New expats frequently ask where the best places are to live in Kampala and we always recommend trying to live the same side of town as you work. Scroll down and you’ll understand why. Kampala does not have an organised public transport system as such (it’s all privately owned, the taxis) but there are many different ways of travelling to and around the city. Here’s how you can use different types of transport to get to different places around Kampala
⦁ Boda boda motorbikes
⦁ Taxis and special hires
⦁ Buses and coaches
Walking in Kampala
If you’re within walking distance of where you work, then lucky you! You don’t get to experience the tiring daily traffic jam on the roads of Kampala.
It’s only in the center of town and around the central business district (CBD) that you will find decent pavements. In other parts of town, pavements may suddenly end without warning . Drainage covers may be there today and gone tomorrow so always tread carefully. If you have kids, forget bringing the buggy to Kampala. You won’t be able to push it very far.
Cycling in Kampala
I know very few expats who dare to cycle on Kampala’s crazy streets. I used to cycle when I lived in London but here we have little awareness of cyclists or their safety. You wouldn’t find me cycling around Kampala unless it is down by Lake Victoria or on the quiet hills of Kololo or Nakasero. Save your biking for weekends in Lake Mburo or Fort Portal. (Did you know there is an annual mountain bike tour in Karamoja?)
Boda boda motorbikes
These are undoubtedly the quickest way of getting from A to B and the city couldn’t function without them. Boda boda drivers are our best friends, our Mr Fix It, frequently our saviours – just choose with discretion. They can be a real menace too.
If you take a boda boda, do yourself a favour and wear a helmet. Don’t just accept a lift from random guys driving past either. Get to know riders from your local boda boda stage or download one of the ‘ride hailing apps’. I use the Uber app all the time in Kampala. Their boda riders are registered and bring you a high quality helmet to wear.
Driving a car in Kampala
Lots of people prefer the comfort and privacy of having their own cars. I bought my car from expat friends and enjoyed the independence of it for many years. What I didn’t enjoy were the many hours sweating in traffic jams at Jinja Road. Neither did I appreciate being pulled over by the traffic police for some minor offence they had just cooked up when they spotted a loan muzungu. (They pick on Ugandans too, I know!)
The weirdest occasion was one Christmas Eve when I was driving through the industrial area. The traffic policeman ahead of me motioned me to pull over. “What have I done?” I asked him innocently. He walked around the car.
“I’m pulling you over for having a faulty rear brake light” he said.
“How could you see that when you were standing in front of me?” I asked him.
“For us, we have special powers” came the reply.
Taxis and special hires
This is where it gets confusing!
Private cars, like Uber, which we now have in Kampala, are called ‘specials’ or special hires.
When a British person like me thinks of a taxi, this is what I see:
In Kampala however, ask for a taxi (pronounced taxiiiiiii) and someone will point you to a matatu or minibus. The crowded old taxi park in downtown Kampala is an experience in itself! It can be pretty intense.
The 12 seater minibus taxis (generally white with turquoise ‘go faster’ stripes) are the cheapest way to get around but the routes can be annoying as you have to go into the centre of town to get out to the other side. People often walk a bit, take a matatu and then take the second one or jump on a boda boda for the last part of their journey.
Matatus are very cheap. There are no price lists, no receipts and no timetable. They have set prices but the conductor (who sits by the sliding door and takes your money) will frequently try and overcharge you if you’re a muzungu. It is inevitable but you will quickly get to know what’s a fair price. Most routes charge 1,000 shillings (equivalent to 20 British pence or 30 US cents). If you’re not sure how much to pay, fellow passengers will usually help you out (and scold the conductor at the same time!) Travel with loose change or small notes if you’re using a taxiiiiiii in Kampala.
Matatus are good if you are on a tight budget, have a good book to read and can go to work very early (or arrive home very late). Play with your expensive phone at your peril. Thieves are known to put their hand through taxi windows and snatch phones when you’re stuck in traffic.
The downside with matatus is that they frequently get stuck in traffic, especially around the taxi park and Clock Tower roundabout. It’s not uncommon to sit for one or two hours without moving. Their drivers are often aggressive. Also, you have to be careful of your belongings on these crowded minibuses as there are lots of cunning pickpockets. One friend was relieved of her laptop in a matatu. She had no idea she was being robbed until she got out of the taxi and opened her bag to see her laptop had been replaced by bricks!
If you are using a taxi upcountry, expect to fit a lot more than 12 people in!
Note: Uganda’s matatus are twelve-seater minibuses, slightly different from Nairobi’s matatus which are buses, coaches or ‘coasters’ (slightly smaller than a bus).
Buses and coaches
Within Kampala city, Pioneer are the only bus company that I know of. Their buses are new, well-maintained with fixed routes, fixed prices and even tickets! Oh how I wish the city had more of these.
If you want to travel outside Kampala, upcountry or across one of Uganda’s borders, buses are safer than matatus, which have a particularly poor safety record. My preferred bus companies – who I use regularly – are Mash, Link and Jaguar Executive Coaches. Other people also recommend Oxygen, Coast and Modern Coaches.
If you are lucky enough to live in Kireka or Namanve, you can even get the train into town! The downside is that the service is infrequent although it does have a daily timetable and it’s very cheap. Click on the image to read more about Kampala’s commuter train service.
I once crossed Jinja Road by helicopter!
When I was a volunteer, I got to know the pilot of the helicopter stationed at International Hospital Muyenga. I begged him for a ride (not thinking there was any likelihood of it).
One morning he called me. “Can you get to the hospital in fifteen minutes? I have to transfer the helicopter to the grounds of the Serena Hotel to pick up a private client. You can hop in if you want to?”
God I was excited – but no sooner had the helicopter lifted off the ground than we were landing again… and that sums up my travel experiences in helicopter!
What’s the muzungu’s preferred way of travelling around Kampala?
These days I’m a big fan of Uber and use them every day I’m in Kampala.
Although Uber isn’t Kampala’s only ride hailing app, it does offer the most flexibility and for tourists and new expats, it’s a recognised brand that you may already have installed on your phone. The system works exactly the same way as it does ‘back home’ but cash is always preferred by drivers. Few of them accept credit cards which is understandable. Very few shops in Uganda accept credit cards – we just aren’t there yet.
What’s great about their service in Kampala is that Uber have both cars and boda bodas. When I have time, I’ll take a car. This gives me a chance to schedule my meetings, check my email, do a Facebook update (and do my make-up (!) of course). Uber is my mobile office, regardless of the weather or the heavy traffic. When I’m in a rush, I order an UberBODA from the same app. When I’m in Kampala, I won’t get on a boda unless I have my helmet. The great thing with UberBODA is your driver will arrive with a helmet for you to borrow (meaning you don’t have to carry your helmet with you all day long). I love the flexibility this gives me.