Richard Mullin once famously said that "the only man I envy is the man who has not yet been to Africa, for he has so much to look forward to." First-time visitors to Africa are indeed in an enviable position, with 54 countries to choose from and countless spectacular destinations ranging from game reserves to beaches, mountains, and cities bursting with color and culture. However, the prospect of picking a starting point from which to explore the world's second-largest continent can also seem like a daunting task. Here are 10 of our favorite bucket list destinations, all of which offer an unforgettable experience for first-time Africa visitors.
Those interested in the unique culture and history of North Africa will find plenty of both in the most famous of Morocco’s four Imperial Cities. Marrakesh was founded in 1062 by the Almoravids and in the centuries since has gathered a fabulous collection of mosques, palaces, tombs, and museums. Top historical sights include the Saadian Tombs, where members of the ruling Saadian dynasty are buried; the El Badi and El Bahia palaces; and the medieval Ali Ben Youssef Medersa.
The best way to immerse yourself in the spirit of Marrakesh is to stroll through the original walled city, known as a medina. Here you will find a narrow maze of streets lined with stalls piled high with spices, jeweled slippers, stained glass lamps, and swathes of freshly dyed fabric. Stop in the souks for a cup of mint tea or to haggle over a purchase, or to watch artisans at work using techniques that have remained unchanged for centuries. For the most authentic stay, book a room in a traditional Moroccan riad.
Cape Town, South Africa
For a cultural break at the other end of the continent, head to Cape Town. Frequently voted as one of the world’s most beautiful cities, it’s flanked by the ocean on two sides and presided over by the iconic silhouette of Table Mountain. There is something for everyone in the Mother City. Art galleries, museums, and concert venues cater to the culture vultures, while the world-class restaurant scene draws inspiration from South Africa’s bountiful produce and the wines of the surrounding Cape Winelands.
Natural beauty abounds, whether you spend your time on the white sand beaches of Camps Bay and Blouberg, or take a scenic drive along the Cape Peninsula. For many visitors, Cape Town’s historical landmarks are the main attraction. Take a ferry out to Robben Island to see the prison where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years, or discover the Islamic culture of the colorful Bo-Kaap neighborhood. For an insight into the atrocities and aftermath of the apartheid era, consider signing up for a township tour.
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
If you’re fascinated by natural phenomena, Victoria Falls is an obvious starting point for your first African adventure. Voted as one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, the waterfall spans the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia and sees the Zambezi River plunge over a drop of 354 feet into the gorge below. Although it isn’t the world’s highest or widest waterfall, it is the largest, with over 500 million liters of water flowing over the edge every minute during peak flood season.
The curtain of spray can be seen from 30 miles away and is the inspiration for the waterfall’s indigenous name, Mosi-oa-Tunya, or The Smoke That Thunders. If you visit from the Zimbabwean side, walking trails through Victoria Falls National Park guide you to a series of viewpoints which afford magnificent frontal views of the Main Falls. The Zambian section of the falls has fewer viewpoints but does provide the adrenalin-inducing opportunity to swim in the Devil’s Pool on the very edge of the falls.
Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Africa is a continent of superlatives, and the next one on our list is Mount Kilimanjaro. Located close to the Kenyan border in Tanzania, it is the highest peak in Africa and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world with a height of 19,341 feet. It’s also one of the few record-holding mountains that one can climb without specialist equipment or training; instead, anyone with a good level of fitness and the right approach can reasonably hope to summit Kilimanjaro.
The first step is to pick a trusted tour operator (Thomson Treks is one of our favorite options with a success rate of 98 percent). Next, it’s a good idea to pick a longer route with a more gradual ascent rate, since altitude sickness is the primary reason for failed summit attempts. The journey up the mountain will take you through five different climate zones, ranging from rainforest to alpine desert. At the top, a sight that might surprise first-time visitors to Africa awaits: snow and ice!
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
Tanzania is home to another iconic African destination: the Serengeti. Located in the far north of the country, it shares unfenced borders with Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. Together the two parks host one of nature’s most extraordinary events, the annual Great Migration of several million wildebeest, zebra, and other antelope. For the best chance of seeing the herds on the move, head to the Serengeti from December to July, making sure to check which area of the 5,700-square-mile park is currently seeing action.
Even if you don’t catch the migration, the Serengeti is a remarkable safari destination. Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its ecological importance, it boats the highest concentration of plains game in Africa. The abundance of antelope, zebra, and other ungulate species attracts large numbers of predators, making the Serengeti one of the best places on the continent to spot lions and leopards. All of the Big Five can be seen with some luck (rhinos are notoriously difficult to spot).
Okavango Delta, Botswana
Another destination famous for its incredible biodiversity, the Okavango Delta is a seasonal flood plain in northern Botswana. It’s fed by the Okavango River, which bursts its banks at the end of the rainy season in April or May and fans out across the Kalahari Desert, bringing life-giving water and nutrients to the otherwise arid landscape. At its annual peak, the Delta covers over 8,500 square miles and is a miraculous spread of lush green plains, forests, and marsh-like waterways.
After flying into your camp, the best way to explore is in a traditional dugout canoe. For an unforgettable insight into life in the African wilderness, opt for a few nights under canvas on one of the Delta’s uninhabited islands. In the darkness, listen out for the calls of the 160 different mammal species that call the Okavango home. Amongst these are the Big Five and one of the world’s greatest populations of endangered African wild dogs. Birders are rewarded with over 530 species, many of them regional specials.
Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
Located on the border with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Volcanoes National Park spans approximately 60 square miles of the Virunga Mountains. There is one main reason to visit, and that’s for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. Classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, there are just over 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the wild. These incredible primates share more than 98 percent of our genetic code and are amongst our closest relatives.
Volcanoes National Park is home to 10 habituated gorilla troops, meaning that they are accustomed enough to humans to allow for amazing close encounters. These encounters are strictly regulated for the gorillas’ safety; you will need to apply well in advance for a permit. To find the gorillas, you will trek on foot through the mist-laden cloud forest, a memorable experience in itself. Make sure to leave enough time to visit Karisoke Research Center, where renowned primatologist Dian Fossey conducted her life’s work.
River Nile, Egypt
The Nile is the longest river in Africa and, according to most authorities, the longest in the world. It runs through 11 countries on its northwards journey to the Mediterranean Sea, but by far, the most famous destination for Nile river cruises is Egypt. This is because an Egyptian river cruise allows you to see many of the country’s most iconic ancient sights along the way. Typically boats ply the stretch of river between Luxor and Aswan, just as traditional feluccas have done for millennia.
Top stops include the ancient monuments of Luxor and Karnak, the Valley of the Kings (where the famous tomb of the boy king Tutankhamun lies), and the temples of Edfu, Philae, and Kom Ombo. The best cruises include a professional Egyptologist guide who will be able to tell you the history of each building, and the mythology that inspired its architecture. There are many different cruise ships to choose from, ranging from the affordable to the luxurious, and from classic steamships to modern liners.
Africa’s best-known desert is undoubtedly the Sahara, but there are some spectacular desert landscapes to be found further south as well. In Namibia, one of the country’s greatest natural treasures is the Sossusvlei dune sea, located in the heart of the Namib Desert. Here, ocher-colored dunes soar skywards in fantastic formations created over millions of years by the force of strong winds coming ashore from the Atlantic Ocean. Some of these dunes are contenders for the title of tallest in the world.
The dunes are a photographer’s dream, especially in the first light of dawn and in the late afternoon. Their razor-sharp spines create perfect geometric patterns and contrast beautifully against the blazing blue sky. For many visitors to Sossusvlei, the highlight is the famous dawn climb of Dune 45. You’ll ascend in the freezing semi-darkness, then reach the summit of the dune in time to watch the sun appear over the horizon and paint the surrounding landscape with hues of fiery red, rose, and gold.
Nosy Be, Madagascar
Known as the eighth continent on account of its incredible and unique wildlife, Madagascar is probably most famous for its lemurs. However, the island nation is also home to some of Africa’s best beaches, and the number one destination for beach lovers is Nosy Be island. Situated off Madagascar’s northwest coast, the island boasts many stretches of pure white sand to choose from, of which Andilana (on the northwest tip) is probably the most beautiful. The islets around the main island also have more than their fair share of stunning beaches.
When (if) you tire of working on your tan, Nosy Be’s island lifestyle also offers plenty of opportunities for adventure. Snorkeling and scuba diving are both popular pastimes, especially on the pristine reefs off nearby Nosy Tanikely. From September to December every year, it is also possible to swim alongside whale sharks on a snorkeling tour with Les Baleines Rand’eau. On land, you can come face to face with some of Madagascar’s charismatic lemur species in Lokobe National Park.