Manhattan or Mozambique? Maputo's billion dollar makeover

(CNN)Maputo is rising.

Literally rising. Across the city, cranes stretch up alongside new towers to house luxury hotels, corporate offices and posh condos -- all with price tags that seem more like Manhattan than Mozambique.
Billions of dollars are pouring into the country to develop offshore gas wells. They won't start producing for a few more years, but Maputo is already taking its first steps out of poverty with a definite swagger.
Newfound confidence and optimism pervade the city, from small theaters that stage Hamlet as comfortably as reggae, to a lively restaurant scene and a renewed sense of pride in the nation's history.
    When Mozambique's civil war ended in 1992, Maputo's streets had more potholes than pavement.
    Buildings were rundown, or occupied by squatters. The scent of sewage hung in the air.
    For the next decade, it wasn't clear how the country would put itself right.
    The mood now is more like Southeast Asia in the early 1990s. Mozambique has been one of the world's fastest-growing economies for more than a decade, but it's only now starting to show.
    The main roads are paved, and new pipes and cables are being run under sidewalks.

    Multi-million dollar makeovers

    Parks and museums have been scrubbed up. Hotels have undergone multi-million-dollar makeovers, and new ones are being built.
    Taxis and tuk-tuks jostle with 4x4s during rush hour. Shop windows have filled up again, with a Hugo Boss across the street from fishmongers in the Municipal Market.
    Maputo is making real efforts to welcome tourists.
    In the historic downtown area known as Baixa, maps are posted at street corners indicating sites of interest, making it easy to do a self-guided walking tour.
    Even getting lost is a pleasure, especially in the mornings, when the worst-case scenario ends with an espresso and a pastel de nata egg tart pastry at a sidewalk cafe.
    Getting lost is harder than it used to be.
    Long-missing street signs are being replaced with new ones that also explain who the streets are named for.
    Rua Gabriel Makavi honors a Presbyterian minister who was a respected Tsonga-language poet.
    Rua Ngungunyana remembers the 19th century king who was the last ruler of Gaza, now a province of Mozambique.
    For a fuller story of the city's sites, the charming Jane Flood (jane.flood@gmail.com) also leads walking tours in English that explain the history of Maputo's architecture.
    Scattered around the city are small but surprisingly well-curated museums that look at particular slices of Mozambique's past.
    The National Coin Museum (Museu Nacional da Moeda) admittedly sounds like it could be a bore. But the building itself, known as the Yellow House, is one of the oldest in the city and worth a visit on its own.
    A 70-cent entrance fee opens the door to a collection of the many currencies that have circulated in Mozambique's long history.
    Some of the earliest were bracelets and farming implements once used for cash, along with a sprinkling of precisely 4.83 grams of gold dust, a standard called a metical that's now the name of the national currency.
    In between are plastic chips that served as cash when the country was run by private Portuguese companies and a series of banknotes displayed to illustrate the changes in the country's rulers.

    Eiffel's Iron House

    Across the plaza from the Coin Museum is a building usually just called the Fortress, which also hosts a small museum that holds the carved coffin of King Ngungunyana.
    A few blocks up the road is the Iron House, one of the world's first pre-fabricated buildings, designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame).
    Unfortunately, he didn't take into account the tropical heat, which turned the interior into an oven, so it was hardly used for decades.
    Now it's air conditioned and contains a small display of artifacts from some of Mozambique's medieval cities and trading posts, which once connected Zimbabwe and other inland countries to commercial routes stretching to India and China.
    Farther up the road at the hilltop is the Maputo City Hall, another grand neo-classical building, and next to it the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, one of the best examples of art deco architecture from the city's last building boom.
    From here it's a bit of a hike to the Maputo Railway Station.
    Taxis and tuk-tuks are cheap and easy to flag, but a walk through the Baixa is a pleasure, if you can take the heat.
    Streetside book vendors carry Thomas Piketty, Plato and Portuguese romance novels.
    Some of the buildings are noteworthy only for their faded glory. Many have been bulldozed to make way for high-rises, which makes the survivors even more interesting.
    The train station is undergoing a major renovation, but it's still open to the public.
    Inside are old steam engines, battered carriages and distinctive iron latticework. Toward the end of the platform is the Kulungwana art gallery, one of the best-known in the city.
    Its director, Henry Matos, also runs the Xiquitsi classical music festival.
    Music of all sorts is what drives the city after hours. On weekends, jazz fills the courtyard uptown at the Nucleo de Arte (194 R. da Argelia Maputo), the legendary incubator for the artists who took 600,000 guns from the civil war and turned them into statues displayed all over the world.

    Pools overlooking the beach

    Downtown by Independence Plaza there's more jazz at the French-Mozambican Cultural Centre and reggae at the Gil Vicente bar across the street.
    One of the city's biggest night-time scenes is in the Feira Popular, an old fairground that's ringed with restaurants and bars.
    By day, it looks like the setting of a Stephen King novel. By night, it's alive with music.
    The crowds can get uncomfortable inside, but right at the entrance is Escorpiao, a popular seafood restaurant that captures the vibe without the claustrophobia (Rua de Timor Leste, Maputo).
    Mozambique is also famous for its beaches, but the water around Maputo isn't the crystal blue of postcards.
    The best swimming is in hotel pools.
    The Avenida's is on the rooftop, where there's always a breeze and a view (Avenida Julius Nyerere, Maputo; +258 21 484 400)
    Luxury destinations like the Polana Serena (Av. Bernabe Thawe, Maputo; +258 21 491 001) and the Southern Sun both have pools overlooking the beach, the next best thing to swimming in the ocean.
    On the Avenida da Marginal, about 10 kilometers out of city, small huts house tiny restaurants that grill chicken, prawns and calamari, which are served under the palms.
    The ocean here is so tempting, but the water is much cleaner offshore. Fishermen are happy to ferry tourists to the nearby Xefina island. It's uninhabited, with no vendors or toilets, so day trippers need to bring food, water and other supplies along with them.