Sprawling, chaotic and bustling with commerce, Lilongwe feels fit to burst. The nation's capital is initially a little underwhelming and it takes some time to get your bearings – you may wonder where the centre is – but once you've decided on your favourite restaurants, ferreted out the best malls and discovered those hidden leafy oases, the place really grows on you.
Southern Malawi is home to the country's commercial capital, and receives the highest proportion of foreign visitors who venture here to scale the country's mountains and watch wildlife in an incredibly diverse landscape. To the east, on the border with Mozambique, and flanked by emerald-green tea plantations, is mist-shrouded Mt Mulanje, Malawi’s highest peak.
This small corner of Malawi is chiefly famed for its dazzling white beaches and scattering of desert islands. Backpackers’ mecca Cape Maclear is the first to spring to mind; a sunny peninsula where travellers slip into a daze of snorkelling, sunbathing and laid-back village life. And just over the water is the idyllic Mumbo Island, home to one of Malawi's top ecolodges.
Remote northern Malawi is where ravishing highlands meet hippo-filled swamps, vast mountains loom large over empty beaches, and colonial relics litter pristine islands and hilltop villages. It is Malawi’s most sparsely populated region and the first taste many travellers get of this tiny country after making the journey down from East Africa.
A long stretch of powder-fine sand bookended by mountains and lapped by dazzling water, Cape Maclear deserves all the hype thrown at it. By day the bay glitters a royal blue, studded by nearby islands and puttering, crayon-coloured fishing boats. On shore women wash clothes, dry fish, and nautical types spread out vermilion nets to dry.
There's something distinctly Caribbean about this place; with banana-coloured fishing boats buzzing across the green bay, vivid market stalls hawking barbecued fish, and music filling the air. For backpackers there's a clutch of perfectly positioned guesthouses perched on cliffs tumbling down to the lake, plus a few upscale family options.
The Viphya Plateau forms the spine of central and northern Malawi, snaking a cool path through the flat scrubland, dusty towns and sunny beaches that reign on either side. It may be called a plateau, but there’s nothing flat about this part of the country in looks or in atmosphere.
A baking stretch of flat plains, swampland, sugar cane and maize fields, this is where the Shire River makes its final journey before plunging into the great Zambezi. Coming from the north, the main road spirals sharply downwards – affording breathtakingly beautiful views out towards Mozambique – to meet the dense heat of the valley below.
Mt Michiru Conservation Area
If you have a day to spare you could head for the nature trails at Mt Michiru, 8km northwest of the city. It’s good for birdwatching, with more than 400 species recorded here, and resident animals include monkeys, klipspringers and even leopards, though you’re unlikely to see any of them.