Before taking a small plane to one of Uganda’s 10 national parks (for game drives, gorilla trekking, walking safaris, and the like), visitors typically fly into Entebbe, about 30 miles from Kampala, the nation’s capital. Many tourists treat their night or two in the country’s only densely populated corner as, well, an inconvenience. But Kampala is a joy to explore, with lively bars, charming restaurants, slick art galleries, and bustling shops.
Just ask Samuel Rukundo, a Ugandan expat who figured he’d make a buck opening up a travel agency in the sunny city; that was back in 2011. Today, he co-directs a Ugandan tour company, Silverback Travel company (which organizes budget, midrange, and luxury safaris to Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda). “Uganda is under my skin now,” he says. “After six years, I feel I’m still scratching at its surface.”
And in Kampala, a city of roughly 1.5 million, that surface is changing rapidly, with hip new spots popping up every month. Sam shared his favorite to-dos for a pit stop in Uganda’s capital. She recommends selecting an itinerary beforehand and organizing your transportation via your hotel (or a tour operator), since even Ubers aren’t great at finding addresses. “And try to avoid movement in the early morning or between 5:00 and 8:00 p.m. when traffic is heavy,” she warns. “It’s the perfect excuse to prop yourself up at a bar or restaurant for sundowners and dinner.”
Uganda National Mosque – This is Kampala’s Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty—the skyline-shaping icon visitors can’t help but visit. The place of worship seats 15,000 people and took more than 30 years to construct. Dress conservatively and prepare yourself for an exhausting climb to the minaret’s apex: The view is worth the sweat.
Banana Boat – Most tourists file through the craft markets at Buganda Road and behind the National Theatre. “Sadly, they pump out quite unoriginal products these days,” Sam says. A better bet is Banana Boat’s three outposts (a few minutes’ walk from each other). “They sell ethical and authentic crafts,” she says, “but shoppers need to ask what’s from Uganda, as there are also Kenyan products.”
The Embers – Kampala’s current It bar is intentionally rough around the edges; expect well-dressed mixologists blending house-infused spirits into eminently Instagram-able cocktails. “Here’s where you’ll find the emerging middle-class artisans,” Sam says.
Endiro Coffee – Uganda has long been a top African exporter of coffee. Endiro’s team began working with plantation owners, teaching them to harvest specialty-grade beans and raising the bar on Uganda coffee quality, so that farmers are seeing a tenfold increase in their incomes. This mini chain also nails the hipster ambiance . . . and serves a damn good cuppa.
One Minute South – This island villa, accessible only by boat, gets its name from its close proximity to the equator. Hammocks, fruit orchards, and even a croquet lawn dot the grounds, and an infinity pool overlooks Lake Victoria—a fertile playground for sailing, fishing, and bird-watching.
Khazana the Verandah – Kampala’s Indian population is massive, so ethnic food isn’t hard to come by. This plein air spot (the sister restaurant to the city’s hugely popular Khana Khazana) serves rich chicken tikka masala, palak paneer, and more on a pretty tiled patio.
Equator Bar – If you’re interested in rubbing shoulders with Kampala’s elite, try this elevated English pub, known for its creative snacks and cocktails and its view overlooking the Sheraton’s gardens.
Afriart Gallery – This sun-drenched gallery, founded in 2002, showcases contemporary art from Uganda and other East African nations. It’s the perfect place to pick out a painting, sculpture, or other work for your collection.
The Lawns – There’s a good reason this steakhouse is a must-visit for omnivorous tourists: It’s one of the best spots to try exotic game, such as smoked crocodile, ostrich, and kudu (a kind of antelope). Book the Lawns reservation on their website.
Good Glass – For beautiful wind chimes, vases, candleholders, and kitchenware, visit this small social enterprise: It provides fair-wage jobs to unemployed Ugandans crafting upcycled home goods from discarded glass.
Cantine DiVino – This Italian deli, known for its lovely deck and its tasty meat and cheese plates, is transitioning into a steak house. “It’s a nice place to drink wine—imported, obviously,” Sam says.
Definition Africa – When it opened, this shop sold only hip T-shirts printed in-house. Now it’s expanded its inventory to include made-in-Africa apparel, accessories, home goods, and stationery in a slick retail space.
Bushpig Backpackers “Oddly, this place has cocktails as good as they get,” Sam says—so don’t let the name turn you off. It’s a combo bar/upscale hostel where pretty young things gather to sip mixed drinks and draft beers while relaxing in the earth-toned lounge.
Mediterraneo – This Italian restaurant, set inside a boutique hotel, is hugely popular with Kampala’s expats—“so you’ll need a reservation any night,” Sam says. Come for the candlelit ambiance; stay for the surprisingly authentic fare.