My recent trip to Uganda was probably the most spontaneous, last-minute adventure I’ve ever booked.
When I published my 2018 Travel Review post on 31 December 2018, I was completely unaware that my 2019 travels would see me making my first forays into the ‘real’ Africa – beyond Morocco. And that I would be doing so just 25 days into the new year.
But my friend Jayne (the same friend I travelled to Norway with last year) found return flights from Manchester to Entebbe with Turkish Airlines, at a price that was too good to pass up.
I celebrated New Year’s Eve by booking these flights (oh, and then by polishing off several bottles of red wine with a few friends).
Because we’d not researched an itinerary before booking the flights, we’d not really left ourselves very well placed to explore western Uganda in the time we had available, so unless we wanted to spend three whole days out of our 10 days there travelling, we needed to base our explorations in and around Entebbe.
I’ll be publishing an itinerary post soon, but essentially, aside from travelling up to Murchison Falls National Park to do a safari, we split our time between Kampala and Entebbe – the result being that we spent four nights in Entebbe.
Considering that Entebbe is usually just a stopover point for travellers who are making their way to other parts of the country, we actually really enjoyed the few days that we spent there. For that reason I’d like to dedicate this post to the laid back African town that we ended up liking a lot more than we ever expected to.
A little bit about Entebbe
Located on the shores of Lake Victoria, and approximately 37 kilometres from Uganda’s capital, Kampala, Entebbe was once the capital of Uganda during the colonial era. It takes its name from the Lugandan (the primary language spoken here, apart from English) word for ‘seat/chair’ – “e ntebe.”
It’s home to the main international airport of Uganda, as well as the official office and residence of the President of Uganda.
Although Entebbe is not blessed with an abundance of must-see sights, there’s enough to keep you occupied here for a few days. However, what we loved most of all was how lush the scenery was, how friendly everyone was and how relaxed we felt here.
Here are 7 wonderful things to do in Entebbe, to help you get the most out of your visit. I’ve marked them all on the map below so that you can easily locate them all.
#1 | Take a stroll around Entebbe Botanical Garden
If you ask any of the locals in Entebbe what you should see while you’re in town, their answer is always, without hesitation, “the botanical garden.”
Entebbe’s Botanical Garden was first laid out in 1898, and is divided into different zones. The rainforest zone was reportedly used as a backdrop in the original Tarzan films of the 1940s.
There are, according to Lonely Planet, approximately 115 bird species to be found here, as well as black and white colobus monkeys and tree squirrels. The colobus monkeys were nowhere to be seen when we visited, but we did find plenty of macaques roaming the nearby streets.
Whilst we enjoyed our relaxing wander through the gardens, it would have been nice to have been able to identify some of the plants and flowers we were passing (there were none of the plant signs you normally see in botanical gardens and greenhouses).
Nonetheless we did see a few interesting flowers that caught our eye.
We also really enjoyed our decision to find an alternative route out of the gardens – a decision that led to an unexpected wander through a local community.
None of the residents seemed that bothered about our presence there and our smiles and greetings of “hello!” were always returned.
#2 | Shop for souvenirs at Entebbe Craft Village
Established in 2002, Entebbe Craft Village is reportedly the largest arts and craft retailer in Uganda. As a result of reading this fact prior to visiting, we were expecting the ‘village’ to be a lot larger than it actually was, and for there to be a larger selection of crafts available for purchase. But even in spite of this, it was still a worthwhile excursion on our final day in Entebbe.
Although some store holders were chattier than others, everyone was friendly, and other than inviting us inside to have a look around, none of them put any pressure on us to purchase anything.
You’ll find items such as soapstone plates and ornaments, wood carvings, jewellery, clothing and bags made from colourful African fabrics, decorative tableware, place mats, sandals, oil and acrylic paintings, and original batiks. All prices are negotiable.
Many of the ready-made skirts and dresses are one-of-a-kind items and therefore come in one size only, but you may find (as we did) that the dress-makers and seamstresses are the ladies you see in the shops and that they will offer to adjust the garments for you while you wait.
Alternatively they can even make something for you if you see some material you like, but they’ll need a few days for that; we literally had a few hours.
#3 | Pose for a photo at ‘the other’ equator sign on Lwaji Island
Uganda is crossed by the Equator – an imaginary line that separates the northern and southern hemispheres. There are three equator markers in the country – one in the Queen Elizabeth National Park in western Uganda, one in Kayabwe, on the Kampala–Masaka road, around 100 kilometres from Entebbe, and one on Lwaji Island in the middle of Lake Victoria.
Although many tour companies run day trips to the Kayabwe equator sign (from both Kampala and Entebbe), ‘the other’ equator sign that’s accessible from Entebbe is not publicised very much at all. In fact, the only way we managed to get there was to charter a boat (which we arranged via 2 Friends for $40pp as a treat for Jayne’s birthday).
I’m guessing nobody really visits this particular equator sign because we had to persuade our pilot to moor the boat there (instead of taking a photo from the boat; there was no actual landing stage on the island) and then had to fight our way through swarms of flies in order to get to the sign and take the photo. The flies then proceeded to hop on board and come for a ride back to central Entebbe with us.
And if you’re wondering why half my shirt is darker than the other, it’s because I sat on the wrong side of the boat on the way out, so what was meant to be a relaxing boat ride around a lake felt more like one past the local waterfall! 😂
#4 | Visit Cafe Phileo / Calvary Chapel and the Nakiwogo Market
We were chatting to our guesthouse hosts one morning over breakfast, and asked their advice about where we should visit in town. We told them how much we enjoyed our accidental stumble through the little community close to the botanical garden and enquired as to whether there was anywhere else where we could experience local life in Entebbe.
They recommended a wander down to Nakiwogo Market and a stop at Cafe Phileo on our way back. Neither disappointed.
Nakiwogo Market is a bustling hive of activity where market vendors trade their goods and produce and catch up on the weekly news and gossip, and young children smile and wave as you pass.
If you’re curious to sample some of Uganda’s traditional foods in an authentic setting and for a fraction of the price of the same offering in one of the town’s cafes or restaurants, then this is the place to come. But if you’d rather escape the African heat and enjoy your food inside then Cafe Phileo is better value for money than most.
We actually almost walked right past the cafe as we were leaving the market. We spotted the thick black railings and the gated entrance, and assumed it was closed. But curiosity got the better of us and upon closer inspection we could see the open doors of the cafe hiding behind.
We were greeted with a large smile from the gentleman behind the counter and subsequently struck up a conversation with a young American teacher/volunteer who was doing some lesson preparation from her table by the door.
Cafe Phileo is located on the grounds of Calvary Chapel, which was established in 2006 by Pastor Craig and his wife Loren (who we actually met in the cafe). When Craig and Loren bought the plot of land (which was all they could afford at the time), it was nothing more (or so they thought) than an old rubbish dump in what was the poorest and most congested part of Entebbe. They’ve since discovered that the site was once frequently used by Idi Amin as a killing field, and therin lay the reason it had lain empty for so long – because locals feared the spirits of the people who had been murdered there.
It’s beautiful to see how they’ve turned the site from a place of darkness, brutality and death, into one of life, joy and peace. The chapel began as a small tent church but now operates as a locally registered NGO that employs approximately 17 staff (some of whom used to be students here) and educates and cares for a great many more children.
Good to know: Boats to the Ssese Islands leave from the Nakiwogo Ferry Port.
#5 | Get up close and personal with a chameleon or two at Entebbe Reptile Village
Prior to visiting here we were warned that it was a bit run down and not really worth the trip, but in my opinion this is absolutely not true!
Our guide was a font of knowledge about the various creatures he introduced us to, as well as being very patient in answering our questions and helping us to get the perfect photograph.
There are a variety of snakes here, chameleons, tortoises, turtles, monitor lizards and crocodiles – with the option to hold the chameleons, tortoises and turtles.
We had great fun attempting to spot the chameleons in their enclosure (I couldn’t believe how difficult they are to find; they camouflage themselves so well) but in the end we had to admit defeat and enlist our guide’s help to locate them. My highlight was getting to hold this little two-week-old chameleon.
Photo credit: Jayne Turner
Good to know: Entrance fee is 15,000UGX (correct Feb 2018) and this includes a compulsory guide for your visit.
Getting there : Although the Reptile Village is only 3km from the main Kampala-Entebbe highway, you’ll need to add on the distance from your guesthouse. Although the easiest way to get here is by taxi, the roads are pretty bad once you leave the Kampala-Entebbe highway, which will definitely slow a taxi down. In order to save money and time, we caught a matatu (more on how those work later) from our guesthouse to Victoria Mall, another matatu to make the short hop down to the junction of Greenstars HS Road, and then a boda boda (again, more on those later) to the Reptile Village. The entire 8.2km journey cost us around 7000UGX (for the two of us).
#6 | Relax on the shores of Lake Victoria with a cocktail in hand at 2 Friends
2 Friends is the perfect spot to seek some shade and an ice cold drink (alcohol is optional!). On a windy day you can even convince yourself that you’re on the coast, as you watch the lake water lapping up on to the shore like the ocean’s waves.
The popular restaurant and bar is situated on a small beach right on the edge of the lake. In fact, you can can recline in a deck chair on the shore’s edge and almost dip your feet in the water (although I wouldn’t recommend it if you want to avoid catching Bilharzia (snail fever)).
Photo credit (middle photo): Jayne Turner
There’s a huge variety of birdlife down on the shore (we had our eyes fixated on some kind of diving bird who’d hover above the water like a hummingbird, before suddenly and rapidly honing in on its prey) and tiny wooden boats transport fishermen hunting for Tilapia.
The attached hotel gets fabulous reviews, but you’ll pay a high price for the location.
#7 | Enjoy some quality Thai food at Thai Garden
Anyone who knows me will know that Thai is one of my favourite cuisines and I’ll never turn down the opportunity to eat good Thai food, wherever I am in the world. So, when I discovered that the top-rated restaurant in Entebbe was a Thai restaurant, I knew immediately that I had to eat there.
Thai Garden is – as its name suggests – located in a lush setting with patio and garden seating, and surrounded by tropical plants and flowers. You also have the option to dine right next to Lake Victoria (a dining area that’s separated from the main restaurant by Nambi Road), but your food will come served in plastic bowls and with plastic knives and forks if you choose this option. We never did find out why.
That said, we really enjoyed the setting and the food. If you only splash out on one meal during your time in Entebbe, make it one at Thai Garden.
A few other sights and activities that we didn’t personally see or experience but that were recommended to us are as follows:
- Ssese Islands. An archipelago of eighty-four islands in the northwestern part of Lake Victoria. There’s not a lot ‘to do’ here but if you want to be able to relax on stunning white-sand beaches and get lost in a good book, then the Ssese Islands will be right up your street.
- Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Established in October 1998, the sanctuary cares for orphaned chimpanzees that have been rescued by the Uganda Wildlife Authority. We didn’t come here because our preference was to see chimps in the wild – despite the fact that we knew we had less chance of seeing them up close than we would have done here.
- Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Centre. Although it primarily functions as a zoo, the centre is also a world-class animal refuge. There are volunteering opportunities available and on-site lodgings. It’s open daily from 08:30-18:30 hours and the entrance fee is $15 (although we read that there are additional charges if you want to see certain animals).
Getting around Entebbe
Although, population-wise, Entebbe is around the same size as my hometown here in England, it’s a lot more spread out than Shrewsbury is and doesn’t really have a defined ‘centre,’ so unless you’re keen on walking A LOT in temperatures which can (and do in January and February) top 40 degrees, you will need to rely on public transportation to get around.
These are essentially motorcycle taxis, and whilst there are similar forms of transportation all over the world, the term ‘boda boda’ is specific to East Africa. In Entebbe you never have to worry about finding a boda boda, because there’s so many around they will undoubtedly find you first. Some drivers will only take one pillion, some will take two, and prices are always negotiable. My advice would be to ask at your guesthouse for an idea about how much you should be paying for a specific journey, but if you’re just hopping around town, you shouldn’t be paying any more than 4000UGX for a single journey.
Matatus are a series of licensed minibus taxis that follow relatively pre-set routes all over town – usually between the matutu park at the back of the 7Seasons Hotel (near the airport) and Kampala. However, what makes the matatus difficult to figure out (we finally got the hang of them on our last day in Entebbe) is that the destination is not advertised on the front of the bus; you have to actually flag one down and tell the driver where you’re going, and he’ll let you know whether it’s on his route or not. As far as I know prices are non-negotiable, but are very cheap by Western standards.
Taxis are the most expensive way of getting around Entebbe, but also the most comfortable, and the only real option if you have luggage with you (i.e to and from the airport). We paid $15 for our taxi into Entebbe when we arrived, but because we were paying in shillings on the way to the airport (we assume this was the reason), the fare dropped to 35,000UGX (just under $10).
We didn’t haggle on our airport transfers but fares for using the taxis around town are negotiable. We got one from Victoria Mall back to Blue Monkey guesthouse and the driver initially asked for 25,000UGX, but we got him down to 15,000UGX.
Where to stay in Entebbe
We stayed at the Blue Monkey Guesthouse for the first two nights after we arrived in Uganda, and we were so impressed with the place that we returned for two nights at the end of our trip.
I seriously loved everything about this little slice of paradise in Entebbe!
Jayne and I stayed in the tent, the en-suite double and the double with shared bathroom, and all were comfortable, clean and spacious with colourful African bedsheets, and plenty of plug sockets and places to dry/hang clothes.
Many of the rooms offer views across the beautiful garden and out towards Lake Victoria, and represent amazing value for money (we paid just $58 for the deluxe double room with private bathroom, pictured above).
The garden is a wonderful, peaceful place to chill. It’s well looked after and is filled with a multitude of plants and flowers. A variety of birds visit every day, so you’re always surrounded by birdsong.
Breakfast is included in the room price and is served out on the terrace each morning. It’s definitely the best inclusive breakfast I had in the whole of Uganda – omelette, sausage, bacon, beans, pancakes, and fresh fruit are all available, as well as an avocado smoothie and tea/coffee.
The hosts, Albrecht and Andrea were welcoming and helpful, and always had time to sit around and chat to us and offer us advice and recommendations about the local area.
You can hire bikes for $10 per day from here, there’s drinking water available 24 hours (more on that below), and you can buy a variety of different drinks on site, as well as food for delivery from two local restaurants. They also showcase arts and crafts from local towns, which are available to purchase.
Although the location is a little far from sights like Entebbe’s zoo and botanical gardens, and from the majority of the towns restaurants and shops, Blue Monkey is situated in the nicest part of town in my opinion, and the walk into the ‘centre’ will take you along dusty roads and past scenes of local life – the real Africa, in my opinion.
Good to know: The sunset over Lake Victoria from Blue Monkey’s terrace is something you absolutely cannot miss. So, grab a seat and an ice cold beer (you can order both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks from Albrecht and Angela) and enjoy the experience.
Brownie points: You cannot buy bottles of water at Blue Monkey but Albrecht and Angela keep a jug permanently topped up on the dining table. It helps to prevent plastic waste whilst at the same time keeping their guests hydrated.
Practical info about visiting Uganda
- If you’re visiting from the UK the time difference is GMT + 3 hours.
- Currency is Ugandan Shillings (UGX). When we visited the exchange rate was $1 = 3692 UGX / £1 = 4760UGX. You can usually use US dollars as well to pay for accommodation and tours. Ugandan Shillings are a closed currency, so you cannot get hold of them outside Uganda and you cannot change any leftover Shillings back into your home currency when you arrive back.
- You will need to have proof of vaccination against Yellow Fever to visit Uganda. You will need to upload a copy of your Yellow Fever certificate in order to apply for your visa (below), and my Yellow Fever certificate was the first document I had to show upon arriving in the country – even before my passport.
- All nationalities are required to obtain a visa to visit Uganda. At the time of writing a single-entry tourist visa will cost you $50. You will need to upload a scanned copy of your passport and Yellow Fever certificate, as well as a recent passport photograph. You can apply online here.
- Homosexuality has been illegal in Uganda since the time of British colonial rule, and in theory can result in a sentence of up to 14 years in prison (but apparently foreigners are rarely subjects of investigation). Although both Jayne and I are hetrosexual, we were warned that, in guesthouses where only a double room was available (rather than a twin), we may not be allowed to book it, due to being two people of the same sex.
- Most guesthouses and some cafes/restaurants in Entebbe (and, in fact, in all of Uganda) will have gated entrances guarded by an armed Security Officer. Although this did alarm me initially, Jayne says it’s normal for Africa. Uganda is one of Africa’s safest countries (on a par with the UK) and has been voted one of the friendliest countries in the world in the Expat Insider survey 2018 (it ranks at number 12) so I think the high-level security is now more of a precautionary measure. However, where huge economic disparities exist between the richest and poorest residents in any given town or city, a risk will always exist for violence against those more privileged members of society.
- For further reading and itinerary research and planning, we found the Bradt Uganda Guide to be invaluable. However, Lonely Planet have published an East Africa guide, which also includes a section on Uganda.
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