The inside guide to a weekend getaway in Harare

Posted on 6 October 2023

Harare is like the rebel child of the family – unpredictable, a little unkempt, edgy… and exciting to hang out with. After some time away, Zimbabwean Michelle Hardie soaks up the energy and joie de vivre of Zimbabwe’s capital city.

The sculptures at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe have made the country famous for its African artworks.

The sculptures at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe have made the country famous for its African artworks.

I climb the stairs wide-eyed and eager. I hear the clip-clip of my shoes hitting the steps, sheeny from decades of swirling crowds browsing, feeling, flicking tags, choosing, deciding. The mirrors are tall and shiny. The banister is still strong. I look up. I have a long way to go, all the way to the top of the world. There are milkshakes and anchovy toast up there. The room is big and still. A man looks up; he sits waiting for his breakfast. News Kademi approaches me. He’s still here after 32 years of polishing cutlery and gently laying menus in front of guests. He smiles. ‘I’m sorry, we don’t serve anchovy toast anymore,’ he apologises. ‘Yes, times are very quiet … people don’t come here much. You know, the economic downturn.’

I am back in what used to be the Harrods of Harare, on the third floor of Barbours Departmental Store on First Street, the heart of downtown Harare. But like a mother experiencing an empty nest, the CBD has gone the way of many cities worldwide – buildings that once housed vibrant businesses stand empty as the suburbs have unfurled their green lawns and spacious grounds to beckon trade. I take the lift down. There are three in a row. Only the middle one works. With a flourish, the lift attendant spins the worn brass lever to take us down. ‘I am the pilot,’ he grins.

Vegetables at the Maasdorp market.Vegetables at the Maasdorp market.

The contradictions of this landlocked country are so inimitable and misunderstood that I desire to show you why the capital is worth a visit. A tourist once told me that for the first time in his life, he felt African when he came to Harare – he felt he belonged to the continent. He’s right. Despite its challenges, this city draws you in, jumbles you up with its present conditions, but has you wanting more. The people are as warm and open as the landscape is wide and vivid, alive with fabulous vegetation, magnificent trees, and breathtaking rock formations.

I’m thinking about this as I stroll the length of First Street. I feel the abandonment, the pavements buckled by the gnarled roots of old trees, but it doesn’t matter. I have a spring in my step, and there’s so much to see in this beautiful city with its flame trees spread across the sky and carpets of jacaranda blooms in springtime. This city is the place where I kissed boys, danced the night away, and felt excited. I pass empty shop windows. Ah, but Edgars is still there. And there’s Ratanje Heel Bar. I’ve always loved that name.

I see an endless chain of people zigzagging the street. They are waiting patiently outside Cabs Bank to draw cash. There’s a shortage of this, and the government plans to introduce bond notes. Finding humour in dire stories is what Zimbabweans excel at. ‘Bondage notes will not be good for us,’ a teller in a local supermarket laughs. I look past the filthy notes in my purse that have swapped thousands of hands and give her a nice crisp one. I am buying Ndepi, a local publication crammed with things to do, from walks in Mukuvisi Woodlands to shows at Reps Theatre.

Roasted mealies are sold on roadsides all over the city.

Roasted mealies are sold on roadsides all over the city.

Talk of money is a central theme in Harare – the Chinese whisper of large suitcases packed with US dollars bound for eastern banks. In this way, nothing has changed – it’s a familiar song played by a new generation. I am reminded of my mother … the smuggler. Pound notes hidden in a Molico milk tin on a flight to the UK during sanctions. The country had severe foreign exchange restrictions, which resulted in all sorts of shenanigans. While she had no fear, I was terrified we’d get caught.

I find myself standing at the end of First Street next to a woman sitting on a crate who is unafraid – she has an iPad, an iPhone, and big wads of cash balancing on her knees. This is bureau de change Zimbabwean style. And it’s safe. ‘No one here will try to pinch my money,’ she smiles. Residents of Harare are heaped with entrepreneurial skills and the energy to work. Services all over the city are mobile, from airtime sellers on most street corners to independent pothole fixers supported by locals.

LEFT: Hand washing after a meal at Gava's. RIGHT: African cuisine from Gava;s that's prepared on an open fire.

LEFT: Hand washing after a meal at Gava’s. RIGHT: African cuisine from Gava’s that’s cooked over an open fire.

I can’t leave the CBD without visiting the historical Meikles Hotel, a landmark in the city centre that’s over 100 years old. I take the lift to the pool deck on the 13th floor, which has a view over African Unity Square, the famous flower sellers (disappointingly, more silk than fresh), and the Parliament Buildings. I’m welcomed into a staff training session, and the subject is cocktails – it’s 10 a.m., and I’m sipping a delicious gin-based cracker called Soho Ginger.

Feeling warm and content an hour later, I saunter through Unity Square and past the Anglican Cathedral to my car. The sun is high, and it’s time to hit the suburbs. ‘How was your time in town?’ asks the parking ticket collector. ‘Hundreds,’ I laugh, imitating a prevailing Zimbo word expressing ‘things are good’.

I am driving along busy Enterprise Road and looking for roadblocks. Women are sitting too close to the verge, selling sweets and mountains of tomatoes. I dodge jaywalkers through the belch of smoke blown out by the ancient bus ahead.

Interior decor at Kingsmead Guesthouse.

Interior decor at Kingsmead Guesthouse.

Roadblocks are a daily routine and cause massive irritation. Spot fines range from $5 to $20, depending on who’s giving them. I’m assured that I will be stopped, and the car will be checked for a radio license and a fire extinguisher. I might also be pulled over for other reasons, such as not stopping at a stop sign when I really have stopped, but not for long enough… ‘Don’t worry,’ my sister says, ‘and stay calm.’ I sail past two roadblocks and feel triumphant. Hah! And my luck lasts throughout my visit.

The road starts to dip when I reach the vlei area, and I look out for the lamp post used by a black-crested eagle as a perch to survey the wetland for prey. Sadly, he’s not there today. I motor on to the suburb of Avondale to meet a young actor. I’ve known Musa Saruro since he was a baby. His expressive eyes are his biggest asset. They are huge and shiny as he enthuses about acting in The Impro Show at Hifa (Harare International Festival of Arts), which attracts international performers.

It’s impossible for me to miss the irony – while it appears that Harare is yearning for stability, her citizens carry on pursuing their passions and creating an environment that’s welcoming, inspired, and uplifting. Harare scores ‘hundreds’ in my book.

The sun setting on top of the giant rocks at Domboshawa.

The sun setting on top of the giant rocks at Domboshawa.

Plan your trip

Getting there

There are direct flights from Joburg with Fastjet. If you are driving, Joburg is about 540 kilometres from the Beit Bridge border and 600 kilometres to Harare.

When to go

Visit Harare at any time of the year. The winters are beautiful, with blue skies, sunny days, and chilly nights. A really special time is when the jacarandas and flamboyants bloom around September and October ‒ the city is a mass of colour.

Need to know

I took US dollars because of the cash shortage. Don’t bother with rands. Hire a car with a driver as driving is stressful ‒ roadblocks, poor signage, potholes, and few street lights at night are just some of the hazards. Your accommodation will usually organise transport.

Do this

  • Take a historical and architectural tour of Harare with Explore Zimbabwe, which includes a visit to the National Gallery and famous Mbare Musika Market.
  • Walk through the bush and beautiful msasa and acacia trees at Mukuvisi Woodlands Nature Reserve in the heart of Harare. There are trails of three, five, eight, and 10 kilometres through woodlands.
  • Climb Domboshawa for a spectacular sunset. It’s about a 10-minute walk to the top of the huge granite boulders, with rock paintings along the way.
  • Wild is Life is dedicated to wildlife conservation in Zim and relies on donations ‒ the elephant orphanage is impressive. Staff go all out to give visitors a memorable experience, and while pricey, it’s worth it for the work they do.

Stay here

  • Kingsmead Guesthouse in leafy Borrowdale is beautifully appointed and has an Internet connection faster than the speed of light!
  • York Lodge oozes charm and comfort and is on amazing, verdant grounds.
  • Sunbird Guest House in Greendale is great for families. There are two houses; book the one with the pool.
  • Small World Backpackers welcomed me to look around like a long-lost friend. This is a clean, very colourful, budget accommodation with shared bathrooms.

Eat here

  • Brontë The Garden Hotel in Bains Avenue is pleasant for a coffee in its gorgeous garden.
  • Sabai Thai is a local favourite in Ballantyne Park, set in the glorious surrounds of a nursery.
  • Pistachio at Sam Levy’s Village is a fresh-faced eatery with excellent fare.
  • The Village Greek, also at Sam Levy’s Village, has great takeaways. Try the halloumi kebabs.
  • Gava’s in Belgravia serves generous portions of African cuisine cooked on an open fire.

Pictures: Melanie Van Zyl

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