As with most of the world, the heart of Africa is found in its cities. And yet tourists in Africa seem to largely prefer seeking out the continent’s wildlife rather than its cultural city centers.
Safaris can be delightful, but the problem, as Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina has pointed out, is when tourists imagine an entire continent as one.
According to the World Bank, 40% of the African population south of the Sahara lives in cities, but you’d never know it looking at the average travel poster or website featuring graceful giraffes galloping past umbrella-like acacia trees in silhouette against burnt ochre sunsets.
The reasons for this are complex, including Westerners’ tendency to treat the continent as a canvas on which to project their fantasies, the selective nature of the news coming out of Sub-Saharan cities, much of which creates a sense of danger and disorder, and the fact that the Serengeti is very pretty.
But the truth behind urban Africa is simple. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to some of the most vibrant, cultured and just plain fun cities anywhere in the world.
There are a few countries in turmoil, but even if you take those off the list, you’re left with about 45 others to explore, about the same number as there are in Europe.
Of the 40 or so cities with populations over a million, here are four cities in Africa you should visit right now:
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Country known for: Being one of only two African countries that was never colonized; having one of the world’s oldest alphabets; using a calendar that is about seven years and three months behind the usual one (i.e., it’s 2012 there).
Getting around: Taxis are fine; walking is better.
Currency: $1 = 30 birr.
Language: Amharic (English widely spoken).
Though Ethiopian food is familiar to a lot of people, on the streets of Addis, it’s all about the coffee. Ethiopia is supposedly where coffee originated, and social life in Addis is built on its preparation and consumption.
The most popular form is the macchiato, and you won’t have to look very far to find a coffee ceremony.
They’re set up on street corners and in malls; there’s even one near the arrival gates at the airport. The standard is typically a few cow-skin stools around a woman on a low dais, surrounded by mortars and small charcoal stoves.
It’s a chance to sit down among a mostly local crowd and order a coffee (English is widely understood). Customers are given popcorn to eat while the host roasts and grinds the coffee, brews it three times, and then pours it out of the pot, called a jebena, all while frankincense burns in the background.
The barista, if you will, introducers customers to each other and keeps the conversation going as she manages multiple cups at their various stages. Served in espresso-sized vessels, the drinking itself is quick, but the lead-up is worth savoring.
After coffee, it’s time for a culture fix.
There are many museums in Addis worth visiting, but if there’s only time for one, it should be the National Museum, where the famous Lucy skeleton is held, and where Emperor Halie Selassie’s throne can be seen. Most striking of all are medieval paintings that are a reminder Ethiopia has been a Christian nation state since a few decades after the crucifixion.
The big name hotel option is the Sheraton (from $300), but for a local and more authentic Ethiopian experience there’s the Taitu, the oldest hotel in town. The most expensive room at this establishment (built in 1898) costs about $55, but rooms (with shared bathroom) can often be snagged for as little as $11.
The rooms are clean, sparsely decorated, with views of the lush garden patio out back, or the bustling street of the city’s Piazza neighborhood out front.
There are jazz bars nearby, including the soon to re-open African Jazz Village at the Ghion Hotel, and when the sun goes down, many of the bars and cafes turn into makeshift dance clubs, with music from across the continent and beyond.
Country known for: Victoria Falls; having the world’s fastest-improving economy (according to the World Bank); formerly known as Northern Rhodesia.
Getting around: taxis.
Currency: $1 = 12 kwacha.
Language: English, Bemba and Nyanja.
Any city older than the car is organized around its markets, and Lusaka is no exception. The city’s oldest market, Mutendere, is also its best. Though it’s dark at night – electricity is a challenge with this neighborhood’s early 20th-century infrastructure – it’s the best time to go.
Small shops, some doubling as homes, are lit by single lamps, and sell everything from newspapers to hardware to soft drinks, locally brewed Mosi lager, and – sometimes – home-fermented millet drinks. Katata or the thicker katubi are served in cups made from a hollowed calabash gourd, and a slice of chikanda is an excellent accompaniment.
Sold mostly by women (who are also the main fermenters of the katata and katubi), these moist, savory loaves are made from orchid tubers, ground nuts, chilis and baking soda.
“Get it from a vendor who’s cooking it right there on the street. If it’s not warm, it’s not good,” advises local journalist and bureaucrat Kiss Brian Abraham. (Store-bought chikanda, sometimes called mbwelenge, just isn’t the same.)
Rooms at the Tecla Lodge-Chainama, between the airport and Mutendere, are spartan but large and clean. The grounds are far grander than the $65-$100 rooms suggest. Guests can walk, cycle, or drive into town along the main road, and stop in at the University of Zambia, whose pastoral campus with its ponds and lush vegetation contrasts well with its bold, concrete architecture.
En route is the outdoor Mingling Bar, where customers can enjoy a can of Original American Cola USA and mingle with the students.
In town, the small but informative Chilenje House is worth a visit. This is where father of the nation Dr. Kenneth Kaunda lived in the early 1960s while planning independence and playing host to exiled members of South Africa’s outlawed African National Congress party.
Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire
Country known for: Being the world’s biggest producer of cacao and one of the world’s biggest producers of coffee; historical trading centre for much of the world’s ivory.
Getting around: Taxis are cheap and abundant, but pricing can be unpredictable.
Currency: $1 = 550 West African francs (CFA).
Language: French, Baoulé (English spoken, but not by everyone).
Abidjan’s 5 million people are spread out across four distinct land masses, each jutting out like lily pads into the Ébrié lagoon. Just to the east of Yopougon is the Plateau, the business district.
This area’s modernist architecture is extraordinary and mostly the result of a cocoa- and coffee-based economic boom in the 1950s and ’60s known as the Ivorian Miracle.
The Hotel Pullman, a French-owned luxury brand popular in this part of Africa, is situated just steps from the best of it. Lagoon-view rooms also overlook the remarkable St. Paul’s Cathedral, a light, all-white balletic structure by Italian architect Aldo Spirito that’s reminiscent of an Aeolian harp, or a crane taking flight.
The next lily pad to the south has Marcory Market. The second floor here is entirely given over to fabric sellers, seamstresses and couturiers. Couturiers here handmake any item of clothing to order in a day or so. They’ll even take customers to their favorite fabric stalls to pick out pagnes (patterned cloth).
When night falls, it’s worth heading to Yopougon. The roads are dusty in the part of Abidjan locals call the neighborhood of joy, the sidewalks occasionally uneven or just missing, but like many cities where living spaces are small, Abidjan lives its life on its streets.
And as with Tokyo and its yakitori-ya, New York’s bars and Parisian bistros, Abidjan has its maquis (pronounced “ma-key”).
Indoors is best for the music – Ivorian reggae and percussive, bass-heavy coupé-decalé are popular across the continent – or there’s terrace seating where grilled chicken or fish can be ordered and brought from sidewalk barbecues.
A single beer order will likely result in a 22-ouncer – the perfect invitation to stay a while and relax. Regulars will often order buckets or basins of beer in denominations of five, 10 or 20 11-ounce bottles, sharing with people at nearby tables as a way to start a conversation, which everyone in a maquis wants to do at all times – whether you speak French or not.