Don’t count on English. Forget Lisbon or Brasilia: with a population of more than six million, Luanda is the world’s most populous Portuguese-speaking capital city. (The population swelled during Angola’s 27-year civil war, when millions of refugees moved to the relative safety of the city.) English is not widely spoken, even in Luanda. Just a few basic words in Portuguese will take you far: Obrigado (thank you), bom dia (good morning), por favor (please), sim (yes), não (no), and bué (a lot). The expression fixe (“feesh”), meaning okay or cool, is also deeply useful.
Get your papers in order. Angola’s visa process is a bureaucrat’s dream: slow, confusing, and arcane. From 1975 until 1991 Angola was a socialist, one-party state closely aligned with Russia and Cuba. In a hangover from its Cold War mentality, Angola still treats foreigners with suspicion, and it will seem like some embassy officials take pride in complicating things for would-be tourists. Factor in at least one month to sort out visa matters. Different consulate officials will tell you different things about which documents you need to bring—and you will need a letter of invitation from an Angolan citizen or a company.
Expect to spend. Luanda is one of the most expensive cities in the world for expats. Angola’s civil war ended in 2002: it still lacks basic infrastructure and most goods are imported. (A pound of tomatoes can cost $16.) Being one of the world’s most corrupt countries doesn’t help, and its resource wealth (oil and diamonds!) makes it a prime candidate for Dutch Disease. But it’s only super expensive if you live like an expat. Luanda’s few well-known hotels (Epic Sana, Hotel Presidente, and Hotel Trópico) cost around $500 per night. But thanks to recent hotel openings and under-the-radar bed and breakfasts, prices are becoming more competitive. The recently-opened Thompson House on the Ilha do Cabo (the closest thing Luanda has to a hostel vibe), Hotel Ilhamar (which also has a great restaurant) and Rouxino Boutique Hotel are decent hotels at decent prices—for Luanda.
The Ilha do Cabo, a large sandspit off Luanda’s coast packed with bars, restaurants, and beaches, is where expats and the wealthy go to unwind. Photo by: Flávio Cardoso.
Bring an appetite. Luanda doesn’t have much in the way of museums, cinemas, and theaters, so eating out is a big pastime and there’s a vibrant restaurant scene. In fact, I moved back to Luanda in 2013 to run a food start-up (focusing on online restaurant reviews and gastronomic events) after living in the U.S. Angola’s cuisine is full of Portuguese and Brazilian influences (and those foods, in turn, have Angolan influences). You’ll find the traditional picanha (rump steak) with black beans, as well as Portuguese staples cod fish and cozido à portuguesa, plus some seriously tasty feijoada. Traditional Angolan cuisine can take a bit of getting used to, but it’s worth the effort. Several of our most popular dishes are stew-based, such as moamba de galinha (chicken cooked in a red palm oil sauce called moamba de dendem) and calulu (similar to moamba but cooked with dried and fresh fish). In downtown Luanda, you’ll find these dishes in Angolan-owned restaurants. One of my favorites is Kintal da Tia Guida, but I frequently cheat on it with Restaurante Kandimbanza in Maculusso and Cantinho do Sossego in Morro Bento. Most high-end restaurants in Luanda are filled with expats, but places like Kintal da Tia Guida attract many more Angolans and entire families on weekends, creating a boisterous, festive atmosphere.
Look beyond the Ilha for cheap eats. The Ilha do Cabo—a large sandspit off Luanda’s shore—has most of the fancy restaurants, but there is cheap and good food in Luanda’s central neighborhoods. Check out one of the hundreds of backyard restaurants (quintais) where the vast majority of Luandans have lunch on weekdays. Look for signs saying Há Sopa e Almoço (“we sell soup and lunch”). They serve heaped portions of traditional Angolan home-cooked dishes for as little as 1,300 Kwanzas ($8). Maculusso, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, has everything from Indian (Broadway Bar) to Italian (O Toscano) to traditional Angolan barbecue (Nandinho’s) to Madeiran (O Madeirense) at a fraction of the prices on Ilha. I love taking friends from out of town to Kitanda da Esquina for Portuguese-Angolan small plates, or A Grelha, headed by a well-known Angolan chef, serving generous portions of unusual dishes, such as pineapple fried rice and a huge steak-chop for two.