Africa is beautiful and fascinating. Its sweeping landscapes offer adventurous travelers incredible and diverse safari expeditions and breathtaking natural encounters, but the continent is also slowly being recognized for its impressive historical sites. With 145 World Heritage Sites and numerous places to visit, from ancient ruins to memorials of more recent historical events, there are an array of famous landmarks that deserve your consideration. To help you narrow down your selection to some of the more accessible of these sites, I’ve compiled a list of some of the historical places I would highly recommend adding to your next African itinerary. I guarantee they will leave a lasting impression. Ready to get started? Let’s start from the oldest, and work our way forward. Read on!
1. Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania
Often referred to as the Cradle of Mankind, Olduvai Gorge is the oldest of the historical sites on our list. Olduvai is without a doubt one of the world’s most fascinating and most important archaeological and paleoanthropological sites in the world. Made famous by paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, who conducted numerous digs here in the mid-20th century, Olduvai Gorge is renowned for the early hominin fossils discovered here and holds the earliest evidence of the existence of our human ancestors.
The gorge’s remains cover a time span from about 2.1 million to 15,000 years ago and include the fossil remains of more than 60 hominins (human ancestors). Olduvai Gorge provides the most continuous known record of human evolution over the last two million years. It has also produced the longest known archaeological record of the development of stone tools.
Set between the Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park, Olduvai Gorge is a good stop-off if you’re traveling between the two. A visit to Olduvai Gorge usually focuses on the museum, which overlooks the gorge. Here you have a chance to listen to a short presentation by a resident guide.
Pro Tip: For a small tip (around $10 USD) you can drive down into the gorge itself. This is around a 10-minute drive, and you would typically spend no more than 20 minutes here. You’ll go with a member of the staff, not a guide, but there is an information board at the site.
2. The Pyramids, Egypt
No list of historic sites to visit in Africa would be complete without the pyramids. The most famous of Egypt’s pyramids are those at Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo. For thousands of years these three incongruous, overpowering, and overwhelming triangles of stone have aroused curiosity, thanks to their perfect geometry, fascinating shape, and impressive size.
The pyramids are one of the greatest mysteries and wonders of all time. Scientists still aren’t entirely sure how people, thousands of years ago, were able to amass such huge rocks and create the pyramids, and they are definitely one of the most remarkable structures ever built.
The Giza complex contains three pyramids, all of them tombs for the pharaohs constructed by thousands of workers. Today they stand as a tribute to the power and organization of Ancient Egypt. The Great Pyramid of Khufu is the oldest and largest of the three pyramids in the main Giza complex Built from 2.3 million blocks of stone and weighing six million tons, Khufu’s pyramid truly is great. The second pyramid was built for Pharaoh Khafre, all its treasures have long since been looted, but the pharaoh’s sarcophagus still remains in the burial chamber. Downhill is the Sphinx, ancient guardian of the pyramids, a feline enigma sitting, paws outstretched, its muscular leonine body carved from stone, with a face upon which so many have gazed and wondered. Stripped of their polished limestone, scratched with graffiti, and damaged by earthquakes, the pyramid complex at Giza is still magnificent.
After visiting the pyramids, set aside at least half a day to explore downtown Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. This vast repository is home to more than 120,000 artifacts from Ancient Egypt, including the treasures and gold burial mask of Tutankhamun. Most objects are still on display, although some are in the process of being moved to the Grand Egyptian Museum, Giza, scheduled to open later this year.
Pro Tip: Visit the pyramids in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the crowds. Follow the road past the pyramids, to reach a plateau for the best panoramic view of the site. Hire a camel or horse-drawn cart to see the pyramids from the desert, but agree on a price before you set off! Beware, the touts and trinket peddlers are mercenary here!
3. Great Zimbabwe Ruins, Zimbabwe
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Great Zimbabwe is one of the continent’s hidden gems. These extensive granite remains of an ancient, Iron Age city, are found in the southeastern hills of Zimbabwe.
Built between the 11th and 14th centuries, the sprawling ruins at Great Zimbabwe are the largest in Sub-Saharan Africa. The ruined city’s gigantic walls, towers, and edifices display some incredible architecture, and during its heyday, it is believed to have been the economic, political, and religious heart of a great kingdom, although which kingdom is not certain.
Great Zimbabwe is a place of mystery. So much about the largest ancient structure south of the Sahara is still unknown. What is certain, though, is that the level of skill and ingenuity required to construct this mortarless stonework is awe-inspiring. Some of the walls are 20 feet thick and 36 feet high, and the place reverberates with the memories of a lost empire. It’s believed that as many as 20,000 people lived there at one time.
As you walk through its narrow passages and enclosures you really appreciate the phenomenal craftsmanship. Though as you ponder just how important this place once was, you will be left wondering about its puzzling end. Why was a thriving center of power, a kingdom rich from trade in gold and ivory with Asia and the Arab world, abandoned four centuries later? Theories range from drought and overgrazing in the valley rendering the area uninhabitable to the city moving to strengthen links with its trading partners. The mystery remains, and you’re bound to have a few theories of your own once you’ve visited this incredible site.
Pro Tip: There are eight carved soapstone birds (probably representing the Bateleur Eagle or the African Fish Eagle) found in the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, and today these are the national emblem of Zimbabwe. If you take a look at the national flag or coat of arms, you will see it depicted there.
4. Lalibela, Ethiopia
Gazing upon Lalibela’s stone churches for the first time is a moment you will never forget. Famous for the rock-hewn churches, which date back to the late 12th and early 13th centuries, this is a place of twisting tunnels, elaborate architecture, and majestic courtyards.
Located in north-central Ethiopia, the 11 ancient churches of Lalibela are important in the Ethiopian Christian tradition. Notable among the 11 churches are Bete Medhane Alem (the largest church), Bete Golgotha (which contains Emperor Lalibelas tomb), and Bete Maryam (which is noted for its frescoes, still vivid and beautiful centuries after they were built). These churches are still in daily use, and on saints’ days, are packed with worshippers, leaning on prayer sticks or prostrating themselves before the altars, presided over by priests resplendent in gold and red. Services last all night and are accompanied by drumming, chanting, and tolling bells.
Each of these stunning churches, regarded by many as the unofficial Eighth Wonder of the World, was carved, by hand, out of the volcanic rock hills. This is one of the most spectacular historical sites, not just in Africa, but in the world.
Pro Tip: Shoes must be removed before entering any of the churches (socks are fine). Traditionally, women are required to cover their body and hair with a long dress and scarf before entering a church, and while this custom is no longer rigidly imposed, it is respectful to adhere to it.
Editor’s Note: For more on the churches and beyond, consider Sarah’s picks for 10 Amazing Things To Do In Ethiopia.
5. Beit Al-Ajaib, Zanzibar, Tanzania
The Beit al-Ajaib, also known as the House of Wonders, is one of Zanzibar’s best-known historical landmarks. A World Heritage site since 2000, the House of Wonders is found in the waterfront area, where it is not only the largest but also the tallest building in Stone Town. The palace was built in 1883 for Sultan Barghash, on the site of an older palace that was used by Queen Fatuma, who ruled Zanzibar in the 17th Century. Beit al-Ajaib was the first building on Zanzibar to have electric lighting installed, and one of the first in east Africa to have an electric lift (which is how the name House of Wonders came to be bestowed on it by locals). The building survived destruction by bombardment during a failed coup in the 1800s and was used by both the British and Tanzanian governments as political headquarters.
The House of Wonders was converted into a museum, and visitors could explore the grounds (which include a traditional Swahili boat/dhow) or wander the building’s grand halls to view traditional clothing, historic royal portraits, and ancient furniture taken from former sultans’ homes. A visit to the House of Wonders is a window into local culture and the rich history of both the island, the semi-autonomous archipelago, and the entire Swahili coast.
Pro Tip: Having survived for so long, the building has unfortunately not survived restoration! The building was undergoing extensive and expensive renovations when, in December 2020, part of the front of the building collapsed. Work will be undertaken to reconstruct the building, so hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, the interior of the building will be open to visitors again.
6. Kolmanskop, Namibia
Kolmanskop is found in the desert, 9 miles east of the harbor town of Luderitz, which is itself found on one of the least hospitable African coasts. Kolmanskop became one of the richest towns in Africa during a diamond boom in 1910, but 40 years later it had been abandoned, left to become a ghost town in the desert.
Kolmanskop was a small railway station when, in 1908, a railway worker found a shiny stone and took it to his boss. The railway foreman, a hobby mineralogist, had asked his workers to bring him any interesting stones they found. The shiny stone turned out to be a diamond! The discovery didn’t remain a secret for long, and within a few years Kolmanskop had become the richest town of Africa, and one of the richest towns in the world. By 1911 the town had electric power and luxurious stone houses, plus a casino, school, hospital, ice factory (producing ice for fridges), theater, ballroom, sports hall, bowling alley, salt-water swimming pool, and more — all for a population of less than 400!
But by World War I the diamond price had collapsed, and in 1928 more profitable prospecting sites were discovered further south, so mining around Kolmanskop ceased, the town was abandoned, and the desert reclaimed its lost territory, burying the town in shifting sand dunes.
Kolmanskop underwent a bit of an economic boom when the tourism potential of the ghost town was rediscovered. Some houses were dug out of the encroaching sands and restored. They are now open for visitors.
Fun Fact: Interestingly, Kolmanskop Hospital had the first x-ray apparatus in southern Africa, probably installed to check on workers, who might have swallowed diamonds, planning to smuggle them out!
7. The Genocide Museum, Kigali, Rwanda
To embrace the Rwanda of today, you need to understand its painful and complicated past. In 1994, more than one million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were systematically murdered by their Hutu neighbors over the course of 100 unspeakably brutal days.
The Genocide Memorial is arguably the most important site in the nation’s capital, Kigali. Opened in 2004 to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the genocide, it remains a place for education and a historical record of that tragedy. The memorial is part museum and part burial ground for more than 250,000 victims. The memorial attempts to explain how the country’s history set the stage for the horrific genocide, what the atrocities looked like, and how the country now strives to unify and rebuild. The interior walls, hung with simple, unframed photos of genocide victims, moved me to tears. Outdoors a memorial garden pays respect to the victims buried here. This is definitely a place that will find you engaging in quiet reflection.
There is also a children’s memorial and an exhibition on the history of genocidal violence around the world. Many of the tour guides who lead visitors through the memorial are themselves survivors of the attacks.
Pro Tip: Guided tours can be booked and excellent audio tours are also available.
8. Robben Island, South Africa
Robben Island is a small island just off the coast of South Africa’s Cape Town. The island was used as a place of imprisonment, banishment, and isolation for about four centuries but is best known for housing South Africa’s anti-apartheid stalwarts, including former President, the late Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned here for 18 years of his 27-year sentence. The island was first used as a prison in the 17th century, but it’s also served as a leper colony, a military hub, an insane asylum, and a quarantine center. After the end of apartheid, the island was converted into a museum. Visiting the prison’s small cells, which previously held political prisoners during apartheid, is an emotional experience. Robben Island became a World Heritage Site in 1999, and it is a significant reminder of the country’s history and the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, injustice, and suffering.
Pro Tip: Tours to Robben Island run seven days a week, with ferries to the island departing from the V and A Waterfront in Cape Town several times a day. Tours take approximately 3 hours to complete.
So there you have my take on some of the fabulous historical places to visit on your next journey to this incredible continent called Africa. For additional inspiration, consider