Bustling Kampala makes a good introduction to Uganda. It’s a dynamic and engaging city, with few of the hassles of other East African capitals and several worthy attractions to keep you occupied for a couple of days. As the heartland of the Buganda kingdom, Kampala has a rich and colorful history, visible in several fascinating palaces and compounds from where the nation was run until the arrival of colonialism.
Kampala has several faces. There’s the impossibly chaotic jam of central Kampala, its streets thronging with shoppers, hawkers, and the most mind-bogglingly packed bus and taxi parks you’re ever likely to see. As you head up Nakasero Hill, you quickly hit Kampala’s most expensive hotels and the urban core fades into something of a garden city. The contrast is thoroughly Ugandan, and just another reason many people love Kampala.
Top Things To See in Kampala
Mengo Palace — historic site
Built in 1922, this small palace is the former home of the king of Buganda, though it has remained empty since 1966 when Prime Minister Milton Obote ordered a dramatic attack to oust Kabaka Mutesa II, then president of Uganda. Led by the forces of Idi Amin, soldiers stormed the palace and, after several days of fighting, Mutesa was forced into exile. The building’s interior cannot be visited, but the notorious underground prison here is open to tours.
After the coup against Mutesa II, the palace building was converted to army barracks, while an adjacent site became a prison and torture-execution chamber built by Idi Amin in the 1970s. Guides will lead you to this terrifying site, a dark concrete tunnel with numerous dark, damp cells, which were separated by an electrified passage of water to prevent escape. You’ll see some original charcoal messages written by former prisoners on the walls: one reads ‘Obote, you have killed me, but what about my children!’ On the grounds are also the scrap-metal remains of Mutesa’s Rolls Royce destroyed by Idi Amin.
Mengo Palace is at the end of a ceremonial drive leading from Bulange Royal Building.
Bulange Royal Building
A great place to learn about the history and culture of the Buganda Kingdom; guided tours take you inside the parliament building, providing interesting stories and details about the 56 different clans. Buganda Parliament is held twice a month on Monday mornings, though it is conducted in Luganda. Buy your ticket at the adjacent Buganda Tourism Centre which also sells bark-cloth clothing and books on Buganda culture.
Kasubi Tombs — Mausoleum
The Unesco World Heritage–listed Kasubi Tombs are of great significance to the Buganda kingdom as the burial place of its kings and royal family. The huge thatched-roof palace was originally built in 1882 as the palace of Kabaka Mutesa I, before being converted into his tomb following his death two years later. The tombs were destroyed in an arson attack in March 2010, however, and are still being rebuilt, with no end to the work in sight at present.
Outside, forming a ring around the main section of the compound, are the homes (fortunately not damaged by the fire) of the families of the widows of former kabaka (kings). Royal family members are buried amid the trees out the back, and the whole place has the distinct feel of a small rural village.
Kampala Hindu Temple
Right in the city centre, this temple has elaborate towers and a swastika-emblazoned gate. Peek inside to see the unexpected dome.
Open to the public, a visit to parliament is an interesting way to spend an hour or two. You can either tour the building or see the government in action – during sitting weeks, parliament operates from 2.30pm Tuesday to Thursday and is conducted in English. You need to visit the public-relations department (room 114) to arrange a visit and make a written request to see question time. Usually you can arrange a visit on the spot.
You’ll need to bring an identification card and be decently dressed. In the main lobby look out for the huge wooden cultural map of Uganda featuring the country’s flora and fauna.
There’s plenty to interest you here with a varied and well-captioned ethnographic collection covering clothing, hunting, agriculture, medicine, religion and recreation, as well as archaeological and natural-history displays. Highlights include traditional musical instruments, some of which you can play, and the fossil remains of a Napak rhino, a species that became extinct eight million years ago. Head outside to wander through the traditional thatched homes of the various tribes of Uganda; plus get a look at Idi Amin’s Mercedes.
Uganda Martyrs’ Shrine
Located in Namugongo, this shrine marks the spot where Kabaka Mwanga II ordered the execution of 14 Catholics who refused to denounce their faith, including church leader Charles Lwanga who was burnt alive on or around 3 June 1886 – which is now celebrated as Martyrs’ Day. The shrine represents an African hut but looks more like something built by NASA than the Catholic church.
The shrine is 15km outside Kampala, off Jinja Rd. To get here, take a minibus from Kampala’s Old Taxi Park.
One of Kampala’s premier sights, the prominent National Mosque (widely known as the Gadaffi Mosque) was begun by Idi Amin in 1972 but only completed in 2007 with a donation from Colonel Gadaffi. The hour-long tour allows you to scale its soaring minaret for the best views of Kampala, and takes you within its gleaming interior. Free entry for Muslims.
This twin-towered Roman Catholic cathedral has a memorial to the Uganda Martyrs, with 22 Catholic victims (later declared saints) enshrined in the stained-glass windows. They were among other Ugandan Christians burnt or hacked to death by Kabaka Mwanga II in 1885 and 1886 for refusing to renounce the ‘white man’s religion’.
This huge domed Anglican cathedral, finished in 1919, has a distinct Mediterranean feel. In years past the congregation was called to worship by the beating of enormous drums, which can still be seen in a little hut alongside the church.