Are you wondering about the best Things to do in Mbarara City? Well, Mbarara city is one place you must visit while in Uganda. Most tourists only get to visit the city while on their way for gorilla trekking in Bwindi or on a safari to Queen Elizabeth National Park and Lake Bunyonyi. Mbarara City is located in the South Western part of Uganda. The city covers an area of about 1,0020 square kilometers. Mbarara is surrounded by the districts of Sheema, Ntungamo, Ibanda, Kiruhira, Buhweju and Isingiro. Other close districts include Bushenyi, Mitooma and Rubirizi. Mbarara is still the largest metropolitan area in the region despite losing part of it to other newly formed districts. Mbarara gets its name from a mispronunciation of one of the local Ankore words by the colonial administrators of the time. The word “Emburara” refers to a tall type of green grass that is a favorite of the long-horned Ankole cattle. The word was twisted by the Colonialists and chosen as a name for the district.
Mbarara City now has an estimated population of over one million. The Bayankore are the main tribe in the City. Their main economic activity is Agriculture. They grow crops and rare domestic animals mostly on a subsistence level. Historically, the Banyankore and Mbarara City has been known as a cattle rearing zone and for a good reason. The city has some of the largest cattle farms in Uganda. The main cattle breed is the long horned Ankole cattle. In more recent times, the luck of grazing land in the region has forced many of the herdsmen to migrate to other parts of the country with their cattle. Others have moved away from cattle keeping entirely and started growing cash crops or fruits in smaller gardens.
Mbarara has grown rapidly and come from behind to develop faster than Jinja, Masaka, Gulu, Entebbe and Mbale. Mbarara is now the second largest metropolitan area after Kampala city. Mbarara is only second to Kampala in terms of industry, infrastructure and importance. Modern buildings have sprung up in the city at a phenomenal rate including hotels, hospitals shoppingmalls, plazas and arcades. The Mbarara University of Science and Technology is now one of the largest educational centers in Uganda after being founded in 1989. Other points of interest are the Nile Breweries, Mbarara Century Bottling Company Limited(Coca Cola), Mbarara Steel Plant, Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital, Mbarara Community Hospital, Mayanja Memorial Hospital, Holy Innocents Children’s Hospital, Ruharo Mission Hospital, Uganda Bible Institute, Bishop Stuart University, Ntare School, Mbarara High School and Maryhill High School.
Mbarara benefits from being an important route to Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. As we shall see later on, Mbarara also an important tourism area because it connects to some of Uganda’s best national parks. If you are in Kampala, please check out our 1 day Kampala tour package. Let’s discuss a few more facts about Mbarara.
The Igongo Cultural Centre: This Centre was built in 2011 along the Mbarara to Masaka road. It is built on the grounds which held the former palace of the King of Ankole. The Centre is one of the leading cultural sites in Uganda. It helps promote and showcase the cultural heritage of the people of South western Uganda. Among the key attractions in the Centre is the Eriijukiro museum. A tour of the Eriijukiro museum takes about 30 minutes. The Eitaramiro cultural village on the other hands shows how the typical Kinyankore household looked like hundreds of years ago. You will see traditional household items like animal skins, calabashes, milk gourds, grinding stones and a fireplace made of stones. While at the Centre you can go to the traditional restaurant to try out local Ankole food including matooke, ghee and millet bread. You can also try out potent local drinks made from sorghum and maize. If the drinks are not for you, you can go to the book shop of craft shop to see ancient sculptures of the animals and people of ankole.
The Igongo Cultural Centre also has a section for other tribes like the Batooro and Bakiga. By the end of your tour to the Igongo Cultural Centre, you would have got an idea about how the people of the area lived their lives hundreds of years ago. There a is a high end hotel at the Centre with conference facilities where you can spend the night as you tour the facility and city in phases. You can arrange with staff at the Igongo Cultural Centre to take you for more activities outside the facility itself. With this arrangement, you can visit the Biharwe Eclipse monument in Mbarara or go outside town to visit Bahima villages and honey farms. If you are taken to visit one of the Bahima tribesmen, you should expect to learn how to make ghee/butter locally from milk. If there is more time, you can ask to move with the herdsmen as they take cattle for grazing in the swamps. When you return with the cows, you should help with the milking before saying farewell.
Sanga Cultural Village: If you are still interested in more cultural experiences after visiting the Igongo Cultural Centre, this is probably the next best place to go. This Centre showcases the cultural heritage of the Bahima (a subset of the Ankole tribe). It is built close to the junction going to Lake Mburo National Park. While here, you will spot many of the traditional regalia and tools used by the Bahima tribesmen. You will meet Hima women have vast information about the tribe, the role of women in the household and other ancient traditions.
See the long horned cattle of Ankole: The Ankole cattle is why Mbarara is referred to as the land of milk and honey. The Ankole cattle are strong and can survive in harsh conditions. They grow long and striking horns and are generally less susceptible to diseases. Unfortunately, cross breeding with the smaller Zebu cattle is threatening this unique species. The Banyankore have the largest cattle farms in Uganda. Mbarara city is the leading producer of milk and other dairy products in the country thanks to the Ankole cows. As you approach the city, you will begin to see countless farms along the roadside with hundreds or even thousands of cattle. Many of the large farms accept visitors and tourist. You can stop by one of the farms for a tour to learn about how the animals are kept. While at the farm, you might be taught how to milk a cow manually or prepare eshabwe (local gee).
Visit Lake Mburo National Park: Lake Mburo National park is located only thirty minutes away from Mbarara by road. It was once part of Mbarara city but with the creation of new districts, the park now falls under Kiruhura district. Lake Mburo National Park one of the smallest national parks in Uganda but with amazing activities in store for those who visit it. It is the best place to see Zebras while on a safari in Uganda. Apart from the Zebras, expect to encounter hyenas, leopards, mongooses, Buffaloes, Waterbucks, Impalas and various other antelopes. Lake Mburo is the only place where you can go for a safari on foot, on top of a horse, with a quad bike or a standard safari vehicle.
The night game drives in Lake Mburo National Park sets it apart from other national parks in Uganda and offers the best chance to see Leopards. You can also go for a boat cruises in Lake Mburo to see crocodiles and hippopotamus. Lake Mburo National park has its own cultural Centre that could rival that in Igongo in the future. Lake Mburo is one of the best places for sport fishing in Uganda. Birders should expect to sport the Shoebill stork, papyrus yellow warblers, red-faced barbets, Wood Doves, Common Scimitarbill, the Bare-faced Go-away-bird, Red-headed Lovebird and the African finfoots. Lake Mburo has some amazing hotels and lodges to choose from if you plan on spending more than a day.
Visit the various water bodies: Mbarara has got several water bodies passing through its boundaries. The most prominent ones are Lake Nakivale, River Ruizi and Lake Kachera. Lake Nakivale is located in the south eastern part of Mbarara City. The distance from the City to the lake is about forty kilometers. The lake has large open fields around its shores with sandy beaches that are suitable for picnics. The lake is also close to Nakivale Refugee settlement.
River Ruizi on the hand gets its waters from the highlands in Bushenyi District. The river then flows all the way to Lake Kachera. River Ruizi is suitable for canoeing, fishing and spotting small primates. Part of Lake Kachera is found in Lake Mburo National Park allowing it to receive many of the park animals. You can actually see some the animals from specific points without having to pay the park entrance fee required for a full safari in the park. If you find this article helpful, you should also read the one about the places to visit in Mombasa Kenya.
Mbarara City tour: Mbarara is a fast developing city and you can’t leave without going for a full city tour. For one to experience the kind of life in a city, the first place to go to are the local markets. Visiting local markets exposes you to the culture of the people and gives you an understanding of the kind of life and challenges they face. You can observe how the people go about with their business and even listen to the latest gossip.
After visiting the local markets and buying some fresh fruits, you can proceed to the larger shopping malls. The malls are frequented by mostly the middle and higher class residents. Safariland Park in Mbarara is a good place to start. It has a collection of bars, shops and restaurants – Expect to find both the locals and tourists. Later in the evening you can go for a drink at one of the top hangout joints as you wait to check out Mbarara’s night life. The best way to tour the city is by using a boda (motorcycle taxi). Using a boda boda is risky and you need to insist that you are given a helmet. Keep in mind that although riding on the bikes can be fun, almost 50 percent of road accidents in Uganda are caused by boda boda riders. We highly recommend that you hire a car to avoid the risks of using a boda.
Other important places to visit: The Abagabe tombs come to mind as I wind up this article. This is where the royal families of the Ankole kingdom are buried. The last king of Ankole is buried at the Nkonkonjeru tombs in Kakika. It is also where King (Omugabe) Gasyonga, Omugabe Kahaya II and other member of the royal family are buried. You can visit the tombs during the day for a small entrance fee. If visiting tombs isn’t your thing, then you can go for a tour of the large Nile Breweries plant. You can only visit the brewery during working hours and on appointment. If beer is not your thing, you can instead visit the Coca Cola plant. They also require that you make an appointment ahead of time so that a Guide is arranged to receive you. While at the plant you can taste all the Coca Cola products available.
Gorilla Trekking: This is done outside Mbarara city but worth mentioning because it is one of the major tourist attractions in Uganda. Uganda is lucky to be hosting half of the remaining population of mountain gorillas in the wild at Bwindi forest and Mgahinga National Park. The parks are only 4 hours away by road. If you are already in Mbarara, the journey to track the gorillas becomes easier and less tiresome.