Africa, a place of beauty, a place of love. A place of mystery, a place of enchanting familiarity. Or as my brother-in-law likes to say, “Some people call it Africa, I call it home.”
So you’re getting older, and as the time passes by, you have an innate desire to do something you’ve always wanted to do. Some might test your physical limits, others your emotional limits, while others will introduce you to a higher level of spirituality. So where can you find this level of nirvana that you seek? Africa of course!
Here’s our bucket list of places to see, do and experience in Africa before you die. Now this bucket list will not be the usual list of touristy and wildlife online attractions. It will be a combination of places to see: cities, small towns and sites. But each is unique in its own special way, and you will leave having been fulfilled.
This is a bucket list for the soul. Enjoy.
Mandela’s Home – Soweto, South Africa
As one of the greatest icons of the 20th century, Nelson Mandela inspired a generation of human and civil rights activists all across the globe. And it all started at 8115 Vilakazi St. in Orlando East, Soweto. The home is the place where Mandela and his comrades-in-arms planned numerous acts to subvert the apartheid regime and bring equality and justice to South Africa. While the home itself is quite modest, there is a certain aura that a normal man from Mvezo Village in the Cape Province came to this regular neighborhood on a very regular street and changed the world.
Ethiopian Coffee – Addis Ababa
It may be a long way to go for a cup of coffee, but can you really put a price tag on an experience? Ethiopian coffee is in a class of its own. Both in its flavor and, if you’re in Ethiopia, in its preparation. It’s an absolute must to try freshly roasted Ethiopian coffee, and if you have the opportunity to have the barista prepare it there in front of you … the experience is magical.
In Addis Ababa, there are the top-notch coffee places such as Mokarar, Alem Bunna and, of course, the world famous Tomoca Coffee. Within each of these locations, you’ll get to taste Ethiopia’s finest brewed and blended coffee while relaxing to the soft sounds of Ethiopian folk music. And while you can easily enjoy coffee at some of the trendier spots, feel free to also stop by some of the local smaller yet vibrant cafes. They offer equally delicious cups of java along with some excellent home-baked bread.
Be sure to slip out of town and take a visit to some of the countryside locations such as Lalibela and Harar. Both towns offer unique cultural and spiritual excursions that will resonate with one’s soul. The nation has generally had a unique and historic relationship between the world’s largest religions of Islam and Christianity and this is further reflected in both of these cities, and across the country itself.
Goree Island – Dakar, Senegal
The island of Goree sits off the coast of Dakar, and while nondescript in its setting, its history is far more gruesome due to its connection with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. While not exactly the largest slave trading port, the island and current museum have become the symbol of slavery and its dark era in human history. Visitors to the site claimed to have heard the echoes of their forefathers who were captured on their blessed soil and shipped off in chains to an unknown destination. It is estimated that approximately 30 million Africans were sent to the Americas with the majority coming from West Africa
Stone Town Zanzibar – Zanzibar, Tanzania
With its mix of African, Arab, Persian, Indian and European influences, Zanzibar’s Stone Town is one of the most ethnically diverse places within such a small area on the continent of Africa. The city’s alleyways and streets are home to such a diverse mix of people that one can hear four to five different languages spoken by the locals within a minute’s walk. Tourist sites range from the Sultan’s Palace, the House of Wonders (Beit Al-Ajaib) to the Old Fort and the traditional market places (locally known as souqs). Walk the streets as the Muslim call to prayer is made aloud from several different masjids simultaneously. An extra treat in Zanzibar are the exquisite beaches that are world class and have numerous hotels for all levels of travelers.
Consolation prize — If one is not able to make it to Zanzibar then Mombasa’s Old Town offers a similarly unique experience. This section of the city of Mombasa is similar to Stone Town in its cultural and architectural makeup. In addition, Old Town (and Mombasa itself) is considered to be one of the oldest continually inhabited towns in sub-Saharan Africa, with the settlement having been established well before the year 1000.
The Birthplace of the Black Diaspora Concept: Accra, Ghana
Long considered to be the focal point of Pan-Africanism, Ghana (and by this extension, Accra, the capital city of Ghana) has long held a special place in the hearts of the Africa diaspora. What Ghana provides is a distinct connection between where African-Americans are from and where we are today. The city of Accra offers numerous opportunities to explore this link and also provides insight into what connects the African diaspora to the African continent. Visit the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum to learn more about the origins of Pan-Africanism and the W.E.B. Du Bois Library, which houses numerous works related to various social, historical and political issues of their time.
A few hours’ drive outside of Accra is the Cape Coast Castle. With its heartbreaking “door of no return” this castle served as one of the main hubs in West Africa during the height of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The castle is rather well preserved, and although located outside of the main city of Accra, it is fairly accessible and has services for tourists.
Pyramids of Giza, Egypt
Included among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the pyramids of Egypt have long mesmerized humanity. The magnificence of their design and size, along with the technical ingenuity as it relates to the fact that they were built thousands of years ago, the pyramids of Giza confirm the notion of Africa’s long and important legacy in the world.
A visit to the pyramids must also include the Great Sphinx. Equally impressive in its size and structure, the Sphinx has stood guard to the Great Pyramids for thousands of years. What’s interesting about the Great Sphinx is that unlike the pyramids, which archaeologists have a working knowledge of their history, the history and purpose of the Sphinx is largely unknown. There are a few strong theories on its origins, but no one can definitely say when it was built. What can be agreed upon is the structure is absolutely magnificent and a must-see on a tour to the Great Pyramids.
Central Business District Nairobi – Nairobi, Kenya
Is Nairobi an ancient and historical city with a grand story of its origins? Not really. Does the city have great beaches and wonderful weather that draw travelers from all over the world for fun and relaxation? No. Does the city have numerous sites and must-see places that are to die for? Ummm … not really.
So why should someone visit Nairobi? I have just one word: Energy.
As the largest city in East Africa and the social, cultural, political and financial hub of the region, Nairobi is the heartbeat of the region. The city offers a rare blend of traditional African culture but with an international understanding of the world we live in.
In addition, Nairobi is at the center of the economic growth currently being witnessed across Africa. As one of the fastest-growing economies in the developing world, Nairobi represents one of the many nerve centers of Africa’s growth.
As a traveler in Nairobi, what can you do? My suggestion is this. Go to a nice coffee shop in downtown Nairobi, order something in English and then blend in. The beautiful thing about Nairobi is that it’s one of the few major cities in Africa in which you can speak English, go about your business, and no one will have a clue that you’re not a local. Thus, you get to experience Africa from the position of silent observation. No funny stares, no treatment as a foreigner. Just you.
Consolation prize — If you can’t make it to Nairobi, then definitely check out Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Quite simply, whereas Nairobi represents the current standard of development and business in East Africa, Dar es Salaam represents the future. Tanzania has a rapidly growing economy, and in 15 to 20 years, it will be the place to be in Africa. Remember that.
Timbuktu (It Actually Exists) — Timbuktu, Mali
Back in the ’60s, it was a popular phrase to refer to some far off magical and distant place as Timbuktu. The city is included in a Donald Duck cartoon, and Dr. Seuss references it in a story, thus many people assumed the city did not exist. However, the city of Timbuktu has one of the most spectacular histories in all of Africa and the world. Once home to the center of learning in West Africa, the city’s universities and schools attracted thinkers and scholars from various parts of the continent and North Africa. In addition to being the capital of the Mali and Songhai empires, the city was also home to Mansa Musa, who has been recognized as one of the wealthiest men of all time and raised the city to a higher prestige.
Getting to Timbuktu can be half the adventure as is at least 12 to 16 hours away by vehicle from the closest major city or you can fly on a small plane. While the city has seen better times, it still has an enchanting presence due to its bustling marketplaces, along with its historic clay mosques that are believed to have been some of the tallest structures in sub-Saharan Africa during the height of its kingdom.