While Instagram is rife with photos of travelers on top of Table Mountain in Cape Town, strolling about Morrocco’s blue city of Chefchaouen, or posing in front of the pyramids at Giza, the African continent is gigantic; there are so many options as far as experiences you can have besides just this small handful of touristy towns. A continent with so many diverse cultures and landscapes, Africa is home to many cities that prospective tourists should keep on their radar.
Whether you’ve never considered visiting deserts like the Kalahari or you didn’t know how cosmopolitan some African capitals are, there is a lot for tourists to enjoy on the continent that you may have never thought to explore. Whether you’re a newbie or just want to try somewhere new, here’s a list of vastly underrated African cities to keep in mind for your future travels.
1. Windhoek, Namibia
In the center of the southern African country of Namibia is its capital, Windhoek. A city on the rise, it has been increasing in both population and geographic size steadily since Namibia gained its independence in 1990. Under an aggressive plan proposed by its city council to expand the city’s borders to the north, Windhoek would become the third-largest city in the world by area, just behind Istanbul and Tianjin.
Because of its mining past, Windhoek has some unique museums, including the TransNamib Railway Museum and the National Earth Sciences Museum. But as far as exhibitions go, do not miss the Namibia Craft Center. Not only will you find rotating shows of local Namibian artists, but the complex also houses the shops of many different artists, ranging from gem cutters to woodcarvers.
Although Windhoek is a fantastic place to visit in and of itself, its position right in the center of the country gives visitors easy access to the rest of what Namibia has to offer. Just to the south is the Sossusvlei, a vast salt and clay pan surrounded by the famously Instagramable red-orange sand dunes of the Namib desert. To the west, you’ll find the Flamingo Lagoon at Walvis Bay, where on a good day you can find thousands of pink and white flamingos on display from a popular boardwalk.
2. Luxor, Egypt
While many plan to do little more in Egypt than see the pyramids, those with a little more time will find up-river Luxor possibly even more enchanting. Located just across the Nile from the Valley of the Kings, Luxor still gets a considerable amount of tourists every year, though for those coming from Giza it may feel practically empty.
Set up like other ancient Egyptian cities that straddle the Nile, on the east bank, from where the sun rises, you’ll find hotels, museums, and residences. The west bank, where the sun sets, is largely reserved for the tombs of the Pharaohs to this day, though now you will find occasional conveniences and a tourist center.
Sixty-three tombs have been excavated here, most famously that of King Tutankhamun, which led to the greater archeological area being declared a World Heritage site. This also spurred the proliferation of the idea of “the curse of the pharaohs” that was said to haunt those who participated in the disturbance of the destruction of Egyptian tombs. Though largely a bit of superstitious fun, the curse and its many iterations still persist in pop culture today.
3. Durban, South Africa
When much of South Africa will fall prey to the grip of winter, Durban is literally nicknamed the “warm city” and has balmy weather all year. The famed Golden Mile beach and promenade are far less crowded than its Cape Town counterparts, and you will be able to find the perfect beach for any activity.
Families will love North Beach, known for its calm waters. Perfect for swimming and sandcastles, you’ll also find a variety of beachfront food options along the promenade. If you’re looking for surfing, try Addington Beach, where locals go to catch a wave. But for those looking for a dive, Treasure Beach is the place to go. Tucked away in a south suburb of Durban called Bluff, this beach is renowned for being the perfect place for underwater activities. During low tide, visitors who take the plunge will be able to find many different species of sea life, including butterflyfish and nudibranch. If you’re not familiar with identifying marine animals, The Wildlife and Environmental Society offers educational programs that include tours that are open to the public.
If you’re unsure what else Durban has to offer, BESETdurban has you completely covered. While not only being able to show you where to eat, drink and entertain yourself, BESETdurban’s walking tours clue you into the city’s history, as well, with a special focus on social justice. You can join one of their public tours for free — these occur approximately every four to six weeks — or you can schedule a private tour just for yourself or your group.
4. Ibadan, Nigeria
A city in Nigeria’s Oyo State, Ibadan is a huge, sprawling city that houses to over three million people. Thankfully, one of the first things you’ll likely find when you arrive is Bower’s Tower. A remnant of Nigeria’s colonial past, the tower is located on the tallest hill in Ibadan, Oke-Are. The panoramic views from the top will help newcomers get a lay of the land.
Once the most populous cities in all of sub-Saharan Africa, Ibadan has some of the oldest and most massive markets on the continent. Though possibly most famous for its textile salespeople, Ibadan’s oldest market, Oje, has been around for over 100 years. While you’ll find different varieties of Yoruba fabric here, you’ll notice a great number of herbalists, too. Along with other natural remedies, you’ll find them selling Nigeria’s famous black soap, said to treat everything from acne and eczema to fever.
If you’re most excited about Ibadan’s markets, you may want to plan on spending at least a couple of weeks in town, as most of the city’s historic markets aren’t open every day, and many of them don’t follow a very traditional schedule. Oje, for example, is open once every 10 days, meaning it’s neither open on the same day of the week nor the same date from month to month. Every market in town has its own schedule and is usually opened once every seven to 14 days.
5. Mombasa, Kenya
Mombasa is Kenya’s oldest city and has historically been central to trade in the region. Because it is located so strategically, it has been controlled by many different regimes over hundreds of years, and you can see these influences in Mombasa today; its mix of African, Middle Eastern, and Indian cultures reflect its multicultural and unfortunate colonial history.
Located on the Indian Ocean, Mombasa’s beaches are phenomenal. You’ll have many spots to choose from, but Diani Beach — like the Ipanema of Kenya — is the most popular. While loungers and sunbathers will fare just fine here, those who prefer a little more adventure will feel equally at home as visitors can go kitesurfing, jet skiing, and snorkeling in the nearby coral reef.
While Mombasa is largely safe, visitors to the area must be particularly wary of theft as it is extremely common. But unlike in some other countries, the perpetrators there are mostly monkeys — baboons, vervet, and colobus monkeys in particular — which are known to steal food and anything else that interests them from hotel rooms or even directly from people themselves. While you’re in town, remain extra vigilant about closing doors and windows when you leave for the day lest you return to find all of your food missing and your belongings in disarray.
6. Djibouti City, Djibouti
Called the “French Hong Kong in the Red Sea,” Djibouti’s capital contains a multitude of cultural influences. Hundreds of years of trade, immigration, and colonialism have informed their traditions, especially the food. Visitors to Djibouti will find Somali and Yemeni specialties alongside French standards, as well as a huge variety of fusion restaurants.
While French-Ethiopian fusion may be most common, you can easily find Vietnamese, Chinese, Italian, and Arabic food, as well as combinations of these. If you’re not sure where to start, The Melting Pot takes fusion to the next level. Here you’ll find everything from skewers of dromedary (camel) to steak arroser, but one night a month you can enjoy your French and Djiboutian standards alongside all-you-can-eat sushi.
If you prefer to prepare your own meals, you can grab your supplies at the Central Market in the African Quarter. Here you’ll find the normal trappings of fresh produce and fish, as well as handicrafts, textiles, and spices.
7. Kigali, Rwanda
Rwanda’s unique ecosystem makes it one of the last remaining places to see mountain gorillas, which brings a lot of people to its capital, Kigali. But should you be passing through, set aside a few days to explore this exceedingly clean and verdant jewel of a city that has blossomed out of the tragedy of the Tutsi genocide in 1994, the memorial for which you’ll find in the center of town.
There is excellent and ample shopping in Kigali, especially in the Nyamirambo neighborhood, where you’ll find a particularly eclectic mix of shops, bars, and restaurants. Though it is primarily a Muslim neighborhood, it’s not isolated from the rest of the city at all — though most of the food you’ll find here will be halal, you’ll still find a handful of bars around if you care for a sundowner. Or, for a perfect view for sunset, you can hike to the top of Mt. Kigali from Nyamirambo. The hike up isn’t too strenuous and can be tackled by many.
Those looking for a less athletic way to experience the culture of Kigali should definitely take some time to see the Inema Art Center. Much more than just a home for artworks, Inema hosts artists in residence, as well as runs arts programs that enrich the community. One of these such “creativity programs” trains Rwandan women to become artmakers and hand-crafters. The women involved in this program, called Inzia Crafts, participate in beading, leatherwork, and other handwork projects.
8. Timbuktu, Mali
First of all, Timbuktu is, indeed, a real place. Situated just north of the Niger River in northern Sahara, Timbuktu was once an important trade post among Tuareg trading routes across the desert. Though once nicknamed the City of Gold by the French when they first arrived, today it lays impoverished and desertified, partially because of the dip in revenue from tourism.
From 2008-2013, Timbuktu was the unfortunate victim of a series of attacks and occupations by different extremist Islamic groups, but even though the threat is largely gone, it hasn’t disappeared completely, and the journey there is an arduous one and definitely not for those who are new to desert travel or are on a strict schedule. No commercial flights exist that fly there today, so your only options are to travel by boat along the Niger river, renting a 4×4 and driving there, or, the safest option, which is to hitch a ride with an NGO that has chartered a plane to fly there. Most people choose to skip the overland journey as it is keenly possible to run into police checkpoints, a lingering insurgent, or literal land mines, though securing a spot on a plane is extremely difficult for those unconnected.
If you can somehow surmount these very real obstacles and make it to Timbuktu yourself, you’ll find the incredible, 700-year-old Djinguereber Mosque, which was built by Mansa Musa after he was inspired by a famously extravagant trip to Mecca in that began in 1324. Though he was assassinated at some point within the next few years, The Djinguereber, or Great Mosque, and his royal palace still stand as a testament to his incredibly successful and peaceful reign, which was most notably focused on scholarship, the arts, and Islamic faith of which Mansa Musa was so fond.
Even more impressive than the royal residence might be the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies and Research, which houses the single greatest collection of Islamic and African literature in the world. Many of the manuscripts housed here date from the 13th and 14th centuries and have been oh-so-carefully preserved, saved, hidden, and kept — sometimes under threat of death — since then. Though many volumes were lost in the last 20 years to the callous activity of insurgents, what is left, still a massive collection, is so important as a piece of our collective intellectual inheritance that those who are charged with the task are willing to fight to protect it.