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Lubango: The spectacular African destination you’ve probably never heard of

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In the bottom left-hand corner of Africa, just before the landscape gives way to the arid terrain of Namibia, sits a green and temperate region that could be one of the most beautiful on the continent – and yet few people beyond this part of the world know about it.

Lubango, in southwestern Angola’s Huila province, is the country’s second biggest city by population, is rich in history and culture and is located on a steep-sided plateau that gives rise to spectacular landscapes.

Located at 5,774 feet (1,760 meters) above sea level, it’s one of the coolest cities in Angola – temperatures range between 8-31 Celsius (46-89 Fahrenheit) allowing for the cultivation of crops that are difficult to grow in the rest of the country.

Formerly known as Sá da Bandeira, Lubango was a major settlement site from 1885 for the colonial Portuguese, who arrived from Madeira islands from Portugal and saw the climate’s potential.

From the streets to the surrounding countryside, Lubango has plenty to offer. - Zute Lightfoot/Alamy Stock Photo
From the streets to the surrounding countryside, Lubango has plenty to offer. - Zute Lightfoot/Alamy Stock Photo

Today, the region is rich in agriculture and livestock – an abundance that can be seen in the variety of food on offer – including local cheeses and old Portuguese chorizo sausage recipes.

Lubango is considered one of Angola’s most important cities thanks to its status as a travel hub with great connections to other provinces by road and railway, plus an international airport with flights to Luanda, other parts of the country and Namibia’s capital, Windhoek.

Visitors will find a wealth of history and colonial art deco architecture. It’s also an unrivaled place to mingle with a great variety of ethnic groups, including members of the local Mumuíla people and many other nomadic communities who call into the city to trade or pass through en route to elsewhere.

Unlike many places in Africa, this is a region where multiethnic groups cohabit peacefully and are visible within the city.

Most of them are nomadic people, loyal and proud of traditional roots and ways of living, differentiated by distinct colorful clothes, unique and symbolic jewelry and hairstyles.

“The parade of diverse ethnic groups in Lubango is a rich experience,” says Florinda Ramos, a businesswoman who is a regular visitor to the region. “This is a magical place.”

Rosemaire Luis, an environmental engineer from the Angolan capital Luanda who recently spent time in Lubango for work, is also impressed. “Lubango is an excellent place for discovery tourism,” she says. “It is safe and diverse in terms of landscape and places of interest, both built and natural.

“I really enjoyed the popular markets inside and outside the city, the mountains and remote locations where the geology is lush and fascinating.”

Here are six of the best places to visit in and around Lubango:

Tundavala Gap (Fenda da Tundavala)

The Tundavala Gap offers breathtaking views over the hot plains beneath. - jbdodane/Alamy Stock Photo
The Tundavala Gap offers breathtaking views over the hot plains beneath. - jbdodane/Alamy Stock Photo

One of the top wonders of Angola, Tundavala is a breathtaking gorge, just over 10 miles northwest of Lubango, over the border into the neighboring province of Namibe.

Here, the cool reaches of the higher-altitude Huila plateau tumble over a steep-walled cliff, into the hotter plains below.

Tundavala is considered by locals as a place where the souls of their ancestors take refuge, and it’s easy to see why.

The panoramic views from this volcanic fissure are mindblowing. Visitors are also rewarded with the beautiful flora, including orchids, growing amid the rocky cracks.

Here, you’re above the clouds. The air is clear, and you might be lucky and see eagles and rock monkeys.

Locals visit to escape the city, especially at weekends, for picnics or just to have a beer, relax with friends and enjoy the sunset.

It’s also a popular spot for wedding photos.

A visit to Tundavala may be an opportunity to encounter local Mumuíla people, who also regularly come and contemplate this scenic place.

Serra da Leba

The incredible zig-zag road at Serra da Leba. - Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis/Getty Images
The incredible zig-zag road at Serra da Leba. - Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis/Getty Images

About 50 kilometers west of Lubango city center, the road reaches the Serra da Leba mountains, with peaks reaching up to about 2,650 meters. The mountains aren’t the most spectacular thing here though, it’s the road.

Built in 1970 by the old colonial administration to connect Lubango with the province of Namibe, the road is one of the most beautiful in the country, if not the continent, and is one of Angola’s most famous sights.

As it nears Serra da Leba, the road drops off the Huila plateau and descends 1,600 meters over the next 20 or so kilometers. It does this through a series of dizzying switchback curves – 56 in total – that rival anything in the European Alps.

This scenic marvel of engineering is best viewed from the mountains alongside it.

Travelers heading farther along the road will, at around the 100-mile (160-kilometer) mark, be rewarded with more breathtaking sights as the green landscape transforms into the barren sands of Namibe, one of the world’s oldest deserts and home to the Mucubal people.

Lubango municipal market

The market is worth a visit for its architecture and fresh produce. - Eric Lafforgue/Alamy Stock Photo
The market is worth a visit for its architecture and fresh produce. - Eric Lafforgue/Alamy Stock Photo

The municipal market of Lubango is a small colonial building located in the commercial area of the city center.

Surrounded by a bustle of small stores and a semi-open marketplace in the middle, it’s worth a visit for the atmosphere as well as the produce and people watching.

On sale are a variety of products, from fresh seasonal food to cut flowers, mainly grown and sold by women. There are baskets handmade from different natural dried materials and a diverse range of medicinal herbs. It’s a great place to pick up pure local honey.

City center architecture

These vibrant apartments are among many examples of Art Deco architecture in the city. - Zute Lightfoot/Alamy Stock Photo
These vibrant apartments are among many examples of Art Deco architecture in the city. - Zute Lightfoot/Alamy Stock Photo

Angola’s turbulent history has left its architectural mark on Lubango with a mix of contrasting styles, both historic and new, creating a dynamic urban landscape that’s home to coffee shops and restaurants.

There are leftovers from centuries of Portuguese colonial rule plus some striking buildings from the past century.

Art Deco can be seen in numerous locations, including the imposing modern gothic Sao Jose cathedral, built in 1939. It’s worth a visit to see the impressive vaulted ceiling that curves over its congregation.

There are also numerous commercial Art Deco buildings, with particularly epic examples including the CTT post office and the Odeon Cine theater.

These stand in contrast to new African art expressed in colorful murals on the city walls.

Christ The King statue

The Christ The King statue overlooks Lubango. - Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis/Getty Images
The Christ The King statue overlooks Lubango. - Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis/Getty Images

Standing with arms stretched wide out toward the horizon, the statue of Christ the King is one of the first things many people see when they arrive in Lubango.

Similar to the gigantic Christ statues overlooking Rio de Janeiro and Lisbon, this white, marble edifice is located high above the city, atop the 2,130-meter Serra da Chela mountain.

The 30-meter tall monument was built in 1957 to the designs of Portuguese engineer Madeira Frazão Sardinha.

Designated an Angolan World Heritage site in April 2014, this spot – just a few minutes’ drive from the center, is the perfect place to view all of Lubango and understand the buzz and scope of the city below.

Huila Regional Museum

The history of the city of Lubango comes to life in this well-preserved collection that was first opened in the 1950s.

The permanent exhibition is organized into thematic rooms that showcase the habits, customs, beliefs and traditions of communities in southern Angola.

Visitors can see ornaments, textiles, ceramics and other pieces related to agriculture, fishing, hunting and spirituality.

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