It's a big old place with more than 50 countries but where are the best places to visit in Africa? From the fabled sands that swirl around the pyramids to the world's largest Delta, the roar of the lion and the sweet-salt song of the grey go-away bird, it would take more than one lifetime to visit and understand Africa.
And, as you've probably worked out by now, we only have the one lifetime. One chance at that African bucket list.
So here's one for you. Curated from years of travel, research, and direct experience. The best places to visit in Africa.
A (gulp) African bucket list, if you will.
Ooh, Okavango, you beautiful place, you.
All aswish in blues and greens, the Okavango Delta offers safaris from the level of the water instead of the dust of the road.
This is the largest delta in the world and yet it's hundreds of miles from the ocean (800 miles from the Atlantic and more than a thousand miles away from the Indian ocean.)
You will find large animals here, like elephants and the snorting hippo, but you'll see them from a mokoro: a fragile, water canoe.
When to go: The best time to see wildlife or go on a safari is between July and October. The rainy months are from January to March. During the rainy season, some areas may flood and can be inaccessible. If you want to beat the really hot days, you will want to travel between May and August.
How to get there: take a small plane from Maun into the delta itself. Drive from Windhoek in Namibia to reach Maun. Flights connect regularly there from Joburg.
Found in the south, right next to Namibia, Botswana is probably best known for being the home of the Okavango Delta (and perhaps also the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series.) It’s big, it’s beautiful, it has a low volume high cost tourism policy.
Travel tip: Plan your trip in advance. The Okavango Delta struggles with the idea of spontaneous independent travel.
Dress Code: Long sleeves and trousers in cool colours to fight the bugs.
Unusual highlight: More elephants than you can shake a stick at!
Few things fire up the imagination as much as the relics of ancient Egypt. And what's even better than that is the realisation when you visit that, well, these ruins dazzle more than it was ever possible to dream.
They really are that good.
The pyramids sit in the sands outside of Cairo but to see the towering stone at Aswan and the Valley of the Kings requires a journey along the Nile.
See if you can solve the mystery of the Temple of Aswan.
When to go: the heat in Egypt can be absolutely crushing. For this reason, the best time of year to visit any part of Egypt is between October and April because the weather is at its most pleasant. Many people chose to tour the pyramids in December and January so the lines to the Pyramids of Giza will be long and the sights will be crowded.
How to get there: You can visit the pyramids as a day trip from Cairo but for the rest, you'll need to arrange transport from Cairo in advance (sometimes in convoy.)
Currency: Egyptian pound
Best way of getting around: Cruise along the Nile, drive in convoy. Given the changes in the last few years always check up to date advice before travelling at all.
Highlight: The Valley of the Kings (and not just because it’s my name)
Travel tip: Avoid summer as it’s soul crushingly hot. Bring plenty of water and respectful sass to deal with the touts at the main archaeological sites.
Dress Code: Conservative and cool – long sleeves and trousers. Wear a hat for the sun, no need for other cover.
Morocco wears many colours designed to make you fall in love: her beautiful beaches, rust red film backdrops and the impossible ceramic blue found in the narrow streets of Essaouira.
But the fragrant Atlas Mountains stand out on the edge of the Sahara.
With hairpin curves, dusty lanes and orchard upon orchard of peach, prickly pear and plum, the Atlas mountains are perfect for hiking, resting, thinking and dreaming. You can walk through Berber villages, watching goats cling to treetops and seeing peak after peak layer up in the distance.
In Morocco, the colours dazzle. Market places, in particular, fire up my photoreceptors faster than I can manage to take photos. The almighty sands of the Sahara are rippled and mysterious, whether you navigate them by camel or by sandboard. Driving through this varied, dusty terrain is also quite an experience (well, if you can get the car started).
Language: Arabic & French
Best way of getting around: Independent driving, driving with a guide or travelling by bus.
When to go: the best time to visit the Atlas Mountains is in April, May, and September. At this time it’s warm but not too hot, and the highest peaks will have a little snow, adding to the beauty of the views on offer.
How to get there: Fly into Marrakesh and take a 90-minute drive via taxi or rent a 4x4 if you are feeling adventurous.
Travel tip: Prepare for chaos on the roads and bring your own maps. Sat nav can be hard to come by.
Dress Code: Conservative and cool. Think cotton long sleeves, long trousers and a cotton scarf to protect against the heat and wind in the dessert and the cold high up in the mountains.
Unusual highlight: Just how much blue there is on the coast
First time travellers frequently seek out Egypt, Morocco, Kenya or South Africa - with good reason. Travel here can be more straightforward and more closely resemble home, if home is in the US, Australia or Europe.
Wherever you go, you'll need to check your required vaccinations and antimalarials well in advance, develop some street smarts - and be prepared to leave a part of your heart in that rich red soil forever.
Whichever way you look at it, 55 million years is a long time.
That's how long these ripe red sands have slid one over the other in this part of the world and if you haven't guessed it yet, here's the main title: the oldest desert in the world.
The Namib desert gives the country, Namibia, its name. It means wide open space yet a few small pockets deserve a special mention.
Dune 45 is the most accessible in the Namib Naukluft National Park. And it lies within a day's reach of the haunting Death Valley, the area so dry the trees can't even rot.
Tucked down in the southern part of Africa, Namibia is famed for its red rust sand, giant dunes, skeleton coast and the world’s oldest desert. Swakopmund is billed as an adrenaline capital but through my eyes it was unimaginably dreary.
Currency: Namibian Dollar
Best way of getting around: Independent driving or driving with a tour guide.
Travel tip: Pack for both hot and cold weather in the desert and plan your trip in advance. It’s not that easy to get into the Namib desert spontaneously.
Dress Code: Casual but remember that deserts have extreme temperatures. Hot and cold!
When to go: for wildlife, travel during the dry season which runs from June to October.
How to get there: Most people fly into the Hosea Kitako International Airport located in Windhoek byway of Johannesburg. Namibia is a popular self-drive destination so you can hire a car and drive to the Namib desert yourself. However, you'll need to arrange permits so it can be easier to travel with a guide.
From the hot and dusty streets of Moshi, the snow-capped peak of Kilimanjaro overlooks the town. The hike takes several days, through lush green plantations, scraggy bare rock and finally snow and ice before reaching 5895 metres, a point higher than the base camp on Everest.
This photo is small, because I was small when I went there - well, younger in any case. No digital cameras. Certainly no iPhones. Not even a degree, I travelled to Moshi as part of my medical student placement.
Tanzania offers incredible safari experiences and soft white beaches ripe with cinnamon and vanilla in Zanzibar.
But it is the sight of snow in the centre of Africa and the mysterious lure of the mountain that stood out in my heart the most.
With a reputation of being one of east Africa’s most peaceful countries, Tanzania is also known for two of Africa’s masterpieces: access to the Serengeti and the snow-capped peaks of Kilimanjaro. There’s more, of course, from Spice Island Zanzibar to the teeming Ngorogoro crater. It’s a country with a special place of my heart as I spent months there as a student at the hospital. Unfortunately, that also means I wasn’t out taking so many photos. Plus, it was some time ago before digital photography got going.
Ah well. Still an amazing place to visit.
When to go: visit between January and March if you enjoy the cold and possibly snowy weather. If you prefer to stay warm, you can also visit the area between June and October when the weather is more forgiving.
How to get there: fly direct to Kilimanjaro International Airport or into the capital Dar Es Salaam and travel up by road.
Madagascar excels in striking, mesmerising wildlife and landscapes, from the rust-red sharp-toothed rocky tsingy to the curious chameleons and the lemurs that leap through the air.
However, it's those bulbous baobab trees that really captured my heart. These magnificent works of art from nature can grow up to 30 metres tall and 11 metres wide. They store thousands of gallons of water within their trunks to allow them to survive through the dry periods.
Travel to Madagascar: this great big island off the east coast of Africa bursts with wildlife you can’t find anywhere else. Think chameleons, lemurs and baobab trees but also revel in chances to spot whales in the waves by the Nosy (islands.) The capital, Antananaviro, teems with people and poverty but Diego Suarez/Antsiranana in the north has a quieter, coastal pace of life.
Currency: Malagasy ariary
Language: Malagasy and French
Best way of getting around: Independent driving, driving with a guide or travelling by bus. Internal flights make navigating the island manageable.
Highlight: those beautiful Baobab Trees
Travel tip: Bring torches and suitable outdoor gear to catch sight of nocturnal chameleons.
Dress Code: Relaxed but long sleeves and trousers make sense in the jungle and on the tsingy to protect against scrapes, sunburn and serious mosquito-borne disease.
When to go: Since the rainy season can cause floods, travel betweenMay until October.
How to get there: Baobab trees are found across Madagascar, however the famous avenue lives between Morondava and Belon’i Tsiribihina in the Menabe region of western Madagascar. Fly into Tana and travel on from there.
The Seychelles are probably best known for their white sandy beaches but they have an eco-system like nowhere else in the world. Have you heard of Coco de Mer? It's a rare palm tree native to the Seychelles with an iconic, voluptuously shaped giant seed.
Then there are volcanic boulders that sit on the beach and a growing ecotourism business.
Beaches, beauty & boulders. The Seychelles are those kind of islands, the kind that inspire the word paradise and make troubles drift away while allowing space for dreams to settle in.
International flights land in Mahe, with a number of great hotels a short drive away (the Banyan Tree Seychelles for one.)
Otherwise, you need separate flights to reach the other islands, such as the private island of Desroches with its white, white beaches and eco-driven research.
Yes. So, this is the most visited part of the whole of the continent of Africa. Yet you can still stand atop Table Mountain and feel as though you are the only one there, staring across at the way the land melts into the water as though no-one but you has seen it. It's easily accessibly via cable car or if you're feeling adventurous, you can climb up and back in a day.
South Africa is one of the most accessible parts of Africa, with frequent flights into both Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg. Distances are still vast, though, and the country is incredibly varied. Find out why it's called the Rainbow Nation here.
Currency: South African rand.
Language: 10 official languages out of at least 35 indigenous languages. English is widely spoken.
The creators of Simba, Pumba and the rest of the gang didn't imagine as much as you might have thought. On a research expedition to Kenya, they discovered a national park with that curious jutting red stone.
It takes an internal flight to reach the place that inspired Pride Rock but it's absolutely worth it.
Expect safaris over dry, red earth for sure but also across bright green waterways and make time for cosmopolitan city life in Nairobi.
Currency: Kenyan shilling
Language: Bantu Swahili and English
Best way of getting around: Independent driving, driving with a guide or internal flights to cover larges distances.
Highlight: those famous safari drives.
Travel tip: bring lots of memory cards for all those safari pics…
Dress Code: City slick in Nairobi and safari chic elsewhere. This is a fashionable kind of place (but covering up helps, as always, in the fight against sunburn and mosquitoes.)
Nelson Mandela didn't just change politics in South Africa, he changed the possibility of politics across the world. The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg creates a vivid experience of what apartheid was, how insidiously it came about and what legacy it leaves today.
But it's the living, breathing, brightly coloured, braai serving neighbourhood of Soweto that shows Mandela's footprint the most.
When it comes to talking about travel in Africa, many people still think about this:
Or maybe even this:
And while there’s no doubt that catching the Big Five on safari (in a philosophical way) really is a stand-out, once in a lifetime event, there’s really more, so much more to be said about travel in Africa.
For a start, it’s big. Really big, with over 20% of the world's land mass, population of over one billion and growing. It has over 2000 languages, more than 50 nations, and as many different races and religions as you can probably think of.
So why am I telling you this? You don’t need me to tell you that the cultural legacy extends beyond the Pyramids, Cape Town and Nelson Mandela (even if the man himself was one of the most impressive we’ve seen.)
No, I’m not here to patronise you. I just want to make the point clear.
Tourism reports suggest that when foreign travellers visit Africa, they go on safari. Or they stop, as well they might, in the world-class city at the tip of the teardrop in Cape Town.
But that’s often about it.
So, it got me thinking. And joining a movement that tries to share more stories about Africa.
Why? Because in addition to sharing the best places to visit in Africa with you, research also shows that when people know more about the world, they are more likely to do business with it.
This matters everywhere but it matters even more in Africa. Research has revealed that well-meaning fundraising efforts have left generations with the image that Africa is the continent of poverty and starving children...and nothing more. The unforeseen side effect of that is more poverty as the rest of the world stays away.
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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