The Ultimate Africa Bucket List
Africa is huge, and to see all of her 54 countries, and each of their notable attractions, would take a lifetime. For those with the time and budget, though, there are certainly dozens of noteworthy sites to visit, and countries across Africa have seen a dramatic increase in tourism in recent years owing to better infrastructure and understanding of the continent.
The sheer size of the Africa means there’s are an estimated 2000 languages and a huge variety of unique cultures, all of which are worthy of appreciation and understanding. It also means that the landscapes vary drastically, and climates and eco-zones serve diverse plant and animal life unlike that found anywhere else in the world.
Understandably, most venture to Africa to explore its wildlife, and this is always a recommended place to start. But there’s more to the continent than searing sunsets and fertile plains. Indeed, some of the most memorable experiences are significantly less clichéd, and located some distance from the continent’s famous reserves.
Getting to all of the continent’s top attractions will be difficult, but if you’re compiling an ultimate Africa bucket list, then these 15 are a good place to start.
Pyramids of Giza, Egypt
The history of Ancient Egypt is still taught in schools around the world, but there’s no better way to understand the importance of this nation than by visiting it in person. At the pinnacle of the country’s history — and tourism trade — is the Great Pyramids of Giza. Though it may be the oldest surviving Seven Wonders of the World, the country’s pyramids are still shrouded in mystery.
The only way to truly feel the mysterious power of these seemingly impossible stone structures is to stand at their bases and take them in with your own eyes. Although some describe the Egyptian tourism experience as tiring and stressful, and the area surrounding the pyramids may detract from the experience, the 4500 year old Great Pyramid, at more than 450 feet high and with a volume of 91 million cubic feet, is a humbling sight for even the most jaded of travelers.
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
The Victoria Falls, on the Zambezi River between Zambia and Zimbabwe, is also known as The Smoke that Thunders — a name you can only truly appreciate when you stand in the dense mist of the falls.
Although Victoria Falls is neither the widest nor highest waterfall in the world, its combined width makes it the largest. It measures some 5,600 feet across, and is 350 feet high, which means it’s equipped to deliver the largest sheet of falling water in the world.
There are several ways to experience the falls — and you can approach them from either country that they neighbor. Adrenaline junkies may choose to get up close and personal with the water, either on a rafting trip or by bungee jumping from the bridge, but even a stroll along the walkways and bridge is a thrilling experience.
Djenné is a fascinating ancient trading city in Mali that dates back to the 13th century, with a rich and tumultuous history. It has been inhabited since 250 B.C., and later became a market centre and important gold trading link. It was also one of the global centers of Islam between the 15th and 16th centuries, and many structures remain that reflect this and the pre-Islamic era.
Djenné’s Old Town and its ancient mud houses are protected by UNESCO, and are among the most famous structures in Mali. There are four archeological sites in the old towns that have facades surviving from the 3rd century, making it a fascinating window back in time.
Although a remarkable place to visit, political tensions is endangering the history in the area, and can make travel through the area uncertain.
The Atlas Mountains, Morocco
The Atlas Mountains in the northwest of Africa are massive — they span some 1,500 miles across Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia and separate the Atlantic and Mediterranean coastline from the Sahara Desert. Although they are an impressive natural feature in their own right, their vast size means they are also home to a wide variety of wildlife, climates and varying terrain.
Most visitors experience the mountains from Toubkal National Park, which surrounds the highest peak in the range — Toubkal, at 13,671 feet. The mountains conceal some of the world’s most remote villages, which until recently existed without electricity or running water.
This is all starting to change, however. These days intrepid tourists venture into the mountains for the stunning landscapes and solitude. Most outdoor enthusiasts head towards Imlil, which is equipped with a hotel and popular for its skiing and mountain climbing.
The Moroccan town of Marrakech sits at the foot of the High Atlas mountains, and for years has drawn tourists in from around the world who venture there to experience its magnetic charm.
The former imperial city is now an important economic for the country, but it’s still home to spectacular intricately detailed palaces, lush gardens, and important mosques. It also boasts a compelling mixture of ancient history and a burgeoning contemporary art scene to keeps its growing tourism scene enthralled.
Religion underpins much of what makes this city so special — the booming call to prayer, Islamic architecture, and neighborhoods centered around the other religions that made this town the enigmatic and complexly beautiful destination that it is today.
The medina’s labyrinthine souks will also overwhelm your senses, and allow you to purchase authentic North African keepsakes, most notably carpets and spices.
Serengeti and Maasai Mara, Tanzania and Kenya
The migration that takes place through the Serengeti and Maasai Mara attracts thousands of wildlife enthusiasts from around the world each year. It’s a stunning natural event that occurs when up to two million wildebeest, and thousands of other plains wildlife, migrate from the dry plains of the Serengeti to the rich grazing in the south of the Maasai Mara Nature Reserve.
The parks can become overcrowded during the peak of the migration period, and as such many choose to visit at alternate times. The calving season in February and March, and the river crossing seasons in June and July for Grumeti River, and August to October for the Mara River, often offer better value and fewer crowds.
But as far as Africa bucket list items go, few can compare to the full migration, which usually starts after the rains in November.
Ethiopia’s highlands are rich in a culture that goes back thousands of years, and a natural beauty that goes back even further. The daunting highlands are also largely credited for helping the nation to defeat Italian forces from gaining footing in the country in the late 1800s, thus ensuring that Ethiopia was to be the only African country to avoid colonization.
The highlands include four UNESCO World Heritage Sites — three of which are due to the region’s cultural importance (Gonder, Lalibela and Aksum), and one, the Simien Mountains, because of their its natural beauty.
Visitors looking to properly explore the highlands can follow a historical route over several days that includes all major sites worth visiting, including the capital Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar and Lake Tana, Gonder, Simien Mountains, Aksum, and Lalibela.
Table Mountain, South Africa
Cape Town’s Table Mountain may not be the the tallest peak on the continent, nor the most rugged, remote or populated with wildlife. But even so, the sight of the flat-topped mountain stretching up from the fringes of the coastal city stays is one that will stay with visitors for many years to come.
There are dozens of hiking trails that traverse all sides of this famous mountain, allowing active travelers the opportunity to earn their rewards on the way to the top. But for those less inclined to spend a day hiking, there’s a modern cablecar system that whisks visitors to the summit in less than 10 minutes, summer queues notwithstanding.
Combined with the seemingly endless attractions in Cape Town — from pristine beaches and wine farms, to a thriving city centre with vibrant food and art scene — it’s easy to understand why this city is often the first — and recurring — item on many visitors’ Africa bucket lists.
Gorillas of Virunga Mountains
While some African wildlife experiences are replicable throughout the continent, the opportunity to witness endangered gorillas in their natural environment is restricted to a small, seemingly impenetrable part of the continent.
Due to poaching and human encroachment, gorilla numbers in Africa have dwindled, and they’re now restricted to the remote Virunga Mountains, a chain of volcanoes running between Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Uganda.
You can trek to the gorillas from any of the three countries, though most tourists on a tight schedule head for Rwanda, which offers the best accessibility to the endangered animals. The gorillas are highly sensitive to human interaction, even from a distance, and as such trips are limited and expensive. But reputable companies can get you as close to these creatures as unobtrusively and ethically as possible, which makes for an unforgettable encounter.
Namib Desert, Namibia
The Namib Desert is a staggering 43 million years old, and experts estimate that it’s remained in its current state for the last 2 million years. If you suspect a visit to a desert named after its vast nature might be boring, though, think again — the Namib is packed full of surprises and endless photo opportunities.
The ultimate bucket list experience here may well be a ballon ride over the dunes at sunrise, where you may just catch glimpses of wildlife wandering the dunes and plains. But more active travelers can also head off on foot to the top of the famous desert’s dunes, or even hop on a board and ride all the way back down.
However you choose to experience the Namib, it’s a profoundly tranquil and moving place well worthy of a spot on your ultimate list.
Zanzibar is an easy to reach island off the east coast of Tanzania famous for its spices, clear waters teeming with an array of fish, and winding alleyways of magnificent Stone Town, which also happens to be the birthplace of Freddie Mercury.
Although parts of the island have been snapped up and converted into hedonistic resorts, there’s still a mystical allure to Zanzibar that makes exploration endlessly intriguing.
Honeymooners might be tempted to make straight for the all-inclusive package resorts, but you’d be well advised to lift yourself up off the deck chair for a few hours each day — to take in the marine life on a snorkeling excursion, explore the Jozani Forest, or dip into the culture and fresh seafood in Stone Town — before lounging back down to take in an iconic East African sunset.
Okavango Delta, Botswana
Botswana’s Okavango Delta offers up one of the most spectacular safari experiences imaginable. That’s because each year its grassy plains flood, turning them into a labyrinth of waterways that are navigable only by boat, usually slim canoes called mokoro.
There’s a plethora of wildlife to spot in the Okavango throughout the year, including all the big mammals occupying the top of your safari bucket list. But it’s the wildlife combined with the scenery, and the ability to encounter both just millimeters above the water, that makes this one of the most exquisite African experiences.
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
The Ngorongoro Crater in northern Tanzania is home to most of the continent’s most sought after wildlife, including elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion, and leopard, and massive migrating herds of zebras and wildebeest.
Though the wildlife is rich, it’s the crater that makes this an otherworldly experience. It is some 12 miles across, 1,900 feet deep, and more than 115 square miles — in other words, vast. It’s the largest un-flooded and unbroken caldera in the world, and appears as scripted for an animated movie, complete with lush green vegetation and grazing wildlife.
The reserve also overlaps with land tended by the Maasai. They still live and farm in the area, and their livestock often mixes with herds of grazing wildlife. Venturing into the crater is a surreal experience, and the many lodges located throughout the reserve offer a perfectly luxurious place from which to reflect on this marvel.
Mount Kilimanjaro sits atop most adventurous travelers’ Africa bucket lists, and for good reason. It’s the highest peak on the continent, topping out at 19,340 feet, and the highest free-standing mountain in the world.
Although reaching the summit takes several days of careful trekking and acclimatizing, and is a notable achievement, its within reach of most with average fitness levels.
The views on the way up the volcanic mountain are impressive, as are those from the surrounding game reserves, where large wildlife roam free at the foot of the snowcapped peak. Because of this, many line this up as a must-do item on the continent — and then continue to enjoy the more relaxing safari side of the trip as a means celebration afterwards.
Overland from Cape Town to Cairo
Perhaps the biggest — and most daunting — item on many African travel bucket lists is a trip from south to north, or north to south. The epic journey from Cape to Cairo can take many forms — intrepid travelers have achieved the feat on bicycle, motorcycle, in large overland vehicles, in small cars, and even on foot.
There’s no direct route from each end of the continent, and there are some political and safety considerations to make along the way. Even at its most direct, you can expect a journey of at least 6,200 miles.
Quite what drives people to add this journey to their list, and then actually check it off, is beyond most casual armchair travelers. But one thing appears clear — those select few who have added it to their achievements leave the continent full of praise for its beauty, diversity, and warm and welcoming citizens.