In 1575, Portuguese explorer Paulo Dias de Novals landed on Ilha de Luanda, an eight-kilometer sandbar just off the coast. He, 400 Portuguese soldiers, and 100 families initially settled there before moving to the mainland—by now known as São Paulo de Loanda—one year later.
In 1627, the city was declared the capital of Portuguese Angola. Aside from a brief period of Dutch rule, Luanda’s history was uneventful and the city quietly served as a port in the Portuguese-Brazilian slave trade. In 1836, the slave trade was banned, leaving Luanda’s future uncertain. The city reacted by opening the port to foreign ships, initiating an economic boom fueled by the trade of palm oil, timber, ivory, cotton, coffee, and cocoa.
By 1961, the Portuguese colonies were clamoring for independence; fortunately, the resulting Portuguese Colonial War managed to skirt Luanda. In 1974, Angola won its independence but was immediately plunged into civil war. The majority of Luanda’s Portuguese population fled the country, only to be replaced by millions of Angolans desperate to avoid the fighting in the countryside, a population explosion that created the numerous bairros (slums) that surround the city.
The civil war raged until 2002, and since then Luanda has worked hard to rebuild its economy. Today, the city is using oil revenues to reconstruct damaged buildings and infrastructure, but there is still a lot of work to be done. However, the city’s cheerful spirit remains and the majority of visitors agree that Luanda has a bright future.
Start your tour at the Marginal, or Avenida de Quatro Fevereiro, a tree-lined promenade that overlooks the Ilha de Luanda and is home to the Banco Nacional. Its pink, rounded colonial façade is topped with a terracotta roof and is particularly pretty when lit up at night. The lobby features numerous azulejos, hand-painted blue and white tiles depicting historical scenes.
Northwest is the Fortaleza de São Miguel. Built by the Portuguese in 1576, this white fort sits on a hill and used to be a self-contained garrison. Today the fort is the Museum of the Armed Forces, sparsely stocked with military relics left over from the country’s 40 years of fighting.
Nearby is Ilha de Luanda, a narrow sandbar connected to the mainland by a reclaimed causeway. Luanda’s beaches are spectacular and the island’s eight-kilometer beach attracts thousands of visitors. llha do Massula, a few kilometers south, also has picture-postcard beaches flanked by coconut palms; take the ferry from Benfica, near the tiny Slave Museum and bustling souvenir market.
About 40 kilometers south of Luanda, you’ll see a weather-beaten signpost for Miradouro da Lua, a spectacular burnt-orange escarpment that follows the coast for miles. It takes its name, Lookout of the Moon, from the jagged lunar-looking cliffs that spill from the escarpment down to the ocean.
Luanda’s Portuguese heritage and coastal location is evident from its cuisine—traditional seafood dishes such as bacalhau (salted cod), caldeirada de peixe (tomato-based fish stew), and arros de marisco (seafood and rice) are served throughout the city. Luanda also features plenty of international options: Chinese, Italian, and Indian restaurants are common. Head to the Ilha or Marginal for a meal with a view, but beware: despite its war-torn reputation and shabby streets, Luanda is not a cheap dining destination.
Nightlife in Luanda is excellent and the city is renowned for its lively bars and all-night clubs. DJs and live bands are popular, but Luanda also has a reggae, blues, and jazz scene; the city’s five million residents now enjoy an annual jazz festival. The Ilha is home to some of the best nightlife venues, many of which are open air with views across the sea towards the sparkling lights of Luanda. If you’re looking for something a little more relaxing, one of the Ilha’s yacht clubs can provide Portuguese wine and a stunning sunset.
Approximately 120 kilometers south of Luanda is a vast game reserve, the Parque Nacional de Quiçama.
The park’s once-spectacular wildlife was completely wiped out during the civil war, but the government’s rehabilitation program, Noah’s Ark, aims to reintroduce elephant, rhinos, antelope, and eventually predators.