For many people, a holiday in Africa is synonymous with going on safari. And little wonder when you consider that this massive continent supports the world’s most impressive megafauna. But Africa is also home to some fascinating urban destinations. Some, such as Cairo, Marrakech and Cape Town, are well established and popular with tourists, while others are more remote or obscure.

Here we have taken on the tough task of selecting 20 of Africa’s best and most beautiful cities and towns. Some are notable for their historic architecture, others for their scenic setting, and others still for their contemporary urban life. A few offer all three. But in all cases, these cities are indisputably worth a visit.


Cape Town, South Africa

Aerial view of Cape Town and Table Mountain Aerial view of Cape Town and Table Mountain

Nestled between Table Mountain and the sparkling Atlantic waters of Table Bay, Cape Town is widely regarded to be the most beautiful city in Africa, if not anywhere in the world. Its scenic location aside, it also hosts a superb selection of historical landmarks and museums reflecting its status as South Africa’s oldest city, having been founded in 1652. Party-goers will appreciate Cape Town’s lively nightlife, foodies will love the seafood and wine, while Table Mountain and the spectacular Cape Peninsula beckon for outdoors enthusiasts.

Cape Town Tours

Zanzibar Stone Town, Tanzania

Aerial view of Stone Town Aerial view of Stone Town

The heart and soul of Tanzania’s legendary ‘spice island’, Stone Town is an enclave of narrow alleys and 19th-century buildings set within the modern sprawl of Zanzibar City. It’s a great place to experience urban Swahili culture, to shop for ecofriendly products made in Zanzibar, and to enjoy sundowners and a cosmopolitan cuisine on the atmospheric Indian Ocean waterfront.

Stone Town Tours

Cairo, Egypt

Mosque-Madrasa of Sultan Hasan in Cairo Mosque-Madrasa of Sultan Hasan in Cairo

If chaotic traffic, endlessly blaring horns and people everywhere are measures of what makes a city great, the Egyptian capital has few peers anywhere in Africa. Despite the busyness, however, Cairo is also an endlessly exciting city, whether you meander through the old Coptic quarter, enjoy Mediterranean cuisine on the banks of the Nile, marvel at the contents of the Egyptian Museum, or goggle at the immense sphinx and pyramids of Giza.


Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Residential district in Addis Ababa Residential district in Addis Ababa

Despite being relatively modern by Ethiopian standards, the mountain-ringed capital Addis Ababa – founded in the 1880s by Emperor Menelik II – provides a vibrant introduction to Africa’s most singular country. Here you can sample Ethiopia’s fiery cuisine and unique musical legacy, visit elegant churches associated with the iconic Emperor Haile Selassie, and enjoy a taster of the country’s historic scope at the National Museum of Ethiopia.

Addis Ababa Tours

Djenné, Mali

The Great Mosque of Djenné The Great Mosque of Djenné. Source:

An important trading outpost since the 15th century, Africa’s most architecturally cohesive town stands on a seasonal island in the Bani River, which forms part of the Niger River Delta. Djenné today remains a rich repository of Sahelian mud-and-stick architecture, a style epitomized by the Great Mosque of Djenné, which is the world’s largest and arguably most beautiful adobe building.


Maputo, Mozambique

Maputo skyline at night Maputo skyline at night

Originally called Lourenço Marques, Maputo became capital of Mozambique in 1898. Since then it has developed into one of southern Africa’s most characterful and lively cities. Downtown Maputo is great fun, thanks to its distinct Afro-Mediterranean vibe, eclectic mix of outmoded architectural styles, and wealth of lovely markets. This port city is also known for its spicy Portuguese-influenced cuisine, attractive beaches and inclusive nightlife.

Maputo Tours

Nairobi, Kenya

Nairobi skyline at sunset Nairobi skyline at sunset

There are more beautiful cities in Africa than Nairobi, but few beat Kenya’s high-altitude capital when it comes to modern amenities, accessible nightlife and domestic and international transport connections. The bordering Nairobi National Park is also one of the few places in the world where you can see free-ranging wildlife – including lions, giraffes and rhinos – below the shimmering skyscrapers of a tropical CBD.

Nairobi Tours

Essaouira, Morocco

Essaouira, Morocco Essaouira, Morocco

This sparkling gem on Morocco’s Atlantic coast is one of the most beautiful cities in Africa. It combines a stunning resort beach with a fascinating old medina, the latter hemmed in by the imposing cliff-top ramparts and fortifications of the 18th-century Skala de la Kasbah.


Johannesburg, South Africa

Johannesburg skyline Johannesburg skyline

Like its East African counterpart Nairobi, Johannesburg wouldn’t win any beauty competitions, but it does stand out as a regional economic and transport hub of singular importance. It also boasts one of Africa’s best arts and dining out scenes, some superb museums, and shopping opportunities galore. Ironically this most modern of African cities stands alongside the Cradle of Humankind, a Unesco World Heritage Site that hosts the world’s wealthiest repository of hominid fossils, dating back 3.3 million years.

Johannesburg Tours

Axum, Ethiopia

View over Axum View over Axum

Axum is the oldest continuously occupied city in sub-Saharan Africa. Former capital of the Axumite Empire, it dates back to the time of the Queen of Sheba and once controlled a trade route that extended from the Sudanese Nile across the Red Sea to Yemen. Today, Axum is littered with ruined palaces, towering stelae and other relicts from these glory days. The central Maryam Tsion Church, established in the 4th century, is the birthplace of Ethiopian Christianity.


Marrakesh, Morocco

Marrakesh, Morocco Marrakesh, Morocco

One of Africa’s best and most popular cities, Marrakesh is known as the Red City after the color of the ancient walls that enclose its medina. Architectural highlights include the 13th-century Kutubiyya Mosque and Sidi Bel Abbes Mausoleum, but the city is also renowned for its souks (markets), hammam spas and Moroccan cuisine. For something different, try a day trip to a nearby Berber village such as Tanaghmeilt or Tamatert.


Saint-Louis, Senegal

Saint-Louis, Senegal Saint-Louis, Senegal

The oldest French settlement in West Africa, island-bound Saint-Louis was founded near the Senegal River mouth in 1659, and served as the capital prior to being usurped by Dakar in 1902. Saint-Louis’s pastel-shaded colonial and Creole architecture exudes character, while the buzzing contemporary nightlife peaks with a popular Saint Louis International Jazz Festival, first held in 1993, that attracts artists and music lovers from all over the world.


Lamu, Kenya

Lamu town waterfront Lamu town waterfront

Set on an Indian Ocean island offshore of Kenya, Lamu could simplistically be described as a more laid-back and low-key northern counterpart to Zanzibar’s Stone Town. Architecturally, however, the old town feels far older and more traditional than Zanzibar, since the whitewashed houses that line its cobbled alleys are built in a Swahili style that dates back to medieval times. Lamu is a great place to chill, and it offers access to several good beaches and snorkeling reefs.

Lamu Tours

Kigali, Rwanda

Downtown Kigali Downtown Kigali

If you’re a fan of orderly cities, don’t miss the Rwandan capital Kigali, which was cited as a model of modern urban conservation when it was awarded the UN-Habitat Scroll of Honor in 2008. Known for its attractive hilly layout and low tolerance for litterbugs, Kigali is also home to several interesting museums and memorials, and the best air gateway for gorilla-tracking safaris to Volcanoes National Park.

Kigali Tours

Swakopmund, Namibia

Colonial houses in Swakopmund Colonial houses in Swakopmund

The Namibian capital Windhoek boasts some fine German colonial-era buildings. But it is outranked in this respect by the time-warped Bavarian-style seaport of Swakopmund, some 360km/224mi to the west. Once you’ve soaked up Swakopmund’s architectural highlights, the town is a popular base for adventure activities such as quad biking, sand boarding and sea kayaking. Further afield, Cape Cross supports the world’s largest Cape fur seal colony, comprising up to 200,000 individuals.

Swakopmund Tours

Luxor, Egypt

Luxor, Egypt Luxor, Egypt

Situated on the Nile more than 600km downriver of Cairo, Luxor is the site of Ancient Thebes, described by the historian Ian Portman as ‘the greatest city the world had ever known’. It wouldn’t be difficult to dedicate a week to exploring the riverfront temples, palaces, tombs and other imposing Theban relicts dotted in and around Luxor. Especially as the modern city is also very enjoyable, with its busy markets and agreeable riverside location.


Island of Mozambique, Mozambique

Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, Island of Mozambique Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, Island of Mozambique. Source:

This crescent-shaped island off the north coast of Mozambique served as the capital of Portuguese East Africa for four centuries prior to the emergence of Maputo. Often referred to by its Portuguese name Ilha de Moçambique, it houses several of the southern hemisphere’s oldest buildings, most notably the 16th-century Fortaleza de São Sebastião. No less impressive is the architectural cohesion of the old town center, which has changed little in shape since the late 19th century.


Harar, Ethiopia

Church in Harar Church in Harar

Situated along an ancient trade route through Ethiopia’s fertile eastern highlands, Harar is the fourth-holiest city in the Muslim world, after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. Harar Jugol, the old walled city, is lined with the world’s densest concentration of mosques and Islamic shrines, but its maze-like alleys also exude a strong and compelling sense of place. A unique feature of this easygoing city is its famous hyena men, who feed the spotted hyenas that roam the surrounding hills every evening just after dusk.

Harar Tours

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Aerial view of Dar es Salaam Aerial view of Dar es Salaam

Tanzania’s largest city and former capital is considerably more energetic than its Swahili name – literally ‘Haven of Peace’ – might suggest. But the city center, with its wealth of German, Indian and Swahili architectural influences, can be fun to explore, while the outlying Msasani Peninsula is home to a great selection of seafront restaurants. Dar es Salaam lies within easy cruising distance of some fabulous beaches, and it’s a short plane or ferry hop from Zanzibar.

Dar es Salaam Tours

Stellenbosch, South Africa

Vineyards around Stellenbosch Vineyards around Stellenbosch

The second-oldest town in South Africa, Stellenbosch was established inland of Cape Town in 1679, and its central oak-shaded avenues are lined with stately Cape Dutch buildings dating to that era. Despite its old-world architectural ambience, Stellenbosch doubles as a lively university town with a bustling nightlife. It is surrounded by the beautiful valleys and mountains of the popular Cape Winelands.

Stellenbosch Tours

By Philip Briggs
South Africa ZA

Philip is an acclaimed travel writer and author of many guidebooks, including the Bradt guides to Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.

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