If you’ve just arrived at the airport don’t be alarmed — you haven’t crash-landed on the head table next to a giant’s wedding cake. The architecture is inspired by the Great Zimbabwe ruins in the south of the country, but the tower makes a better pass as a grain silo at a fancy dress party.
Unless you’ve arranged a ride into town, get a taxi, which should cost no more than US$20 for the trip through the centre and into the northern suburbs, where I would recommend setting up camp. Small World Backpackers is your best bet for a hit-and-run tour of Harare.
Walk down to Arnaldo’s for a decent hot breakfast. Catch a kombi (minibus) just across the road into town for 5 rand (roughly 50 US cents). Since the fall of the local dollar, Zimbabwean kombis have embraced a pick-and-mix economy that consists of currency from the US, South Africa, and Botswana. You’ll receive a rounded-off foreign equivalent of your change in kombis — in supermarkets and shops you won’t even get that. Enter the ‘credit note.’ You’ll find your wallet stuffed with computer printed ‘IOU’s from the most established outlets in town as a substitute for change. If you don’t want a credit note, there will be a little sweetshop next to the till where you can get your change in sugar and e-numbers. I suggest requesting a few pens instead.
Get dropped off in the centre of town to have a quick stroll around its innards. Don’t spend too much time here.
Rather than hopping on another kombi, get a taxi to Mupedzanhamo in Mbare and bargain-hunt amongst the piles at the city’s secondhand clothes market. When you’re done, head back towards the north of the sprawl and get a coffee at Café Nush in Avondale.
At the back of the shopping complex is the Plaza, a market that found life in a once functioning car park like a grow-in-water toy left in someone’s trunk. Deformed and directionless in the initial stages, it took shape and eventually became fully recognisable and accepted. It has an above-par range of local arts and crafts and a shockingly below-par line of Chinese clothing intentionally manufactured to break and tear post-sale.
Have lunch at the sadza joint there. Sadza is the staple starch in the country, a maize/cornmeal mixture accompanied by greens and meat. Order a T-bone if you’re not a vegetarian, and you’ll be served with a bargain steak the size of your face. Don’t focus on the health and safety violations spluttering and sparking from the handmade gas stoves — I’ve never witnessed an explosion.
If you’re a vegetarian, order extra greens…sorry.
Your other lunch option is to head to KwaMereki. This legendary spot, funnily enough, keeps with the car park theme. However, its original purpose is still maintained. Pull up to the dusty lot beneath a hill and place your order with one of the scores of sturdy ladies standing proud at their braais (BBQs) in the centre of the clearing. Most of the chefs have out their names; a personal favourite is Amai Gonyeti (loosely translated to “Mother Truck”). Crowds of people flock to Mereki on the weekends to eat and drink.
Buy yourself a few quarts (family-size beers) of Bohlinger’s, or Castle if the former is unavailable, and enjoy the sizzling, chirping, and drunken banter around you. Have a Chibuku, aka ‘scud,’ aka fermented organic beer that resembles your regurgitated T-Bone, mildly blended. It’s bitter but gets the job done and comes in a small barrel to add to the class of the moment.
Get a taxi to Domboshawa. Hands down the most beautiful place to have a beer in Harare and her outskirts. Red, yellow, and orange lichen clings to this rock before sunset hits and amplifies its warm speckled surface. Walk down from the rock in the dark for fun.
Have a shower before heading out. It always helps.
Check what’s on at the Book Café. This is an artistic institution in the city and the most consistent venue to see live music and meet cool people. Alliance Francaise also has an interesting programme of live events including theatre, stand up, and music. Taxi will be your easiest way around at night, and if I were you I’d try to hire one at a fair rate for the whole evening.
Hit Bolero’s for a game of pool and one of the few draft beers available in the city. Shift next door into Red Bar if anything funky seems to be happening within the confines of the ruby red walls (don’t wear red if you go there, you’ll look like an art installation). Check out Half Bar for a loungy space that was once a cottage of some kind.
Borrowdale has a mini strip of bars and restaurants, including the half-heartedly themed Mecca (Aztecish) and Miller’s (Irishish). Number 7 Honeybear Lane is a poolside bar that’s worth a visit while you’re nearby.
You should, by now, have had way too much to drink, so don’t go home. Go to Londoner’s. Two blocks away from your accommodation, this is the perfect place to let everything fizzle out into a blur. Harare is generally a safe city but, as with any urban area, don’t be stupid and keep an eye on your valuables. Violent crime is rare, but you could wake up without a purse. Have a couple beers here and an engaging conversation with a local alcoholic, then go home to bed before you get any more hammered.
For a hangover cure, time-warp to the Macdonald swimming pool just around the corner. Nothing treats a hangover like a dip in a bathing complex built in the ’50s.