12 Best Things to Do in Madagascar

Top Ten Things to Do in Madagascar
Idyllic Beaches, Madagascar. GARDEL Bertrand/ hemis.fr/ Getty Images

Located several hundred miles off the coast of Mozambique, Madagascar is one of the most unique places on Earth. It is a land with many different faces—golden shores, lush mountains, jagged limestone karsts, and plunging, arid canyons. These eclectic habitats are home to an incredible variety of wildlife, 90 percent of which is found nowhere else on Earth. There is something for everyone in Madagascar, whether you’re looking to relax on untouched beaches or to escape off the grid into pristine rainforest. The country’s capital, Antananarivo, is a melting pot of history, diverse culture, and fine modern cuisine. 

Read on to discover the best things to do in Madagascar.

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Look for Lemurs

Ring-Tailed Lemurs
Mint Images/Frans Lanting/ Getty Images

Of all Madagascar’s weird and wonderful creatures, lemurs are without a doubt the most iconic. There are nearly 100 different species and sub-species of lemur on the island, all of which are endemic. These charismatic primates range in size from the tiny pygmy mouse lemur to the majestic, monochrome indri. The best way to spot Madagascar’s lemurs is to head to one of its many national parks. In particular, Andasibe-Mantadia National Park is known for its large indri population while Ranomafana National Park is home to 12 species, including the critically endangered golden bamboo lemur. While exploring the island’s parks, keep an eye out for other endemic species, including tenrecs, civets, and the cat-like fossa. 

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02 of 12

Swim with Whale Sharks

Whale Shark
Jurgen Freund/ Nature Picture Library/ Getty Images

There’s nothing quite like an encounter with the world’s largest fish. Those visiting Madagascar from September to December can do just that, off the northwestern island of Nosy Be. At this time, these behemoth fish gather to feed on blooming plankton and can easily be spotted from the surface. Despite their huge size (whale sharks reach an average length of around 9.5 meters (31 feet), they are naturally docile and pose no threat to humans. In season, operators like Baleines Rand’eau offer whale shark snorkeling trips with a 95 percent chance of success. While you’re out there searching for sharks, remember to look for Madagascar’s other marine life, including turtles, manta rays, and dolphins.

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03 of 12

Marvel at Baobabs

Avenue of the Baobabs
Danm/ Getty Images

Baobab trees are intrinsically woven into the fabric of African folklore. In the past, Indigenous people depended upon their products for survival, and as such, these strange trees are often called the “Tree of Life.” Today, they are remarkable for their vast size, with the largest species growing up to 14 meters (46 feet) in diameter. Madagascar is home to six types of endemic baobab. Although they can be seen all over the island, the most famous place for baobab-worshipping is the Avenue of the Baobabs. Located in the Menabe region of western Madagascar, the Avenue comprises some 25 trees strung out like sentries along the Morondava-Belon’i Tsiribihina dirt road. Many of the trees are more than 30 meters (100 feet) tall.

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04 of 12

Explore Antananarivo

Antananarivo
G & M Therin Weise/ robertharding/ Getty Images

Founded by the king of the Merina people at the beginning of the 17th century, the Malagasy capital is steeped in history. Known locally as Tana, Antananarivo also served as the capital for French colonialists in the 19th and 20th centuries and remains the island’s center of political and economic power today. There is much to explore in Tana. For beautiful architecture, head to the old Haute-Ville area of the city. Get your cultural fix in the city’s art galleries and museums, or soak up the atmosphere while browsing the open-air produce stalls at Analakely Market. Tana is known for its culinary culture, whether you’re hoping to sample street-food delicacies or experience fine French dining in restaurants that compete on an international level. 

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05 of 12

Sign Up for Scuba Diving

Green Sea Turtle
Inaki Relanzon/ Nature Picture Library/ Getty Images

Whether you’re an experienced diver or a beginner hoping to take the plunge for the first time, there are plenty of incredible scuba diving opportunities in Madagascar. With approximately 4,800 kilometers (3,000 miles) of coastline, you’re never far from the ocean. In the southwestern part of Madagascar, you'll find the world’s third largest coral reef system: the Tuléar reef. It provides a habitat for more than 6,000 marine species, many of which are unique to Madagascar. The island of Nosy Be is perhaps the most famous destination for divers, while charter boats in the north can be hired as dedicated diving liveaboards. Conditions are ideal, with good visibility year-round and balmy water temperatures. Bucket-list animals include whales, dolphins, sharks, and manta rays.

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06 of 12

Sample Local Cuisine

Traditional Malagasy Spices
Danm/ Getty Images

Wherever your adventures take you, make sure to sample the local cuisine. Traditional Malagasy dishes usually consist of either meat or seafood served with vegetables and rice. Spices are used sparingly, but the food is nevertheless flavorful. Try koba, a popular street food consisting of banana, peanut, and rice paste wrapped in a banana leaf casing. Romazava is the traditional beef stew, while kabaro (curried lima beans and coconut) is popular in the Morondava region. On the coast, fresh seafood dominates the menu. Wash your meal down with the local Three Horses Beer (THB) or with ranonapango (sometimes called ranovola). The latter is made from burnt rice water and may be an acquired taste. 

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07 of 12

Visit the Stone Forests

Tsingy du Bemaraha

Günter Lenz / Getty Images

Address
Madagascar

Madagascar is full of extraordinary scenery, but perhaps the most striking of all its alien landscapes are the limestone karsts of northwestern Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park. Approximately 200 million years ago, the limestone seabed was pushed upwards, creating a vast plateau. Over time, the plateau was eroded, eventually becoming a dense “forest” of jagged limestone needles interspersed with canyons, waterfalls, and an almost impenetrable forest. In addition to its prehistoric badlands scenery, Tsingy offers the opportunity to look for 11 different lemur species, some of which are only found in this specific area. There are also endemic reptiles, birds, and a plethora of utterly unique botanical species.

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Spot Endemic Birds

Short-Legged Ground Rollers
SuperStock/ Getty Images

There are approximately 280 bird species in Madagascar. Although this isn't a particularly high figure for the fourth-largest island in the world, a high level of endemism confirms its status as a prime birding destination. More than 100 species are Madagascar exclusives, and there are three main regions for those in search of endemic birds: the eastern rainforest, the southern spiny bush, and the deciduous forests in the west. If you have limited time, try Ranomafana National Park, home of rarities like the short-legged ground roller and the yellow-bellied sunbird-asity. The best time for birding is in late spring or early summer (August to December), when birds are at their most active and are dressed in their finest breeding plumage. 

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09 of 12

Discover Pristine Beaches

Beach at Nosy Iranja
Christian Kober/ Getty Images

White sand, abundant palms, and azure waters make Madagascar one of the most beautiful island destinations in the Indian Ocean. Some of the country’s best stretches of sand are found on outlying islands in the northwest. Tiny Tsarabanjina, for example, evokes Robinson Crusoe with its deserted sandy coves and crystalline seas. The island is only accessible by boat and offers luxury accommodations in the form of private beach bungalows. The beaches of nearby Nosy Iranja are frequented by nesting turtles, while on the east coast, Île aux Nattes is a tropical paradise with several options for accommodation and activities. On the mainland, the beaches around Anakao in the south offer reliable swells for surfing and kite surfing.

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Go Whale Watching

Breaching Humpback
Gordon Salmen/ EyeEm/ Getty Images

Those heading to Madagascar between July and September should make their way to the northeastern island of Île Sainte-Marie to witness the annual humpback whale migration. Also known as Nosy Boraha, this idyllic island plays host to hundreds of humpbacks, all of whom have traveled thousands of miles from the nutrient-rich waters of the Southern Ocean. Their sojourn to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean is something of a wintertime vacation—a time to come together, mate, and give birth before returning to Antarctica. Humpback whales are the most acrobatic of all whale species, and if you join an Île Sainte-Marie whale-watching tour, you’re likely to see them breaching, spy-hopping, and slapping their giant pectorals.

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Get Lost in Isalo National Park

Red rock sunset landscape in Madagascar
jordieasy / Getty Images
Address
G7M6+QP2, Sakamalio, Madagascar

Isalo National Park, which protects more than 190,000 acres of land, is a nature lover's paradise. Here, you will find thick forests of pandanus trees, natural swimming holes, and dramatic geologic formations such as plateaus, gorges, canyons, and pinnacles. For wildlife, you're in for a treat: Within the park, you can spot some 14 species of lemurs, over 80 different types of birds, and reptiles and amphibians like the Malagasy rainbow frog and the Madagascar boa. Visitors to the park mainly come here to hike, with the Piscine Naturelle Trail being one of the more popular trails. Be aware that you will need to hire a local guide to explore the park, either through an organized Madagascar tour or at the park office in Ranohira.

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Spot Wildlife in Lokobe Nature Special Reserve

Panther Chameleon in Lokobe Nature Special Reserve, Madagascar, Nosy Be
Reiner / Getty Images
Address
J86R+69M, Ampasipohy, Madagascar

Located in Nosy Be, Lokobe Nature Special Reserve is the island's last remaining lowland rainforest, and a must-see if you're in Madagascar to see wildlife. Among the island's residents, you'll find nocturnal mouse lemurs, Madagascar long-eared owls, leaf-tailed geckos, and Nosy Be panther chameleons. Do be on the lookout for the endangered black lemur, which is a bit of a misnomer, considering that the females are rust-colored and have white tufts of hair on their heads. Getting here will require you to row a pirogue, a traditional dugout canoe, to shore; we recommend booking a group tour for ease of planning a trip here.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What is Madagascar known for?

    Madagascar is perhaps best-known for its lemurs—of which nearly 100 different species and sub-species live on the island—and for its massive baobab trees. The island is also home to the Tuléar reef, the world's third-largest coral reef system, making Madagascar one of the top scuba diving destinations in Africa.

  • When is the best time to visit Madagascar?

    It depends on which part of the country you're planning to visit. For those interested in exploring the east coast (Île Sainte-Marie and Andasibe-Mantadia National Park), July through September is when this mostly rainy, humid region is at its driest and coolest. On the northwest coast (Nosy Be), June through September offers excellent scuba diving, while October through December promises great whale shark-spotting. In the Central Highlands (Antananarivo and Ranomafana National Park), travelers will find pleasant temps and smaller crowds than in the busy tourist season.

  • What languages are spoken in Madagascar?

    The two official languages of Madagascar are Malagasy and French, though the former is more widely spoken as it's a first language for most locals.

Article Sources
TripSavvy uses only high-quality, trusted sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. World Wide Fund for Nature. "Madagascar's Major Reefs Among Most at Risk From Climate Change." December 4, 2009.

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12 Best Things to Do in Madagascar