Best of urban Africa: 9 cities worth going to

algiers guide

Algiers — all the enchantment of Paris, without the bad weather.

The great African continent has for millennia been a kaleidoscope of wildlife arenas. Desert, jungle, rivers and mountains merge together to create one of the world’s most variegated regions.

But there is one modern addition missing from that traditional perspective — its cities.

From the warm welcome in Khartoum to the shopping of Maun, African cities are now worthy destinations in their own right. Don’t neglect them.


1. Algiers, Algeria

Experience the African Paris.

Spend a few days exploring the grand boulevards and rambling stairways of Algiers and you’re sure to fall in love with the Algerian capital.

The waterfront, with its arched porticoes and statuesque mansions, is reminiscent of Marseille and the decadently crumbling hillside quarters transport the mind to Paris’s classic Montmartre area.

Here old men sip strong Arabic coffee at terrace cafés, and the cries of hawkers and fish-wives echo through the tangled alleys.

While the French were willing to release their colonial stranglehold on other parts of North Africa, they’d always intended to maintain a foothold in Algeria.

They built a city here that was designed to be the Paris of North Africa. Better still, it is a Paris with great beaches and the African sun.

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2. Khartoum, Sudan

A cup of tea and a cozy conversation available here.

As the capital of Africa’s biggest country, Khartoum is — literally and figuratively — very distantly removed from the troubled regions of western Sudan.

If you take time to explore the ancient riverbank communities where the Blue and White Niles meet, you’ll soon come to the conclusion that this is one of the world’s safest and most hospitable cities.

Street crime is almost non-existent. The only danger — as you make your way along the dirt-tracks of the old neighborhood of Bahri — is a late arrival at your destination due to the never-ending invitations to drink tea with the people who come out of their homes to entice you in.

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NB: Always check your government’s travel advisory service before planning a trip.


3. Lamu, Kenya

Time stands still while you explore maze-like streets.

Hung like a ripe pawpaw on the trunk of Kenya’s Indian Ocean coastline, Lamu (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is the best preserved Swahili settlement in Africa.

Time stands still here and, even today, donkey carts take the place of motorized transport so that you can imagine how the town looked when it was a port that thrived on the trading of ivory, spice and slaves.

You can combine mornings of aimlessly wandering the labyrinthine alleys of the old town with long, lazy afternoons sunbathing at nearby Shela Beach (a 40-minute walk or a short dhow ride across the bay).

Within a couple of relaxing days here you’re sure to have slipped into the “pole-pole” (“slowly-slowly”) coastal lifestyle.

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4. Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

Almost to the rainbow!

The original urban planners of old Bulawayo designed their main roads so that a six-span oxen cart could make a U-turn through the city center.

Few ox-carts of any size patrol the Zimbabwean city these days, but this design has left Bulawayo’s heirs with a delightfully spacious city that seems to get the full benefit of the clear highveld sunlight.


It could have been designed as much as a city for cyclists as for ox-drivers: the carefully laid-out network of cycle lanes means that the perfect way to make your circuit around the old museums, colorful traditional neighborhoods and charming colonial city is by peddle-power.

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NB: Always check your government’s travel advisory service before planning a trip.


5. St. Louis, Senegal

Modern Senegal: jazzy and cool.

A sleekly dressed young woman — with café-au-lait complexion and almond eyes — drapes herself over an ornate wrought-iron balcony.

The sound of a jazz trumpet drifts on a sultry tropical trade wind. This is not New Orleans but the Senegalese city of St. Louis, probably the coolest city in Africa (even hosting its own jazz festival).

Built on an island in the Senegal River, this was the first French settlement in West Africa. Confined by the size of the island, the city has never outgrown its decadent old colonial character.

On the beach to the north you find the perfect counterpart in a spellbinding fishing village that boasts 200 vibrantly painted fishing boats.

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6. Maun, Botswana

Safari safari everywhere.

Twenty years ago you would have seen more donkey carts in Maun, Botswana, than expedition-equipped four-wheel drives.

What was then just a hot dusty cow town has since become Africa’s premier safari outfitting center.

The domestic airport is now one of the continent’s busiest, with flights taking off every few minutes carrying clients to the luxury lodges on the edge of the Kalahari Desert and the designer camps of the Okavango Delta.

Maun is primarily attractive for shopping and provisioning and, whether you’re heading for desert or delta, this is the perfect place to launch your safari.

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7. Tangier, Morocco

Perfect backdrop for a Bourne movie: mysterious and thrilling.

The ghosts of literary renegades — William Burroughs, Truman Capote, Jack Kerouac — still haunt the tangled old alleys of Tangier’s Petit Socco medina.

Feeling like a character in a spy novel, you make your way through the shadowy bazaars and between the tables of the tea shops where hooded figures sit shrouded in their “djellaba” robes.

The producers of the classic Bogart movie might have focused their attention on the more famous Casablanca, but there was never any doubt that the thrilling edginess and the air of backstreet mystery could only ever have been purely Tangerine.

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8. Windhoek, Namibia

More than elephants and giraffes.

As you wander between the traditional German buildings and pastel-painted modern architecture of Windhoek’s city center you could very quickly come to the decision that the Namibian capital is the most beautiful in Africa.

But don’t be deceived by the sleepy, laid-back ambience; there are those who say that Windhoek is also the party capital of the continent.

The township of Katutura — one of the most rocking nightspots you’ll come across even on a relatively staid weekend — explodes into frantic action twice a year during the Windhoek Street Festival (March) and Oktoberfest.

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9. Grahamstown, South Africa

Where culture, science, history and art go hand in hand.

Few people go out of their way to visit Grahamstown but those who stop by are invariably charmed by South Africa’s most appealing little center of academia.

At first sight the traditional architecture and stately buildings hold instant appeal but stick around for a while and you’ll find the Grahamstown’s real wealth lies in the museums dedicated to African history, music, literature, natural science and art.

Humble little Grahamstown is South Africa’s arts capital and really springs to life for a fortnight each July when it hosts the massive National Arts Festival.





Written by PH

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