That first gin and tonic, sipped in the rooftop bar of the Hilton Windhoek Hotel tasted better than any in recent memory. It wasn’t because the gin was handcrafted in small batches, rather, it was because after 35 hours of travel we had reached our destination. Namibia. We were lured back to Africa by the expansive beauty of the Namib desert and the possibility of viewing desert elephants and rhinos. We arrived in Namibia’s capital Windhoek several days ahead of the rest of our travel group so we could do exactly what we were doing at this moment. Relax.
We were tired but excited. The September evening was warm and the city was surprisingly quiet for a city of 320,000 people. There was little traffic, no impatient honking and no sense of hurry. Sunset was approaching, but we still had a wide view of Windhoek. A quick look at our map confirmed many of the city sights we planned to see were within walking distance. Several were only a few blocks away. We sipped gin and tonics, ate pizza and finalized our plans to explore Windhoek on foot over the next two days. The sunset was spectacular.
The origin of the city’s name, Windhoek (pronounced Vint-hoo k), may come from the German for windy corner or maybe from the birthplace (Winterhoek) of an important chief, Jonker Afrikaner. No one is quite certain. Before the city was named Windhoek it was known by other names. The local Herero people called it Otjimuise (place of smoke) and the Nama used the name AiGams (hot water). Both names refer to the local hot springs. Windhoek is located in Namibia’s central highlands, just about smack in the center of the country.
As a tourist in Windhoek I always felt safe walking in the city, though we were careful not to be out on foot after dark. We did encounter people asking for money or selling things, but not aggressively so. Learning to negotiate intersections and crossing roads safely as a pedestrian posed more of a challenge, however. Namibia is a left-drive country, cars drive on the left side of the road, not right-drive as in the U.S. As a pedestrian it is imperative to look right first (and not left as we are accustomed to doing) before crossing the road. Easier said than done when in an unfamiliar city. Locals appear to take a very casual approach to crossing the street and cross wherever they please. Beware!
Luderitz Street. John Meinert Street. Fidel Castro Street. Robert Mugabe Avenue. Independence Avenue. Sam Nujoma Drive. Street names in Windhoek reflect the recent history of the country. The German names reflect the original European colonial control. Robert Mugabe and Fidel Castro are leaders whose countries participated in the independence fight with the Namibian people. San Nujoma, along with others, led an armed struggle against South African rule in 1966 that eventually resulted in independence by 1990. He was elected Namibia’s first president in 1989.
Christ’s Church was built between 1907 and 1910 of local sandstone with Italian marble in the portico. The Lutheran church was designed by Gottlieb Redecker and commemorated peace at the end of the Herero and Nama uprisings. The interior contains bronze plaques listing the names of German soldiers killed. There is no mention of the Herero and Nama people lost in the conflict. The church is beautiful from the outside, it makes me think of a gingerbread house, but those lists of names on the wall left me feeling sick. Colonial rule in what was then called German South West Africa was very cruel, as we would find out at our next destination.
Independence Memorial Museum
Located just across the street from Christuskirche, and towering over it actually, this very modern building stands in stylistic contrast to the church. As you climb the stairs to the museum entrance you pass a statue of Sam Nujoma, Namibia’s first president. A glass elevator, which provides spectacular views of Windhoek, takes you up to the three-level museum which traces Namibia’s fight for independence from colonial rule, first by the Germans and then South Africa. Many depictions are artistic, but there are also many very powerful photographs of the people involved in the struggle. It is a personal and moving experience and a tour very much worth taking. On the fourth floor is a restaurant with 360º views of the city. The colonial history of Namibia and its struggle for independence is important, and history worth knowing. I was embarrassingly ignorant of Namibia’s history until we planned this visit. I hope you will take the time to learn about it.
The old fort, built by the Germans in about 1890, is located just next door to the Independence Memorial Museum. The old fort houses a museum, but did not appear to be open on the day we visited. A dramatic statue of a man and woman breaking free of chains, stands outside the building. The statue was erected in 2013 and represents the Namibian people’s struggle for independence.
Gibeon Meteorites – Post Street Mall
The entrance to the Post Street Mall is marked by the Clock Tower which is a replica of the one that once graced the first bank in Lüderitz, Deutsche Afrika Bank, along Namibia’s southern coast. Post Street Mall is lined with shops and open-air stalls selling African handicrafts. The Gibeon Meteorites are displayed on a series of metal pedestals in the center of the Post Street Mall. The meteorites were discovered in 1836 near Gibeon south of Windhoek and are estimated to be 4 billions years old.
If you love railroad history, this is the museum for you. It is located in Windhoek’s first railway station and is a treasure-trove of memorabilia tracing the development of the railroad in Namibia. Even before entering the building you will notice many old railway cars and a locomotive, one of the first used in Namibia, scattered about. This was one of our favorite museums. It’s not fancy, but it was interesting and informative.
National Botanic Garden
This beautifully-designed 12 hectare urban nature reserve is within walking distance of downtown, albeit up hill. It was worth the walk, even on a very warm afternoon. The gardens are dedicated to indigenous plant species only and include a network of paths through both landscaped and natural areas that demonstrate the Namibian highland savanna. One section includes a picnic area. Our visit in late September came toward the end of the dry season in Namibia, but the entire garden is also suffering due to severe drought. In spite of how dry it was we still found walking through the gardens enjoyable and interesting, and even found a few plants in bloom.
We had the best time finding what is Windhoek’s most famous restaurant and bar. We walked, naturally, with the aid of an inadequate map and only a general sense of where Joe’s Beerhouse was located. We turned back once, in search of a wi-fi connection, then pressed on. Our route took us through a beautiful residential neighborhood, all uphill I might add, and we were hungry and thirsty by the time we arrived. But, once again, the walk was very worthwhile. The local beer, Tafel, was cold and delicious. The menu is just as varied as the decor. We ordered fish and chips, which were delicious, and the two guys who shared our table couldn’t say enough good things about their choices, oryx and kudu. It is a must-see when in Windhoek. To describe Joe’s as eclectic is an understatement. The pictures hardly do it justice, you have to see it for yourself!
The Wine Bar & Wine Shop
You knew we would be on the hunt for somewhere to have a glass of wine, right? Just a short walk, once again uphill, from the Hilton we found the cleverly named, The Wine Bar & Wine Shop. We enjoyed very nice South African wines, sadly no Namibian wine on the list, and appetizers as we watched yet another spectacular sunset. Not a bad way to end a day of walking around Windhoek. Just next door, the wine shop that had ONE bottle of Namibian wine, which of course, we purchased. We enjoyed that wine a few nights later at our first tented camp. There are wineries in Namibia and as we traveled around the country we managed to taste wines from several of them.
Along the Post Street Mall you will find several outdoor vendors selling African and Namibian art. Similarly, there was a large outdoor market along Independence Avenue very near the Hilton Windhoek Hotel. The Himba women make particularly beautiful jewelry using seeds and grasses and, of all things, PVC pipe. The Namibia Craft Centre located further down Independence Avenue has many small shops selling interesting Namibian art.
Toot toot. Taxis are very common and you’ll notice as they drive by the drivers give a quick toot of their horn to let you know they’re available to give you a ride. We only took taxis directly from our hotel, however, but the constant tooting made smile.
We found Windhoek to be an interesting city. The buildings are a mixture of very the simple, to those reflecting German colonial influence, to large, modern, multi-level buildings. Unfortunately almost all of the public parks were dusty and dry due to the severe drought. I can only imagine how much more colorful the city must be during times of normal rainfall. We had a wonderful time walking around the city and found the people of Windhoek very friendly. It was an enjoyable place to begin our tour of Namibia.
After joining our travel group we had the opportunity to travel outside the city of Windhoek to visit a, a permanent outdoor food market and women’s co-op that makes beautiful handicrafts. That evening we enjoyed a delicious and creative meal prepared by culinary students at nice restaurant & bar. Our trip was off to a delicious start!
Namibia, the Bradt Travel Guide, (5th edition) by Chris McIntyre is an excellent resource for travel in Namibia and one we used as a reference and to prepare for our trip.
Below is a slideshow of our time spent exploring Windhoek on foot. Please enjoy.