The Ultimate African Vacation Planning Guide

  • 01 of 09

    The Best Places to Go in Africa

    Masai man watching a hot-air balloon over the savannah
    Getty Images/Buena Vista Images

    With more than 50 countries to consider, making a decision about where to go on vacation in Africa can be quite daunting. Africa is incredibly diverse and you can experience different cultures, languages, fauna, flora, and topography in each individual country.

    Figuring out what you would like to see and do while on holiday in Africa is probably the best way to decide where to go. This is especially helpful if your time in the continent is limited to one or two weeks. If you have a month or more to spend in Africa then it is probably best to consider an Overland Tour so you get to experience several countries and get more of a taste of the 'real' Africa.

    Once you are ready to book your vacation, follow through with a trip planning guide so you don't run into problems with the timing of your travels. You can also check to see whether it makes sense to book with a tour operator or if you can simply book your trip independently. It may be important to you to ensure your trip to Africa is a "responsible" one. And if this is your first visit to Africa, find out what to expect as a first-timer.

    Read on for an extensive (though by no means exhaustive) list of activities which will introduce you to the best Africa has to offer.


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  • 02 of 09

    African Safari

    Elephants with young calf and safari tourists in Masai Mara national park
    Getty Images/Luis Davilla

    Many visitors to Africa are interested in going on a safari. The best countries to visit if you want to see the 'Big 5' in particular are: Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Botswana. For the Great Annual Migration of millions of wildebeest and zebra, you need to head to Kenya or Tanzania, depending on the time of year.

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  • 03 of 09

    Africa's Best Beaches

    Anse Source D’Argent, La Digue, Seychelles best beach africa
    Getty Images/Buena Vista

    Europeans have been enjoying beach vacations in Africa for decades and Americans are starting to discover the joys of combining a beach holiday with a safari and a dash of African culture.

    • Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco have plenty of beach resorts and there are tourist packages available for all budgets.
    • South Africa boasts some of the best beaches for sunbathing and surfing. You can even share your beach towel with penguins, and you can easily add on a safari to your itinerary.
    • Kenya has some good beaches on the Indian Ocean and is very popular with Europeans who flock to Malindi, Diani, and Lamu. Zanzibar in Tanzania offers white sands as well as an interesting history and culture. Mauritius and the Seychelles Islands off the East African coast are simply idyllic for divers and beach lovers. In West Africa, Gambia and Ghana have some lovely beaches as well.
    • Africa's many lakes also offer good beaches and swimming, Lake Malawi is particularly popular with backpackers, but you have to be careful with Bilharzia, a parasite that lives in lakes and rivers throughout the continent.
    • For diving, Egypt's Red Sea coast ranks among the world's best. If diving with sharks is what you're after, South Africa has some wonderful opportunities to get close to the Great White.
    • Ghana's western beaches are wonderful to explore, lots of budget guesthouses, friendly fishing villages and plenty of opportunities to play some drums and enjoy a few cold beers. (Just watch out for the ocean currents!)
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  • 04 of 09

    Africa's Natural Wonders

    Scenic View Of Victoria Falls Against Sky
    Getty Images/Matt Heal/EyeEm

    The scenic beauty in almost every country in Africa is legendary but some sights truly stand out and are worth a trip in themselves. These include:

    • The stunning Victoria Falls along the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. The spray is so impressive from the look-out points, it feels like you are in the middle of a torrential rainstorm. The Victoria Falls are one of the natural wonders of the world and something you just have to experience for yourself.
    • Namibia's Fish River Canyon is not as well known internationally but is second only to the Grand Canyon in the US. You can take a five-day hike in season that will leave you tired but elated. Luckily a spa greets you at the end of the walk.
    • There are many spectacular mountain ranges but the most famous mountain in Africa is its tallest, Mount Kilimanjaro (Tanzania). Rising 19,336 feet out of the savannah with a permanent snow-capped peak, it's worth a trip even if you don't plan to climb it.
    • For greenery, you shouldn't miss the rainforests in the Virunga Mountains (Rwanda, Uganda, and the DRC) which are home to the last remaining Mountain gorillas.
    • Finally, the stark beauty and romance of the desert are not to be missed -- the dunes of the Sahara desert do not disappoint. The best places to enjoy a trek on a camel and spend a night in a bedouin tent include Tunisia and Morocco. There are some particularly spectacular dunes in Sossusvlei, Namibia.
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  • 05 of 09

    Trekking in Africa

    mt. kilimanjaro, at dawn, tanzania
    Getty Images/Richard Packwood

    Africa offers wonderful hiking and trekking opportunities and the best include:

    • Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Mount Kilimanjaro stands at over 19,000 feet and is Africa's highest peak. It takes a week to hike to the summit but the good news is you can do it without oxygen or special training.
    • Africa's second highest peak is Mount Kenya in Kenya is also a fantastic hike you. Trekkers can walk up to Point Lenana, or attempt the technical climb to the volcano's highest peaks.
    • The High Atlas Mountains in Morocco make up part of the greatest mountain chain in North Africa. The High Atlas range is 400 miles long and its peaks reach over 13,000 feet. There are lots of treks available for the novice as well as experienced mountaineers.
    • The Drakensberg Mountains are the highest mountain range in South Africa and they are spectacular. The Drakensberg offers both natural beauty as well as a unique cultural experience in the form of thousands of San Rock paintings. Treks here are well organized and you can opt for one-day hikes as well as trips that last a week.
    • Slightly off the beaten path but worthy of being on this list of best treks in Africa, are the Rwenzori Mountains (Mountains of the Moon) in Uganda and the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia.
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  • 06 of 09

    Africa's Historic Sites and Ancient Civilizations

    Great Sphinx of Giza and Pyramid of Khafre.
    Getty Images/Pablo Charl?n

    Africa is a fascinating destination for anyone with an interest in history and ancient civilizations.

    • Africa is the birthplace of mankind and you can visit ancient hominid sites like Oldupai Gorge in Tanzania and the caves of Sterkfontein in South Africa where hominid fossils dating back 3.5 million years have been discovered.
    • Traveling forward in time, Egypt is, of course, the primary destination for all those interested in ancient civilizations. The Pharaohs left behind the great Pyramids of Giza and they built magnificent temples and tombs in Luxor and Abu Simbel.
    • Libya is home to some of the finest examples of ancient Greek and Roman ruins in the world. You can see the Roman ruins at Leptis Magna and Greek ruins at Cyrene along Libya's Mediterranean coast. They are both World Heritage Sites and there's very rarely a crowd, you may even get the whole site to yourself.
    • If you would like to see Medieval Islamic architecture with Mosques adorned with splendid tiles, buzzing bazaars and warren-like streets then you will love Fes and Marrakech in Morocco.
    • Ethiopia is filled with living Orthodox Christian sites like the churches carved out of rock in Lalibela and the marvelous Aksum Steele.
    • If you are interested in more recent African history, Slave tours in West Africa offer a fascinating insight into the darker periods of the continent's history. South Africa is not afraid of marketing its political history, there are battlefields to explore and you can also visit Robben Island where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years imprisoned.
    • Further off the beaten track, there's Djenne in Mali, with its fantastic mosque built of mud, the mysterious thousand-year-old Great Zimbabwe Ruins and of course East Africa's slave towns of Lamu (Kenya) and Stone Town, Zanzibar (Tanzania).


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  • 07 of 09

    African People and Culture

    Masai in traditional clothes joining hands in unity (Zanzibar, Tanzania)
    Getty Images/borchee

    One of the most rewarding aspects of a trip to Africa is meeting its people. African culture is incredibly interesting because it is so diverse. Every country has a mix of tribes each with their own unique language and culture. Countries as small as Uganda is home to more than 30 tribes. In Kenya you could be riding a camel in the desert with the Samburu one day; go on a walking safari with the Maasai a few days later, and finish your week exploring old Islamic coastal towns with the Swahili on the shores of the Indian Ocean. If you enjoy African music and film, check out some of Africa's best festivals.

    Another great way to explore African culture is by taking a craft tour, culinary vacation, volunteering some of your vacation time, or even just shopping at local markets. Pick up a ​soccer game or learn some traditional African board games -- it's fun and you don't have to speak the same language to enjoy yourself. You can also go hunting with San Bushmen in Botswana, herding with the Maasai of East Africa and camel riding in the Sahara with the Touareg of Mali.

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  • 08 of 09

    African Adventure

    Common zebras and hot air balloon safari
    Getty Images/James Warwick

    For those seeking thrills beyond the everyday adventure of traveling in Africa, there are many options. Some of the top adventure experiences in Africa are as follows:

    • Hot air ballooning over the Serengeti Plains. It's a real thrill to be floating above the acacia treetops following the hoof steps of thousands of zebra and wildebeest on their annual migration.
    • Canoeing down the Zambezi. This a canoeing and camping trip rolled into one with enough crocodiles and hippos around to really keep you paddling.
    • Walking safari in Zambia. Find out how to approach an elephant without getting charged while experiencing the earthy smells and sounds of the African bush.
    • Bungee jumping -- try it off the Victoria Falls bridge. Nothing quite like giggling hysterically while bouncing upside down viewing the world's greatest waterfall. Once you've finished your jump you can calm yourself down by white-water rafting down the wild Zambezi River, or a swim in the Devil's Pool.
    • A motorcycle tour, whether you fancy retracing the steps of the old Dakar Rally, or want to experience the wild Omo River region in Ethiopia, there's a motorcycle tour for everyone.

    • Join a salt caravan between Timbuktu and Taoudenni in Mali. The Touareg have been carrying and trading salt for thousands of years and if you are very adventurous you can join them on this incredible journey in the heart of Dogon country. The camel trek lasts about 40 days through the beautiful but brutal Sahara desert.
    • Ride a bike -- it's the green way to go, and your pace matches that of the local environment. You can take the epic Cape to Cairo route, or simply enjoy a day of rugged mountain biking through a wildlife park.

    • Tracking mountain gorillas in Central Africa. There are only around 800 mountain gorillas left in the world and luckily enough you can actually get to visit them in their natural habitat. Tracking gorillas is fairly strenuous and you even may get charged at, but the experience is unforgettable.
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  • 09 of 09

    Africa's Markets and Bazaars

    African Vegetable Market Assomada, Santiago Island
    Getty Images/Peter Adams

    Everybody loves to shop for trinkets in Africa's markets and bazaars. It's a wonderful way to see local artisans at work and get a good insight into a country's culture, food, smells and sounds. Markets and bazaars also provide fantastic photo opportunities. You'll discover how much fun it is to bargain for your carpet, hookah or giant giraffe carving. There are markets in every town in Africa and some of the most interesting include:

    • The souks of Fes and Marrakech in Morocco. Narrow alleyways, the smell of spices, bicycles being fixed, skinned goats hanging on hooks, carpet sellers following you around and lots of tea being drunk; shopping in the souks is one of the reasons why you should visit Morocco.
    • Islamic Cairo is basically a giant bazaar and a big tourist attraction in Egypt. If you're looking for a belly-dancing costume or want a replica of King Tut's mask, this is the place to be. Get your bargaining boots on and maintain a sense of humor.
    • Kejetia Market in Kumasi, Ghana. Beautiful Kente cloth, Ashanti crafts, bubble gum and dried chameleons, this market has it all and is considered to be one of the best in West Africa. The market is large and crowded but friendly and not too touristy.
    • Maasai Cattle Markets in northern Tanzania. Cattle markets are held every week in small villages on the road between the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti. Great place to experience an authentic cattle auction and get a pair of motorcycle tire sandals.
    • Merkato in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Supposedly the largest open-air market in Africa, and one of the best. You can buy flip-flops, incense, spices and even Kalashnikovs.