One of my favorite book series is Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. The protagonist Mma Precious Ramotswe opens a private investigative practice in the heart of Gaborone and uses her intuition and charm to solve crimes of kidnapping, infidelity, murder, and extortion. She is a flawed and beautifully developed character who ponders these mysteries over cups of bush tea. McCall Smith’s writing is uncomplicated and sets a magical scene of Gaborone and the villages around the Kalahari. Once HBO developed the books into a miniseries with Jill Scott, I knew if I ever went to Africa, I would go to Botswana. I would go to Gaborone.
As luck would have it, we spent roughly two weeks total in Gaborone: once at the beginning of our Botswana adventure in March of 2020 and rounding it out in October 2020. Due to COVID, it was not the thriving scene I imagined, but we still got to experience much of the city. Gaborone is the capital, the largest city and 10% of Botswana’s population reside there. That is 230,000 people, less than 5% of Joburg’s population.
If you have been traveling through East Africa for a while, Gaborone is a nice city to stop and regroup. It is clean, developed, slow, easy and feels incredibly safe (despite McCall Smith’s stories of murder). While it is not a thriving metropolis or even a busy city for Africa, they have hotels, restaurants, and several malls to resupply. When asking locals what to see or do, we were frequently referred to one of the handful of malls in the city, so here is an outsider’s guide of what’s worth seeing in Gaborone.
All of these activities can be fit into a weekend, so if you have two or three days, give Gabs a visit.
Botswana Craft sells artisan clothing, jewelry, fine art, wood carvings, furniture, and baskets featuring Batswanan arts. The shop surrounds a lovely courtyard restaurant and event venue.
Baskets were a big part of Batswana agricultural society for storage and everyday use. Craftsmen have since developed more artistic approaches to the plain baskets originally used. The designs symbolize tears of giraffe or the running of an ostrich as well as emulating designs found in nature such as a cobra’s scales or a tortoise’s knees. We kept a lookout for unique designs all over the country and found this was by far the broadest selection of patterns, designs, shapes, sizes, and colors… as well as the most expensive.
My homage to Mma Ramotswe’s home on Zebra Drive in the The No. 1 Ladie’s Detective Agency. While there is no a Zebra Drive in Gaborone, there is a Zebra Way. McCall Smith seamlessly weaves real locations throughout these fictional stories and just as Mma Ramotswe is a character in the series, so is this quiet street in Gaborone. I did my due diligence and found the address and while there is a themed tour, it was not running at the time we visited.
The Three Dikgosi Monument
What is now Botswana, was divided in to eight chiefdoms during the 19th century. The German settlers in Nambia and the Dutch (Boers or Afrikaaners) in South Africa began coveting territories further inland. Three chiefs — Khama III, Sebele I, and Bathoen appealed to the British Government for protection in 1870. In 1885, this land was designated Bechuanaland Protectorate. This Monument recognizes the three chiefs who sought help to preserve their land.
Sir Seretse Khama Statue
Bechuanaland Protectorate gained independence from Britain in 1965. The following year it was christened the Republic of Botswana. Sir Seretse Khama was the first democratically elected President of Botswana and remained president until his death in 1980.
Human dignity, like justice and freedom, is the common heritage of all men. It is indivisible. If these universal truths had been accepted by those who have set themselves the cause of denigration the world would have been saved from the racial animosities and degradations which now threaten the very survival of mankind.Sir Seretse Khama
National Assembly of Botswana / Parliament Building
The National Assembly building’s façade features a clocktower and a series of white round arches as well as several plaster zebras, the National Animal of Botswana, overlooking a large open plaza.
The National Assembly consists of 65 elected officials, and the President and Vice President are appointed from the majority party. The House of Chiefs represents the eight chiefdoms and presides over tribal matters, as well as customary and traditional courts. The Chiefs and the National Assembly meet here in the Parliament Building to discuss matters of state. The Botswana Kgotla System, brings decision making to a local community level overseen by a local Chief.
Botswana National Museum / National Museum of Art
Under renovation at the time, the museum features traditional Botswana arts and crafts and celebrates a community of local artists.
The Main Mall is across the street from Parliament. Local vendors line the long street selling vegetables, clothes, trinkets, and cheap Chinese electronics. Mani/pedis appeared to be available as well.
Perfekt Roast Kofi Kiosk
At the end of the Main Mall, a large group of millennials were hanging out in a courtyard with a small coffee kiosk. We played speed chess and were invited to some poetry readings and art exhibits. The vibe here was lively, motivated, and fun.
Cresta President Hotel
The cafe overlooking the Mall is on the second floor of the hotel and one of the locations they filmed for The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Have a cup of bush tea (rooibos), a slice of cake, and sit on the balcony pondering your next move.
Iskon Botswana Temple
The ornate salmon-colored Hindu temple with white trim stands out against the blue sky. This temple is a surprising feature in Gaborone and one of the prettiest buildings in Botswana. The temple is open to public for prayer and the grounds offer a calm meditative space with handsome peacocks roaming the green lawn.
Kgale Hill has several well-trafficked and clearly marked hiking trails, roughly 2km and a 237m ascent to the top at 1261m above sea level. The top presents views of the city, the quarry, and the Gaborone Dam. This is a great way way to start or end your day. To access the hiking trail, park at the Game City Mall and walk across the street.
There are 45 bolted climbing routes that face the Game City with grades ranging from 11- 24 and as far as I know, the only sport climbing in Botswana.
Gaborone Yacht Club on the Gaborone Dam
The Gaborone Yacht Club has stunning views of the Gaborone Dam and my pick for an excellent sundowners spot. Grab a locally brewed St. Louis or a G & T and enjoy the evening.
Game City and Riverside Mall
No list in Gaborone would be complete without the recommendations of shopping malls. The malls are where the people are. They are lively with restaurants and cafes. Botswana is a wealthy African country, shopping and dining out is a major part of the social scene in Gabs. The two newest malls are Game City and Riverside Mall which feature a number of chain restaurants and businesses to choose from.
Outside the city
Mokolokodi Nature Reserve
Mokolodi Nature Reserve is a private, non-profit reserve, conservation, and education facility about 10km south of Gaborone with accommodation and restaurant options. It is roughly 30km large with plans for expansion. Some of the animals protected here are the southern white rhinoceros, hippo, giraffe, zebra, kudu, hartebeest, leopard, and brown hyena. A reptile park features a variety of African snakes.
The mission of Mokolodi Nature Reserve is to educate young Batswanans about preserving their country’s natural resources and protecting the animal population for both the welfare of the animals and the thriving tourism economy that depends on it.
We stayed at Mokolodi Backpackers in both March and September. The camp offers a well-equipped communal kitchen, several braai areas and firepits, a swimming pool, clean showers, chalets, safari tents, and accommodates personal tents. There is wifi and informal workspace in the lapa — just mind the pig, dog, and chickens.
Lion Park Resort
Lion Park Resort has a large pool, volleyball court, amusement park rides, lion viewing, and the perfect place in the summer if you have kids who need to run off some energy. We scouted out this place when we arrived in Gaborone and were looking for a place to camp. The sites are large and green and adjacent to the amusement park. The amusement park was closed and gave off a spooky vibe.
Gaborone Food Scene
Restaurants, Bars, & Groceries
Botswana Craft serves traditional Botswana fare in an open courtyard restaurant.
Game City and Riverside Mall have a number of chain restaurants to choose from including Nandos, Roman Pizza, Mugg & Bean, and a handful of independent restaurants.
Universal Plaza is part of the Central Business District with several restaurants on the street level of the new high-rise buildings.
Favorite pick* a street vendor near Botswana Craft who sold excellent chicken with greens, beet salad, potato salad with rice or pap. We frequently ate the street food and for 25 pula you get meat, salad, greens, and starch. They are generously portioned and we would typically share one plate.
I often hear questions about whether bringing food items, specifically meat, across the border from South Africa is allowed. The Botswana Tourism site is a good guide for what you can bring in. Gaborone has a Food Lovers Market, multiple Woolworths, Pick and Pays, and Spars, as well as several butchers.
For more guides of Botswana check these out: