Resort.
At Ggaba, a compact, bustling settlement with a busy market spills down to a waterfront that, until recently, consisted of a grim and muddy littoral. The government and private sector have tidied it up with several stone piers and beach resorts. While the vegetable market, fish auction, and fish smoking activities remain as sensory as ever, the docks have become a popular spot for residents and visitors to take the lake air and perhaps a drink at Gaba Beach.
Folk does much the same, but in greener and more spacious surroundings, at the historically more significant port of Munyonyo, 2km south.
You might come across other suburbs, especially if you are a visiting ex-pat, like Bugolobi and Ntinda (northeast). Apart from northern and eastern Kampala, these areas are dominated by slum areas in the valleys and a constantly expanding sprawl of low—mid-range housing. You’re only likely to experience these areas on your way north to/from Murchison Falls or east to/from Jinja.
This was (and technically still is) the royal port to which the Baganda kabakas led their entourages in periodical exoduses from their Kampala palaces. During the 19th century, Munyonyo was Buganda’s most important port and home to a large canoe fleet reserved for the kabaka — mainly for pleasure cruises and hunting expeditions and standby to evacuate the king from a succession of regularly shifted palace sites in times of emergency.
Munyonyo may also have served as a royal palace on occasion, and Kabaka Mwanga based himself there for much of 1886 after a lightning strike razed his official palace at Mengo.
Speke and Stanley both accompanied Kabaka Mutesa to this lakeshore, where the former considered ‘the royal yachting establishment’ at Munyonyo to be `the Cowes of Uganda.’ It was probably around then that the royal canoe regatta at Munyonyo was initiated — this has been held at the port on many occasions, the most notable in recent history being in 1993 to mark the coronation of Kabaka Ronald Mutebi II.
Historical importance notwithstanding, the Kabaka’s port is now overshadowed by the Speke Commonwealth Resort next door. This sprawling development, set in beautifully landscaped gardens with a magnificent tropical lakeshore setting opposite the forested Buliguwe Island, has considerably more in the way of facilities, which a plush marina stocked with speedboats and cabin cruisers can lay greater claim to be the Cowes of Uganda.
A Ush25,000 day entrance fee allows access to the swimming pool and restaurant – a great place to chill out should you have a spare day in the capital.
For those dependent on public transport, a steady stream of minibus-taxis connects the old taxi park in Kampala to Ggaba and Munyonyo along the leisurely busy Ggaba Road.
Namugongo Martyrs’ Shrine
Situated about 12km from central Kampala along the Jinja Road, Namugongo, an established place of execution in pre-colonial Buganda, is remembered today for the massacre on 3 June 1886 order of Kabaka Mwanga.
In 1920, Pope Benedict XV paved the way for future canonization by declaring blessed the 13 known Catholic martyrs at Namugongo and another nine Catholic victims of separate killings in May 1886. Pope Paul VI finally canonized the 22 Catholic martyrs on 18 October 1964 during the Vatican II Conference. In July 1969, Pope Paul VI visited Uganda — the first reigning pope to set foot in sub-Saharan Africa — to make a pilgrimage to Namugongo, where he instructed that a shrine and church be built on the spot where Lwanga had been killed.
The Church of the Namugongo Martyrs, dedicated in 1975 and subsequently named a basilica church, is an unusual and imposing structure, modernistic and metallic in appearance, but based on the traditional Kasiisira style (epitomized, ironically, by the tombs of Mwanga and two other kabakas at Kasubi). Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury visited the massacre site in 1984, Pope John Paul II in 1993, and Pope Francis I in 2015.
The 3 June massacre remains a public holiday in Uganda (Uganda Martyrs Day) and is marked worldwide on the Church calendar in honor of the Uganda Martyrs, and millions of believers each year flock Namugongo to celebrate the Martyrs.