From thriving cities to natural wonders: exploring Africa’s most popular destinations

From sweeping grasslands and desert dunes to glittering skyscrapers and hipster hangouts — Africa does natural paradises and urban hubs equally well.

By Annie Brookstone
Published 17 Jul 2019, 10:01 BST
Erg Chebbi dunes, Morocco
Erg Chebbi dunes, Morocco.
Photograph by Getty Images


The ornate, bustling cities of Morocco are juxtaposed against the dramatic, stark landscapes of the Sahara Desert.


Jemaa el-Fnaa square is where traditional Berber heritage and European influences mix. Yves Saint Laurent had a love affair with the city — his villa now houses the Islamic Art Museum of Marrakech, the Berber Museum and the Musee Yves Saint Laurent. Discover local talent at Riad Yima, the tearoom and gallery of artist Hassan Hajjaj.

Don’t miss: Gueliz — formerly the French quarter — has a mix of high street shops, galleries, boutiques and restaurants.

One of the world’s best-preserved medieval cities, Fez is also home to the World Festival of Sacred Music, a mecca for world music performers. Within the walled-in medina of Old Fez, Nur restaurant offers traditional flavours reimagined with avant-garde techniques by chef Najat Kaanache. Alternatively, try the Ville Nouvelle for fantastic street food.

Don’t miss: Chouara, the most famous of the city’s tanneries, showcases the ancient craft of tanning and dyeing. The dyes are all natural, from saffron for yellow to poppy or paprika for red.


High Atlas Mountains
The mountains offer activities for tranquillity and adventure seekers alike. High Atlas accommodation options range from the lavish — like Sir Richard Branson’s spectacular 28-room Kasbah Tamadot, just a 45-minute drive from Marrakech Menara Airport — to the simplicity of Touda Ecolodge with its views of the Ait Bougmez Valley.

Don’t miss: Atlas Cultural Adventures offers skiing in Africa between February and April.

Sahara Desert
Adventure seekers can venture into the world’s largest desert for multiday 4x4 tours, hikes and camel treks. The biggest draw are the massive sand dunes that tower as tall as mountains and change colour at sunrise and sunset. There are camping options at the remote Erg Chigaga dunes — the largest and most untouched of Morocco’s dunes. 

Don’t miss: Getting covered in hot sand. The experience, which begins with Berber men digging holes in the dunes as the sun rises, lasts for 30 minutes and is good for aching limbs, muscles and some skin diseases.

Lagos, Nigeria.
Photograph by Getty Images


The most populous country in Africa, Nigeria is home to mammoth megacities and stunning national parks.


Nigeria plays as hard as it works: ‘owambe’ is a Yoruba word to describe a flamboyant party, and it’s the spirit that pervades the culture here. Freedom Park, once a colonial prison, has found new life as a concert venue, while the New Afrika Shrine in Ikeja is a monument and open-air entertainment space dedicated to the late Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, frequently hosting performances by his sons, Femi and Seun aKuti. In Victoria Island, the Terra Kulture arts centre is an important treasure trove of Nigerian cultural heritage, one of the greatest supporters of contemporary Nigerian arts and just the place to try quintessential Nigerian cuisine. 

Don’t miss: The Nike Centre for Arts and Culture on the Lekki peninsula is a venture by textile queen and artist Nike Davies-Okundaye. Here you can see a collection of more than 8,000 artworks by the Nigerian creative, catch a workshop or sign up for an art course with Nike herself.


Yankari National Park
About 300 miles east of the city of Jos, right in the heart of the savannah, is Yankari National Park. Covering an area of approximately 866sq miles, it’s Nigeria’s largest national park and home to an astonishing array of wildlife. The park is particularly revered for its bird watching; there are more than 350 bird species, and it also supports a large African bush elephant population. The park welcomes day visitors but also has a camp of 110 chalets — ranging from basic to luxurious — with an on-site restaurant, tennis courts, squash courts and wildlife museum.

Don’t miss: What really sets Yankari apart are its hot springs. The Wikki Warm Spring is a natural hot spring that gushes forth from the sheer rock face and has been developed for recreation, begging a dip with crystal waters at a constant 31C all year round. The spring is open 24 hours a day, making it an ideal spot for stargazing in the wilderness.

Johannesburg, South Africa.
Photograph by Getty Images

South Africa

South Africa Offers some of the most iconic scenery in the world, along with unique urban experiences.


Cape Town
Start your day at Jason Bakery in Bree Street, before browsing local designer stores and boutiques or detour to the V&A Waterfront’s Silo District to check out contemporary art showcasing the continent’s talent at the Zeitz MOCAA. Then, tuck into authentic South African food at Mzoli’s butchery and open-air restaurant in Gugulethu.

Don’t miss: The Mother City may be known for its wine but Cause Effect Cocktail Kitchen, just off Cape Town’s vibey Kloof Street, is elevating cocktails to the same revered status.

Jo’burg is a cosmopolitan city whose fast-paced lifestyle belies an innate, easy-going friendliness. Visitors to the artsy Maboneng Precinct can check out South African films at independent cinema The Bioscope, browse home-grown fashion at the weekly Sunday Market on Main, sip on artisanal G&Ts at Time Anchor Distillery. The Apartheid Museum offers a moving journey into South Africa’s troubled past.

Don’t miss: Zoo Lake is a huge park surrounding a series of manmade lakes that are very popular with locals on weekends.


The Drakensberg
Spanning approximately 125 miles and with peaks reaching up to 10,000ft, the range forms a border between KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho. When not exploring mountain bike trails, abseiling cliff faces or spotting eland and rare bearded vultures, visitors can check out ancient indigenous rock art adorning mountain cave walls. Antbear Lodge even offers the option to overnight in a luxury cave, complete with Jacuzzi. 

Don’t miss: Zip through the treetops on a canopy tour, keeping an eye out for wildlife below.

The Garden Route
A 125-mile stretch from Mossel Bay in the Western Cape to Storms River in the Eastern Cape, the Garden Route was added to UNESCO’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves in 2017. Tucked between mountain and sea, Tsitsikamma National Park in the heart of the Garden Route is home to the famous Otter Trail hike, which leads hikers through 27 miles of exceptional scenery.

Don’t miss: Make sure to check out Southern Right whales leaving Antarctica and migrating into South Africa’s coastal waters in the winter months of June to November. 

Zanzibar at sunset.
Photograph by Getty Images


Wildlife on the Serengeti, Zanzibar’s tropical beaches and the snowdusted peak of Kilimanjaro  — Tanzania has it all.


Dar es Salaam
In just a few generations, Dar es Salaam has blossomed into a vibrant metropolis of more than four million people — clearly evidenced by the many gleaming new developments springing up between old art deco buildings. The throbbing heart of the city is the sprawling Kariakoo Market, where visitors can shop like a local. For some cultural immersion without the crowds, however, the Nafasi Art Space showcases 37 studios and exhibition spaces — many of them converted from old shipping containers — of contemporary Tanzanian art. 

Don’t miss: Like any other big city, caffeine keeps Dar going. Mobile street coffee shops serve strong, bitter coffee with sweet and sticky peanut brittle on the side.


This archipelago brims with tropical island calling-cards: golden beaches, palm trees, coral reefs, mangrove swamps and dense forest thickets. Chumbe Island Coral Park is an award-winning private nature reserve focused on the preservation of its protected coral reef sanctuary. On the main island of Unguja, accommodation options are plentiful, but for those seeking extra tranquillity, the Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa has only 11 private villas on its 10 acres, while The Palms has limited its luxury villas to just six.

Don’t miss: The monthly Full Moon Party on Kendwa Beach. It usually takes place on a Saturday and promises local food, music and dancing late into the night.


Giraffes, Maasai Mara National Reserve.
Photograph by Getty Images


A mecca for safaris and world-class hiking, Kenya is also home to thriving cities.


In Nairobi you can go from concrete jungle to actual jungle, spotting leopards in Nairobi National Park with the city’s skyscrapers creating a surreal backdrop against the grassy plain. If you like your nightlife on the wild side too, the neighbourhood of Westlands is home to some of Nairobi’s coolest venues. 

Don’t miss: The Alchemist, an outdoor event space and bar in Nairobi where you can rub shoulders with Kenya’s most interesting young entrepreneurs.

Kenya’s oldest settlement and still one of Africa’s busiest ports, Mombasa’s diverse influences are evident in its many mosques and Hindu and Sikh temples. Embrace the year-round tropical temperatures by making a beeline straight for Nyali Beach on the north coast, or check out Biashara Street’s spice markets and small family-owned shops that have existed for generations.

Don’t miss:  Ngomongo Villages is a sustainable eco-cultural village showcasing traditional Kenyan life.


Maasai Mara National Reserve
The Maasai Mara National Reserve borders Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and they host the world’s most dramatic animal migration, as over two million wildebeest, zebra and gazelle cross the Mara River from July to October to reach the Maasai Mara’s lush grazing.

Don’t miss: Hot Air Safaris has a fleet of six balloons offering unique aerial safaris.

Mount Kenya National Park
From its verdant valleys to high-altitude glaciers, Mount Kenya inspires a sacred reverence that still draws members of the Kikuyu tribe to pray on its slopes. The highest peaks are only accessible to experienced mountaineers, though Point Lenana, the third-highest peak at 16,355ft, offers a challenging but manageable trek of four to six days. 

Don’t miss: Keep an eye out for the bongo, an endangered species of antelope endemic to the park.   

Published in National Geographic Traveller (UK) — Africa Collection 2019

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