We travel the world to see new sceneries, taste new cuisines, discover new customs, explore new sites, and meet new people. Holistically speaking, we hit the road to experience an unfamiliar culture. It’s a bonus when the destination we’re visiting happens to be home to not one but several cultures, thanks to its diverse population. After all, with a varied populace comes a melting pot of restaurants, neighborhoods, events, and other cultural gems to uncover. Uganda’s capital, Kampala, does not disappoint.
Established on rolling hills some 10km off northern Lake Victoria shores, Kampala is a conventional African city. More verdant than many of its regional counterparts, not relatively so crowded 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 edge. 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 reach Kampala through Entebbe International Airport, 33 kilometers from the city, and drive over a newly surfaced expressway connecting the airport to the city and other parts of the country. Kampala 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.
Kampala is the pulsating heart of Uganda’s economic, social, cultural, and intellectual life. It is also the country’s largest urban center, with a population of 3.1 million (Microtrends 2020). Like Rome, Uganda’s capital was initially built across seven hills, but today, it sits on about two dozen hills.
Kampala derives its name from the local Luganda language saying ‘Akosozi k’empala,‘ meaning ‘Hill of Antelope.’ A reference to the domestic impala (empala) antelope, which grazed the lawns of Mengo during Buganda’s King Mutesa’s reign in the 1880s.
Historically, Kampala Hill and the surrounding hills had lain at the Buganda Kingdom’s political center for several decades before the arrival of the first Europeans. Capt Fredrick Lugard arrived in 1890 and set up camp on Kampala Hill, so he is generally considered the founder.
The area immediately north of Kampala Road is more stylish than any part of Nairobi or Dar es Salaam. That is where foreign embassies and government departments rub shoulders with pioneer tourist hotels. 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 makes it a popular place for all travelers to hang out for a few days, including safari overlanders, backpackers, and business experts. Its attractions perhaps are less compelling to fly-in tourists with more travel time restrictions.
Most Uganda travelers restrict Kampala city tours to traditional sightseeing within the city limits, visiting places like the National Museum, Gadhafi mosque, cathedrals, and Kabaka’s Palace. If you’re not up to the conventional sightseeing, take a walk through the city’s 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.
In the far outskirts of Kampala, 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.
Kampala is a dynamic and engaging city centered on Uganda’s cultural and political intrigue, commercial activity, and intellectual excellence. It’s a forward-looking capital transforming into a thriving, modern place befitting the capital of the “Pearl of Africa.”
Kampala is the most populous city in Uganda, offering a glimpse into Africa and the world through its ethnic diversity, including Uganda’s varied tribes, Africans, Europeans, Americans, and Asians. The city’s collection of cultures gives way to plenty of different types of cuisines to try and neighborhood gems to discover. The capital city has some excellent international restaurants, including some of the best Indian eateries on the African continent. And although English is the official language spoken here, the streets are murmuring with hundreds of dialects.
One of the best aspects of Kampala is that it’s safe to walk around during the day in virtually any part of the capital. The city has many green and verdant spots, and the people are very friendly, all adding to a great place to spend some time.
The worst thing about Kampala is the traffic. Near gridlock descends on the city during rush hour, and it can take more than two hours to break out of the city. The valleys fill up with the belching fumes of the minibusses, and some days you can chew the air.
Kampala 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, meaning you never need to get lost entirely in Greater Kampala, which I wouldn’t say for the region’s other cities.
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’s modern 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 architecture worth your attention is around the acacia-lined Parliament Avenue on the city center’s east side. On the same block lies the so-called White House, occupied by the Kampala City Council. 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 fell into virtual disuse since the ministry of transport suspended all rail passenger services out of Kampala until recently. The Uganda Railways Corporation operates five daily passenger trips between Kampala to Namanve and Port Bell.
For those seeking a leafy breather 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 George VI’s jubilee but is now effectively managed as an extension of the Kampala Sheraton.
Old Kampala Hill towers just a few hundred meters southwest of the city center, enclosed within the oval Old Kampala Road. Fine colonial buildings of Asian design mushroom the hill, generally somewhat rundown or strikingly renovated.
Old Kampala is historically known as Capt Lugard’s 1899 encampment site. It’s most notable today as the focal point for Kampala’s Islamic community and the sight of an imposing 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 Uganda Muslim Supreme Council (UMSC) opened the mosque 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 is a sight to behold above the city. It can seat up to 15,000 people in one sitting, the largest in the region, and is the headquarters of the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council.
The Old Kampala imposing mosque is worth a visit: the Public Relations Officer at the mosque will be happy to arrange a tour. 10,000 Uganda shillings donation is appropriate; dress appropriately.
Due south of Old Kampala, 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. Amin and Obote’s agents took hundreds through its gates, never to be seen again. At the same time, 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. Attractions in the palace include Idi Amin’s specially constructed underground cells and execution chambers. There’s some movingly defiant graffiti scrawled in charcoal by the doomed inmates if you have a translator.
Lubiri is neighboring Namirembe (Mengo) and Rubaga hills in the southwest, elevated by Anglican and Catholic cathedrals. The imposing dome identifies St Paul’s on Namirembe hill 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. It 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, and 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, Namirembe hill.
The Namirmeber-Rubaga area offers various budget accommodations 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, largely owned 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 — the 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 see the building visibly. You’ll find the main entrance at the head of a straight, tree-lined avenue known as ‘Kabaka anjagala’ (translated as the King loves me). It 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 Sergeant of Arms to the Kabaka will be more than pleased to show you around. You may be charged about 20,000 shillings 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 came to Mengo as recently as 1945. A rather annoying caretaker will charge you what he can to see the reptiles.
Northeast of Namirembe is Makerere hill, commonly known for housing the country’s oldest University. A white bell tower of Makerere University used to be visible on the green ridge of Makerere Hill until accidental fires gutted it in September 2020.
For more than three decades ago, the academic community regarded Makerere University Makerere as east Africa’s intellectual heart, which it has embarrassingly lost to obscurity.
However, the University’s campus architecture is still worth checking out, especially the student residence halls, library buildings, and good old walking streets with smiley young faces.
Looking north from Kisementi and Kira Road, the striking Bahai Temple is conspicuous on the Gayaza road grassy hill. 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 sits on Kikaya Hill, 6km from Kampala on Gayaza Road, and is the only worship place in Africa. It is the spiritual home to the continent’s Bahel, adherents to a relatively 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, on the east side, is leafy Kololo Hill, the city’s highest hill and the site of many embassies and diplomatic residences.
Steeped in serenity, Kololo busks 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.
If you’re an urban city traveler, this is the part of Kampala you would want to spend a few days. For various hangouts, several restaurants with outstanding cuisines and great crowds dot this area, from Indian, Asian, French, and continental cuisines.
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.
The most relevant suburb for visitors is undoubtedly Ggaba Road, which runs through southeastern Kampala to Lake Victoria. Notable areas along this 7km road corridor are 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.
Along Ggaba Road are hotels to suit every conceivable budget and requirement, ranging from Kansanga cheapies to the luxurious 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.
The vegetable market in Ggaba, 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.
You might come across other suburbs 2 kilometers north of the greener and more spacious port of Munyonyo, like Bugolobi and Ntinda (northeast). Unlike northern and eastern Kampala, slum areas dominate these 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.
At the end of Ggaba road is the luxurious Speke Commonwealth Resort, a sprawling development set in beautifully landscaped gardens with a magnificent tropical lakeshore setting and a plush marina stocked with speedboats and cabin cruisers. It’s the hotel choice for most international conferences and dignitary gatherings.
Munyonyo 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. The canoes were mainly for pleasure cruises and hunting expeditions. They were on 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. Kabaka Mwanga was based there for much of 1886 after a lightning strike razed his official palace at Mengo.
Speke and Stanley 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 they started the royal canoe regatta at Munyonyo. Buganda has the regatta 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, Speke Commonwealth Resort next door now overshadows Kabaka’s port. This sprawling development, set in beautifully landscaped gardens with a magnificent tropical lakeshore opposite the forested Buliguwe Island, has considerably more facilities. It has a plush marina stocked with speedboats, and cabin cruisers can lay greater claim to be the Cowes of Uganda.
A twenty-five thousand shillings fee a 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.
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 — the first reigning pope to set foot in sub-Saharan Africa — visited Uganda to make a pilgrimage to Namugongo. During his visit, 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 with a metallic appearance, but based on the traditional Kasiisira-style ironically exemplified by the tombs of Mwanga and two other kabakas at Kasubi.
People of stature, including the 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). It is marked worldwide on the Church calendar in honor of the Uganda Martyrs, and millions of believers each year flock to Namugongo to celebrate the Martyrs.