Malawi’s ethos is gentle, chivalrous and respectful, while its locals are friendly and warm. Its pace is unhurried and the city features nice, unassuming restaurants, a few shopping malls, lively markets and easy traffic. The capital sprawls so widely that it seems to have no definable centre. However, technically, it has two: the newer City Centre, where Lilongwe’s status as a country’s capital is confirmed by the presence of ministries, embassies and smart hotels, and Old Town, where there are cheaper guesthouses, backpacker hostels and the main market. Minibuses cover the 3km between these areas, with Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary separating the two. A large expatriate presence gives the town a Westernised feel.
Nevertheless, the country’s strongly patriarchal culture includes a conservative dress code. Outside of lodges and resorts, women are expected to avoid wearing swimsuits, shorts, hemlines sitting above the knee, or any overly tight or revealing attire. While some Malawian women do wear long pants or jeans nowadays, this is generally frowned upon and could give offence to many locals. Should you visit the local villages, it’s advisable to wear a simple wrap-around skirt (a chitenge) which can be draped over your other attire. Chitenges are cheap and available at any market in Malawi.
The mini-buses are pretty easy to figure out as you pop between the old and new centres. Crime isn’t a major problem, but there are pickpockets around, so watch your belongings and avoid carrying valuables around with you. The Crossroads Shopping Centre on the Mchinji roundabout just sells everything you would need to buy. Or at least everything that’s available to buy, in this delightfully uncommercialised place
Malawi works on Central African Time and is GMT+2, with no Daylight Saving Time.
The kwacha is the currency of Malawi. Forex bureaux, banks and hotels can all change your money. ATMs have become more common and credit cards are accepted in larger hotels, shops and restaurants.
Lilongwe has a humid sub-tropical climate with warm, pleasant summers and mild winters. Its high altitude keeps it a little cooler than neighbouring areas. The wet season can bring heavy downpours from December to March. The rest of the year is dry, with the winter months (June and July) the coolest ones.
Electrical sockets are the UK three-square pinned variety. The standard voltage is 230V.
Malawi’s telecoms system is underdeveloped, but mobile networks have Lilongwe pretty much covered. Internet access is expensive and slow. The top hotels have wi-fi in some public areas. You can buy a SIM card at the airport if you want to make cheap local calls and airtime is sold at kiosks on just about every street corner.
Minibuses are the staple transport and the most convenient way for visitors to commute between Old Town and the new city centre. You can find taxis outside the main hotels and there’s also a rank on Presidential Way. Alternatively, get the phone number of a driver and keep it handy. Taxis aren’t metered, so agree on the fare upfront.
Airport to City Center
Lilongwe’s Kamuzu International Airport is about 40 minutes out of town and must be reached by taxi or a hired car.