The starting point of many a memorable African journey, Gaborone is Africa for beginners with an uncomplicated introduction to southern African cuisine, traditional handicrafts, and epic wildlife.
Just as Gaborone is a gentle introduction to urban Africa, Gaborone Game Reserve prepares you for wilder lands not far away. Its highlights include elands (the world’s largest antelope species), unicorn-like gemsboks, and extravagantly horned kudus, as well as wildebeest, ostriches, warthogs, and abundant birdlife. The absence of predators means you can stretch your legs at numerous observation areas.
Botswana is not known for its topographical variety, which is why the Tswapong Hills, a two-hour drive north, then east of Gaborone make such an impression. These bouldered hills form steep-sided gorges (a refuge for the Cape vulture that wheels overhead with its vast wingspan) offering ample opportunities to hike and to picnic.
Khutse Game Reserve, a less-than-three-hour drive west of Gaborone, is one of Africa’s most underrated parks. Drawing weekend visitors from Gaborone, Khutse’s salt pans and golden grasslands offer up lion, leopard, giraffe, jackal, gemsbok, and ostrich. The farther north you venture into the reserve, and beyond into the iconic Central Kalahari Game Reserve, the stronger the sense of deep Kalahari immersion.
Close to where the Tswapong Hills rise abruptly from sandy plains two hours northeast of Gaborone, a striking, Gothic mud-brick church stands lonely vigil and crumbling stone walls lie scattered across the bush. The site of Phalatswe (Old Palapye), a prosperous 19th-century city once home to 30,000 people, it’s one of few extant ruins in this part of Africa.
Among Africa’s most extraordinary natural realms, the Okavango Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2014, shelters some of the planet’s richest wildlife concentrations. The skein of waterways is a world in motion, with water levels rising and falling at the behest of annual rainfall hundreds of miles away. It’s a day-long drive from Gaborone, but flights take you there in an hour.
Botswana’s National Museum and attached Art Gallery could do with a much-promised overhaul, but you’ll still learn the nation’s story, stare down a stuffed lion, and, if you’re lucky, catch an exhibition by a local artist.
Off the Beaten Path
Well-meaning locals love their malls and will send you in their direction if you mention the word shopping. All well and good, but for something more appreciably local, try low-key Thapong Visual Arts Center where you can sit in the dirt alongside the resident contemporary artists, chatting with them while they produce works of real quality.
Most Iconic Experience
Standout attractions in Gabs are few. If, however, like everybody else you’re here en route to your safari, head first for Mokolodi Nature Reserve, with its giraffe, elephant, leopard, and cheetah, as well as a breeding center for rare and endangered species and a sanctuary for orphaned or injured birds and animals.
So spread out are the city’s watering holes that most expats and middle-class locals head for their favorite bar-restaurant and stay until closing time. Bull and Bush Pub is a Gaborone classic, echoing with tall tales from the safari circuit. There’s a South African-style braai (barbecue), Lion Lager, and other southern African brews on tap, as well as great music.
Neighborhood to Explore
As a general rule, Gaborone doesn’t do hip, but the Kgale Hills Shopping Mall comes close. Its Café Dijo hosts Gaborone’s trendy young things and expats who linger over their lattes, carrot cake, and Wi-Fi. Almost next door, Kalahari Quilts turns out some of Botswana’s most beautiful cloths—stop and watch the artists at work.