Kampala, the capital of Uganda, is a bustling city with a population of 1.7 millions (and probably as many motorcycles on the road). It can be somewhat intimidating, especially for a first-timer. But this is not to say that it does not have its charms.
If you don’t feel confident enough to venture out on your own, don’t fret — you’re still in luck. Kampala has a free guided walking tour available every day. Founded by young locals, this tour provides opportunities for visitors to not only observe Ugandan life and culture, but to actively participate alongside the locals.
I was in Kampala for a few days, and while searching online for things to do, I stumbled upon this free walking tour in the city. Excited, I quickly rearranged my schedule for the next day to fit in this half-day tour.
However, in my haste, I had missed the part about having to make a booking. So, when I turned up the next day at the assigned time and place, nobody was there.
The security guards at the university where we were supposed to meet didn’t seem to know anything about the tour. It didn’t help that the university was huge. Still, I walked from one end to the other just to make sure that I hadn’t missed the tour group.
Unfortunately, this tour is not like the free walking tours you might find in European cities where you can simply turn up without a reservation and expect to see your tour guides waiting for you there. Kampala doesn’t have enough visitors for them to be able to do that all year round. Especially during low seasons, the tours are only available upon request. You can make a reservation via any of these channels:
Address: P.O. Box 11536 Mengo, Lusaze.
Website: Free Tours Kampala
Facebook: Free Guided Walking Tours Kampala
What to Expect on the Kampala Free Walking Tour
Being the miser that I was, I didn’t have a Ugandan SIM card or any WiFi connection. But I had saved the contact details of the tour organizer. So, what ensued was a rather confusing back-and-forth communication via SMS.
In the end, they kindly agreed to meet me at 11. There was a British couple who had coincidentally requested for an 11-a.m. tour, so I would be joining them.
Close to 11, they arrived. Our tour guide introduced himself as Steven.
Steven started the tour by giving us a printout of useful Lugandan phrases we should learn, and a quick briefing on the tour itinerary.
The tour consists of two parts. During the first part, you will visit places that don’t require entrance fees. It takes approximately 4 hours, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., depending on your speed and how long you spend at each place.
1. Makerere University – This is where the meeting point is. Here, you will learn about Uganda’s biggest and oldest institution of higher learning, and how it got its name. The university covers a large area and provides a welcome respite from the hectic roads outside.
There seemed to be a large population of cranes (the birds) flying around. In one of the little parks, a choir group was practicing their piece. It made me miss campus life tremendously.
We walked past several of the faculties, talking about the education system and the literacy rate in Uganda.
2. Our next stop was the Katanga Slums. Uganda is among the top African countries with the highest number of slums, one of which is Katanga. It is situated in the valley between Mulago Hospital and Makerere University. You will walk through the settlement and witness how people go about their lives in the slum.
We didn’t take many pictures, out of respect for the residents. But we bought some snacks and drinks to support the local community.
3. East African Craft Market – This market hosts many stalls selling all kinds of African crafts and souvenirs. Bring some money and be prepared to practice your haggling skill.
If you’ve been traveling around East Africa for quite a bit, you’d notice that Uganda is one of the cheapest countries to buy stuff, from food to clothes. And since the arts and crafts produced in this region are pretty much similar from one country to the next, you might want to do all your shopping in Uganda.
4. Independence Monument – This 6-meter tall monument is one of the most distinctive landmarks of Uganda. It was constructed by the British Colonial Government just before Uganda celebrated its first independence on 9th October 1962.
The monument depicts a man unwrapping and holding a child to the sky, to signify a new-born country, free from colonialism and bondage.
We took a quick break here, sitting down to talk about what we had seen so far.
5. Nakasero Food Market – This market allows you to treat your senses to different sights, smells, sounds, and tastes. You can find all the typical stuff you might expect in a food market, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, fish, and meats. You’ll also get to sample some of the delicacies.
One of the highlights at the Nakasero Food Market was trying fried grasshoppers. They also had some fresh live ones, but I said no thanks to those. The fried grasshoppers actually tasted quite pleasant, unlike the scorpion that I ate in Thailand.
6. Shri Sanatan Dharma Mandal Temple – Completed in 1961, the SSDM is the oldest Hindu temple in Uganda. Its structure was built without any iron bars or steel of any nature, right from the foundation up to its dorm of over four floors high. The SSDM is a replica of Somnath Temple in Gujarat and is the first Shikha Baddha Temple outside India.
Pardon my ignorance, but before this tour, I never knew that there was a Hindu population in Uganda. Or anywhere in Africa, for that matter. Well, the more you travel, the more you know.
We took another break at this temple, watching worshipers come and go.
7. Soon, we reached the city center, where we saw shopping malls, cafes, and some government buildings. But what I found most fascinating was the sprawling taxi stand. There were literally hundreds of taxis (minivans) parked in the area, waiting for passengers. Signboards indicated their destinations.
Good luck finding the one you need!
8. Everything was going well, until we reached our next stop: the Owino Daily Market.
The skies suddenly opened up and we had to seek shelter under the tarpaulin roofs of the market stalls. It wasn’t much of a shelter though, and before long, we were soaking wet.
Our tour was delayed for almost an hour while we waited for the rain to stop. In the meantime, we looked around inside the chaotic market. It sells everything, from secondhand clothing to electronics.
9. After the rain had let up, we continued to our last stop of the day, which was the Namirembe Cathedral. This cathedral, also known as St. Paul’s Cathedral, was consecrated in 1919, making it the oldest one in Uganda.
The (optional) second part takes you to places that require entrance fees. The duration is three hours, from 2 p.m. – 5 p.m.
- Gaddafi National Mosque (15,000 UGX) – Built on the Old Kampala Hill, it is one of the biggest mosques in East, Central, and Sub-Saharan Africa.
- Kasubi Royal Tombs (15,000 UGX) – The burial site for four kabakas (kings) and other members of the Baganda royal family.
- King’s Palace (35,000 UGX) – This grand palace, which used to be the official residence of the King of Buganda, now becomes a tourist attraction containing historical artifacts, gardens, and torture chambers.
Apart from the walking tour in the city, they also organize other tours including the ones that take you outside of Kampala. You will be taken from one destination to another using matatu (public minibus) because it is cheap, convenient, and a great way to experience Uganda like a local. All of the trips are tip-based. Bookings are free of charge.
Day Trips Outside Kampala
- National Museum
- Bahai Temple
- Ndere Cultural Center
- Namugongo Martyr Shrine
- Gaba Beach
- Equator Line
- Karamoja (every Saturday)
Grab a volunteering job and free accommodation. Several volunteer placements are available for those interested in working together with the local community, such as in schools, farms, and community-based organizations.
Final Thoughts on the Kampala Free Walking Tour
I enjoyed the free walking tour tremendously. As we walked from one place to another, we learned a lot about Uganda and its people. Steven was very knowledgeable and told us everything we needed to know — no holds barred.
What I liked most about the tour was that it didn’t focus on major tourist attractions, like most city tours do. Instead, it also took us to less touristy places like the slums and the markets. We got to witness how the people lived and sample the local snacks, which I don’t think I would have been able to do on my own.
As there were just the four of us in the group, we were able to maintain a comfortable pace. Most of the places we visited were within walking distance from each other, except the last one (Namirembe Cathedral) which needed a boda-boda to get to.
This tour is suitable for all ages, but keep in mind that walking for 3 – 4 hours can be quite a workout if you’re not used to it. Bring water, an umbrella/raincoat, and comfortable walking shoes.
I also like the fact that you can pay the guide(s) any amount you see fit, making this accessible for travelers of any budget.
Have you joined any free walking tour anywhere in the world? What was it like? Comment below.