With a spectacular Indian Ocean shoreline stretching nearly 2500km, Mozambique entices travellers with jade seas, palm-fringed beaches and desert islands. The country’s two coastal capitals are beguiling too – and hugely contrasting: the former capital a tiny, enigmatic island steeped in colonial slave-trade history; the modern one a glitzy, vibrant city and the birthplace of Mozambique’s liberation.
Mozambique Island in the north ruled as Portuguese East Africa’s capital for nearly 400 years before relinquishing its status to Lourenço Marques deep in the south in the late 19th century. Now known as Maputo, the new capital became the epicentre of Mozambique’s struggle for independence. Together, the island and the city tell the story of this captivating country.
The view of Mozambique Island's shoreline from its historic fort © Will Whitford / Lonely Planet
Mozambique Island: the colonial capital
It’s hard to believe Mozambique Island played such a crucial role on Africa’s colonial stage – just 3km long and 500m wide, its diminutive size belies its past influence and affluence. A Unesco World Heritage Site, in its heyday it was a major port for Arabian and Portuguese traders dealing in gold, ivory and, tragically, slaves. Its legacy of African, Asian and European influences still resonates today.
The past has shaped the very soul of this island known locally as Ilha, which is split into two very distinct areas: Stone Town in the north with its imposing fort and grand buildings, and Makuti in the south with crowded streets of thatch and tin shacks. Take a tour with Ilha Blue, on foot or by bike, to truly appreciate this unusual dichotomy.
The Chapel of Santo Antonio in Mozambique Island's Stone Town © John Seaton Callahan / Getty Images / Flickr Open
To wander around Stone Town is to step effortlessly back in time – it needs little imagination to visualise its past grandeur.
The 16th-century Portuguese fort of São Sebastião is the oldest complete fort in sub-Saharan Africa. Defiantly unconquered, despite battles against the Dutch, British and Omanis, this was the slaves’ prison. Their last view of their homeland would have been the beautifully simple white-washed Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere, surrounded by the sea.
The crumbling, enigmatic churches and buildings of Stone Town tell of a bygone era © Yury Birukov / Shutterstock
And Stone Town’s graceful colonial buildings such as the Hospital, the Old Customs House and the Maritime Building have been sensitively restored. The Governor’s Palace, a striking red building, houses the island’s museum, exuding its eclectic heritage: exhibits include delicate Portuguese silverware, ornate ebony furniture from India and even Ming dynasty porcelain discovered in a shipwreck just offshore.
For all its heritage, Stone Town isn’t standing still. Epitomising its mellow, laid-back charm, boutique B&Bs and quirky, stylish eateries have opened over recent years. The delightful Jardim dos Aloés, is a traditional stone house tucked away in a backstreet with just three individually styled rooms and exquisite breakfasts, and the popular Karibu restaurant is known for its superb tuna and lobster.
Smiles abound while a baker prepares to bake bread in Makuti Town © Will Whitford / Lonely Planet
Makuti couldn’t be more different to Stone Town.
Named after the palm leaves traditionally used to thatch the roofs of its wood and mud houses, it’s a labyrinth of crowded narrow streets that are far lower than the rest of the island: huge stones were excavated from here to build Stone Town’s fort and grand houses.
Woman wearing a traditional Musiro face mask to protect against the sun in Makuti Town © Will Whitford / Lonely Planet
Some 15,000 people live in Makuti, compared to just 3000 in Stone Town. Fishermen mend their nets or sell their catch at the busy fish market. Carpenters carve furniture with antique tools; bakers cook bread in old stone ovens. Women in colourful capulanas (wrap-around dresses), wear traditional white-powder facemasks to shield the sun and perform captivating Tufa dances, swaying and gesticulating as they relate their life stories.
There are no pretensions here, nothing is put on for tourists. Makuti is real island life, and it’s Ilha’s heart and soul.
The striking art deco cathedral in Maputo © Will Whitford / Lonely Planet
Maputo: the modern capital
Maputo was first explored in 1544 by Portuguese navigator Lourenço Marques. Having grown prosperous as a major port during South Africa’s gold rush, it superseded Ilha as the country’s capital in 1898.
With a distinctive cosmopolitan character even then, Maputo’s colonials enjoyed the good life. But after Mozambique’s War of Independence from 1964 to 1974 and a bitter civil war that ended in 1992, the city was mired in poverty and neglect. Today, with nascent oil and gas industries fuelling its resurgence, the capital is back on its feet with new high-rise hotels, a vibrant centre and a lively cultural scene that thrives in this diverse city.
The colourful streets of modern Maputo © Fedor Selivanov / Shutterstock
With a relaxed Afro-Mediterranean vibe, downtown Maputo is one of Africa’s most attractive cities. Evidence of its rise and fall and its latest resurgence are everywhere, from the charismatic old town known as Baixa with its ornate central station, hectic market and port, to the prestigious Polana district alongside the Indian Ocean, home to broad, tree-lined avenues, the Presidential Palace and city skyscrapers.
Old and new coexist here: the crumbling ruins of the 18th century Portuguese fort stand in contrast to Gustave Eiffel’s extraordinary Iron House made of metal and the modern Fisheries Museum shaped like a boat. And on Independence Avenue, the neoclassical City Hall, the bright white art deco cathedral, and the new milky marble of the Tribunal Administrativo all overlook an enormous statue of Samora Machel, Mozambique’s first president.
It’s perfect for exploring on foot and Maputo a Pe, based in the beautiful Jardim Tunduru, provides fascinating walking tours on themes such as Mozambique’s liberation, the city’s striking art nouveau and art deco buildings, and even jazz.
Maputo’s eclectic food scene embraces fine-dining restaurants and pavement cafes in Polana, as well as the Feira Popular, a local institution with buzzing bars and eateries in a lively fairground. Check out the nearby Brazilian Cultural Centre for its monthly calendar of events across the city and stay at the colonial-era Serena Polana, the Grand Dame of Maputo’s hotels, or the Southern Sun, with its popular cocktail bar overlooking the ocean.
Murals of Mafalala's heroes: poet Noémia de Sousa and former presidents Samora Machel and Joaquim Chissano © Will Whitford / Lonely Planet
North of Maputo’s downtown lies the city’s oldest township. In colonial days, Mafalala was where the black people lived, segregated from the affluent centre. The liberation movement was born here, nurtured by intellectuals and artists who shaped modern Mozambique. Among famous past residents are two former presidents – Samora Machel and Joachim Chissano – and renowned poets Noemia de Sousa and José Craveirinha, all protagonists in the struggle for independence.
A guided walk with local NGO Iverca provides a fascinating insight into Mafalala, a region still poor economically but rich in heritage and local pride. These tours don’t intrude on its poverty, rather they celebrate the diverse, vibrant cultures of communities from India, northern Mozambique, Comoros and Zanzibar.
You’ll walk past homes of those presidents and poets, small insignificant houses made of breeze blocks or wood in streets so narrow you can only walk in single file. You'll see murals of local heroes, including legendary footballer Eusebio. And you'll watch the mesmeric, dramatic Tufa dancing of women from the former capital, Mozambique Island, in a tradition kept alive hundreds of miles from home.
Sue Watt travelled to Mozambique with support from Cedarberg Africa. Lonely Planet contributors don’t accept freebies for positive coverage.