Cities and Towns in Africa
West Africa's most impressive skyline is unrivalled. Positioned on a hill called La Plateau, downtown Abidjan is the centre of Côte d'Ivoire's economic powerhouse. Skyscrapers built in glass and steel, housing banks and other big business dominates, but the most famous building here is La Piramide, an abandoned highrise looking like something taken straight out of a sci-fi, not looking unlike an Imperial Destroyer from Star Wars. Abidjan, in general, and La Plateau, in particular, is where the rich and famous from all over West Africa come to enjoy executive dining, posh nightclubs and other joys of the hedonistic life. Travellers, with the right wallet size, can easily rub shoulders with the elite here, while the rest of us will have to appreciate that Abidjan has good food and good nightlife for any kind budget.
Corrugated iron gates and streets of thick dust dominate Grand Bassam's Quartier Colonial – France's first colonial outpost in Côte d'Ivoire. Founded in 1842 and functioning as the primary French settlement until independence (though the capital was moved to Bingerville in 1899), Grand Bassam is the clearest evidence of Côte d'Ivoire's colonial history and therefor also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Life is quiet here, dominated by the town's sandy boulevards and romantic French buildings that are falling slowly apart. Some restoration work has begun, and buildings such as the old post office and the Palais du Gouverneur (now a museum) have been saved from ruin, while a few pillars are all that remains of the old courthouse across from the Palais. Other buildings, such as the former headquarter of the French West Africa Company (CFAO), seems undecided in whether or not they will be willing to stand the test of time. Situated on a small strip of land between the ocean and a lagoon, Grand Bassam is also a first class beach location should you need a break from all the crumbling evidence of colonialism.
Not many people get to build their own city. One of the few to get this opportunity was Côte d'Ivoire’s first president, Felix Houphouët-Boigny, who followed his engineering dreams by constructing a new capital city from scratch. Before this, Yamoussoukro where just in a small village in the central region of the Côte d'Ivoire, where Houphouët-Boigny happened to have grown up. The construction began back in the 1960s, shortly after independence, and didn't finish until the big man's death in 1993. Almost surprisingly he named the city in honour of, not himself, but his aunt, Yamoussou. Yamoussoukro thus means the city of Yamoussou. Among the most remarkable architectural wonders are a five-star hotel, a peace and conference centre, and the world's largest Catholic church (no, really). Besides the prestige projects, however, Yamoussoukro quickly comes off as a vision unfulfilled, with broad empty boulevards and broken street lamps.
Bukavu is Goma’s twin, at the opposite end of Lake Kivu, although it’s a very different kind of place. You’ll still see the occasional UN vehicle, but this is a bustling, messy and very colourful city. There isn’t really anything here in the way of sights, so you’re unlikely to feel the need to stay for very long, but it’s worth a wander to check out the markets or simply observe daily life in urban DRC. It’s also the gateway to Kahuzi-Biega National Park, home of the endangered eastern lowland gorillas. Getting here is half the fun – although it’s possible to arrive by road from both Goma and Rwanda, the boat trip from Goma (around 4 hours on a speedboat or slower if you opt for the larger - and potentially unsafe - local ferries) across Lake Kivu is a much more interesting alternative.
Goma may not be much to meet the eye upon first glance, but it has three redeeming features. First, it’s your gateway to eastern DRC, so you’ll pretty much have to go through here. Second, its location could be a lot worse: Lake Kivu on one side, and the Virunga volcanoes on the other. There’s even a beach, used equally for frolicking and laundry by the locals. Finally, everything that happens in eastern DRC – be it rebel uprisings, UN troop movements, NGO initiatives or tourism activities – either starts here or passes through at some point, making it a great place to spend a day or two to soak up the atmosphere and talk to the colourful foreigners and locals who frequent its restaurants and bars. Check out the first couple of chapter's of Ben Rawlence's book Radio Congo for an great account of what goes on here.
One of the busiest port in Africa, Djibouti City has a sort of salty-seaman feel to it. Hot, humid and decaying, the former French colony still bares the markers of its former ruler. The old town of Djibouti abounds with the pastels and facades common in 19th-century French buildings. The tight and hemmed in streets are full of vibrant cultural life, while the buildings seem to be slowly dying. Even the mosques and market are stylistically in tune with the period. Sure, Djibouti is expensive. Sure it's hard to get to. But the reward is being one of the few tourists to wander its streets caught in a time warp.
On the paper Cairo can seem like an exciting capital filled with amazing sights: Pyramids, the Nile, historical museums, ancient mosques, traditional souqs, cave churches, the list goes on, but for first time visitors Cairo will just be a chaotic traffic jam. Sights are spread all over town, meaning you have to crisscross downtown, which is a confusing maze of roads and small lanes. There are no really city centre and every street is jampacked with people, goods, and cars, meaning getting from A to B takes an eternity. The air is dusty and the heat is suffocating. So yes, the first couple of days in Cairo will probably be hard, but then the city will grown on you.
The Eritrean capital of Asmara is not at all what you might expect from an African capital of one of the poorest countries on Earth. Firstly, as the 6th highest capital city, Asmara literally elevates you above the heat and humidity plaguing neighbouring big cities. But Asmara's cool feel is more than mere geography. The anarchy and chaos of places like Djibouti or Addis have not made their way here. Wide boulevards remain largely uncongested and shockingly orderly. While the city may lack any significant tourist sites, it's instead the Italian influenced, street-side cafe culture that ends up filling your day. People watching is the name of the game. Although considering Eritrea is also one of the least visited countries on Earth, most of those people are likely watching you!
Despite being the capital and the largest city in Eswatini, Mbabane has the atmosphere of a large village. The town is relaxed and the people are welcoming and friendly. Not many visitors drop by, so they are curious about the few who come. There is not much to see in Mbabane in terms of... well, anything. However, Mbabane does have an oversized Taiwanese embassy, probably due to the fact that Eswatini is one of the few nations that officially recognise Taiwan as an independent state. The centre of action is at the minibus station and the next door open air Swazi Plaza, but don't get fooled with the fancy name, it's very simple. Mbabane is best used as a base to get to nearby sights like Sibebe Rock and Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, but if you have your own mean of transportation, there is no reason to stay there.
Let's be honest. The Gambia's capital is pretty much a dump. Most streets are full of litter and undrained rainwater; it's completely dead after 8 pm, and it's probably the only African capital where people are moving out of the city. Not surprisingly, locals and tourists alike prefer the busy market town of Serekunda or the beach towns along the coast. Despite this, the town does have a few sights that justify spending half a day here. Notable the informative, if slightly confusing, national museum and Arch 22. The latter celebrates the 1994 military coup and offers fine views over the city. A stroll between these two museums passes both the Parliament, the Supreme Court and the State House (presidential palace) – just don't pull out your camera as this will land you in trouble with the security forces. Finally, the Albert Market has hassle written all over it and should be avoided unless in cases of extreme desperation for bringing home that last souvenir. The only other reason for going to Banjul is the ferry crossing across the Gambia River to Barra.