World Heritage Sites are chosen for their outstanding natural beauty or significant cultural value. From monuments to mountains, cathedrals to coral reefs; these sites are all seen as irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.
UNESCO has recognised 129 World Heritage Sites in Africa. Places as unique and diverse as the sweeping plains of the Serengeti, snow-capped Kilimanjaro, the Pyramids of Giza and Cradle of Humankind.
For this post I’ve focused on sites in Southern and East Africa (so no pyramids) along with ideas on where to stay and how to include them in your travel plans.
#1 Okavango Delta (Botswana)
The Okavango is one of the world’s largest inland deltas. Surrounded by the parched sands of the Kalahari, this rare and remarkably beautiful oasis includes forests, floodplains and peaceful lagoons. Game viewing reaches its peak during Botswana’s dry season when the Okavango’s floodwaters trigger spectacular wildlife displays with large herds of elephant and plenty of predators too.
#2 Victoria Falls (Zambia / Zimbabwe)
Roughly twice the height of Niagara Falls and 1.7 km (a mile) wide, Victoria Falls is the largest sheet of falling water in the world. From February to May, when the Zambezi River is in full flood, this mighty waterfall throws of clouds of spray that can be seen for up to 50 km (31 miles). Visit at this time and you’ll see first-hand why the locals named the falls Mosi-oa-Tunya (The Smoke That Thunders).
#3 Namib Desert (Namibia)
The Namib Sand Sea is a unique coastal fog desert that comprises much of the Namib-Naukluft Park. Flying over the Namib you look down on wave after wave of shifting dunes; the colours changing from burnt orange to shades of pink. This harsh environment is home to desert-adapted wildlife including gemsbok (oryx), elephant and mountain zebra; and at night the sky is ablaze with stars.
#4 Serengeti National Park (Tanzania)
Any time you visit the Serengeti, you’re certain to have an exceptional safari experience. But what places this national park firmly on the UNESCO Heritage Site list is the annual migration of two million wildebeest, zebra and gazelle – closely followed by large prides of lion and packs of hyena. This thrilling tooth-and-claw action has been dubbed ‘The Greatest Wildlife Show on Earth’!
#5 Bwindi National Park (Uganda)
Bwindi National Park is home to almost half the world’s mountain gorillas (about 340 of them). These critically endangered animals live in family groups from the stately silverback to the playful babies scampering about the forest floor. Bwindi also has the highest diversity of tree species and ferns in East Africa, along with 202 butterfly species and over 347 species of colourful forest birds.
The Kenya Lake System is made up of three soda lakes, Bogoria, Nakuru and Elementaita, set against the backdrop of the Great Rift Valley. These beautiful lakes have some of the highest bird diversities in the world, but are known in particular for their huge flocks of flamingoes. Other wildlife you’ve got a good chance of seeing includes rhino (both black and white), cheetah and Rothschild’s giraffe.
#7 Kilimanjaro National Park (Tanzania)
At 5,895m, Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. To summit this mighty mountain pick from multi-day trails that pass through equatorial forest, alpine desert, past lava formations and glacial cliffs. Or for those classic images of Kili’s snow-capped peak towering over sunny savannah plains, go on safari in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park.
- Stay: Tortilis Camp
#8 iSimangaliso Wetland Park (South Africa)
The iSimangaliso (Greater St Lucia) Wetland Park was listed as South Africa’s first World Heritage Site. The wild coastline has wide sandy beaches (where turtles frequently nest), warm sea and vibrant coral reefs. Pods of dolphins swim offshore, and the inland mosaic of wetlands, grasslands and hippo-dotted lakes offers fantastic bird watching and some good game viewing too.
#9 Selous Game Reserve (Tanzania)
Covering nearly 50,000 km2 Tanzania’s Selous Reserve is amongst the largest protected areas in Africa. Game viewing is good with regular sightings of lion, elephant, giraffe and rivers full of hippo; but the real magic of the Selous lies in exploring this vast and untamed wilderness through game drives, walks and river safaris. A fantastic choice for anyone with an adventurous spirit!
- Stay: Beho Beho
#10 Mana Pools National Park (Zimbabwe)
A wild and wonderfully crowd-free reserve, Mana Pools lazes on the Zimbabwe bank of the Zambezi River. Wide green floodplains dotted with herds of buffalo and elephant stretch out towards the steep cliffs of the Rift Valley Escarpment. There’s plenty of predator-and-prey action on the plains, while canoe safaris take you past pods of hippo and Nile crocodiles basking on sunny riverbanks.
#11 Ngorongoro Conservation Area (Tanzania)
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is both an important natural and cultural site. Here wildlife coexists with the Maasai, so in the conservation area you’ll pass small villages with mud huts and young Maasai out grazing their herds of goats. The crater itself is packed with animals and is one of the best places in Africa to see all of the Big 5 (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo).
#12 Stone Town (Zanzibar, Tanzania)
Zanzibar was one of the main slave-trading ports in East Africa, and also the base from which its opponents such as David Livingstone conducted their campaigns. Foreign merchants grew rich in this Swahili trading town, building fine mansions with inner courtyards and carved wooden doors. It’s easy to get lost in the maze of narrow streets crowded with scooters and colourful stalls.
#13 Twyfelfontein (Namibia)
Twyfelfontein has one of the largest known concentrations of petroglyphs (rock engravings) in Africa. Here you’ll find huge sandstone boulders etched with over 5,000 engravings of animals (elephant, ostrich and giraffe) as well as human figures. This vast “art gallery” gives fascinating insight into the daily lives of the hunter-gathered San people who lived in Damaraland for over 2,000 years.
#14 Robben Island (South Africa)
This is the site of the maximum security prison that held former South African president Nelson Mandela for 18 years of his life. Robben Island lies around 11 km off the coast of Cape Town, its views extending back to the instantly recognisable silhouette of Table Mountain. This infamous island was also used as a leper colony in the 19th century and as a military base during the Second World War.
#15 Cradle of Humankind (South Africa)
The Cradle of Humankind traces human occupation back some 3.3 million years. Lying within easy reach of Johannesburg, this cultural World Heritage Site includes the Maropeng Visitor Centre with its fun, interactive displays and, a short drive away, the vast caverns and snug tunnels of the Sterkfontein Caves - where the 2.3 million-year old skull ‘Mrs. Ples’ was discovered.
For a full list of all the UNESCO Sites in Africa, take a look at this World Heritage List.