Aerial View of Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania
Zanzibar, Tanzania
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History & Culture

Why You Should Explore the Cities of Africa

9 min read
Published on Aug 28, 2017
Aren Bergstrom
By Aren BergstromManaging Editor, Globetrotting Magazine

When people head to Africa, they usually go to experience the incredible landscape and wildlife, and forget about the cities. This is a shame as there are so many urban centres worth exploring on African tours. Although a safari might be the thing that draws you to this incredible continent, you should consider extending your trip to explore some of Africa’s many cities. No matter which country you travel to in Africa, you will find massive, modern cities with enough culture, flavour, and bustle to rival cities anywhere in the world.

The Metropolises of South Africa

South Africa is ground zero for exploring urban Africa. If you’re heading on African tours intending to explore the continent’s cities, a trip to South Africa should be your first priority. The country has a large population and robust tourism infrastructure, making it easy to explore. Arguably the loveliest city on the entire African continent is Cape Town, situated on the tip of the Cape of Good Hope, on Africa’s southwestern shoreline. Cape Town is a lovely slice of urbanity amidst stunning landscapes and waterways. It’s a green city, overflowing with flowers and trees that combine with the architecture to great effect. As such, you’ll find it bursting with parks or gardens where you can admire the flora. You can head to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens or Green Point Park to take in the country’s scenery. However, don’t stop there. Cape Town is also the country’s cultural capital and you’ll want to experience its multicultural flavours while you visit. Head to trendy Bo-Kaap to see the painted facades that entrance any Globetrotters who visit. As well, you’ll want to try the food in this city; with its mixture of Afrikaner, European, African, and Xhosa cuisine, you’re in for a taste of the world when you visit. To experience some iconic history while in Cape Town, head to Robben Island to see where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for decades.

Aerial View of Cape Town, South Africa
Aerial view of Cape Town

Cape Town might be the crown jewel of South Africa, but Johannesburg is its bustling heart. Although the city suffered from decades of decline, the 2010 FIFA World Cup and the interest it created has begun a process of rejuvenation. The neighbourhood of Maboneng has transformed into the city’s trendy epicentre, while Rosebank and Sandton continue to attract the rich and wealthy who want to spend their days in opulent shopping malls and dine on fabulous international cuisine. In Johannesburg, you’ll also find the Apartheid Museum and Mandela Family Museum (also known as Mandela House), where you can learn about the country’s 20th-Century history. A visit to the 2010 World Cup Stadium is also essential; it might no longer ring loud with the sound of vuvuzelas, but it remains an impressive feat of sports architecture.

Cities of Sand and Water

Although Botswana and Namibia are more cherished for their waterways and desert, respectively, they also have cities that are well worth a visit in between Okavango Delta cruises and desert safaris to Sossusvlei. In Botswana, Kasane and Maun should be your main points of interest. Kasane is the meeting point of Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, where the Chobe and Zambezi rivers touch. The city is easily walkable and offers great access to highlights like Chobe National Park and Victoria Falls, one of the world’s mightiest waterfalls. However, the city itself is also a great place to relax as it has an abundance of hot springs. As well, it’s a great fishing centre, and the lack of city boundaries means wildlife can easily enter its perimetre. For instance, it’s common to see zebras on the city streets.

Although technically a village, Maun offers a fascinating counterpoint to other urban centres explored on African tours. It is the country’s main tourist hub and the gateway to the Okavango Delta. However, it’s also home to several traditional tribes who live within different districts in the city limits. In Maun’s dusty streets, you can come across members of the Baherero, Bakgalagadi, Banoka, Basubiya, Bayei, and Hambukushu tribes. The agrarian lifestyle of many of these tribes also explains the vast numbers of donkeys, goats, and cattle that fill the streets. In Botswana, you can also head to its capital, Gaborone, but only head there if you want a quiet break from the bustle of other city centres. The Namibian capital of Windhoek offers a truly refreshing change of pace for Globetrotters. It’s the most western of the African capitals as it retains much of the colonial architecture and culture from the past centuries. The city’s name is derived from the hot springs found within its limits, and the German castles and lovely urban centres like Zoo Park and Post Street Mall contribute to its buzzing nature. As well, the city is in the midst of a craft brewing and artisanal boom, so if you want to sample microbrews or pick up incredible crafts in marketplaces, this is the place to be.

From Zambia to Zimbabwe

If you’re wanting to experience more traditional marketplaces than the ones you’ll find in Windhoek, head to Lusaka, in Zambia. Lusaka doesn’t have any museums or major tourist attractions like you’d find in Cape Town or Nairobi, but it does have great marketplaces, good food, and excellent accommodation. It’s a slice of urban Africa that isn’t catered to tourists, so if you want to experience a bit of unpretentious authenticity, Lusaka is for you. Soweto Market bustles with its many vendors and stalls, while Munda Wanga Environmental Park offers the sort of urban green escape that naturalist Globetrotters will love. In neighbouring Zimbabwe, you’ll find Harare, the gorgeous metropolis with a laidback atmosphere. This city of red soil and abundant greenery abounds with fascinating museums, excellent restaurants, and plenty of markets. As it’s the country’s capital, it’s where you’ll find the National Gallery and National Archives of Zimbabwe, which will supply you with plenty of history and artwork to keep you occupied. The city is also usually sunny and warm, contributing to it being called the "Sunshine City." Visiting the National Botanic Garden, with its 900 species of trees and shrubs and basking in the sunlight, is an attractive way to spend an afternoon.

Aerial view on the main street of Harare, Zimbabwe
Aerial view on the main street of Harare, Zimbabwe

The Cultural Centres of East Africa

Aside from South Africa, the east African countries of Kenya and Tanzania attract the bulk of Globetrotters heading on African tours. In Kenya, the capital of Nairobi is a great place to dig deep into the urban rhythms of the continent. The city can be confusing, with its busy traffic and sprawling layout, but it’s also invigorating and alive in ways few other cities in the world are. If you want to experience the best in Kenyan food and feel like you’ve discovered a slice of the country that others usually miss, you have to head to Nairobi. As well, heading to the Nairobi National Museum will get you up to speed with the country’s history before you move on to Mombasa, the port city with its blend of Indian, Arabian, and African cultures, and lively old town.

Nairobi Modern Cityscape Kenya, East Africa
Nairobi cityscape

In Tanzania, you have your choice between three urban centres with very different characters: Arusha, Dar es Salaam, and Zanzibar City. Arusha is the centre of tourism in the country, as it’s close to Mount Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti National Park. It’s also the centre of human rights in East Africa, and you’ll find plenty of diplomatic headquarters and international organizations within its limits. Dar es Salaam is southeast along the coast. As the country’s capital, Dar es Salaam is a commercial hub with a large population of over 4 million people. It’s also the region’s second busiest port, with plenty of fish and goods entering and exiting the country by sea. The city came to prominence as the headquarters of the German East Africa Company and its trading empire, so it’s always been a wealthy trade city. It’s also a city that blends cultures, with German, Arab, Indian, and Tanzanian architecture. If you want to experience Tanzanian arts and culture and head to its most prominent museums, you’ll find them in Dar es Salaam.

Zanzibar City is not as large, but with its prominent location on an island off the coast of Tanzania, it’s one of country’s most-visited spots. Situated in the old part of Zanzibar City is Stone Town, which features ruddy coral stone buildings, attracting people from across the globe. As well, Stone Town includes historical sites of East African, Arabian, Persian, and Indian heritage, such as the former sultan’s palace, the House of Wonders, making it the ideal tourist city to visit on African tours. Strolling through the markets and smelling the spices that fill the air is a quintessential East African experience. You also shouldn’t forget Uganda when exploring urban Africa. The capital of Kampala is a dynamic city with more hustle and bustle than you’ll find anywhere in the region not named Nairobi. Plenty of parks, gardens, and golf courses contribute to its reputation as one of Africa’s greenest cities, while the boom in restaurants, bars, and casinos makes it a place where nights can grow long and lively. Entebbe on Lake Victoria is a more leisurely urban centre. The historical areas of Old Entebbe and Kitoro have the majority of the markets, bars, and restaurants where you’ll spend your time. However, the popular Lido Beach and the Entebbe Botanical Garden offer opportunities to slow down the rhythm and take advantage of the warm climate. Wildlife excursions to nearby Lake Victoria can easily fill the afternoons here.

From the metropolises of South Africa to the greenery of Uganda and Zimbabwe to the Arabian spices of Dar es Salaam and Mombasa, each African city has its own flavour and treasures to discover. This is not a continent of only landscape and wildlife; its many cities are fascinating as well. Discover a whole new side of Africa and become an urban explorer the next time you visit the continent on African tours. You won’t regret it.

Related Topics
History & Culture
South Africa
Aren Bergstrom
Aren Bergstrom
Goway - Managing Editor, Globetrotting Magazine

You might say that Aren was destined to become a globetrotter after his family took him to Germany two times before he was four. If that wasn’t enough, a term spent in Sweden as a young teenager and a trek across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand confirmed that destiny. An independent writer, director, and film critic, Aren has travelled across Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South America. His favourite travel experience was visiting the major cities of Japan’s largest island, Honshu, but his love for food, drink, and film will take him anywhere that boasts great art and culture.

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