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Solo Female Travel: Africa Travel Guide

Women on the Road
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In the 1990s, I was a foreign correspondent and backpacked solo across Africa for a year. It wasn't the easiest of journeys but to me, it was the most challenging - and most rewarding - trip of my life. I kept records but the internet wasn't quite a thing yet, so I didn't 'blog' about it (although I did send an email newsletter, probably one of the first travel newsletters ever).

travel Africa - an Ndebele village in South AfricaOn my first solo trip through Africa I made a side trip to some Ndebele villages in South Africa - the beadwork and designs are breathtaking

Back then, a woman traveling on her own across Africa was relatively rare - it still is. Africa isn't every woman's first travel choice because there is less tourism infrastructure than in Asia, for example, and you have to do a lot of figuring out on your own.

But if you make the effort, you'll be surrounded by glorious wildlife, hypnotic scenery, wonderful music and a sense of humor you won't find anywhere else.

One thing to watch out for: there is no such thing as "Africa". The continent has 54 countries (plus Somaliland and Western Sahara, which are fighting for statehood) and they range in environment from lush tropical islands to harsh desert and barren mountains. Cultures, too, are wildly diverse. The only time I feel confident calling it Africa is when I'm referring to the physical land mass itself...

Is there really such a place as Africa?

This was a constant question during my travel through Africa. Saying you’ve been to Africa is a bit like saying you’ve been to Asia. Was that Southeast Asia? Thailand? Vietnam?

Before my first trip, mine was an Africa of preconceptions, of humid heat and rural herds, of thick forest and arid savannah. There was that, of course, but there was also so much more.

Nothing had prepared me for the chill of a winter landing in Cape Town in mid-July, in shorts and sandals, watching my breath curl. I had known the seasons would be reversed, but freezing? In Africa? It was fitting that my first purchase on the continent would be a pair of long underwear.

I spent the next year crisscrossing this giant, learning about the ancient civilizations of Zimbabwe and the colonial histories of Mozambique and Kenya, the unique cultures of Ethiopia and Eritrea and the end of apartheid in South Africa. In Uganda I found a country that reminded me of Switzerland, its neat, well-aligned rows of crops and its law-abiding culture, a country in which I wasn’t allowed to stand on a long-distance bus because it was… illegal. In Kenya, just over the border, I found the opposite, an unsettling anarchy where circumventing laws was a skill in itself. Ethiopia seemed an Africa apart, slices of history turned towards the Middle East and a Church tied to Judaism and early Christian Orthodoxy. In some coastal areas East Africans, Indians and Arabs mingled to create a bright new world.

historical travel to Africa - Ethiopian churchesThe amazing rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, in Ethiopia, were commissioned in the 12th century by the king

Some nations were so huge they defied the very notion of country. Nigeria could flirt with a rural caravan of northern nomads as easily as with intellectual literary salons of the great southern urban agglomerations, all within its borders. In South Africa cultures bumped into one another the same way. The buzzing diversity of Cape Town, the edginess of Johannesburg, the Dutch heritage of Stellenbosch – and the shebeens of the townships, the Victorian homes of British families that hadn’t changed in a century, the pioneering Afrikaner, the might of the Zulu – all sharing 11 official languages in dozens of landscapes into which either France or Texas could fit twice.

The Maghreb, or North Africa, is geographically part of the continent but arguably more closely tied to the Mediterranean, with which it shares culture and climate, or the Middle East, with which it shares religion and language.

So yes, Africa, the geographical land mass, does of course exist. But Africa as ‘Africa’, that homogenous continent glued together in my mind turned out to be, to my delight, an extensive collection of diversities. My year of solo travel across Africa didn't begin to do it justice.

safest places to visit in africa as a solo woman

This is the most common question I get about the continent: What are the safest countries to visit in Africa?

That's an impossible question. Each country has its own safety profile, and much depends on what kind of traveler you are.

In terms of health, you'll be better off in countries with comparatively good health infrastructures - say South Africa and Kenya, for example, but not exclusively. Such things as the number of doctors per inhabitants, the number of hospitals, water safety and so on are all part of the equation. While no single source of information will provide everything you need, sites like Africa Health Stats or for something in even greater depth about health, poverty and other development indicators, there's the series of Human Development Reports and index produced by the UN Development Program. 

Before anything else, please make sure you get travel insurance (or click here if you're over 66): health facilities in rural Africa are often rudimentary and if something serious happens, you'll be glad you spent the few extra dollars or pounds on care or repatriation. That said, the standard of medical care for local or tropical illnesses can be quite high.

For regular ailments, you can find pharmacies in most villages but beware – fake or expired drugs do find their way to the continent, especially in their generic form. Talk to the pharmacist and make sure your drugs are from the original manufacturer. Of course, bring what you usually need, and have a decent first aid kit with you.

Other dangers to be aware of when traveling to Africa: poverty, which can lead to violence; driving and road conditions, where tiredness, overcrowding, and poorly maintained vehicles and infrastructure can mean danger; petty theft, although I've been pickpocketed more often in Europe than in Africa!

And – terrorism being the elephant in the room – yes, it does happen, most recently in Kenya but also the Boko Haram kidnappings in Nigeria or Al-Shabab in Somalia so I wouldn't venture near unsettled border areas. While there are indeed places I wouldn't go, there are many more places I WOULD go.

A last proviso: if this is your first ever solo trip, I would suggest starting outside Africa until you get your sea legs. This has nothing to do with danger and everything to do with travel savvy. Outside some of the main tourist areas in Africa, there are few Western-style facilities and you might just be pushed too far out of your comfort zone. But once you've taken a trip or two abroad as an independent traveler making your own arrangements, then yes:  take a trip to Africa! It will be memorable...

some myths about africa i'd like to address before you go

Stereotypes are common enough in any interaction but when it comes to Africa, we seem to enter a land of clichés. There are so many myths, so many opinions... and then there's the reality. Here are a bunch of things gleaned from my own years of travel to 17 African countries (that's still fewer than half!) and of working professionally on issues related to Africa for two decades.

Africa is dangerous and violent

That's a bit like saying the United States are dangerous, because in some cities everyday citizens are allowed to carry guns (mind you, for this very reason, going to the US scares me more than visiting Africa) or some parts of some cities are prone to gang warfare. I can't say I feel safe walking around on my own in Johannesburg or Lagos, especially towards the end of the day, but to me, those are exceptions, not the rule.

And yes, there have been violent conflicts on the continent. A few are still ongoing, and according to the Global Peace Index, five in 10 of the world's most dangerous countries are in Africa. Perhaps, but these are countries (with one exception) that are at war. Other warring countries have found peace, and I hope these will too. Meantime, if you're traveling across the continent, you'd best avoid South Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic.

Terrorism, too, has raised its ugly head on occasion. Morocco, Nigeria and Kenya have all known bombings and kidnappings, and terrorism is common in the Sahel, where islamist extremists operate. So while there is danger and violence in Africa, this doesn't mean it's dangerous and violent.

Africans are poor

Sadly, there is no denying poverty in Africa: nearly half a billion Africans live below the poverty line, and more than two-thirds of the world's poor live in Africa.

So yes, there is much poverty in Africa, but there is also much poverty elsewhere.  Many people in Africa are unbelievably wealthy, and the middle class is thriving. 

Think of this: Africa leads the world in diamond exports and has plenty of the world's mineral resources, including bauxite, gold, platinum and many more. There's a lot of wealth in Africa – it just happens to be concentrated in a very few hands.

Africa costs less than other continents

I'm not sure where this came from – perhaps because the continent is full of developing countries... It's actually an expensive continent, although there are exceptions - Morocco, for example, or local transport, which is indeed cheap. If you eat in a Western restaurant, you'll feel the sting, as you will in hotels. Safaris are expensive, as is entrance to parks and reserves (and trekking with gorillas can cost anywhere from US$ 600-1500 just for the permit). If anything, Africa costs more than other continents, even Europe, because it's hard to find anything in the middle range.

You'll have to bribe everyone

You may have to bribe a few people but in the past decades, things have dramatically changed. Gone are the days when you had to systematically bribe immigration officers just to stamp your passport or get it back from them! Yes, it still happens, but it's rare. In fact, in a year of full-time travel in Africa, I was asked for a 'little extra' less than a handful of times...

You'll catch a deadly disease, like Ebola

True, there are life-threatening diseases in Africa, although they're more often than not in remote areas with little access to health care or even vaccinations for children; there's a good chance these won't be the areas you're visiting. But take basic health precautions, get your vaccinations, and keep an eye on your health (and get health insurance no matter what!) 

Africa is 'backwards'

What does that even mean? Backwards compared to what? In fact, there's better cell coverage in Africa than in many other parts of the world. Because of its strong rural culture and the huge distances, such commodities as electricity and running water have taken time to reach the hinterland. However, local people are often ingenious in harnessing wind, sun and manpower for their devices, and while many Africans don't yet have a landline, most have leapfrogged and have cellphones instead. In fact, mobile subscriptions are growing faster in Africa than anywhere else.

Africa has bad roads

Africa has SOME bad roads. It also has some pristine highways that are a delight (apart from the occasional meandering animal or herd). Where the roads do get bad, as is the case everywhere it rains volumes, is in the interior, where roads are often made of dirt. When heavy rains come, those roads may get washed out so it's best not to travel on them too often when it rains. Those roads are disappearing as roadworks spread between towns and cities.

Africa is hot

Yes it is. And cold. And rainy. And windy. The Sahara can be stifling during the day and freezing at night. Rainforests and tropical areas can just about melt you, true, but head north or south and you'll be in climates probably similar to those you have at home. (As an aside, the coldest I've probably EVER been was in South Africa, when I arrived in mid-winter dressed for summer.

Africa's cities are huge

Some are, indeed. Of the world's 10 largest cities, only one, Lagos, is in Africa. If you look by population, Africa doesn't even make the list. Most of these mega-cities are in... China, with South Asia in second place.

Africans have enormous families

The fertility rate in Africa is higher than anywhere else: women in Africa have an average of 4.5 children each, Asia has less than half with 2.1 and Latin America 2 (in Europe, that figure is 1.6). What this hides is that these figures have dropped, from 5.5 children just nine years ago. In urban areas, where social and economic services have improved and where family planning is available, numbers are even further down. With better health services, fewer children die, and families don't feel the urge to have as many. And where women have access to education, birth rates fall: women often have jobs and want fewer children; and education means they are better able to bargain with husbands for smaller families. That said, Africa, like the Middle East, has an extended definition of family, which includes not only the immediate family but distant cousins and even friends, who mutually support one another when times are tough.

Family is considered paramount. As I traveled solo across Africa, I was often an object of pity for not having a husband, and spent much time explaining, to everyone's consternation, that it was a matter of choice, not of rejection!

You'll risk your life in Africa if you're LGBTQ

Let's just say I wouldn't be too open about it.

In some places, there is a death penalty for homosexuality, although I suspect it's used more for men than women. For now, these include Mauritania, Somalia, Somaliland, Sudan and northern Nigeria. Uganda has often threatened to make homosexuality a capital offence but for now, along with Tanzania (and to a certain extent Sierra Leone), being gay is punishable by life in prison.

All in all, homosexual acts are considered criminal in 34 countries BUT − they've never been a crime in 11 countries, and an additional 9 have decriminalized them. You can see the map here.

Africa has no history

This one seems to come from people who believe history began with European colonialism and that little of importance has come out of Africa. Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of African history will know about the great cultures and empires which once ruled herethe salt caravans, hieroglyphics, the use of healing plants, inventions involving numerals and geometry, advanced astronomy, oh - and yes - the fact that humanity probably originated in Africa. That's not history... it's PREhistory.

We must all do our bit to help Africa develop

This is a tricky one for me, having spent half my life working in global development. There's no question that some development assistance has helped - for example in the medical field, where primary health care has been boosted and vaccinations and health care improved. Sadly, there's still a belief that things European and American are somehow "better", ignoring the tremendous talents and skills available locally. Most aid these days is tied and designed to benefit the giving country; as a result, the aid may not be needed, or may actually do damage. And while there is finally an effort to include local people in decision making, many decisions are still made by foreigners, who drop in briefly and leave again. So no, we don't have to help Africa develop but we could do a lot more by visiting Africa, buying African goods or encouraging policies that contribute to a better standard of living.

'Africa' is a nation

I've gone into this above but... some things deserve being mentioned more than once! Africa is Not. One. Country. It is 54 countries, many radically different from one another: you cannot compare Morocco with Ethiopia with Malawi, even if they are on the same continent. It's a bit like going to Spain, Scotland and Bulgaria and assuming they are identical because they are, well, in Europe.

where to travel in africa - a few recommendations

Of course I can only recommend places I've visited myself, so this list will lack such popular destinations as Cabo Verde or Namibia or Botswana. When I do get there, I'll make sure to tell you all about it! Meantime, here are the places I loved the most. (And if you love reading books about a place before you go, here's my travel book review section for Africa.)

women's solo travel: south africa

South Africa is a country I've visited a number of times, from end to end, and I loved it – stunning nature, delicious food, fascinating history and culture, brilliant music... you can't go wrong. It's a huge country with a massive population, but poverty and joblessness are common and that can breed violence, especially towards those more fortunate (wealthy). But by far the scariest issue in South Africa for me was the driving... too fast and too unpredictable. That said, I'm told it's improving daily.

solo trips for women: morocco

Morocco is very much part of Africa, even though a part of the country looks northward to the Mediterranean and to Europe, in part because of its colonial heritage (Morocco was a French protectorate from 1912-1956 with parts under Spanish rule that remain so today). With other Maghreb countries (especially Algeria and Tunisia) these cultures have more in common with the Arabic cultures of the Middle East than with countries further south. The exquisite food, fascinating history, glorious architecture and beaches set this country apart from many others.

an independent visit to malawi

Malawi has always been one of my favorite countries when traveling to Africa alone - it's a modest-sized country and people are welcoming. It's not quite the tourist draw yet although there is plenty to see and the government (and private industry) are doing plenty to attract visitors. The friendliness here is contagious - it does call itself the "Warm Heart of Africa" after all.

cosmopolitan kenya: nairobi's irresistible sights

Kenya is a country I keep returning to, mostly for work but also because I love the country and its people. Of course there's the Maasai Mara and all the wildlife (which is also fabulous in neighboring Tanzania, by the way), the beach along the coast, and the capital, Nairobi, which I always enjoy for a bunch of reasons (mainly because it has a national park filled with wildlife right in the middle of town).

solo travel: stories from africa

Sometimes, during my trip to Africa, something would catch my attention and I'd write about it, not a fully-formed article but snippets, glimpses of what backpacking Africa was like back when I spent a year criss-crossing the continent as a journalist. Here are some of those Africa travel stories.

Great Zimbabwe: An Accidental Sunrise

I’m notorious for missing the sights. I’m the kind of traveler who manages to visit Niagara without seeing the Falls or Paris without climbing the Eiffel Tower.

Sometimes it’s on purpose, because popular attractions can be excessively packaged, reduced to a lowest common denominator and devoid of discovery or excitement. At other times I simply get lost. I like to discover things as I travel and I’ve been known to let my guidebook gather dust on the bed table while I’m off exploring.

One night of travel I arrived at the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, unplanned. I had heard of the beauty of the ruins but it was nighttime, they were closed, and I would be leaving at dawn. Next morning as the sun was working to get up I snuck out, flashlight in one hand and camera in another, to see the ruins. I crept up to the gate, guarded by a snoring watchman, his leg swung across the plain chain-link fence, a chain so low I could – and did – climb over it. I was in.

Ahead of me, a great wall of stone stood in the escaping darkness, a quarter sun peeking out behind it. The air lightened every second and the stones went from dark and gloomy to textured and smooth against the silvery sky. Oddly, each ray seemed to hit at a different angle, bathing the buildings in a twinkling aura, almost violent in its brightness.

Great Zimbabwe is shaped like a roundish square and surrounded by a wall in places many times higher than myself. Its buildings are crumbling, and a few are oddly shaped, a massive cone tapering skyward, and frittered round structures that might once have been huts. The ensemble speaks of great harmony, so much so that in the colonial days of Rhodesia, it was considered a brutal lie to hint this complex might have been built eight centuries ago by Africans.

How to travel Africa: the ruins of Great Zimbabwe

The sun climbed and the heat followed surprisingly quickly. I perched on a low boulder and settled in for the spectacle as each ray chose a section of the ruins to illuminate. Great Zimbabwe, surprising as it is, is surrounded by even more surprising natural structures, large mounds of granite that look like huge stone termite hills growing out of the flat earth, as though they had been dropped there by an ancient spaceship.

The dry season was over and the ground was wild with green, smelling of freshness. I could hear the world waking up, insects and birds I didn’t recognize and the distant sounds of cutlery and water and people going about their daily chores before the hot sun began piercing their skin.

A faint drumming started in the distance. As is often the case in Africa, silence is quickly filled. And then I heard it, the rattle of a chain, followed by the padding of bare feet on beaten earth.

“The gate is closed! The gate is closed!” The guard looked alarmed and his eyes stared into mine.

“You cannot enter before eight!”

Clearly the poor man had received his orders and would be in trouble if we were found. I slowly climbed down off my perch, gathered myself and trudged back along the enclosure’s wall, the wall that might well have been built 1000 years ago by… no one is willing to be sure.

I reached my hotel as the other guests tucked into bread and jam, blissfully unaware of the price of their obedience, of the sunrise unseen, of the remnants of a great empire everyone claimed ,right outside their window.

Lost in a Minefield in Mozambique

Roberto slammed on the brakes, pushing the Land Rover into a skid. I grabbed the safety bar and my thoughts drifted to the bright orange shoes I had begged my mother to buy me when I turned seven.“

We’re lost,” the park ranger whispered, hysteria edging into his voice.

I was a newspaper correspondent reporting on Mozambique and we had been assessing the damage caused by 16 years of unrelenting civil war to Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique’s pre-war pride.

As we looked around, I felt a slow panic climbing up my throat, its oily fingers squeezing my intestines, alternately cooling and melting. I remember the smell of my own terror, unaware until then that terror had a smell. I was unprepared for the scorching sensation in my chest and the raw, acid taste in my mouth.

I thought back to the bent and rusted metal hulks we had passed along the way, clear evidence of what happens when even the largest vehicle meet a landmine. One false move or a bit of bad luck and we’d be twisted too.

Each time we spotted a telltale twisted palm, it was the wrong one.

This spot-and-follow game lasted 20 minutes that felt like a year as we drove in circles and in silence, expecting at any second to be lifted high off the ground before crashing back as charred flesh and melted metal. Not that I’d ever feel a thing.

Finally we saw it, beneath us, a faint strip of packed dirt, overgrown and nearly invisible. The track.

Roberto broke into wet hiccups, a sound somewhere between a sob and a giggle. I tumbled out of the car and crumbled to my knees, throwing up on the parched earth, wiping myself with a grimy sleeve.

As we drove back to base, we crossed dry – and likely mined – riverbeds; most bridges had been blown up in the brutal civil war that ripped up Mozambique from 1977 to 1992.  Much fighting had taken place inside the park and most wildlife had been murdered; elephants were butchered for their ivory, which helped finance warfare on both sides.

As the rain intensified, the track became muddier, threatening to lose itself again. When it rains, landmines are pushed to the top and can ‘travel’, deposited a distance from where they were originally laid. We were safe nowhere.

We drove tensely, in silence. My stomach and chest were tight as a toned six-pack and I exhaled in tiny spurts. It would be too stupid to die now, after finding our track and cheating the first round of death. I tried to look brave, thinking I could go in dignity or at least pretend to.

Solo travel Africa: lioness in Gorongosa National ParkA lioness in the revived habitat of Gorongosa National Park

The mines were eventually cleared by the courageous individuals who put their lives on the line to make land safe for others. Mozambique is at peace and in full growth, its beaches and forests open for business. And Gorongosa is alive: the animals have returned.

Congo Lime Green

People tend to dress up in Africa: “It’s a sign of respect,” my Nigerian friend Sandie once told me. “We dress up even if it’s to come for coffee.” How eminently civilized.

Three things struck me during that visit to Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of the Congo.

My most vivid memory is the color lime green, a silky, satiny suit worn by a journalist, a suit surely to be donned only on the grandest of occasions. I felt far less grand in my drip-dry blouse and suitcase-rumpled trousers, kicking up in hiking shoes that had somehow caked themselves in mud despite the dryness of the season.

I don’t remember his name but I do remember his broadcast voice, as silky as his suit. I could easily visualize him leaning back comfortably in his newsreader’s chair, his mellow cadences pulling me along, right into the story, my eyes riveted on his suit.

Which brings me to my second Brazzaville memory: an interminable official meeting, the kind that has yet to begin by the time it should have long ended. There we were, a hundred

or more, gathered in an amphitheater to hear the Minister’s words of wisdom. An hour into the wait someone thought to call the Minister’s office and all of a sudden people zipped across hallways, ran up steps, adjusted doors and windows. The Minister was on His way.

By the time he arrived half the room was snoozing and the other half had spilled into the sun-soaked courtyard. I don’t remember what he said. He did, however, make me feel extremely welcome, as did each speaker who followed. As I think back I’m reminded of the immaculate civility with which I have always been treated in Africa, a genteel warmth that were it not for the sticky humidity would feel comforting in its embrace. People spend time greeting one another and enquiring about families before plunging into the meat of the matter, as though time were an elastic commodity that could bounce back at will. 

My third memory of Brazza is Chinese. Many of my Africa travels took place before China became Africa’s patron saint and while I was aware of massive Chinese investment I didn’t expect to find myself in a quasi-Chinatown.

In my hotel at night – the kind you hope will withstand the weight of hastily-constructed walls and floors – I would re-emerge in search of dinner. Food at my hotel was a pasty tasteless event best experienced only once, and central Brazzaville, at least around my neighborhood, was apparently safe enough for a woman to walk around. Guided by hunger I would nip along the crowded street peering into every establishment – Lebanese, European bakeries, inevitably ending up in one of many near-identical Chinese restaurants: self-service, plastic tablecloths, and a Chinese clientele. It could have been a cheap Chinese joint anywhere in the world – stir fries, fried rice, meat swimming in sauce – the kind of Chinese food you would associate with a mediocre takeaway but which, in its difference, was welcome.

Brazzaville, in case you don’t know (I didn’t) lies on one shore (the North shore) of the Congo River while Kinshasa, its far larger and wealthier brother, lies on the South. A murky stretch of water is plied regularly by ferries and people joke that immediate death will ensue for those who have the misfortune of falling in. Brazzaville is the suburb, Kinshasa’s quiet poor relation, reserved but not unpleasant, bereft as it is of the insanity I have come to associate with large African cities.

Africa solo travel: BrazzavilleA quick snap of a Brazzaville suburb

A Bullet Ring in Asmara

I couldn’t take my eyes off her fingers.

They were draped in bands of metal, dirty, gritty and dull, with scratches and bumps, uneven on the sides, rings carved from discarded bullets gathered in a place of war.

Some were thin bands, others majestic constructs jutting into the air, ready to poke out an eye with the slightest gesture.

She was northern European, her pale hair and crystalline eyes standing out amid the dark skins of Asmara, Eritrea. As she waved her hands, the metal stubs glinted in the sunset.

We were sitting at an outdoor café, wicker chairs and marble tables and espresso cups topped with froth, the aroma transporting me to somewhere between Rome and Naples. Around me the skyline, blissfully highrise-free, slowly etched itself against the falling night as I listened to her drone about the war. Not the war in Eritrea – that 30-year adventure had ended with Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia – but the war in neighboring Sudan, the war which had slammed the border shut and abruptly ended my overland cross-Africa journey in the late 1990s.

As she slapped the table with the palm of her hand, I couldn’t help but wonder whether those metallic bits had pierced human skin before ending up on her fingers. Was there someone’s blood or viscera scratched into those rough edges? Some long-ago DNA that could be scraped off if the cold case squad flew into town?

Behind me the espresso machine hissed and howled, like a steam engine pulling into an Agatha Christie book. A meter long, made of copper and other shiny metals, its pressure dials and intricate tubing gave it the look and sound of an engineering contraption, perhaps a locomotive that would soon pick up and chug away. Beyond the terrace I could see the floor was tiled, as it might have been in Italy, filled with cigarette stubs and crumpled sugar wrappers, the hot air stuck indoors looking for ways to escape. Those of us fortunate enough to have snagged an outdoor table rested comfortably, watching the tall palms weave back and forth in the evening breeze.

Asmara is a most Italian city. For more than 50 years until 1941 Italians ruled here and many older Eritreans could still understand the language, speak it even. Italian architecture stands proudly, much of it Art Deco from the Italian colonization, strangely preserved these past decades from destruction by a war that prevented the country’s development and modernization. The best espresso in Africa lives here (although Ethiopians would debate that) and the meal of choice is often excellent pizza and pasta, along with the foul – a bean dish pronounced 'fool' – ubiquitous to this part of the world.

Chenna, let’s call her Chenna, wore clothes as strange as her jewelry. If the cut had been different I would have called it army fatigue chic meets zuria hood, a zuria being a light, bright fabric throw draped easily about the head. She was an aid worker, out to ‘save the world’. Certainly Chenna’s work was stressful, dealing as she did with refugees and hungry people who had lost everything on the fringes of Africa. But here on the Horn, she came to relax. To some of us, Asmara was the tip of the known world, the end of it. To Chenna, it was the beginning of civilization, a place of hot coffee and even hotter showers .

Sitting at my café I looked down the street as the traffic light turned red. Then green. As far as I could see this was Asmara’s only traffic light.

One of the best countries to travel alone: Eritrea. Here, downtown Asmara, the capitalOne of the many utterly delightful Art Deco buildings in Asmara

As I walked the streets by day I felt I was in a Hollywood movie, Silent Era. Much of my time would be spent in the shadows of Art Deco buildings standing proud as new, their rounded facades and pastel blues and greens and beiges offset by palm trees and yes, graceful avenues, because there’s no other way to describe them. The Odeon, the Impero, the Roma, the crumbling Augustus, cinemas built during Italy’s reign and some still showing films, their plush seats a bit lumpy but unchanged since Italian behinds sat in them all those decades ago.

The café was the gathering place, as it is in Italy, where jobless young men congregate for the price of a cup to remember the war, the hated war, the victorious war, sometimes the regretted war, when they all felt they had a purpose (and two legs and two arms, not always the case in the post-war days). Other than amputation, the only sign of war left in Asmara was the use of huge spent artillery shells as flower pots.

e foreigners would gather at our chosen café each evening. Chenna the aid worker, but also Tim and Nica, a traveling couple whom I’d periodically bump into on my African travels, and a scattered group of expats and Eritreans, many of whom had returned to help rebuild their country after the war, a country of desperate poverty once you left the city limits. Many hours were spent discussing just how to do that. Looking at Eritrea some years later, closed and angry, clearly those conversations went nowhere.

But Asmara still warms my heart, a brave people, an old-fashioned city, and coffee, always coffee. 

africa travel: best time to go

I am absolutely NOT the expert when it comes to Africa weather - I'm the one who landed in South Africa in shorts and a T-shirt in July, ready for summer (having completely forgotten that the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere are reversed!)

Of course I've learned my lesson since then and have dressed accordingly...

Let me divide Africa into regions.

best time to visit north africa

Avoid summer, unless you're going to the beach, where you'll get cooled by the sea winds. Otherwise, it can be stifling. Winter can be nice along the coast (I've had some glorious winter weather) but it's not warm enough to swim and in the mountains, you'll run into snow and cold.

The best season for North Africa is the shoulder season, around April-May and September-early November. You'll have plenty of sun, mild enough temperatures, not too much rain - and far fewer crowds.

My overall favorite time to visit North Africa: April and September

best time to visit west africa

The best time to go to West Africa is outside the rainy season (when it rains, roads can become impassable, flights are delayed, and it's all-round less than pleasant). That said, the rains tend to be short and powerful, heavily pelting down and then stopping for a bit.

In the northern part of the region, the dry season tends to go from around November to March or April, although you may have to contend with the harmattan winds blowing south from the Sahara. In the south, get ready for two rainy seasons, one from April-July and another from September-October.

Let's also not forget that countries in this region can be huge, and what goes for the coast may not apply inland.

My overall favorite time to visit West Africa: January and February

best time to visit east africa

The climate in East Africa is quite diverse but if you're heading on safari, from January to early March is the best game viewing season. If you want to experience the Great Migration (mostly but not only wildebeest - 1.5 million of them!) between Tanzania and Kenya, July-September is wise, although you can still experience it at other times of year. It's a migration, so it moves. 

For gorilla trekking, try between June and September. Before then, you could run into downpours, which makes trekking impossible.

Heading for the beach? December to February is ideal.

My overall favorite time to visit East Africa: I like November! The weather is still good, the crowds have gone, and prices are low.

best time to visit southern africa

As I learned, June and July can be freezing, especially in the far south. Between March-May is ideal weather in the south, but as you head north, summers (as in December-February) are hot and I've witnessed some spectacular electrical storms in Pretoria. Winters on the other hand are cool, cold sometimes, but without the showers.

May to September is better for Zimbabwe and you can stretch it out a bit in Mozambique, July to October in Namibia. 

My overall favorite time to visit Southern Africa: August-September.

what to pack for africa

As you saw from that brief weather report, Africa is extremely diverse - so packing will completely depend on where you're going, what you're doing, and when. If you're headed to the central band of the continent, this tropical packing list should help, and if you're headed across the continent for some long-term travel of several months or more, this long-term travel packing list should do the trick!

a final word about africa

Perhaps the most important decision you'll have to make concerns your own adaptability and whether this type of travel - independent, at times demanding and often unexpected - is something you will enjoy. Ultimately that's what counts: whether you can enjoy your visit to Africa, and bring to that journey as much as you take away. If you can do that, you'll never forget your weeks or months wherever you decide to go.

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