Malawi’s big game parks are growing in size and stature but Africa’s friendliest country is all about fantastic Lake Malawi; prepare for premier wildlife experiences and a classic beach holiday at the heart of the continent.
Malawi is a relatively small country, dominated by Lake Malawi and the Great Rift Valley. Malawi offers a generous variety of attractions including lakes, rivers, mountains, game parks and villages.
Take the opportunity to sit perched on a mountain cliff above Cape Maclear, watching the brilliant red sun sink into Lake Malawi. With hundreds of species of fish, Lake Malawi is a haven for anglers. From the islands, visitors can enjoy snorkelling and scuba diving among a myriad of colourful fish.
Liwonde National Park is situated in the south of Malawi and is the premier wildlife reserve. Liwonde incorporates the huge and scenic Shire River as well as quiet backwaters and lagoons, marshes, open savannah country, woodland and hills. As a result of the wide variety of habitats, there is a great diversity of plant, animal and birdlife, possibly the best birding location in central and southern Africa.
History & Economy
Fossil evidence suggests Malawi’s human history goes back a million years. Southern African Khoisan hunter-gatherers were the original inhabitants but by 1500 AD Malawi had been settled by migrating West African farmers and herders, leading to the rise of a great regional empire. Devastated by the 19th century slave trade, Malawi was colonised by the British following David Livingstone’s explorations but Nyasaland, as Malawi was then known, remained a colonial backwater until independence in 1964.
One of the world’s least developed countries, Malawi is heavily dependent on agriculture, accounting for a third of GDP and 90% of exports. The main agricultural exports are tobacco (over 60% of all exports), tea and sugar. Tourism plays a vital role in bringing foreign currency into Malawi.
People & Culture
A relatively small country with well over 15 million people, Malawi has one of the highest population densities in Africa. It’s an overwhelmingly rural society – nearly 90% of Malawians live in the countryside and are involved in subsistence farming – and a religious one too: 80% of Malawians are Christian with a further 13% claiming adherence to Islam.
It’s also a country that has long been associated with friendliness and hospitality – not for nothing is Malawi known as The Warm Heart of Africa – but travellers should bear in mind that it is also a deeply conservative country with manners and modesty highly prized.
English is the official language and widely spoken though the dominant local language is Chichewa, spoken by nearly 60% of the population. Music and dance dominate Malawian culture – many traditional ceremonies and festivals still occur throughout the country – and there is a rich tradition of basketry and mask carving.
Landscape & Wildlife
Occupying a fifth of the country, Malawi’s environment is dominated by Lake Malawi, a Rift Valley lake that forms Malawi’s eastern border with Mozambique and Tanzania. Home to the world’s greatest number of lake-dwelling fish species, this freshwater lake with its sandy beaches and deserted islands is the mainstay of the country’s economy and tourist industry. Much of the rest of Malawi is farmed but there are also several high forested or grassy plateaus, mountain ranges and extensive wetlands.
Despite its small size and high population density, 20% of Malawi is protected land. The remote Nyika Plateau offers visitors a wide range of antelope species, elephant, leopard and buffalo while both Liwonde National Park and Majete Wildlife Reserve are now official Big 5 destinations.
Malawi wildlife highlights include diving and snorkelling in Lake Malawi National Park; boat safaris on the Shire River at Liwonde; hiking and mountain biking at Nyika; and with a staggering 645 recorded species, bird watching anywhere!
One of Africa’s smallest yet most beautiful countries, Malawi is famous not only for its smiling, friendly people and their slow and easy approach to life but above all for its extraordinary freshwater lake. The third largest in Africa, Lake Malawi has all the sand-between-the-toes essentials you need for a perfect beach holiday such as secluded sandy coves, clear water and shoals of iridescent fish, plus its mirror-like surface means that the lake is perfect for sailing, snorkelling or kayaking.
A beach holiday in a landlocked country? Absolutely! But visitors to Malawi won’t find the high rises, soulless resorts or crowded beaches of more mainstream beach holiday destinations; a Malawi holiday will take you instead to footprint-free stretches of sand and deserted tree-covered islands where you can laze on your sundeck accompanied only by the cry of a fish eagle.
And then there are the lodges – our favourite Lake Malawi accommodation is hand-built using locally sourced materials so rather than stylized suites look forward instead to luxury with real African character. For a beach honeymoon with a difference we’d recommend Kaya Mawa – recently rated “one of the planet’s 10 most romantic destinations” (Condé Nast) – while family and friends can have a whole island to themselves at the tented camp on Mumbo Island.
You can happily spend your entire Malawi vacation in and around the lake but away from the beaches and dugout canoes the traveller will discover that the country’s mountains, forests and wild reserves are well worth exploring – Liwonde National Park and the Nyika Plateau are particularly rewarding destinations.
Browse our wide range of accommodation and holidays for the one that best suits your requirements – just bear in mind that while Malawi is home to several wildlife reserves, it is not a traditional safari destination. So for thrilling big game viewing why not add neighbouring Zambia or southern Tanzania to your Malawi holiday itinerary? Chat to our Africa Safari Experts, they’ve tried and tested all the Malawi vacation options and can help put together the perfect lake and safari combination for you.
Our top places to visit in Malawi:
- Lake Malawi – lazy beach life, snorkelling & kayaking
- Liwonde National Park – Malawi’s best game viewing
Most visitors to Malawi head straight for the lake and, given the wealth of activities and range of accommodation available there, we’d certainly recommend spending a good part of your holiday on its welcoming shores. However, when planning where to go in Malawi don’t limit yourself to Lake Malawi as there are plenty of other places of interest worth leaving your hammock for – our top picks include Liwonde National Park with its elephants, hippos and crocodiles, and the rolling grasslands of the little-visited Nyika Plateau.
Lake Malawi: lazy beach life, snorkelling & kayaking
Taking up a full fifth of the country and dominating the countryside. The Lake Malawi Rift Valley is an ancient geological formation with fertile soils. Everywhere you go in Malawi one sees evidence of this. Throw down a seed and a plant or a vegetable grows.
Lake Malawi has lovely sand beaches and calm clear water filled with so many colourful fish that it often feels like you’re swimming in a giant aquarium. Snorkelling, diving, sailing or kayaking top the list of activities but life on the lakeshore moves at such a leisurely pace that many visitors simply enjoy a “laze and gaze” holiday – staring at the water’s shimmering surface over the pages of a novel.
Stay close to a local fishing village in a beach lodge in Cape Maclear or on Likoma Island; alternatively, opt for somewhere completely private and exclusive such as tiny Mumbo Island or Nkwichi Lodge on the lake’s remote Mozambican shore.
Liwonde National Park: Malawi’s best game viewing
Situated in the south of Malawi, Liwonde is the country’s premier wildlife reserve. Liwonde incorporates the huge scenic Shire River as well as quiet backwaters and lagoons, marshes, open savannah country, woodland and hills in the interior of the park.
Liwonde National Park is where to go for the best game viewing in Malawi. You have a good chance of seeing large herds of elephant, different species of antelope and an incredible variety of birds. That said, a safari in Liwonde is less about checklists and more about a well-rounded wildlife experience: stay at Mvuu Lodge and go on early morning bush walks with friendly and knowledgeable guides, enjoy boat safaris on the croc-and-hippo-dotted Shire River, and in the evenings watch wildlife at the water’s edge from the comfort of your viewing deck.
Nyika National Park: unique grassland habitat
Nyika National Park is Malawi’s biggest reserve and offers a unique landscape of high rolling grasslands and forested valleys. Day and night game drives give visitors the chance to see herds of roan antelope, eland and zebra as well as nocturnal creatures such as hyena, jackal and serval. The park also offers hiking and mountain biking as a great way to take in the magnificent views and appreciate the solitude and space.
Majete Wildlife Reserve: Big 5 country
Only 70 km south-west of Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital, this 70 000 hectare conservation area sits in the Lower Shire Valley and has recently added lions to its already impressive list of large mammals. The little-visited reserve now boasts the Big 5 as well as zebra, hippo, crocodile and many species of antelope, and when you throw in well over 300 bird species you have a destination that is well worth a visit, especially in combination with the dazzling lake. There are just two lodges in this Majete – our top pick is Mkulumadzi, known for its luxurious chalets and first-rate service. Enjoy guided nature walks, game drives and sunset boat safaris in a beautiful and tranquil wilderness far from the safari crowds.
Lilongwe: markets & restaurants in Malawi’s capital
Malawi’s capital Lilongwe is a well laid out city divided into New Town (to the north) and Old Town (to the south): the former has smart hotels, embassies and offices while the latter has the central market, outdoor cafés and lively restaurants, making it the more interesting area to explore. Most visitors to Malawi only have a brief glimpse of the city while flying into or out of the country but a day in Lilongwe can be worthwhile. Visit the market on Malangalanga Rd or look into some of the Indian spice and cloth shops for a bargain or two. Between the two towns is an interesting wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre and there are good sporting facilities at the Lilongwe Golf Club.
Blantyre: logistical hub for southern Malawi
Malawi’s main commercial centre, Blantyre is a vibrant African city of a manageable size with one of the country’s two international airports – the other being in Lilongwe. Apart from acting as the springboard for travel in southern Malawi, Blantyre holds little of any interest for international visitors. If, however, you do need to spend a night or two here you’ll find that the city has a decent nightlife (by Malawi standards) and a few good restaurants – try the 21 Grill at the Protea Hotel Ryalls.
Zomba Plateau: forest trails & phenomenal views
Zomba, the former capital of Malawi, has a bustling town centre and grand old buildings – their corners now softened by moss and ferns. The colourful city market is worth a morning’s browse but Zomba’s real beauty lies further up the slopes on the Zomba Plateau: a forested table-top mountain criss-crossed by streams and woodland trails.
Walk to the regally-named lookout points of Queen’s View and Emperor’s View or simply sit back and enjoy afternoon tea on the terrace of the Ku-Chawe Hotel, perched on the edge of the plateau. Either way you’ll be rewarded with views so impressive they were described in colonial times as “the best in the British Empire”.
Mount Mulanje: Malawi’s hiking region
At just over 3 000m, Mount Mulanje is Central Africa’s highest peak. This granite mountain range is where to go in Malawi for fantastic hiking with a network of trails winding through tea plantations and cedar tree forests to spectacular waterfalls tumbling into icy rock pools – perfect for a refreshing dip! The hiking is quite challenging so you’ll need a reasonable level of fitness and decent walking shoes.
Malawi has a hot summer rainfall season from November to April so the best time to visit is during the drier winter months – early May to late October. Winter gets chilly high up on the northern Nyika Plateau but down on the shore of Lake Malawi you can expect warm, sunny and dry days – great beach weather! This is also when to go to Malawi for the best game viewing – much of the vegetation has thinned out and animals are concentrated at rivers and permanent waterholes.
We’d recommend avoiding a Malawi holiday during the mid-summer months of January and February: temperatures can get uncomfortably hot and humid, rainfall is at its highest – and so is the risk of malaria – while some of the roads in the national parks become impassable.
Planning on combining a visit to Malawi with another African destination? Read our advice on the:
- Best time to visit Zambia
- Best time to visit Victoria Falls
- Best time to visit Tanzania
- Best time to visit South Africa
For more information on when to go to Malawi, simply enquire with one of our Africa Safari Experts.
There’s nothing like up-to-date, relevant travel information direct from the experts – get Sun Africa Expeditions’ essential Malawi travel advice before you go.
Money & Spending
The local currency in Malawi is the Kwacha although US Dollars are widely accepted throughout the country. Credit card acceptance is improving but don’t rely on it in Malawi’s more remote or little-visited destinations – be on the safe side and check with your Africa Safari Expert before you travel. Generally speaking Malawi is a very affordable destination so your spending money should go far. If you’re travelling with dollars, we’d recommend bringing some small denomination bills as you can pick up genuinely beautiful and affordable handmade crafts at the local markets. Just keep some money aside because you’ll need to pay an international departure tax of 30 US Dollars per person at Lilongwe Airport.
Service charges are not included in hotel, lodge and restaurant bills in Malawi. Tipping is entirely at your discretion – it is not compulsory but is enthusiastically received if you feel the service you received deserves a gratuity. The amount of tip you leave is based on the level of service you’ve received but the general guideline is about 10%.
For in-depth tipping guidelines, enquire with one of our Africa Safari Experts – they’d be happy to share their knowledge with you.
Average summer temperatures: 20°C to 32°C
Average winter temperatures: 15°C to 28°C
Rainy season: December to March
Refer to “best time to visit Malawi” for details on the best wildlife-viewing times.
What to Pack
Malawi is first and foremost a beach destination so pack accordingly – lightweight clothing, sandals, hats and, most importantly, sun screen! Mosquitoes are most active in the early mornings and evenings, so pack repellent and long-sleeved clothing to protect your wrists and ankles at these times. Be sure to leave some space in your suitcase as you’re likely to want to bring back lots of souvenirs from the local markets.
Flights & Getting Around
Lilongwe International Airport: daily flights from Johannesburg as well as regular flights from Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya means great options for a big game safari in Southern or East Africa followed by a beach holiday on nearby Lake Malawi.
Chileka International Airport: located in Blantyre, Malawi’s second international airport serves the country’s southern destinations.
It’s fairly easy to get around Malawi – roads are in relatively good condition and distances are generally short.
Road transfers can be a good option particularly if you want to see a bit of Malawi but if you’d rather just get to the lake then your best option is a light aircraft charter flight.
Luggage on charter flights is strictly limited to 12kg per person and needs be carried in soft-skinned suitcases. Boat transfers take visitors to Lake Malawi’s islands or to Nkwichi Lodge on the lake’s remote Mozambican shore.
Visa & Passport Requirements
All visitors to Malawi must be in possession of a passport valid for at least six months after date of departure. Visas to enter Malawi are not required by citizens of the USA, all Commonwealth countries and most European countries (except Switzerland). For those nationalities that do require visas, these cannot be obtained on arrival but must be obtained in advance from any Malawi embassy or consulate.
Visas are limited to 30 days, but getting an extension once you’re in Blantyre or Lilongwe is relatively easy and free.