Africa is a vast continent—the second largest in the world, in fact. It comprises 54 countries, countless different landscapes, and a myriad of unique ethnic groups. With that in mind, it's almost impossible to pick a top 10 list of things to do in Africa, but we've come up with a few of the most iconic options for your vacation. From culinary tours to wildlife adventures, this is your ultimate African bucket list.
The word "safari" means "to journey" in Swahili. Fittingly, going on a wildlife safari is one of the main reasons people travel to Africa. East and Southern Africa are the most popular safari destinations. In East Africa, you can witness the annual Great Migration of millions of wildebeest from a hot-air balloon, or track endangered mountain gorillas through the rainforests of Uganda and Rwanda. Southern Africa offers plenty of opportunities for spotting the Big Five (in a game vehicle, on foot or from the water). Keep things affordable by booking a self-drive safari in South Africa or Namibia.
North Africa's beach resorts have attracted European sun-seekers to their shores for decades. But if you want to escape the crowds, head further south. Africa's east coast offers the beach-lover everything from budget huts on the idyllic Indian Ocean in Zanzibar, to ultra-luxurious private islands in the Seychelles. Africa's west coast is lined with thousands of miles of palm-fringed beaches. The currents make swimming a little challenging at times, but the surfing is fantastic. In South Africa, you can even bump into penguins on the beach or go diving with great white sharks.
Africa offers wonderful hiking and trekking opportunities. The obvious choices for mountain enthusiasts are Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya, and Morocco's Atlas Mountains. But South Africa's Drakensberg Mountains are an absolute delight for a half-day hike or a longer multi-day trek. Uganda's Rwenzori Mountains and Ethiopia's Simien Mountains are lesser known but offer several of Africa's highest peaks. If you don't feel the urge to conquer a mountain but love to walk, excellent hikes include the famous walking safaris in Zambia's South Luangwa National Park.
For those that enjoy a challenge, exploring Africa by bike is a great way to discover the continent. Riding a bike puts you in direct contact with the people, landscapes, and wildlife that make Africa special; while the slower pace allows you enough time to soak it all in. Whether you want the thrill of a cross-continent cycling adventure, or the more sedate excitement of half a day spent exploring Cape Town, there's an African bike tour that's perfect for you. There are also several motorbike tours available, from motorcycle safaris in Tanzania to Triumph tours of the South African coast.
Volunteering lets you scratch below the surface and gain an appreciation of a culture very different from your own. Spending time teaching, working and living alongside a community also leads to a deeper understanding of yourself, what you take for granted and what you should appreciate back home. It's a great way to experience Africa at a level beyond a consumer or voyeur. There are lots of options, from helping out for a few days to volunteering for several months. Many of these programs are fundraising initiatives for charities, so expect to pay a fee for your experience.
The evolution of man starts in Africa and Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge is a great destination for anyone interested in our bipedal ancestors. A few million years later, the San in southern Africa were adorning caves with magnificent paintings. 5,000 years ago, the Egyptians were already busy building monuments and tombs that still stand today. During medieval times, the imperial cities of Fez and Marrakech were in their prime and remain the highlights of modern Morocco. The slave trade left its mark on the coasts of both East and West Africa, while Ethiopia's mountains are home to carved Coptic churches.
High-octane adventure exists around every corner in Africa. At Victoria Falls, you can bungee off a bridge, swim up to the edge of the world's largest waterfall, or white-water raft down some of the wildest rapids on Earth. Uganda and Ethiopia also offer first-class rafting. Senegal is known for its legendary surf spots, while Namibia is famous for sand-boarding and 4x4 adventures. You can scuba dive WWII wrecks in the Red Sea or snorkel alongside the world's largest fish in Madagascar. It's even possible to brush up on your skiing or snowboarding skills on the snow-capped peaks of Morocco's Atlas Mountains.
Visiting markets and bazaars in Africa is a wonderful way to see local artisans at work while simultaneously getting an authentic insight into a country's culture and food. Markets and bazaars also provide fantastic photo opportunities. Practice your bargaining skills and discover the fun side of stocking up on souvenirs. By shopping in markets and stores around town you also help the local economy. Each experience is unique, whether you're browsing for tagine pots in Fes, checking out the latest high-life CDs in Accra, or getting sandals made at a Maasai cattle auction in Tanzania.
Culinary tours offer up a tasty combination of culture and history. In Africa, most tours center around Morocco and South Africa—two of the finest cuisines in the world. Most culinary tours involve shopping for ingredients at local markets, learning local recipes, and mastering techniques—and of course, a fair amount of wine tasting and dining in fine restaurants. Whatever country you choose to visit, make sure to try the local delicacies. From gemsbok steaks in Namibia to mopane worms in Botswana, some dishes are more weird than wonderful while others are downright delicious.
With thousands of ethnic groups in Africa—each celebrating their own rites of passage, religious festivals, and local harvests—there's generally music and food being shared on any given night of the week. But as a tourist and outsider, it's not always easy to gain access or to know about what's happening where. Luckily, there are several large festivals and cultural events that happen annually, where you can enjoy film, poetry, drama, and music in an organized setting. If sports are more your thing, make sure to experience the atmosphere of a local soccer match.
Article updated by Jessica Macdonald.