Africa. For most people, the name evokes visions of lions stalking antelope on sun-baked savannahs, elephants frolicking in teeming rivers, or gorillas foraging in dense jungles. But there’s so much more to this vast continent than wildlife, and so many more reasons to visit Africa. Mouthwatering cuisine, world-class wine, and magnificent music echo from a thousand restaurants, from Cairo to Cape Town. Marketplaces bustle with women in vividly-colored garments, hawking fruit amid the chatter of dozens of languages. Majestic mountain peaks wait to be climbed, achingly beautiful waterfalls beg to be beheld, and blissful beaches beckon sunbathers. Children play soccer in urban shantytowns alongside busy highways, as sleek vehicles with tinted windows ferry suited businessmen to distant skyscrapers.
It’s got a little of everything
Africa offers all these things, and more. Whether you want an urban experience or a rural retreat, a heart-pounding thrill or a calming interlude, you can find it in Africa. And whether your interests run to history, food, animals, culture, relaxation, or adventure, it’s all there for the taking. As a continent with more than 50 nations, almost a billion people, hundreds of ethnic groups, dazzlingly diverse geography, and some of the most memorable flora and fauna on Earth, there are endless experiences to be had, people to meet, and corners to explore.
It’s not as dangerous or as far away as you think
It’s true that Africa has its issues: poverty, crime and political unrest are present here and there, and could potentially negatively impact a trip. But by traveling smart and doing research in advance, chances are your trip will be no more or less eventful than a trip to Asia, South America or Europe, which all have their own “no-go” zones. It’s also assumed that Africa is hard to get to. This may have been true at one time, but nowadays there are dozens of non-stop flights from the U.S., Europe, and Asia into gateway cities such as Nairobi, Johannesburg and Cairo.
It’s the next frontier in travel
Simply put, the numbers speak for themselves: numerous studies by governmental organizations and private firms show that both business and leisure travel to Africa is growing by leaps and bounds. The increasing number of airline routes and hotel rooms on the continent also supports this trend, which means there’s no time like the present to get going. In fact, most people who go to Africa say the experience was one of the best of their lives, and they can’t wait to go back.
Some of the most compelling cities on Earth are located in Africa. Aside from obvious favorites like Cape Town, Nairobi, and Marrakesh, which offer vibrant nightlife, top-notch hotels and abundant cultural attractions, many less-famous cities are also fantastic destinations in their own right. Durban’s got beaches, and a thriving international food scene; Addis Ababa is famous for churches, mosques and markets; visitors love Windhoek’s quaint German colonial architecture and castles; and Dakar’s streets hum with music, from reggae to hip-hop to mbalax.
Visitors from as far afield as Iceland and Uruguay come to Africa to see critters that can’t be seen anywhere else in the world. Aside from the Big Five (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant) there are majestic mountain gorillas in Uganda, bat-eared foxes in Ethiopia, and wailing bushbabies (also known as galago) throughout the continent. The menacing aye aye lives in the Atsinanana rainforest of Madagascar, which is home to hundreds of varieties of animals that are found nowhere else. Birdwatchers love South Africa, which is home to 800 species. And don’t forget the water-based creatures: the Nile crocodile, the Jackass penguin, the massive whale shark, and the manatee-like dugong. You can even take “ocean safaris” in many countries.
Africa is home to 35 nature-based UNESCO World Heritage sites, from the remote Ounianga Lakes in Chad, which only see about 500 visitors per year, to the world-famous Victoria Falls, which sees more than 100,000. Massive Lake Malawi, the third-largest in the world, has more species of fish than any other lake on earth. Most visitors are unaware that the 1,200 mile-long Red Sea Reef, which stretches from Egypt to Eritrea, is home to 1,100 species of fish and rivals even the Great Barrier Reef in size and diversity. And the spectacular animal-filled Ngorongoro Crater, in the highlands of Tanzania, is the largest unbroken volcanic caldera in the world.
There are over 3,000 distinct ethnic groups in Africa, each with their own culture, customs, music, food, religion, and dress. Be mesmerized by the rhythms of Gnaoua music at the annual festival in Essaouira (Morocco); sample the Afro-Portuguese cuisine in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique; walk with Maasai warriors through the hills of Kenya, learning about the rituals that have survived for thousands of years; or head to the Swahili village of Lamu, and meet a family of local woodcarvers who will proudly explain their traditions and daily routines. In the ancient spice markets of Zanzibar, Hindu, Muslim and Christian merchants compete for business in the crowded, fragrant bazaars.
If you’re an adrenaline junkie, Africa can provide the fix you need. The Zambezi River offers a double dose of thrills, with bungee jumping above the water running a close second to whitewater rafting ON the water. Shark cage diving is popular in Gansbaai (South Africa), but requires a certain amount of courage (some would call it lunacy). The sand dunes of Namibia offer numerous opportunities for adventure, including quad-biking or sandboarding on them, and paragliding far above them. And if you’re in Kenya, check out the Skydivers Club of Nairobi for the ultimate high-altitude experience.
Wide open spaces
Africa is all about vast expanses stretching out between teeming cities. These are some of the best parts of the continent, and there are many ways to enjoy and appreciate them. In Namibia, the ancient Namib desert has the highest sand dunes in the world and an otherworldly beauty; 4×4 tours can take you right into the heart of it. In Tunisia, a camel safari is an ideal way to absorb the enormity of the Sahara, which surprises visitors with Roman ruins and Troglodyte cave dwellings. The well-heeled traveler can kick back and relax during a luxury train journey across the center of South Africa, while being treated to breathtaking views of mountains, valleys and savannahs. And of course the Serengeti migration highlights the vastness of the east African plains — you can see massive herds of animals stretching all the way to the horizon … and beyond.
History and Heritage
Africa’s historical attractions literally link back to the dawn of mankind. Olduvai Gorge, the massive ravine in the middle of east Africa’s Great Rift Valley, is where the oldest pre-historic human remains in the world have been found. During the great empires of the pre-Christian era and middle ages, the pyramids of Giza, the mud brick homes of Djenne (Mali), and the rock churches of Lalibela (Ethiopia) were built. The ancient ruins at Great Zimbabwe are rumored to have been the ancient capital of the Queen of Sheba. At sites such as Badagry in Nigeria and Gorée in Senegal, the devastating legacy of the slave trade began. Robben Island and Soweto in South Africa are just two of many places in that country where visitors can get a sense of what life was like during the not-so-distant apartheid era.
The beaches of Africa are as diverse as the continent itself. They range from posh private island hideaways, to pulsating urban oceanfronts, to refreshing lakeside retreats. The most well-known spots for a beach holiday include the Kenya coast, the islands off Mozambique, Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, Tunisia, Morocco, Zanzibar, Mauritius and the Seychelles. But you can also sun yourself along Gambia’s endless coastline, on the shores of Lake Malawi, on Banda Island (in the middle of Lake Victoria), and on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. Urban beaches abound too: While sunning at Labadi beach in the heart of Accra, Ghana, you’ll be surrounded by drummers, dancers and musicians. And at the ever-popular Bar Beach in Lagos, Nigeria, there are not only the eponymous sandbars, but lots of the other kind of bar as well.
Food and wine
Did you know that South Africa is not the only African country that has a great tradition of wine-making? Pretty much any country with a history of European colonization has a wine industry. So you can follow the wine trails of Stellenbosch, but also those of Ambalavao in Madagascar, the Meknes region of Morocco, Swakopmund and Windhoek in Namibia, and Cap Bon in Tunisia. Foodies love Africa’s ethnically diverse — and often quirky — cuisine. Ever had bunnychow or biltong in South Africa? What about chakhchoukha in Algeria? Or funkaso in Nigeria? Whether you’re browsing the food stalls in Fez or sitting down to a five-course meal in Cape Town, chances are you’ll be blown away by the flavors, aromas and spices of African food.
The list of outdoor recreation and sports activities across the continent is literally endless. You could spend years doing it all: Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro; golfing in Botswana; kayaking on Lake Tanganyika; hiking South Africa’s Drakensberg mountains; scuba diving in Mozambique; tiger fishing on Lake Kariba in Zambia; sportfishing off the coast of Senegal; or swimming in the magical Fatnas Spring in Egypt. You can even cycle all the way from Cairo to Cape Town, if you are so inclined. If you feel the need for speed, head to Luderitz in Namibia, the windsurfing capital of the world. Speed records are regularly set there during international competitions.