Uganda! A country of rolling green hills, misty valleys and craggy mountains. Where lions stalk their prey through grasslands, hippos soak lazily in the shallows, and mountain gorillas move purposefully though tangled forests. Where the calm waters of Lake Victoria transform into the thundering rapids of the River Nile as it makes its way across Africa.
Less well-known, less-well travelled, but no less enchanting than its East African neighbours, Uganda is a country of surprises and highlights. But you already know that, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this. You’re here because you’re thinking of going – or perhaps you’ve already booked your trip – and you want to know what to see in Uganda. Well you’ve absolutely come to the right place.
I spent four months living and working in Uganda, so I got to know the country pretty well. During that time I took the opportunity to see and do something different most weekends, and at the end of the trip I did a big two-week Uganda adventure, taking in all of the country’s main highlights.
And now I’ve compiled them all into a list. I’ve personally visited, experienced and photographed every single one of these things, and written about some of them for Lonely Planet, so you can rest assured these recommendations are as real and honest as it gets.
So here, in no particular order, is my list of Top Things to See and Do in Uganda.
1/ Chimpanzee Trekking
If you’ve heard one thing about Uganda, it’s probably that this is one of the last places in the world where you can see the critically endangered mountain gorillas. But far less well-known is the fact that you can also spend time and hanging out with our closest relatives: chimpanzees. These guys might not get as much of the glory as their larger neighbours, but visiting them is just as thrilling a experience, and costs a fraction of the price.
Several of Uganda’s parks and forests, including Kibale Forest and Queen Elizabeth National Park, have habituated chimpanzee families, which have been gently trained to tolerate the presence of humans. A tracking experience can be a half or full day, during which you’ll hike through the forest to find the group, before spending time observing them in the wild. If you’re lucky enough to get close to them, as I did, it’s a truly breathtaking experience.
Read More: Chimpanzee Trekking in Kibale
2/ Gorilla Trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t also visit the gorillas if you’re able to. There are only about 880 mountain gorillas left in the world, of which about half live in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. That means the chance to see them is extremely rare, and one you should definitely take while you’re in Uganda if you can.
Like visiting the chimpanzees, gorilla trekking involves hiking through thick jungle to find your allocated gorilla family – one of just a handful which have been habituated to the presence of humans. Once you’ve found them, you’ll spend a magical hour observing these magnificent creatures in the wild.
The price tag may be eye-watering ($600 last time I checked) and the going can sometimes be a bit challenging, but when are you ever going to come back to Uganda or have the chance again?
Read More: Gorilla Trekking in Rainy Season
Batwa Pygmy woman
3/ Wildlife Safaris
Uganda may not have the cachet of Tanzania’s Serengeti or Kenya’s Masai Mara, but there’s more than enough wildlife here to delight even the most discerning of safari connoisseurs. What’s more, because Uganda is less crowded, you’ll more than likely have the animals all to yourself – and it’s cheaper too!
Uganda has 10 national parks, which are collectively home to more than 350 different mammals, including lions, leopards, hippos, elephants, giraffes, zebras, hyenas and buffalos, as well as 0ver 1000 species of birds. Safaris can be organised through one of Uganda’s many safari companies, or though a small group travel company like Exodus* or Explore*.
Click here for TripAdvisor’s recommendations* for safari companies in Uganda.
Read More: 19 Wildlife Photography Tips for Beginners
4/ Queen Elizabeth National Park
The largest and many would say the best of Uganda’s National Parks, Queen Elizabeth is the country’s most popular tourist destination. Located on the western border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, and right on the equator, the park covers nearly 2000 square kilometres and is home to all of Uganda’s wildlife big-hitters. If you only have time to visit one park, make it this one.
You can easily fill a couple of days here with game drives: try an evening drive to spot elephants feeding or big cats on their way out to hunt, and then get up before dawn to enjoy the sunrise and see the hippos returning to the water after a night grazing. At night, sleep in a safari tent so you can hear the sounds of the park at night as you drift off, and if you’re lucky your camp might even receive a nocturnal visitor or two – a slightly terrifying but exhilarating experience.
5/ Kazinga Channel Boat Trip
While you’re in Queen Elizabeth National Park it would be a mistake not to do a boat trip on the Kazinga Channel, a 20-mile-long shallow river that flows between Lake George and Lake Edward. Animals of all shapes and sizes come down to the water’s edge to drink and bathe, so on any given day you’re guaranteed to see everything from elephants, hippos and buffalos, to – if you’re lucky – a pride of lions. The beauty of wildlife spotting by boat is that the animals don’t seem to be bothered by its presence, meaning you can get much closer than you might be able to by car. On a sunny day a lazy boat journey down any river is a wonderful thing, but when you add in more wildlife than you’ll have room for on your memory card, this particular journey becomes one the best thrill rides you’ll ever have.
Kazinga Channel boat trips last two hours and cost around $30 per person. Top tip: if you can, sit on the left hand side, as that’s the one closer to the shore.
Read more: A Boat Trip on the Kazinga Channel
6/ Great Rift Valley
As well as amazing wildlife, Uganda boasts some of the most stunning landscapes to be found anywhere in Africa. The country sits on the Great Rift Valley, a vast crack in the earth’s crust created as two tectonic plates move apart from one another, creating an enormous 4000-mile long trench that’s widening by a few centimetres every year. Over millions of years, as the continent slowly tears itself in two, these powerful forces have formed dramatic peaks and troughs, creating some of the highest mountains (including Uganda’s Rwenzori mountains), violent volcanoes, and some of the deepest lakes in Africa (Lake Victoria, for example).
You’ll glimpse the effects of the Great Rift as you travel throughout Western Uganda. From the many huge lakes, to the vast flat plain of the rift itself, to the peaks of the surrounding mountains, these are views you won’t forget in a hurry.
7/ Volcanic Craters
Thanks to all that volcanic activity, Uganda is home to some spectacular craters and crater lakes. Millions of years ago all this scenery would have been scorched and black, but today the fertile volcanic soil has given life to rolling green landscapes dotted with sparkling water holes. There’s something extra special about the perfectly round shape and sharp outline of a crater lake, and the way the water, unruffled by currents and sheltered from the wind, reflects the sky as sharp as a mirror.
There are stunning craters and crater lakes all across Western Uganda, but the best ones are the Katwe Craters in Queen Elizabeth National Park – do a late afternoon crater drive to really see them at their sparkling best. Or, if your budget will stretch, try spending a night at either Crater Safari Lodge* in Kibale, or at Kyaniga Lodge* in Fort Portal: both are stunning luxury hotels perched right on the edge of crater lakes with views to die for.
8/ Tree-climbing Lions in Ishasha
Another thing that Queen Elizabeth National Park is well-known for is its tree-climbing lions. These are not a unique subspecies of lion – all lions can climb trees – but this particular park happens to have some very climbable trees, and the lions here aren’t slow to take advantage.
The wonderful thing about lions in trees is they’re much easier to spot and photograph. Hidden in tall, dry grasses at ground level, a lion is virtually invisible, but up in a tree he’s on full display, and likely to rest there for several hours. When one is spotted the rangers let each other know, so as long as he doesn’t wake up and head off to hunt before you get to his location, you’ll have a good chance of spotting him.
To see the tree-climbing lions, simply drive to the Ishasha sector of the park, ask every car you pass if they’ve seen a lion, and keep your eyes peeled!
9/ Murchison Falls National Park
Located about five hours’ drive north of Kampala, Murchison Falls is Uganda’s largest national park: a massive 4000 square kilometres. Not only does it boast about 500 bird and 75 mammal species, it’s also home to the most powerful waterfall in the world. Murchison Falls is where the River Nile, the world’s longest river, squeezes its entire force through a tiny 6-metre crack and plunges over a 43-metre drop at 300 cubic metres per second. Which is pretty noisy and impressive to behold, in case you were wondering.
There are two ways to see Murchison Falls – and I highly recommend you do both. Take a boat trip along the Nile to see the Bottom of the Falls, front on, and then either hike up, or take the boat back and drive up to the Top of the Falls to see the churning, tumbling water close up. Later you can do a game drive in the park to spot giraffes, antelopes, hyenas or elephants, before relaxing in one of the area’s many safari lodges.
Read more: What To Do In Murchison Falls National Park
10/ Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary
If you’re heading from Kampala up to Murchison Falls, don’t miss Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary on your way through. Located just three hours from the capital (so it’s also doable in a weekend), Ziwa is the only place in Uganda to see rhinos in the wild – and not just see them, but get extremely close to them.
Because of poaching, rhinos became extinct in Uganda in 1983. Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary was set up 15 years later to reintroduce them. They started with just six animals, but thanks to a successful breeding programme they now have 22, with more on the way.
You can see the rhinos by taking a guided walk with an armed ranger. These last about two hours and cost $45 per person for a non-Ugandan. If two hours isn’t enough for you, you can also stay overnight in the park.
Read more: A Visit To Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary
11/ Go Hiking In Sipi Falls
Situated at 1,775 m above sea level in the foothills of Mount Elgon in Eastern Uganda close to the border with Kenya, Sipi Falls is a relaxed hill town that makes a great location for a weekend break away from Kampala. Thanks to its fresh mountain air, rolling hills and craggy cliffs it’s popular with adventure enthusiasts, especially hikers, climbers, and hill runners.
The area gets its name from three pretty waterfalls – and a hike to see them, which takes the best part of a day, is the area’s main attraction. But there are plenty of other outdoor adventures to be had too, from tours of the local coffee plantations, to birdwatching walks, to hill running, to rock climbing on one of 14 bolted sport routes and even abseiling down the side of the main 100m waterfall – which I didn’t do because it sounds terrifying!
Read More: What To Do In Sipi Falls
Although most people come to Uganda for the wildlife and scenery, most trips will start or end in Kampala, and no guide to things to do would be complete without mentioning it.
Kampala has a reputation for being noisy, dirty and crowded, but it’s also the beating heart of the country: full of vibrancy, hustle and bustle, noise and colour. Originally built on seven hills, and now sprawling out over many more, Kampala can be confusing to navigate, but the centre is compact and well-organised, with plenty to see and do for a day or two.
Learn about Uganda’s history and the brutal regime of Idi Amin at Mengo Palace (where you can see Amin’s chilling former torture chambers), or check out the last resting place of the former Kings of Buganda at the Kasubi Tombs. Stroll along Parliament Avenue to take in some of the best colonial architecture, shop for souvenirs or African art in one of the many craft markets and art galleries, or avoid the traffic by hopping on the back of a boda-boda (moped taxi) and whizzing across the city (not for the faint-hearted, but an excellent and cheap way to get around).
Read More: Top Weekend Trips From Kampala
13/ Kampala Mosque
A popular thing to see in Kampala is the Old Kampala National Mosque. This stately yellow building with its cluster of copper domes is the 5th largest mosque in Africa, with space for around 16,000 people all praying together. The huge prayer hall is decorated with stained glass from Italy, an enormous blue and red woven carpet, and intricate chandeliers from Egypt. If you’re feeling energetic, try climbing the 306 steps to the top of the minaret for stunning views of the city spread out in all directions – the perfect way to get your bearings and take in the size of the city from a peaceful vantage point.
14/ Kampala Bars and Restaurants
When you’ve had your fill of sightseeing, it’s time to enjoy Kampala’s main attraction: its nightlife. The city is known as the party capital of East Africa, so much so that visitors regularly come from Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda to party the weekend away.
Kampala is divided into districts, each with its own vibe. The main party area is along Acacia Avenue: here you’ll find popular local favourites including Bubbles O’Leary’s Irish Pub, Big Mike’s bar and nightclub, Kurb bar which sometimes hosts live music, and a little further up the road is Cayenne, which has a restaurant, a poolside bar, and a dancefloor.
Outside the city centre, Kabalagala is known for being a slightly more seedy area, but it still has a few quirky options including Deuces, and Café Cheri. Or head up the road to Bugolobi for excellent cocktails at The Alchemist.
Kampala also has a reputation for excellent food, with dozens of restaurants to try. Here are some of my favourites: Di Vino for the best steak I had in Africa; try Bistro for excellent chicken or fish; Miso Garden for Korean/Asian fusion in a peaceful garden setting; or Mediterraneo for excellent pizza and pasta.
15/ Lake Bunyonyi
Located in the far west of Uganda close to the border with Rwanda, Lake Bunyonyi is a charming place to spend a day or two relaxing. This stunningly pretty lake is dotted with dozens of islands, some of which have fascinating dark stories. Take a ride in a small dugout canoe to learn about some of them, from Punishment Island, where girls who got pregnant out of wedlock were abandoned to die, to Leprosy Island, which used to be a leper colony run by a Scottish missionary.
A great place to stay is Byoona Amargara, a peaceful island retreat run as a not-for profit enterprise that supports community development at Lake Bunyonyi. Choose between a budget cabin or one of their amazing open-sided ‘geo domes’ with views out over the lake. Fall asleep to the gentle sounds of nature, wake to birdsong, relax during the day with short walks or swimming in the lake, and stuff yourself silly with the restaurant’s amazing food.
Fun fact: even though it’s relatively small, Lake Bunyonyi is the second deepest lake in Africa and the fourth deepest lake in the world, at 900 m at its maximum depth.
16/ Visit the Batwa Pygmy People
While you’re in Bwindi or Mgahinga National Parks, it’s worth taking time to visit one of the Batwa communities. The Batwa pygmies are a hunter-gatherer tribe, who for thousands of years lived a nomadic lifestyle in the forests of Western Uganda. But in 1991 the area they live in was turned into a national park, and the Batwa were forcibly evicted. Now they live in makeshift camps on the edges of the forest, where they survive by subsistence farming and offering cultural experiences to tourists.
Visits to the Batwa include the chance to learn about their traditional way of life and watch displays of music and dancing. It’s a great way to support this displaced and marginalised community who really need our help. Tours can be organised through the Uganda Wildlife Authority or the Batwa Development Programme – but make sure you only do an official visit, as these are culturally sensitive and your ticket price goes back to support the community.
17/ Stand On The Equator
Another easy and popular thing to do in Uganda is to visit the Equator. Uganda sits right on this magical line, providing a rare opportunity to stand with one foot in the Northern and one foot in the Southern Hemisphere – a slightly surreal but fun experience if you’ve never done it before. The points where the Equator crosses major roads are all marked with circular monuments, but the main place to see it is at Kayabwe, on the Masaka-Mbarara highway, about 45 miles from Kampala. Here there are craft stalls and cafes, and you can watch a demonstration that proves that water does indeed circle down a plug hole in opposite directions on either side of the Equator. I’d heard this but I didn’t know if it was true or not, so it was fascinating to see it for myself!
18/ Lake Mburo National Park
About five hours’ drive west of Kampala, Lake Mburo National Park is the smallest of Uganda’s savannah national parks. It’s mostly home to herbivores like antelopes, zebras and buffalo, but there are no elephants or lions here. This means that it’s a much safer place to roam around than the other parks, making it the ideal spot for outdoor activities like horseback riding, mountain biking or bird-spotting walks, without running the risk of being trampled on or turned into a tasty meal for a big cat.
Lake Mburo is a great place to stop for night on your way back to Kampala from the west. If your budget will stretch, stay at the stunning Mihingo Lodge, one of the Uganda’s most spectacular lodges, which boasts luxury boutique log cabins with private verandas overlooking the park, and a swimming pool with one of the best views I’ve ever seen!
If you’re ready to book, click here to see a selection of hotels near to Lake Mburo.
Read More: Top Weekend Trips from Kampala
19/ Lake Victoria
Uganda may be landlocked, but what it lacks in sea views it makes up for with the mighty Lake Victoria. This huge body of water sits on the south side of the country, across the borders with Kenya and Tanzania, and at over 23,000 square miles is the largest lake in Africa.
The best departure point to see Lake Victoria is Entebbe (about which, more below). Enjoy a sunset cruise to enjoy the calm waters, or take a trip out to some of the many islands. The main highlight is the Ssese Islands, an archipelago of 84 islands featuring blue waters, soft white sands, and thick forests – which make for a fantastic off-the-beaten-track tropical island experience. The main island, Buggala Island is easily accessible by ferry from Entebbe, and is a popular weekend destination for Kampala residents, with a string of beachfront hotels and bars.
If you’re travelling by plane, Entebbe is where your trip to Uganda will start and end. But the town is more than just a hub for the airport – it’s also a peaceful retreat right on the shores of Lake Victoria just an hour from Kampala, and it’s a great way to spend a day or two at the start or end of your holiday, or as a weekend away from the capital.
During the day, enjoy the peaceful greenery and bird life of the Botanical Gardens, parts of which are so perfectly lush and jungly they were used in the 1940s as a location for the original Tarzan movies. If snakes or crocodiles are your thing head for the Reptiles Village where you can see some of the many poisonous snakes carefully rescued when they show up uninvited in people’s homes across the country. Or visit the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre – about which, more below.
In the evening, wander along the shores of Lake Victoria and have a meal at a lakeside restaurant while enjoying the fresh air and maybe the sound of a local band.
Read More: Things To Do In Entebbe
21/ Uganda Wildlife Education Centre
One of the highlights of my trip to Uganda was my visit to Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (or Entebbe Zoo as it’s sometimes known) and the chance to come nose-to-nose with some of the planet’s most incredible creatures.
Far more than just a zoo, UWEC is a wildlife sanctuary where animals rescued from poachers or the illegal pet trade are brought to be cared for until they can be released back into the wild. Those that would be unable to fend for themselves – often because they were only babies when they were found – are kept permanently. These animals have been hand-raised by humans, and that means you can get close to them without fear. Do the Behind the Scenes tour for the chance to feed a giraffe, stroke a cheetah, or make friends with an elephant – at $75 it’s not cheap, but it’s worth it!
Read more: A Day At Uganda Wildlife Education Centre
Or watch the video: Uganda Wildlife Education Centre
22/ Source of the Nile
The River Nile is the longest river in the world – over 4000 miles long – and runs all the way from Uganda at its most southern end to the Mediterranean sea in the north.
In the 19th century, during the golden age of exploration, a small group of intrepid British adventurers was determined to find the source of this mighty waterway. After several years of searching, punctuated no doubt by run-ins with hostile locals and the occasional bout of one tropical disease or another, it was eventually – and controversially – claimed in 1858 by a man named John Hanning Speke at Jinja, about 80 km east of Kampala.
The historic discovery of the Source of the Nile (or one of them, at least) is commemorated at the Source of the Nile monument just outside Jinja. Take a guided boat ride upstream and onto Lake Victoria, where it’s said you can actually see the bubbles as the water rises out of the lake and begins its journey north.
23/ Whitewater Fun in Jinja
As well as being the place where the River Nile begins, Jinja is also Uganda’s whitewater adventure capital. The foaming waves and thundering rapids of the world’s longest river are a huge draw for adrenalin junkies, who come to enjoy the thrills of whitewater kayaking and rafting on rapids that reach Grade 5 in some areas. Head to the Nile River Explorers base for all the adventures you can eat – from extreme rafting to tandem and solo kayaking to quad biking. For those of a more nervous disposition, NRE also offers more sedate activities like stand-up paddleboarding or horseback riding. With plenty of places to stay, eat, and drink, and a fun, relaxed vibe, it’s not surprising that Jinja is now Uganda’s second top tourist attraction after the gorillas.
A word of caution though: flowing water is fine, but avoid swimming in still water at the river’s edge as the area is known for carrying the waterborne parasite bilharzia – which won’t kill you but may well ruin several days of your holiday.
Read more: Jinja and the Nile River Kayak Festival
24/ Boutique Lodges
One of the highlights to any trip to Uganda is the chance to stay in one of the country’s many spectacular safari lodges. Far more than just a hotel, these places are experiences in themselves, often featuring sympathetically-designed wood cabins with private terraces overlooking stunning views, and offering delicious three-course meals all included in the price of your stay. While they’re not as cheap as a campsite or a less luxurious hotel, I definitely recommend you treat yourself to a night or two if you can stretch to it.
There are plenty to choose from, but here are a few that I can personally recommend: Kyaninga Lodge* in Fort Portal, perched high over a stunning crater lake; Crater Safari Lodge* in Kibale, which features luxury cabins with verandas looking out over another crater lake; Mihingo Lodge* with its spectacular vistas over Lake Mburo National Park; Bush Lodge* in Queen Elizabeth National Park, where you fall asleep to the sound of hippos grunting in the nearby river, or Bakiga Lodge*, which clings to a hillside overlooking the misty treetops of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Read More: An Afternoon in Kibale, Uganda
25/ Rolling Green Landscapes
As you travel round Uganda, one of the things you cannot fail to notice is how green the country is. If you’ve only ever seen Africa on the news you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a dry, dusty continent, but that couldn’t be further than the truth. Uganda is actually about as rainy as the famously damp United Kingdom, with over 1 metre of rainfall every year, so there’s no shortage of water to provide the necessary juice for things to grow. And – wow! – does stuff grow! Bananas, cassava, potatoes, corn, beans, coffee, cotton, tea, tobacco… these are just some of the things they produce, which means you won’t struggle to find delicious fresh fruit and veg with almost zero food miles.
Many people make a living from subsistence farming, each family owning a small plot of land where they grow crops to sell at the local market. As a result Uganda’s rolling landscape has become a patchwork of terraces and squares, each one a slightly different shade of green. Look out for them particularly as you drive through Western Uganda’s volcanic region – you’ll definitely be stopping the car to hop out and take pictures!
Read More: Two Weeks In Uganda – A Suggested Itinerary
26/ Ugandan Music
Uganda has a vibrant music scene, which is influenced not only by local and African sounds, but also by the wider international music industry. Two of the most popular traditional genres are Kidandali, which features the use of typical Ugandan sounds and samples, and Kadongo Kamu, which means ‘one little guitar’ and is based around the acoustic guitar. In Kampala especially there are plenty of opportunities to hear live bands performing all kids of music – try Club Obligato, or the Uganda National Theatre, for local bands, Big Mike’s for more international sounds, or JazzVille in Bugolobi for really fun and accessible Jazz.
27/ Arts and Crafts
If Ugandan art is what you’re after, Kampala also has a colourful art scene with at least half a dozen galleries representing both local and internationally-known artists. AfriArt, AKA gallery and Nommo Gallery are probably the best-known, but there are several of others, all offering unique and stylish paintings and textiles that’ll look great on your wall back home.
For souvenirs and crafts you’ll find roadside stalls at every tourist destination, but for the best prices and the most choice save your shopping for Kampala. Here there are two main permanent markets: the Exposure Africa market on Buganda road and the African Craft Village behind the National Theatre. Everything from carved wooden figures and animals and leather to jewellery and textiles are on offer here – some are imported from Kenya but there are plenty of local items too. On Fridays there’s also a craft market in Nsambiya along Ggaba Road where you can buy items directly from the artisans who made them – and the prices are often better too.
If you prefer not to have to haggle, a great place to shop for unique local souvenirs is one of the three branches of Banana Boat. This carefully-curated store works directly with local artisans to source and sell unique products you won’t find anywhere else, so not only will you come home with something beautiful, you’ll also be helping to support local businesses.
28/ Meet the People
One of my favourite things about Uganda – that makes it such a joy to travel in – is its people. Rarely have I travelled anywhere where the locals are so warm, welcoming and helpful. As I travel I often stop people and ask for photos – sometimes I’m refused, sometimes they ask for money, but in Uganda almost everyone I met was happy to oblige and asked for nothing in return. Wandering around by myself with my camera I never felt unsafe or threatened, and although a blonde white woman is often the subject of curiosity, people’s glances almost never felt aggressive or intrusive as they have done in other places I’ve visited. It also helps that English is one of the national languages, making Uganda a very easy and enjoyable country to travel in.
So there you have it! Have you been to Uganda? Do you think I’ve missed something! Let me know in the comments, or contact me and I’ll add it in!
And if you’re going to Uganda – happy travels!
Read More: Two Weeks In Uganda – A Suggested Itinerary