For many travelers heading to Mozambique, it’s customary to bypass the capital city of Maputo en route to the popular, photogenic beaches of the North. Resist this. Should you skip visiting, you might miss out on one of Africa’s most unique, friendly, and (ruggedly) charming cities.
Located along the southern Mozambique coastline, Maputo is a lively seaport city near the South African and Swaziland borders. It’s blessed with year-round balmy weather, lengthy stretches of beach, and incredible seafood — the cultural mainstay of Mozambican cuisine. Maputo’s Portuguese heritage and Art Deco splendor compares more to the classic charm of Havana, Cuba; or the vibrant, afro-Brazilian region of the Bahia than its urban African contemporaries. For a city once in tatters during a bloody 15-year civil war — a fact that provides context to the sometimes unsightly conditions of its urban landscape — Maputo has dramatically reshaped itself as a safe and welcoming city for visitors of all backgrounds.
What to Do
Unless you’ve studied up on Maputo’s volatile twentieth century events, you might be bemused with what you see while exploring the town. Best to take Jane Flood’s Walking Tour to receive context from a spirited, knowledgeable guide and her partner Walter Tembe. You’ll get to see some of downtown Maputo’s best architecture, such as the grand CFM train station and the art deco splendor of Sé Cathedral, and learn more about the city’s unique (and once very bloody) past.
Market lovers will thoroughly enjoy Mercado Central, the city’s flagship food market in the heart of the city. One will find everything from fish to exotic fruits under their large indoor space, and the cheerful merchants will gladly offer samples of their goods before you begin negotiating prices. Situated in an attractive municipal park, FEIMA (Feira de Artesanato, Flores e Gastronomica) is the city’s most popular arts market, featuring an immense, serpentine outdoor vendor space with a wide variety of crafts, trinkets, and gifts. You can watch artisans make their wooden crafts on-site and take a meal break at one of the park’s permanent cafés or occasional food vendor stands on select weekends.
Dhow Café, the boho-chic café–gallery–bazaar overlooking Maputo Bay, sells attractive international artwork, gifts, and home goods and features a light-fare café along their expansive veranda. Having just opened in 2014, Dhow Café has become an instant hit among international tourists and Maputo’s well-heeled. Núcleo de Arte is an essential arts co-operative for Mozambique, hosting some of the country’s best and brightest painters, sculptors, and mixed-media artists in its gallery and communal atelier, both open and free to visitors (don’t miss the live music parties held on Sundays).
The leader of the new artistic pack — featured heavily in Núcleo de Arte’s gallery — is local Maputo sculptor Gonçalo Mabunda, whose fantastic weapons-to-art creations has brought international attention to Mozambican art. It’s not advertised in guidebooks, but art lovers who desire an in-depth Mabunda experience can arrange appointments via Jane Flood Tours to visit his residential atelier and view further works from Mabunda and his contemporaries.
Where to Eat
Mozambique is known for some of the world’s best oceanic fare, and Maputo, unsurprisingly, has much to offer. For seafood lovers, it is mandatory to try their giant prawns and crayfish, both of which could be mistaken for lobsters, with a side of piquant, spicy piri piri sauce. Many Maputo insiders will tell you the best giant prawns in the city are served at Southern Sun Hotel’s new Evolve Restaurant; visit the swanky restaurant for international à la carte selections throughout the day, with premium buffets for breakfast and dinner. If you’re eating with a group, try tackling Evolve’s seafood platter, with calamari, line fish, and monstrous prawns and crayfish served on a bed of rice with all the fixings. No seafood lover should miss the Fish Market (Mercado de Peixe), where you’ll find plenty of fresh (sometimes still alive) catch in a truly unfussy atmosphere. Select your items, pay the vendors, and in-market restaurants will cook the seafood for you if you opt to nosh in their cheap and cheerful courtyard. It is worth taking one of the frequent-running ferries to Catembe (also a part of Maputo) to try the casual shack spot Restaurante Diogo, where you can sample classic Mozambican dishes directly on the beach and enjoy picture-perfect views of the city skyline from across Maputo Bay.
Maputo Waterfront Restaurant and Bar is a popular seaside choice for both locals and visitors with its robust menu, plentiful indoor and outdoor seating, swimming pool, and live music offered several days of the week. It is a great starting point to sample flagship Mozambican dishes such as chamusas (Mozambican samosas) and Zambeziana (Zambezi chicken in a light coconut sauce). Further along the same palm-lined promenade is Zambi, one of a handful of fine-dining options in Maputo. Zambi is a contemporary seafood haven best known for its seared tuna steak, giant prawns, and lobster dishes, and its quality and upscale reputation does indeed come with a price. Costa do Sol is a longstanding beachfront institution tucked far from the central city bustle. It’s a prime pit stop for eats or drinks before you jump into the lively beachside madness of Playa Costa del Sol, located just across the street.
Where to Stay
The city’s hotel of the moment is Southern Sun Maputo, a behemoth beachfront building that underwent a $35 million facelift late 2014. It now welcomes guests with updated, well-appointed rooms and stunning interiors throughout the property. Though newer hotels have arrived or are on the horizon, Southern Sun remains the only hotel in Maputo with covetable direct access to the beach along the posh Avenida Marginal. The shiny five-star Radisson Blu lies along the same avenue, and offers a contemporary luxe experience for savvy international travelers with the Indian Ocean a stone’s throw away.