7 places to visit if you’re new to Africa

As the second largest continent in both size and population, Africa obviously has a lot to offer. Here are a few places if you’re just starting with Africa and you’re not sure just yet where to head and what to explore.

One of the safest countries in the world — Rwanda

The Volcanoes National Park contains five of the eight volcanoes in the Virunga Mountains — Shutterstock 7 places to visit if you're new to Africa
The Volcanoes National Park contains five of the eight volcanoes in the Virunga Mountains — Shutterstock
 

Rwanda is a small landlocked country in the middle of Africa. For the last 25 years, it has worked hard to reinvent itself as a booming and modern nation. Now Rwanda is one of the safest countries in the world (it ranked ninth safest in 2017)!

Its geographical and political centre — Kigali — offers spotless streets, low crime and a strong economy. It’s no longer a place you drowsily pass through on your way to the safari or a national park, it has become a city with a vibrant restaurant, café and nightlife scene, galleries and sports events.

Outside of the capital, the Volcanoes National Park is one of the places to receive most tourist attention. In 1925, it became the first national park in Africa. It is a large area of preserved wilderness and home to mountain gorillas and golden monkeys, whom it’s always been bound to protect. 

 

Kigali is a booming modern city in the heart of Rwanda — Shutterstock 7 places to visit if you're new to Africa
Kigali is a booming modern city in the heart of Rwanda — Shutterstock

The park was also home to Dian Fossey, who dedicated her life to saving gorillas from extinction. Now she is buried in the park. Her life was later documented in the 1988 feature film Gorillas in the Mist which was nominated for and won a number of awards.

The area of the park is also great for trekking and hiking. Mount Karisimbi is an inactive volcano at the borders with Congo and, at 4,507 metres (14,787 ft) is also the highest peak in Rwanda. A little further south of Karisimbi lies the largest lake in Rwanda Lake Kivu with its emerald green waters and views of the surrounding mountains.

Castles, forts and boardwalks — Ghana

One of the three canopy bridges in Africa — schusterbauer.com / Shutterstock 7 places to visit if you're new to Africa
One of the three canopy bridges in Africa — schusterbauer.com / Shutterstock
 

When compared to other African countries, Ghana seems relatively small and not so densely populated. Yet it stands out for its economic stability and considerable natural wealth. It was also among the first sub-Saharan African countries to gain independence. 

European influence has contributed to Ghana’s already rich history. It is also the reason why Ghana boasts several forts and castles, mostly dotted along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea. 

The Cape Coast and Elmina castles are perhaps the most famous of them all. Since its foundation in 1482, Elmina Castle stands as a major landmark, roughly in the middle of the Ghanaian coast. Throughout the centuries it has seen a lot happen. It was constructed as a trading post, however, later it became an important place for the slave trade. 

 

A traditional kente cloth weaving centre in Kumasi — Yaayi / Shutterstock 7 places to visit if you're new to Africa
A traditional kente cloth weaving centre in Kumasi — Yaayi / Shutterstock

Heading inland, yet not far from the coastline, you’ll come across the Kakum National Park. Its area is covered in tropical rainforest and is home to numerous types of animals. In 1931, it became a reserve and later, in 1992, it was upgraded to a national park. Aside from its natural beauty, Kakum offers the curiosity of a 350-metre-long canopy walkway which provides an entrance to the forest. It’s one of only three canopy bridges in the whole of Africa.

A little further up lies the town of Kumasi and its Kejetia Market. It’s an open-air market with an incredible 11,000 stalls and stores offering everything from kente cloths to jewellery to food. Its size makes it one of the largest open-air markets in West Africa. With a bit of luck, you might come across the dumpling-like fufu or waakye, which is a traditional meal of rice and beans. 

Shaped by a cannonball — The Gambia

The Gambia also features some beautiful beaches — Shutterstock 7 places to visit if you're new to Africa
The Gambia also features some beautiful beaches — Shutterstock
 

It might be the tiniest mainland African country, but the Gambia is big on the things it offers. Its balmy weather of 30 or more degrees and almost no rainfall provides the perfect getaway. Especially since the Gambia is also known for its fine beaches.

Its shape is rather unusual the borders follow the running streams of the Gambia River and the country is long and skinny. It’s only up to 50 km (30 mi) wide but 480 km (300 mi) long and reaches out into the country of Senegal which surrounds it almost entirely.

As the story goes, the current borders were decided by a British warship which navigated up the river and shot out cannonballs marking the new outline of the country. The British claimed the land that fell within range of the cannons.

 

Many animals, such as hippos, find home in the Gambia River — Shutterstock 7 places to visit if you're new to Africa
Many animals, such as hippos, find a home in the Gambia River — Shutterstock

So, what is there to see? To begin with, there’s plenty to do around the river. The Kunta Kinteh Island, or officially James Island, lies right on the river and is even inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, it’s suffering from erosion and is now approximately one sixth of its original size.

Since the river takes up a significant portion of the country’s length, a boat trip will uncover many of its beauties. Especially, if you set out early in the morning, you can wait and watch as the jungle around awakens. 

Meandering streams of an inland delta — Botswana

Animals around the Okavango had to adapt to wetlands' conditions — Shutterstock 7 places to visit if you're new to Africa
Animals around the Okavango had to adapt to wetlands’ conditions — Shutterstock
 

Botswana is a southern African country roughly the size of France. It’s the third least densely populated country in Africa, which makes it a real haven for nature and wildlife. 

Its northern border comes to a quadripoint at the small village of Kazungula. This is where the borders of four countries meet on a river, although the most curious one is with Zambia, which barely spans 150 metres (about 500 feet). It’s also the only point of direct crossing between the two countries and has to be made by the Kazungula ferry.

A little further south lie the Makgadikgadi Pans which are one of the largest salt pans in the whole world. These pans are a remnant of the once large Lake Makgadikgadi which dried up thousands of years ago. 

 

In the dry season the water of the Okavango Delta shrinks significantly — Shutterstock 7 places to visit if you're new to Africa
In the dry season the water of the Okavango Delta shrinks significantly — Shutterstock

But the Okavango Delta continues to fill up every year. It’s one of the few inland deltas in the world, and in 2013 it was named one of the seven natural wonders of Africa. It also became the 1000th place ever to be inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2014.

Every year during the rainy season, the delta takes in the water from the highlands of Angola. For months to follow, its area swells to up to three times its normal size. Due to the land being regularly flooded, the wildlife has been forced to adapt and so it’s not unusual to spot cheetahs or lions taking a dip.

Up the highest mountain with Freddie Mercury — Tanzania

Kilimanjaro, with its 5,895 m, is the highest mountain in the continent — Shutterstock 7 places to visit if you're new to Africa
Kilimanjaro, with its 5,895 m, is the highest mountain in the continent — Shutterstock
 

Even though Mount Kilimanjaro might be just one of the many famous sites in Africa, it is undoubtedly the tallest of them all. This dormant volcano in north-eastern Tanzania reaches a height of 5,895 m above sea level. 

It is surrounded by a national park which provides six access pathways to the mountain. They vary in difficulty levels but on average, reaching the summit takes about seven days. No walk in the park: ascending it requires quite some preparation and commitment.  

Some few hundred kilometres north-west across the rumpled plains of Tanzania — it might seem close but it’s a long way — lies the renowned Serengeti National Park. The area spans 30,000 sq km (12,000 sq mi) and even runs over into neighbouring Kenya, which makes its name (meaning “endless plains”) pretty much spot-on. The park hosts the largest mammal migration in the world.

 

Tanzania not only has the highest mountain in Africa, but likely also some of the most beautiful beaches — Shutterstock 7 places to visit if you're new to Africa
Tanzania not only has the highest mountain in Africa, but likely also some of the most beautiful beaches — Shutterstock

While Tanzania has two functioning capitals, Dar es Salaam is currently the financial and administrative centre of the country. It lies on the Swahili coast, just a stone’s throw away from Zanzibar, the birthplace of famous musician Freddie Mercury. Born in 1946, he lived there for about eight years before moving to Mumbai, India for schooling and managed to return for a short while again in 1963 before relocating to the UK. The Tanzanian archipelago still associates itself with the 20th-century star nowadays.

The Zanzibar archipelago is a unique mixture of powder-white beaches, diverse culture and vivid history. It might be quite a small place, but it boasts a rich palette of flavours and scents. As a trade point for many passing merchants across centuries, Zanzibar developed a unique cuisine. 

They even have their own pizza there — meat or fish (which is optional), onion, peppers, cheese, mayonnaise, an egg and all pan-fried in a thin layer of dough.

The spring of the Nile — Uganda

Uganda is a mixture of different landscapes. This is the view of Virunga Volcanoes and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park — Shutterstock 7 places to visit if you're new to Africa
Uganda is a mixture of different landscapes. This is the view of Virunga Volcanoes and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park — Shutterstock
 

Having journeyed across its southern border with Tanzania, Uganda is a mixture of a tropical but somewhat refreshing climate, mountainous ranges and wildlife inhabiting the lush vegetation.

The invisible line of the equator runs through the country and it might be quite engaging to see how water circulates down the drain in opposite directions depending on whether one is in the Northern or Southern hemisphere.

The spring of the Victoria Nile — one of the tributaries of the River Nile — starts off in Uganda’s Lake Victoria, at Ripon Falls near the town of Jinja. Three countries share the lake, which is also a popular spot to visit for both locals and travellers. 

 

The longest drop of the Sipi Falls is 100 m — Shutterstock 7 places to visit if you're new to Africa
The longest drop of the Sipi Falls is 100 m — Shutterstock

Uganda offers nearly every possible landscape you can find in Africa, except perhaps for desert. Many people come for the renowned national parks, such as Queen Elizabeth, Kidepo, or Murchison Falls. Even Ernest Hemingway and his wife made a stop at the falls in 1954.

However, the Sipi Falls are perhaps even more spectacular with its 100-metre-high drop. It’s a series of three waterfalls on the edge of Mount Elgon National Park near Kenya. There are hiking trails in the area offering stunning views.

The eighth continent — Madagascar

Ring-tailed lemurs in one of Madagascar's reserves — Shutterstock 7 places to visit if you're new to Africa
Ring-tailed lemurs in one of Madagascar’s reserves — Shutterstock
 

This island off the south-eastern tip of Africa is sometimes called the eighth continent of the world. Due to its isolation, the majority of the island’s flora and fauna is unique and cannot be found anywhere else — lemurs, for example.

It is also dotted with one-of-a-kind sites like the Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park in the north-west of the island. No wonder the park is part of Unesco World Heritage. 

Over the past few million years, the Tsingys have been forming into a forest of eroded limestone spikes. Their bed was undercut by groundwater and further carved out by the rain. The name aptly translates to “where one cannot walk barefoot”.

 

Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park is really a forest of limestone needles — Shutterstock 7 places to visit if you're new to Africa
Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park is really a forest of limestone needles — Shutterstock

As the nation developed independently but with a number of outside influences, it’s an exceptional mix of African, Austronesian, and European cultures. Madagascar even has its own Windsor Castle, which was built by the French at the break of the 20th century. It’s a bit of a climb but the view from the top is worth it.

Even pirates sailed in its direction and now Madagascar is the only place in the world to have a pirate cemetery. In the 17th and 18th centuries, up to 1,000 pirates allegedly considered the tiny island of Île Sainte-Marie their base. The black tomb in the centre of the cemetery marks the final resting place of Captain Kidd who was buried there in an upright position as a punishment for his sins.