Cities and Towns in Africa
Boasting the most impressive sunset in Morocco, a windy beach, and a UNESCO-recognised harbour, Essaouira is well worth the two-hour drive from Marrakesh. Here is lively, but no hassle. The harbour is dominated by dozens of small, blue fishing boats, a market, and a citadel, which walls extends all around the medina (old city). Both the walls and the citadel offer unobstructed views of the sun setting over the Atlantic Ocean – as does most of the city’s roof terraces. In fact, the old town is almost overflowing with romantic spots. The picture perfect beach extends for many kilometres south of the city. However, strong winds and dunes make it more suited for the wind- or kitesurfing and quad biking than for swimming and sunbathing.
The world’s biggest Islamic medieval city and accidentally also the world's largest car-free zone. The medina, Fez el-Bali, dates back 1200 years and is one of those places where time has been at a standstill. It is a labyrinth where getting lost is inevitable, where goods are still transported by donkey and where it is quite impossible to expect what awaits around the next corner. Especially famous are the city’s tanneries where leather is still dyed in pits as it were hundreds of years ago. If it all become too hectic, the peaceful Bou Jeloud Gardens does offer some tranquil relief. The same does Fez el-Jdid, or New Fez, which is only 700 years old(!) and less affected by tourism. It almost goes without saying that the medinas of Fez are on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Tired of the chaos in Marrakesh? Fed up with the hassle in Fez? Morocco’s third imperial city, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, got none of that. It is more pleasant, relaxed and slow-moving than its two sister cities. Hence, it also sees more local visitors than foreign tourists giving it a distinctly local feel. This charm is accompanied by a number of sights: the beautiful Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, who made Meknes Morocco’s capital in the late 17th century; a vast underground prison; the Bou Inania Medersa (Quranic school); the Heri es-Souani granaries; and, of course, an old medina. Or you could just enjoy some mint tea on the bustling Place Hedim in front of the grandeur Bab Mansour. The square resembles Marrakesh’s more famous Jemaa el-Fnaa, though this is smaller and easier to take in. Should you want to get out is the Roman Ruins of Volubilis just an hour’s drive north of Meknes, a UNESCO site in its own right.
Morocco's capital city is often overlooked and bypassed by visitor's, who quickly to head to better-known destinations. That's a shame as the city offers visitors a cultural mix unique to Morocco. Rabat is at once both the past and the present, both in Africa and in Europe; UNESCO has recognised this by letting the "Modern Capital and the Historic City" share its World Heritage status. Nothing illustrates this better than riding the city's tram – it's virtually a time machine. Hop on at the Medina's medieval city walls below the castle, drive through the wide boulevards of the colonial neighbourhood, Nouvelle Ville, and disembark in Agdal, where European cafés and designer brands dominate the streets. Exploring Rabat is at the same time exploring all of Morocco's history – from the idyllic Roman ruin just outside the city's centre – to the modern Morocco in Agdal. Both will be a breath of fresh air for anyone who wants a break from the country's more hectic destinations.
By being Mozambique's second largest city, busiest port and vacuumed of any significent sights, Beira is understandably not high on any traveller's itinerary. But since it's also the natural transport hub between north and south Mozambique (besides the dusty junction of Inchope), it means you might have to spend a night or so here. But fear not, Beira is actually a nice place and a good change to see some 'real' Mozambique away from the 'beaten track' of beaches and islands. Beira people are used to a small flow of mlungus (white people) due to the overseas contractors, but not enough to create any form of hassle. Here you will only be met by curious and friendly locals. The city has tree-lined boulevards with dilapidated houses, some colonial some newer. Whole hotel complexes lie abandoned at the waterfront and even the lighthouse in the north end has a discarded ship wreck right at the base, making Beira a wonderful orderly junkyard.
Tiny Inhambane might be the most charming town in Mozambique. Its history goes way back, first in the 11th century as a port for Arabic traders and later for the flourishing ivory and slave trade, but it's the deteriorated Portuguese colonial architecture that makes Inhambane cute - that and then its pretty waterside setting at Inhambane Bay. It's shockingly orderly and slow paced, making it a very quiet place. There aren't any particularly sights, it's merely just the ambiance and the faded pastel coloured houses that make the attractions. Besides being friendly and easy going (as everywhere in Mozambique), the people are almost indifferent to the few tourists that trickle in on day trips from the beaches at Tofo and Barra.
Maputo is a wonderful mix of worn Potuguese colonial leftovers, concrete mansions, palm lined avenues and a few high-rises here and there - and lots of potholes. It has a beautiful seaside location with a long beach (Costa do Sol) within chapa (minibus) distance, but also a fair share of scruffy areas. Downtown is bustling but never hectic, and the central market is colourful and surprisingly small and tranquil. There are street cafes on the main avenues and small shack bars with plastic chairs that spill onto the side streets in the afternoon. Maputo is known for its friendly vibe and has enough charisma and character to charm anyone who chooses to explore the city for a couple of days.
Pemba is the most important city in northern Mozambique, a major port and the gateway to the Quarimbas Archipelago. It's a spread-out affair, occupying a peninsula facing Pemba Bay. The city has some nice colonial architecture, although of a more recent generation than other parts of Mozambique, and a local market selling arts, crafts and traditional silverwear. But most people don't come here to enjoy the charms of the city itself, but to get in the water: Pemba is the diving capital of northern Mozambique, with a coral reef laying just off the coast. There are dolphins, turtles and humpback whales. For longer excursions, and to get away from the crowds, the Quirimbas are just a boat excursion away. Pemba is on the verge of changing from somewhat quaintly provincial to urban sprawl, and the recent discovery of off-shore gas deposits is likely to speed that process up. In the meantime, however, stop by for a dive, some seafood and a dhow trip.
Swakopmund is Namibia's main seaside resort. Its centre is colourful, and quaint enough by African standards - its German and Afrikaner heritage apparent. The seafood is excellent, and the shores around the city are famous for the fishing. Swakopmund (or Swakop, as it is known locally) is located right at the edge of the Namib desert, and is - together with Walvis Bay - an ideal place for desert adventures: scenic flights, skydives, quad biking, dune boarding and much else besides can be organised here. If such is your desire, it is wise to allow for more than one day, as Swakop frequently gets inundated in fog. The dunes beyond the city host many relics from the First World War, and occasionally play host to Hollywood productions.
Niger's capital and biggest city is wonderfully laid back and hassle free. Even the central market is an almost chilled experience, and it's possible to walk through the narrow and colourful corridors without experience a single hard sell. Both the market and the city as a whole have a more Middle Eastern and Islamic feel to it than other Sahel capitals, like Ouagadougou or Bamako. It's also the most visible diverse city in West Africa. From the Tuaregs from the Sahara in the north to the Hausas no the Nigerian border and ethnic group in between, all still largely wear traditional outfits, which hugely differ from one another, making it a distinct ethnological experience to walk the city's streets.