There’s a famous quote that says, “The only man I envy is the man who has not yet been to Africa, for he has so much to look forward to”; how true that is! With 54 countries to choose between and an array of spectacular destinations, each bursting with color, charm, and culture, it can be hard to know where to start when planning your first visit to the world’s second-largest continent. So read on, then pack your bags and ease yourself into it by visiting one of these great destinations for first-timers to Africa.
1. Kruger National Park, South Africa
Kruger is home to 147 mammal species (the most of any African national park), including cheetah, hippo, zebra, giraffe, warthog, baboon, and numerous antelope species. The Big Five (lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino, and leopard) are so abundant here that even a first-time visitor can cross them off their list by lunchtime.
The dry winter season (May to August) is the best time to visit Kruger, as the bush is sparse and animals gravitate to the water holes, making them easier to spot. Temperatures rarely climb above 65 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and it can be quite chilly at night, so first-timers will have a gentler introduction to the otherwise blistering African climate.
There is an impressive array of affordable, well-equipped rest camps, and for the more luxurious or exclusive experience, there are numerous private lodges both within the park and in the private reserves lining the park’s boundary. For something really special, though, try Kruger Shalati, “The Train on the Bridge.” Permanently stationed on the Selati Bridge above the Sabie River, Kruger Shalati offers luxury accommodation in a re-envisioned train. In the 1920s, the train that carried visitors into Kruger used to park overnight in the exact spot where Kruger Shalati stands.
2. Marrakesh, Morocco
Situated at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, Marrakesh is one of the continent’s most charismatic cities and a riot of color and sound.
Those interested in the culture and history of North Africa will find it in abundance here. The city was founded in 1062, and in the centuries since, a fabulous collection of mosques, palaces, tombs, and museums has grown.
The best way to immerse yourself in the city is to stroll through the original walled medina, a maze of narrow streets surrounded by souks, food markets, and stalls piled high with spices, jeweled slippers, stained-glass lanterns, or lengths of freshly dyed fabric. Stop in the souks for a cup of mint tea or to watch artisans at work, using techniques unchanged for centuries. Djemaa El-Fna Square is the heart of the medina, while Majorelle Gardens offers some respite from the chaos of the city. For the most authentic stay, book a room in a traditional Moroccan riad.
3. Cape Town, South Africa
Frequently voted one of the world’s most beautiful cities, Cape Town is flanked by the ocean on two sides and presided over by the majestic Table Mountain.
There is something for everyone in Cape Town. Art galleries, museums, and concert venues cater to the culture vultures, and the world-class restaurant scene will keep any gourmet smiling. Natural beauty abounds, from the sandy beaches to stunning scenic drives, like the jaw-dropping views along Chapman’s Peak Pass, where mountains tower above you on one side and the Atlantic Ocean drops far below you on the other. Nature and adventure lovers can hike Table Mountain (there’s a cable car for the less energetic), visit the penguins at Boulders Beach, or enjoy the beauty of Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden and Cape Point. 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, which was featured in our list of the most colorful cities in the world. For an insight into the apartheid era consider signing up for a township tour. Cape Town is also the perfect base to explore the vineyards of nearby Paarl and Franschhoek.
4. Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe/Zambia
Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, spans the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. It is where the Zambezi River plunges over a drop of 354 feet, forming the world’s largest curtain of falling water. Over 165 million gallons flow over the edge every minute during peak flood season. The spray from the Falls can be seen from 30 miles away and is the inspiration for its indigenous name, Mosi-oa-Tunya (The Smoke that Thunders).
The falls are located on the Zambia/Zimbabwe border and can be seen from either country. If visiting from the Zimbabwean side, the winding paths through Victoria Falls National Park take you to a series of viewpoints, each offering magnificent views of the Main Falls. The Zambian side of the falls has fewer viewpoints but does provide the adrenaline-charged opportunity to swim in the Devil’s Pool on the very edge of the falls.
For a comparison of the two experiences, check out Vanessa Chiasson’s article comparing Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe and Zambia sides.
5. Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
Serengeti National Park, in northern Tanzania, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and boasts the highest concentration of plains game in Africa. These sprawling grasslands make for those classic safari panoramas, with lone acacias trees silhouetted on the horizon and herds of grazing zebra and antelope. The plentiful herbivores attract large numbers of predators, and the open savannahs make this one of the best destinations for watching lions and cheetahs in action. If you are here between November and July, the Serengeti is center stage for the awe-inspiring Great Migration, when herds of several million wildebeest, zebra, and other antelope gather to graze, mate, and give birth. Before booking your trip though, make sure you check which area of the 5,700-square-mile park will be seeing the most action at the time of your visit. Even if you don’t catch the migration, the Serengeti is a remarkable safari destination. All of the Big Five can be seen here, though to be honest, the rhinos are notoriously difficult to spot!
If you are looking for a place to stay in the Serengeti, may I suggest Nomad Safaris’ Lamai Serengeti?
Editor’s Note: Interested in animal migrations? Sarah has written about how to experience the six best animal migrations in Africa.
6. Okavango Delta, Botswana
The Okavango River bursts its banks at the end of the rainy season (April/May) and flows out across the Kalahari Desert basin, forming a seasonal flood plain. The floodwaters sustain an astonishing array of wildlife in an otherwise normally arid landscape. At its peak, the Delta covers over 8,500 square miles and is a wonderland of lush green plains, forests, and marshy waterways. The most exciting way to explore is in a traditional canoe (mokoro), and the best time to visit is during the annual flood (May to September), as this is when the Delta’s animals are confined to islands created by the floodwaters, making them easier to spot. Highlights include the Big Five and one of the continent’s largest populations of endangered wild dogs. Over 150 different mammal species call the Delta home, and keen bird waters will be rewarded with over 530 species of bird, many of which are endemic.
Try Wilderness Safaris’ Chitabe Camp in the Okavango Delta.
7. Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
Straddling the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Volcanoes National Park covers approximately 60 square miles of the Virunga Mountains. This is the place to come to see mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. There are just over 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the wild, and Volcanoes National Park is home to 10 habituated gorilla troops, meaning these gorillas are sufficiently accustomed to humans to allow for some amazing close encounters. Be aware that these encounters are strictly regulated for the gorilla’s safety, and you, or your travel agent, will need to apply well in advance for a permit.
While this trip is certainly a good one for first-timers in Africa, please note that finding the gorillas entails trekking through the cloud forest, which can be pretty tough going. You will need to be in good shape physically to tackle this adventure.
Volcanoes National Park is home to Karisoke Research Center, where renowned primatologist Dian Fossey conducted her life’s work. Her book “Gorillas in the Mist” appears in my list of the best books to read before your first trip to Africa.
8. The River Nile, Egypt
The Nile River is the longest river in Africa and runs through 11 countries on its journey to the Mediterranean Sea. The most popular destination by far for Nile River cruises is Egypt. An Egyptian Nile River cruise allows you to see many of the country’s incredible ancient sights. Typically, boats ply the stretch of river between Luxor and Aswan, just as traditional feluccas have done for millennia, and top stops include the ancient monuments of Luxor and Karnak, the Valley of the Kings (home of Tutankhamun’s tomb), as well as the temples of Edfu, Philae, and Kom Ombo. The best Nile cruises will have a professional Egyptologist on board, who will be able to tell you the history and mythology of the buildings you pass. You can choose from a myriad of different styled cruises, from charming to luxurious and from classic steamer to modern cruise liners.
9. Zanzibar, Tanzania
Zanzibar is one of Africa’s top beach destinations. Situated off the coast of Tanzania and surrounded by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, the island is famous for its beautiful beaches and its fascinating history of spice trading. Zanzibar was also a slave trading post under its Arab rulers, and that influence is still evident today in the architecture of Stone Town. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Stone Town boasts beautiful traditional houses, narrow alleyways, a Sultan’s palace, and many mosques. Zanzibar is also a scuba diver’s paradise.
One of the reasons I’d suggest Zanzibar is because it combines perfectly with a safari in Tanzania. After an animal-packed safari in the Serengeti or the Ngorongoro Crater, enjoy some blissful beach time, while you recover from those early morning safari wake-up calls.
So there you have my take on nine destinations that will offer an unforgettable experience for any African first-timer.