Apia, the capital of Samoa, is a small, bustling city situated on the north coast of the Samoan island of Upolu.
There were more things to do in Apia than we expected and enjoyed the capital so much we extended our stay there before setting off to explore the rest of stunning Samoa.
Things to do in Apia
Samoan Cultural Centre
The Samoan Cultural Centre is one of the best things to do in Apia, if not Samoa.
We do not usually choose to visit cultural centres (they can be contrived cultural experiences) but the Samoan Cultural Village is not like any other cultural centre we have visited. We were surprised how authentic and interesting the centre was and we ended up spending several hours here. And it is free to enter!
The Cultural Centre is open every day and consists of several open fales around one large central fale. Each traditionally built fale offers a different cultural experience but the sessions vary so check online in advance which sessions will be offered on the day of your visit.
We visited on the same day as a tourism delegation from Tonga so we were lucky enough to experience all the activities on offer!
A knowledgeable guide brings you to each fale to explain each activity and why the activity is important to Samoans.
The demonstrators are not ‘performing’ for tourists, they are local artisans who hone their craft at the Centre whilst allowing tourists to observe and question their traditional work. As a result of this, the Cultural Centre feels like a gathering of local people who are sharing their skills; the activities do not feel contrived or ‘on show.’
Our guide was extremely passionate and knowledgeable about Samoan history and culture and answered any and every question asked of him.
In one fale, we witnessed wood carvers making intricate lava bowls.
In another, we learned how traditional Samoan hot stone ovens (called an Umu) are constructed and used for cooking food. We witnessed fish expertly wrapped in palm leaves in preparation for cooking plus our guide showed us how to break a coconut. He made it look a lot easier than it actually is!
We enjoyed watching how siapo cloth is made and watched the artists painting it. The female artists were working whilst their children played happily around them.
The highlight for our children was watching a stoic young local man undergoing one of the traditional tattooing phases.
Samoan tattoos cover the upper arms, torso and upper legs and are an intricate blend lines and dot patterns. The extremely painful process is completed in stages over a long period of time. Two men held the young man still, another man continually wiped away the trickles of blood whilst the tattooist hammered a tiny chisel into the young man’s skin to make the tattoo.
The watching crowd was so silent you could have heard a pin drop. Photos are forbidden here (understandably)!
At the end of our highly enjoyable and informative visit, the entire staff performed a Fia Fia – a traditional song and dance performance which often involves a fire dance. It was fantastic and our kids were mesmerised; homeschool in action!
The finale of a Fia Fia encourages anyone of South Pacific heritage to join in and it was a spine tingling moment when the entire Tongan delegation joined in the body slapping, rhythmic dancing and rich, thunderous singing. It was a wonderful moment we will not forget.
Our visit ended with a delicious meal of the food we had watched being prepared earlier.
The Samoan Cultural Centre is unmissable thing to do in Apia.
The Immaculate Conception Cathedral (a Roman Catholic church) lies on the waterfront in the centre of Apia across the road from the Samoan Cultural Centre.
The white painted domed church is instantly recognisable on the low skyline of Apia.
It is a relatively new building (it opened in 2014) but stands on the site of a previous cathedral dating back to the 1850’s. The church is enormous with a cavernous interior that is able to hold 2,000 people.
The church undoubtedly has European influences in its exterior design but it has an overwhelmingly Samoan feel to it. Unlike may other churches around the world that could be located in any country, when you stand in this beautiful church, you know you are in Samoa.
The exterior of the church has vivid blue trims to echo the pristine seas around the island.
Inside, the cathedral is adorned with detailed, colourful art including a painting of the Virgin Mary dressed in a typical Samoan dress. The intricately patterned marble floor creates a welcome cool temperature.
The most striking feature of the cathedral is the ornately carved, rich toned wooden ceiling. The ceilings were designed to emulate the traditional weave of Samoan pandanu mats and are a work of art.
Samoa is a strongly religious country with over 95 % of the population being regular church goers; the small nation’s motto is ‘Samoa is founded on God’.
An unmissable thing to do in Apia is to attend a sung service at the cathedral. The enthusiastic, rich toned, beautifully harmonised singing will give you goosebumps!
Visit other places of worship
Samoa is known for its religious tolerance so many other faiths have made their on the islands. Many of these religious buildings are open to visitors of any denomination (or none).
Visit the imposing white granite Mormon Temple located just outside Apia or the beautiful Baha’i House of Worship in nearby Tiapapata.
This Baha’i House Of Worship is one of only eight Baha’i worship sites in the world.
The stunning 20 acre gardens of the compound contain 60 different plant species, all of which are native to Samoa and the architecturally striking building is open to all visitors of any faith or background.
Our family loves a good market!
We enjoy discovering new fruits, flowers, arts and crafts and Apia’s markets did not disappoint.
There are several markets to choose from in Apia, all of which are located along the waterfront.
Every Sunday morning there is a busy Fish Market though you need to get up early to visit it. There will be lots of new and unusual looking fish for you to Google later!
Fugelei Market (for fruit and vegetables) is open Monday to Saturday with lots of fresh, locally grown fruit and vegetables to try.
Don’t miss the chance for a refreshing coconut drink or grab a freshly cooked lunch at the communal eating area behind the market.
The Flea Market runs every day except for Sunday. It is a bustling, atmospheric market which can get very hot under the canopy in the narrow crowded lanes.
There are lots of traditional crafts to buy at the market though very few crafts are from the people who actually made them.
Tips for Shopping in Apia
Shop around for souvenirs as prices in the markets and in the shops vary.
If you wish to buy traditional sapa cloth Samoan art, I would recommend buying directly from the artists at the Samoan Cultural Centre. The art will be unique and you will be supporting the artist directly.
Traditional crafts available to buy include pandanus mats and fans, lava bowls of all sizes, carved masks, wooden musical instruments and lava lavas (sarongs). Shopping in Samoa was one of those times I regretted travelling hand luggage only – though we did manage to squeeze a few things in!
If you are searching for a colourful Samoan shirt and are spending a few days in Apia, consider having a shirt made specially for you.
My 6 ft 5 husband can never find a shirt to fit him properly so he decided to have two Samoan shirts made at a tailor’s shop opposite the market.
He chose his own fabric, was expertly measured and two days later became the proud owner of two well fitting Samoan shirts. Plus, the handmade shirts were a similar price to the mass produced shirts in the market.
Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, Vailima
Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scottish author famous for ‘Treasure Island’ and many other works, arrived in Samoa in 1889.
He decided the tropical climate was beneficial to his poor health so decided to remain in Samoa for the remainder of his short life. Stevenson built a colonial style house in Vailima on the outskirts of Apia which has been recently restored and opened to the public as a museum.
The fully furnished rooms of the grand house are a curious mix of British and Samoan style. From the decor to the furnishings, visitors can see a blend of Samoan and Scottish influences and tastes.
For example, traditional Samoan sapa cloth art hangs on the walls next to the only fireplace and hearth found in Samoa! Stevenson’s light and airy study, packed with his books and manuscripts, was a personal highlight.
Entrance is by guided tour only and the engaging tour guides will tell you about Stevenson’s life in his much loved Samoa. Stevenson was loved back, earning the affectionate title Tusitala or teller of tales.
When Stevenson died just five years later in 1894, aged only 44, he requested to be buried on Mount Vaea behind his house. Today, visitors can climb Mount Vaea to see Stevenson’s simple yet poignant grave.
It is a long hot slog to the top of Mount Vaea but the forest path is technically easy and is easy to follow. You will be rewarded for your sweaty efforts with fantastic views of Apia and Samoa from the top of the mount.
Make sure you leave enough time in your visit to explore the beautiful grounds of Stevenson’s house.
There are landscaped borders with wild flowers of every shape and colour. Follow the forest paths to an idyllic waterfall and pond that was used by Stevenson for bathing.
Take your time visiting Vailima; many people only tour the house missing out on the gorgeous, tranquil grounds. We unexpectedly spent most of the day here.
The house is closed Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday.
Palolo Deep Marine Reserve
This protected marine reserve is a five minute walk from the centre of Apia.
Visitors must swim from the shore to the vibrant off shore coral reef. The reef is a 100 metre swim with occasional strong currents so should only be attempted by competent swimmers; we did not take our children for this reason.
The reef is best visited at high tide as this allows you more water and room in which to swim and manoeuvre over the reef. Snorkeling gear (including helpful flippers) can be hired in Apia.
Unlike most shallow coral around Samoa, the coral reef in the Palolo Deep Marine Reserve is healthy, colourful, varied and abundant in marine life.
There is a small entry free with basic changing facilities and food on site and a lovely beach for non swimmers to relax on.
Where to stay in Apia, Samoa
We stayed on the outskirts of Apia in Le Manumea Hotel. We wanted space, a quiet location and a pool for the kids. Le Manumea offered that and much more!
The friendly, family owned hotel is within walking distance of Vailima and is a short taxi or bus ride into Apia. Taxis can be summoned to the hotel or there is a public bus stop on the road outside the hotel.
We cannot recommend this hotel highly enough. The staff were warm and welcoming, the owners friendly and helpful and the facilities were excellent.
Le Manumea consists of a central, traditional style fale with a bar and reception area. Meals are served in this cool, open fale.
There is a large, clean pool set in landscaped grounds.
Our ‘room’ was a self contained chalet. We had a small verandah, a private open air bathroom, a much needed fridge and useful microwave. Plus, unusually for a family room, we had five proper beds!
We extended our stay at Le Manumea as we felt so at home here, a rarity on a round the world trip!
The owners invited us to church with them and took us to a local rugby game (one of my Samoa highlights). My birthday coincided with the hotel’s weekly Fia Fia night and the owners thoughtfully gave me a birthday cake with candle in it.
If you are looking for a warm, welcoming accommodation in Apia with excellent facilities, stay at Le Manumea.