Samoa - What to see in Upolu in 5 days (including map)
Pacific islands are rightfully called paradise on earth. No doubts to that. But Samoa has something more. It`s their warm, open and friendly people, their culture and traditions and breathtaking tropical nature that makes this island so special. Samoans are genuinely happy to see you and they warmly welcome you in their country, they are always happy to talk to you about their traditional life and you really feel how proud they are to be Samoans.
Tourism is not so developed yet and money are not the priority here (same price for locals as for tourists, no forced sale) which is so refreshing feeling travel wise.
When you come to Samoa you need to experience Fa`a Samoa - the Samoan way of life which they live for thousands of years. Fa’a Samoa is built on traditional values, culture and environment and have three main pillars: matai (chiefs), aiga (family) and the church (Christianity).
One of the things how you can experience fa`a Samoa is to stay in a fale - traditional style of accommodation basically at the ocean so you are falling asleep by the whisper of the sea. Other ways of trying fa`a Samoa is to taste food from Umu - earth oven and discover the natural beauty of this tropical island. Don`t know where to start and what to see? We got you covered in this post with the Best things to do in Upolu and next post with Best things to do in Savai`i over 5 days each, in total 10 days in paradise on Samoa. When you arrive to the island you can stay in Apia the first night and look around the city that/next day. Then rent a car and move to the south coast and explore the rest of the this beautiful land. The island is divided to two parts by Cross Island Road right in the middle. The main attractions are in Apia, in the middle of the island and then in south-west and north-west part and that is how this post is structured as well.
Apia is relatively small town, therefore all of the things-to-do listed in this section are manageable to see in one day. This way, you will have enough time to explore rest of the island as well as to enjoy some relax on the beach.
First thing in the morning, at the best on Sunday, head to the local Apia Fish Market on Mulinu`u Road right next to the port. It`s an outdoor market where local fishermen bring their daily catch straight from the sea every day. You can find all kinds of fish and seafood here from tuna, salmon through crabs, lobsters, octopus to fish that you have never seen before probably. If you want to buy any fish and maybe grill it on the beach then definitely go to the market very early morning, fishermen should be there from 6am already.
Once you breath in enough fishy smell for the day you can walk straight to the Flea market which is just few steps away from the Fish market. This is the place where you can get all the holiday gifts for family and friends. Stalls are full of beautiful unique Samoan handcrafts, wood carvings and colorful clothes with traditional island motives and patterns. Beautiful souvenir for yourself to remember Samoa by would be traditional lavalava (sarong) which is usually worn by both women and men in the island, or beautiful flower dress for girls and flower shirt in darker colors for boys. Many of the products sold here are made by villagers locally using natural materials. One third of this market is dedicated to food stalls as well so if you want to try some local sweets or cooked Samoan food go and grab some.
FRESH PRODUCE MARKET
If you are up for more healthy snacks during the day then the best place to get them is Fresh Produce market which basically sells all local super yummy, juicy, sweet fruits and fresh vegetables. If you are thirsty just grab some coconut and sip it while you explore the rest of the city. Fresh Produce market is easy to find, from Flea market just turn to Fugalei street and walk 800 m until you see supermarket Farmer Joe, the Fresh market is just opposite.
Just 5 minutes walk from Flea Market along the main Mulinu`u Road will lead you to the only roundabout in the city where in the middle stands the Apia Town Clock Tower. I would say it`s the main 'meeting place' spot if you are exploring in group. Half of the squared Clock Tower is painted with blue and half with red color. Obviously this represents colors of Samoan flag design. When we were visiting Samoa in 2019 it was exactly the week when Pacific games took place in Samoa. Pacific games can be compared to Olympic games just in smaller scale. However, for all the Pacific islands it is a great deal and really big event. The games take place every 4 years and islands alternate in event organisation. Every Samoan that we have met was talking about it and they were so proud that in 2019 finally Samoa hosted the games. That`s why the big poster was decorating the Clock Tower many weeks before and after the event.
IMMACULATE CONCEPTION CATHEDRAL
Once you pass Clock Tower you will see the beautiful white church in the distance. It`s Immaculate Conception of St. Mary Cathedral and it`s interesting building not only from outside but is even more spectacular from inside. The dominant combination of wood decorations and white walls in the interior underlined in the reflection on marble floor is just stunning. You can`t stop whispering 'waw' over and over again looking around, and on the colorful mosaic windows. On your way out you can leave small donation to the church to help maintain it.
SAMOA CULTURAL VILLAGE
Are you interested to get to know Samoans, their fa`a - way of life, their culture and traditions? Then there is no better place to go than Cultural village, where locals show you everything in 2 hours. It`s situated behind the Samoa Tourism Authority Fale, accross the street from Immaculate Conception Cathedral. We found out about this cultural performance from Tourism Authority employees who offered us a ride from the airport when we were unsuccessfully trying to find out shuttle to Apia.
In this cultural show you will see how Samoans produced cloth for their lavalava in the past, what tools did they use to make awa bowl, they will teach you how to twine traditional plate from palm leaves, show you traditional way of cooking and traditional tattooing and at the end locals will perform traditional women and men dance. And the best thing ... it`s all free of charge.
The most important part of Samoan traditions is full body tattoo, in Samoan language "tatau". Samoans are the only Polynesians who continued to practice this tradition despite the colonization. Tattoo as we know it nowadays in the world basically origins here. However, traditional tatau is very unique, the composition and structure of patterns has been developed over 1000 of years. It goes far beyond aesthetics, every pattern has its meaning, they should truly represents the one who wears it as well as the one who creates it and they need to work all together in line with Fa`a Samoa - Samoan way. Not a single tatau is the same. Even nowadays, tatau is always and explicitly done the traditional way by tapping ink to the skin with handmade tools: pieces of bone and turtle shells tightened to wood stick. The process of getting a tatau starts with cultural ceremony and ritual with family. It has a strong meaning for the one who receives it and every adult in Samoa wants tatau. The traditional men's tatau is the Pe'a and the traditional woman's is the Malu.
Source: Samoa Observer
The tattooist inherits the craft from generation to generation, which means that only one family can do it and tattooist must have tatau himself. Master tatooist has two assistants who stretch the skin, wipe off the the excess ink and blood and generally support the tattooist in his work. Tattooing is extremely painful and in rare cases caused death but worst than death for the Samoan is the unfinished tatau, which is a shame not only to the man but his family as well. Family members of the person getting the tattoo are often present at respectful distance and they encourage him.
Source: Pinterest cuded.com
Pe`a, male full body tattoo begins at the waist and covers all parts of skin down to the knees with complicated designs. Malu, female tattoo covers legs from the knee to the upper thighs and is typically more delicate in design. It takes months to complete full body tattoo, in some cases years. Historically, the Pe'a was reserved for the chiefs only. Nowadays, tatau can wear a person who is ready to serve to the family and the matai (chief).
Umu - Earth oven
Samoan traditional way of cooking is called 'umu', where food is prepared in ground oven on lava rocks and covered with many layers of banana leaves to keep heat inside. Typical dishes are: taro or breadfruit (both taste like potatoes), bananas, fish and palusami, which is baked coconut cream in banana leaves. The best part is that cooking is primarily men´s duty!
Free of charge
We could not believe it is for free given the fact how much effort these guys put into everything what was shown during 2-3 hours to give people the best experience, plus the food. I mean I get it, it is paid by the state as a support of tourism but you should really consider some donation after the performance, we gave them 20 Tala.
Every day except weekends - 10 am
PAPASE`EA SLIDING ROCKS
If you are looking for some fun during your holiday in Samoa then I definitely recommend to visit Papase`ea waterfall/sliding rocks. It`s just 15 minutes drive from Apia located in Faleata District. You can park your car at official parking area at the entrance where you pay the entrance fee as well (toilets and changing room facilities are available here as well so if you need to use it do it before you head down). To get down to the waterfall you need to take path of steep stairs about 200-300 m long. I named it as waterfalls but actually you can slide down on slippery rocks underneath the falling water and jump into natural pools which is deep enough to not hurt yourself. So I guess we can call it the natural water toboggan then :) Rocks were formed into slides by thousands of years running water. To be honest I was little bit scared at the beginning, especially of that 5 m long slide, so Lubos went first to try it. He was absolutely thrilled so I had to give it a try. It was so much fun!! and great way to cool off on a hot day. Unfortunately, my bikini suffered small harm so I encourage you to wear some old set ;)
Adults: 5 WST, Kids (under 12 yrs): 2 WST
Opening hours: Monday - Saturday: 8 am - 5.30 pm
Sunday: 11 am - 6 pm
SUNSET FROM APIA HARBOR
Perfect ending to the day full of city exploration would be perfect sunset over panorama of the city, don`t you think? So first try to find some store and grab a beer or wine and some snack and then head to the Apia Harbor. From Samoa Cultural village just follow Beach Road all the way to the other side of the port and find some cozy spot to enjoy your drink with the view on the Cathedral and the city with waterfront.
Part of the island
The closest stop from Cross Island Road is Togitogiga Falls located in the Saleilua village. These two level cascading waterfalls are beautifully seated in lush tropical garden and are divided by small pools where you can swim. The waterfalls are also known for being a swimming area for the great warriors of Samoa in the past. The best time for visit is actually wet season when there is much more water and swimming and jumping become less dangerous but it is still ok in dry season which is of course better for overall holiday on the island. There is also a recreation area around waterfalls where you can have a picnic if you want to or play games.
Monday - Sunday: 7 am – 6 pm
VAVAU, SALEAPAGA and LULUMANU BEACH AREA
If you are looking for great base for your stay in Upolu, accommodation on dreamy beach with white sand and turquoise water but do not want to spend a fortune on luxury resort, then definitely check out fales around Vavau, Saleapaga and Lulumanu area on the south coast. These are the nicest spots with family run accommodation businesses and very convenient place for exploring south-west and north-west part of the island where the main attractions are. We stayed in Saleapaga area in FaoFao Beach Fales and it was real paradise.
Do you want to know what to expect in this type of accommodation? Read our post Samoa - all you need to know before you go.
TO SUA OCEAN TRENCH
To Sua Ocean Trench is unique geological site and ultimate must-do in Upolu! It`s naturally formed hole in an ancient lava tube system 30 meters deep that connects to the ocean and so it formed swimming pool and kind of a sea cave. Thousands of years of erosion have changed the surrounded lava out and inside the hole to tropical blooming garden. To Sua literally means "Giant Swimming Hole". Even though I saw it with my own eyes I asked Lubos to pinch me just to believe it`s not a dream. What a place!! The natural swimming pool is accessible via a long steep wooden ladder with a long platform at the bottom. From the platform just jump in and enjoy one-of-a-kind swim with absolutely stunning view around you and above you. Then take a snorkel and explore the cave.
To Sua Ocean Trench is the most photographed spot in Samoa, obviously and the best pictures are those taken from above. When you have enough of swimming and snorkeling take a walk around the garden, get some shade in fales with coastal views or you can go down to the lava field with blowholes and mini pools on the left side of the To Sua. It is believed whales can be seen from this spot every year from mid September till November.
Adults: 20 WST; Children 6 - 11 years: 10 WST
Opening hours: Monday - Saturday: 8:30 am - 5 pm; Sunday 12:30 pm - 5 pm
The powerful Sopoaga Falls are just 7 minutes drive from To Sua Ocean Trench. When we came nobody was there to sell us ticket (I think it was Sunday actually and on Sunday everybody is in church) so we left money in honesty box.
Passing the entrance you found yourself in nice garden with different types of plants and trees. There is stone path that will lead you to the falls viewpoint. We had the waterfalls basically for ourselves ... and chickens. Some of them really enjoyed hanging out with us and wanted to take a picture with waterfalls too.
Adults: 10 WST
no specific time, it`s outdoor area so you can come anytime you want, just leave entrance fee in honesty box if nobody is there.
After Sopo`aga falls if you drive just 4 km further north, you will come to the second highest waterfall on the island Fuipisia Falls. It`s water drops down 55 m and it`s surrounded by dense jungle. We enjoyed the view on waterfall from the distance, few steps away from Le Mafa Pass Road. However, if you have time and you are up for some adventure, it is possible to go near the waterfalls and even take a bath at the top of falling point and have a panoramic view on the jungle below.
Adults: 10 WST; Kids 10 - 12 years: 5 WST; Under 10 years: 2 WST
Opening hours: Open daily, no specific time
and the rest of the island
PIULA CAVE POOL
Piula Cave Pool is a spring pool in a cave that was formed in an old lava tube. Someone might think the water is salty from the ocean which is right behind the concrete fence but no, Piula actually has crystal clear fresh water. We definitely recommend to bring snorkel and explore underwater cave life there. Interesting fact, the freshness and the coolness of the water depends on how many visitors are there in the pool.
When you come to a location pinned for Piula by Google maps it looks like you are on a wrong place. You will see the huge building that says Piula Theological College, but don`t worry you are exactly where you wanted to be. Just pass the gate (still in the car) and security guy will come to welcome you, give you a ticket and direct you to the Piula Cave pool. There are fales available to enjoy some shade as well as toilet and changing facilities.
Adults: 5 WST; Children: 3 WST; Vehicle: 10 WST (Applies only when using Car Park by the pool. If you do not want to pay for parking try to park your car on the road outside the Piula Theological College)
Opening hours: Monday – Saturday: 8 am - 4 pm
CHURCHES AROUND THE ISLAND
Majority of Samoans are Christians, obviously the religion was taken over from Europeans during colonization time. People are actually very religious and adhere all the traditions.
Every village has its own church, if not two. Churches are painted in light colors and nicely decorated to fit the island vibe. I called them 'tropical churches', I was (kind of) fascinated by their simple beauty and I wanted to take a picture of all of them. If you walk by any church on Sunday you will see all people dressed in white gathering for a mass. Dressing in white should symbolize a purity. After the service families gather together for a lunch and games.
STALLS BY THE ROAD
While driving around the island you will definitely notice many stalls on roadside with fruit but nobody standing behind them. They are serviced by local families, so somebody will run to you from the house behind the stall to sell you some coconut, bananas or papaya if you want to. This way locals support family budget from the harvest they don`t have a chance to consume. Fruit in roadside stalls is extremely cheap and super tasty. One time very nice lady wanted to sell me a basket full of big papayas (7 pieces) for 5 WST/1.5 Eur :) So make sure you carry some cash and you will be in fruit heaven. And also don`t hesitate to talk to the people, Samoans are very friendly and talkative and very proud about their nation and traditions so you might get to know a lot about their life.
RIDE A LOCAL BUS
When you see a local bus in Samoa for the first time, it immediately catches your eye (and ear) :) These colorful vehicles jamming load music looks like from Charlie Chaplin movies (and they occasionally break down) but you just need to experience a ride in it at least once. There are no bus stops in Samoa, but you can catch a bus by waving one down. All buses have their destination visible on the windshield and some cute quote in the back to make you smile when you get off. Even though there is official schedule for the buses they are never on a schedule. It` not unusual that bus stops at supermarkets and wait while locals do their shopping. When you get on and all seats are taken, don`t be offended if someone offers you to sit on their lap, because that`s just what Samoans do. You should expect to pay around 12 WST per person per journey and fares are paid in cash when you depart the bus. If you want to see all crazy colorful buses at one place then go to the main bus terminal in Apia behind the Flea market and on Savai`i at the market near main wharf in Salelologa.
If you plan to stay more days only in Upolu we have some more tips for additional experience however, we did not visit the following places due to lack of time so we cannot say if it is really worth it.
Falefa Falls - cascading waterfalls that drop to the river. You can enjoy the view from the distance from river`s edge or go to Falefa Bridge for close-up view.
Entrance fee: Adults - 5 WST; Opening hours: Monday - Saturday: 8 am - 6 pm.
Papapapaitai Falls - the highest waterfall on the island with water falling 100 meters down into a deep gorge. It`s located just off the Cross Island Road. No entrance fee.
Palolo Deep Marine Reserve - just 5 minutes walk from center of Apia, there is a small coral reef with tropical fishes close to the shore. You can rent snorkel gear for 7 WST.
Entrance fee to the marine: Adults - 3 WST, kids - 2 WST; Opening hours: Monday - Sunday: 8am - 6pm - recommended at high tide.
Matareva Beach - popular white sand beach with nice spots for snorkeling. There are community-owned beach fales available for accommodation (you will probably need to pay some small fee upon entrance to the beach if you don`t have accommodation there).
Aganoa Beach - Black sand beach accessible by 4WD only. Suitable for swimming, snorkeling, paddle boarding or even kayaking.
OTHER INTERESTING PLACES:
Baha'i House of Worship Samoa - a temple where people of all religions can pray and meditate (one of eight in the world). The building itself is interesting with nine symmetrical sides and entrances and with 28 meters high dome. Free entry, open daily from 6 am - 6 pm.
Lupe Sina Treesort - accommodation in tree house with beautiful romantic view. Nice IG spot
Robert Louis Stevenson Museum - famous writer, author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde lived in Samoa and became very popular among locals and respected person for his positive interactions with local community.
Entrance fee: Adults - 20 WST, kids (under 12 yrs) - 5 WST; Opening hours: Monday - Friday: 9 am - 4:30 pm; Saturday: 9 am - noon; Sunday closed.
All points of interest that we have visited or we researched before our trip are pinned in the following map.
Let me know in comments below what was your favorite spot on the Upolu and how did you like Samoa in general. If you are planning to visit Savai`i as well, the next post capturing Things to see in Savai`i might help you to plan your days there.