(Last updated May 2017)
Zimbabwe’s capital city of Harare is busy and gritty in the south, genteel and well-to-do in the north, and abuzz with people in the city centre. It’s sometimes ugly and overbearing, sometimes soft and enchanting – yet wherever you go in Harare, you’re never too far away from the trees and hills in unexpected enclaves.
Many visitors arrive at Harare’s airport, spend a mere night in the city centre, sniff their noses at all the concrete, and then move to the more tourist-friendly areas of Zimbabwe. They write off Harare as one of those places you have to go through to get somewhere else.
But Harare is where I was brought up, and it has more going for it than first meets the eye. It has art galleries and historical relics, wildlife sanctuaries and natural beauty. It’s home to ladies-who-lunch and politicians, accountants and technology whizzes, gardeners and doctors. You’ll see cyclists carrying stacks of firewood on their heads, “emergency taxis” weaving crazily along pot-holed roads and street vendors selling flags at traffic lights. The street lights often don’t work, but houses with generators will be illuminated on every square foot. The cars range from brand-new Hummers to dilapidated VW Beetles. The city centre can look tired and unwelcoming, yet the north-eastern suburbs are spacious and beautiful.
Garden of The Bottom Drawer, a cafe in Harare.
Harare is the perfect mish-mash of contradictions to introduce you to Zimbabwe before heading into the bush. As much as I encourage people to see Zimbabwe’s game parks and natural wonders, I think it’s equally important to experience the more gritty side of the country, to see the whole picture.
Many of Harare’s beautiful spots are open to the public in the form of garden coffee shops and craft centres, and it’s these that I enjoy the most. Enter a house in the suburbs and find yourself surrounded by vivid paintings, intricate beadwork and chocolate cake … yes, please!
Altitude: 1483 metres (4865 feet) | Size: 872 square kilometres (337 square miles) | Population: 2.1 million (Stats based on 2012 census; includes Chitungwiza) | Pre-independence Colonial name: Fort Salisbury | Founded: 1894 | Nicknames: The Sunshine City, H-town. Dominant languages: English and Shona | Province: Mashonaland | Location: North-East
Best time to visit Harare
April to August are best because there’s very little rain. Harare’s sights are accessible year-round, though, so timing is not as important as elsewhere in the country.
In mid-September through to October, Harare is enrobed in “purple snow” as thousands of vivid flowers bloom and fall from jacaranda trees that line the city’s streets. Check out some beautiful Harare jacaranda photos here. It is a spectacular sight, but remember that October is Zimbabwe’s hottest month of the year. The flamboyant trees produce glorious red flowers from the end of October, which can also be seen around Harare.
Events: In the last week of April each year (except 2016), Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) is held, and the city becomes alive with energetic performers and spectators from all over the world – this is a great time to visit Harare. Also, the annual Miombo Magic festival usually occurs in the last weekend of May and is a gorgeous outdoor, family-friendly music festival: a fantastic opportunity to hear some local talent.
Weather/Average temperatures in Harare
October to April: (Summer) Daytime average: 26 C / 77 F. Night: 16 C / 61 F. Some rainy days and thunderstorms but mostly sunny and warm. October is the hottest month of the year.
May to September: (Winter) Daytime average: 23 C / 73 F. Night: 8 C / 46 F. Very little rain, warm days, cool nights.
See the Zimbabwe weather page for more details about Zimbabwe’s seasons.
Safety: As with any busy city, some areas are more risky than others. The city centre is slightly more dicey, as there are some pick-pockets in the area. Wherever you are, don’t leave valuables in plain sight, and keep a good hold of handbags/briefcases at all times. Unless you’ve pre-arranged your transport with a reliable operator or know exactly where you’re going, don’t drive at night.
Don’t walk around at night for the same reason – it’s easy to get lost and become a target.
As always, don’t walk around with too much cash and don’t make a show of expensive goods. Stealing is highly disapproved of by Zimbabweans, but don’t tempt people by flaunting your comparative wealth!
Avoid actions that could be seen as being politically motivated, such as taking photos of police, army personnel, government buildings, etc. If a cavalcade of police cars and motorbikes approach, this probably means the president is travelling in the convoy. Pull off the road completely and wait for the vehicles to pass. See more information about safety in Zimbabwe here.
Ensure you read my tips for using cash in Zimbabwe, too, as you might not be able to withdraw cash or use certain international bank cards in Zimbabwe.
Activities in Harare
Twala Trust Animal Sanctuary
Short trips: There are sights and activities for all budgets and ages: see Things to do and sights of Harare for a list of these.
Longer trips: There are many activities that take up a whole day (or more), such as larger wildlife parks and natural areas close to Harare: see Day trips from Harare for details on these.
Tours: There aren’t many official Harare tours, for the simple reason that the sights are easy to walk around without a guide. I would suggest that you visit the places of interest yourself, using transport arranged through your accommodation. If, however, you would like to have someone holding your hand, try Nyati Travel and Tours. This may be a good option if you want to see Harare’s nightlife. There is a section on Harare tours at the bottom of this article.
What’s on: Visit one of Harare’s coffee shops or bookshops to pick up a copy of the magazine “Ndeipi” – it contains info on shows, classes and events happening in Harare.
Where to stay in Harare
Photo: Meikles Hotel, Harare
Harare has accommodation for a variety of needs. There are luxurious hotels, rustic “city safari” lodges, boutique guest houses, homely B&Bs, and a small number of no-frills backpacking hostels. See my article listing the Best hotels in Harare which includes lodges and other types of catered accommodation, all within a 25 km radius of the city centre.
If you want an overnight break from Harare or want to stay slightly further out of the city, read the post Best day trips from Harare as many of those establishments offer overnight accommodation.
Health in Harare
Medical info: Malaria is not present in Harare, but it is in many other areas of the country. Harare’s tap water has been safe to drink until recently, but if you have the option of bottled water, choose it.
Wildlife: There aren’t any large wild animals in Harare, but there may be spiders, insects and small (usually harmless) ‘creepy-crawlies’ around. The general rule is that if you stay away from them, they will stay away from you. If you have been bitten by something and are in pain, visit your nearest pharmacy or tell your lodge manager. If you are staying in a lodge or hotel, staff will be equipped to deal with emergencies.
Contact numbers: Emergency telephone numbers in Harare are as follows: Central police station: (+263 4) 777 777 | Private MARS Ambulance: (+263 4) 771 221. Your accommodation will also have emergency numbers to hand.
Please read my article Health information for visitors to Zimbabwe for more guidance on medical considerations.
Shopping in Harare
Harare is an exciting place to shop for unique items. Visit Doon Estate, Avondale Flea Market, Upmarket and Mbare Market for craft and bespoke items. Shona sculptures are a key part of Zimbabwe’s artisan scene and are sold in shops around the city – try Chapungu Gallery near Doon Estate first. See the “Craft and cake” itinerary in the Harare itinerary page for a suggested tour of Harare’s best craft shopps, as well as a Google map of some key retail locations.
Conventional shopping centres in Harare include Sam Levy’s Village, Westgate, Eastgate, Arundel Village and Avondale Shopping Centre, where you will be able to find pharmacies, supermarkets, clothing stores and more.
Groceries and food in Harare
There are grocery stores at the ‘conventional’ shopping centres that I mentioned above. Supermarket chains include Spar, TM, Town & City; all of which are usually well-stocked and clean. Due to Zimbabwe’s economic situation, much of the produce now needs to be imported from South Africa, which makes it a little more costly, but there is a wide variety. Fresh fruit and veg is abundant; this is one of my favourite things about Zimbabwe.
Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu: A witty and humorous tale set in modern-day Harare.
The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah: Many Harare landmarks and suburbs are described in this highly acclaimed book about an albino woman accused of murdering her father.
An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah: A collection of satirical and insightful short stories, many of them set in Harare. Winner of the Guardian First Book Award.
Transport in Harare
Harare’s sights are widely spread around, so it’s best to travel by car. See my Harare itineraries page for itinerary ideas.
Your hotel or tour operator may be happy to provide transport, so do ask about this when booking. Alternatively here are links for: Shuttle Direct, Samaita Tours (transfers), Avis Car Rentals, WildRoutes and a directory of taxi services that you can book online or by phone. See the post on Driving in Zimbabwe for a list of car hire companies and information on Zimbabwe roads.
Getting to Harare / Getting from Harare to other areas
Guided tours in Harare
Harare city tours: There aren’t many guided tours of Harare, one of the reasons being that the sights are easy to walk around without a guide. I would suggest that you visit the places of interest yourself, using transport arranged through your accommodation. If, however, you would like to have someone with you, try Nyati Travel and Tours and WildRoutes. If you want to see Harare’s nightlife, going with a group or a tour is a good idea.
Day tours from Harare: This and That Safaris offer half-day and day trips from Harare to Great Zimbabwe Ruins Monument. They also offer a rail tour across Zimbabwe from Harare to Victoria Falls. Black Rhino Safaris offer transfers and guided tours of Great Zimbabwe, as well as trips to Victoria Falls, Bulawayo, and other locations around Zimbabwe.
Driving in Harare
Tips: See the general page on driving in Zimbabwe for a list of car rental companies, top tips, info on road blocks and useful cubby hole notes.
Maps: Pick up a Harare street map from a Kingston’s bookshop in Sam Levy’s Village to help you get around, or alternatively print out some Google Maps of specific areas before you go. I’ve prepared a few bespoke Google maps: see the Harare itineraries page which shows crafts, sights, cultural and wildlife tours you could do yourself.
Road condition: Some of Harare’s streets have atrocious potholes – drive sensibly and slowly around them and you’ll feel like a local in no time.
Cavalcades: If you hear sirens, or see motorbikes and other vehicles with flashing lights, pull off the road immediately and as far on to the grass as possible. The flashing lights usually mean that the president’s cavalcade is coming past – stay out of trouble by moving well off the road.
Parking in the suburbs: There is plenty of parking space at most suburban garden cafes and craft shops. Car guards in uniform might offer to watch your car: You can give them a couple of dollars when you leave, if your car has been parked for longer than an hour, but this is not a necessity, and you should only pay someone with a clear uniform or official vest.
Parking in the city centre: This is more difficult as it can get very congested, but once you’ve found a spot, you’ll be approached by a parking attendant wearing a coloured vest (with the logo ‘Easy Park’). Buy a timed parking token from the attendant (make sure they’re wearing the vest), and display the token in your car windscreen. There are also “parking lots” in the city centre where you’ll pay the attendant at the gate.
- Want to know more about the different areas of Harare? See areas and suburbs of Harare.
- See the Harare photo gallery to get a visual idea of what to expect
- Get some inspiration: See Harare itineraries which include itineraries for kids, nature-lovers and culture-heads, as well as a ‘Best of Harare’ itinerary
- See my article on What to pack for a Zimbabwe holiday
- Check out the Quick reference list of Zimbabwe travel articles