Everything in Harare, the sunshine city, seems so familiar and foreign at the same time. Just 90 minutes away from the bustle of Johannesburg it’s touchdown into an amazing climate, super-friendly people and a city that feels like a village and a metropolis at the same time. Harare, derived from the Shona term means a place that never sleeps, is so much more than just a stopover en-route to the myriad of attractions that Zimbabwe holds for travellers. The sights and sounds of Zimbabwe’s capital are like taking deep breaths; take it in and slowly breathe out. You'll have a head rush when you realise all of the things there are to see and do. And the best part, it is quite affordable for South Africans.
Get in early to get to all the best places
Take the morning’s first flight into Harare for a full day of exploration. Speed through immigration and either rent a car or grab one of the many taxis where reasonable fares can be negotiated upfront. Don’t pay more than USD 30 to get to the city centre. Make your way to a suburb called Avondale and enjoy breakfast at the trendy Pariah State where, for about USD 5, a substantial breakfast starts off the day. The Chipinge region in Zimbabwe’s eastern highlands grows some of the best tasting tea and coffee; Pariah State serves it generously.
After breakfast head to Heroe’s Acre for a look at the impressive monument built shortly after Zimbabwe’s independence. Here national heroes and history are enshrined forever, showcasing the country’s rich heritage but bring your walking shoes it there are quite a few stairs to climb if you want the birds eye-view. Afterwards, pop off to see the Catholic and Anglican cathedrals, impressive with turn of the 19th century architecture. While driving through Harare’s tree-lined streets, it’s impossible not to notice its overall tidiness. It’s almost as if you can wrap it up and gift it for transplanting anywhere, that is how comfortable, attractive and friendly the city and its people are.
For lunch, grab a bit at one of the many Zimbabwean convenience food stores. Chicken Inn, Pizza Inn or opt for South African franchises if you really must. Eat in the car and don’t waste too much time, because Harare in a few hours needs some applied efficiency.
But don't just explore the city, venture beyond its borders
Just outside the city is the balancing rock; it is a quick visit and a great selfie opportunity with a rock formation precariously set. Created by erosion over millenia, the Chiremba balancing rocks became iconic as they were emblazoned on the old Zimbabwean currency. And speaking of which, many vendors still sell old trillion and billion Zimbabwe dollar notes as souvenirs. It’s a great buy to frame or to pretend-pay for your groceries, with a soupcon of humour, back home, but don’t pay more than USD 2 for a couple of notes.
Just before what will be one of the day’s highlights, make a turn at the Botanical Gardens for a stroll through Zimbabwean rain forest, African Savannah and examples of flora from across the globe. Go there if for no other reason than to take in the fragrance of a million flowers and trees. Afterwards, pop past Africa Unity Square, the place where Harare was founded by Cecil John Rhodes in 1890. The paths around the piazza and fountain are laid out in a Union Jack formation and was originally named Cecil Square, it was given its current name after Zimbawean independence in 1980.
The Wild Is Life sanctuary on the outskirts of Harare is likely one of the highlights of anyone’s day. Also the priciest, but well worth every penny as wildlife roam free and visitors are afforded a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet African animals up close, and in a safe environment. It is also the home of the Zimbabwe Elephant Nursery. Arrive just before 15:30 and enjoy a guided tour of the sanctuary after which afternoon tea, champagne and canapes are served at sunset. Visits last about 3 hours so just after 6 it’s almost time for dinner.
Need a great place to stay?
It’s cosy, it’s beautifully appointed and its gardens will inspire anyone with or without green fingers to go home and landscape. Armadale Boutique Lodge (http://www.armadalelodge.com) is situated on a quiet side-street in the suburb of Borrowdale, just off the busy Borrowdale Road arterial, in an old farmhouse dating back to 1904. The rooms are spacious, yet intimate, amenities excellent and Zimbabwean hospitality is in residence here. There’s round the clock concierge and as with most places, offers a special rate for South Africans, making it far more affordable. Zimbabwean pricing in the tourism sector is priced in three tiers, local, SADC and international rates, stimulating regional tourism and, in short, a really, really innovative idea.
Dining in Harare - where to go and what to eat
A visit to Harare is never complete without dinner, or lunch for that matter, at Gava’s. It’s a traditional cuisine eatery that could be compared to a South African Chesa’Nyama. Only, the menu is vastly different and the flavours exquisite. Carnivores have a feast ahead of them as the freshly braaied steaks, chicken, goat or ribs are paired with some of the most delicious sides ever invented. Who would have thought that peanut butter rice could taste so good? Moreish pumpkin leaves and the local interpretation of pap, called Sadza, is available in both maize and sorghum variants. If you choose chicken off any menu in Zimbabwe, make sure it’s a roadrunner (free range), it may be the best chicken you’ll ever have. Dr. Trouble’s chili sauce is a must and no meal is complete without a locally brewed Bohlinger’s beer.
Breakfast at Armadale Boutique Lodge is a lovely affair and the chef will pretty much pander to any early morning culinary tastes, whether it’s cheese on toast or a full English. Service is quick and you are never left wanting for anything. Reading reviews on TripAdvisor, it’s clear that every visitor’s experience at Armadale imprints the same sentiment with Excellent and Very Good as the dominant rating.
Can it really be explored in a day?
Harare can never be fully explored in such a brief time, but its highlights are an absolute must. Before connecting onwards, make a stop at the National Handicraft Centre and the Shona Sculpture Garden to complete an experience like no other. Zimbabwe, and Harare, is so close to home but so very different. It’s affordable and a really 'wow' way in which to spend a weekend or a couple of days. Discover it before everyone else.
Getting to Harare
Low cost airline fastjet flies several times daily between Johannesburg and Harare.