Africa’s natural wonders tend to hog the spotlight, but increasingly, travelers are falling in love with creative urban hubs across the continent like Kigali and Nairobi.
As a self-professed safari junkie, I return to Africa time and again for the wildlife encounters and raw natural beauty. But lately I’ve found that the urban hubs I pass through have left a lasting impression. Whether I’m in Nairobi, Kigali, or Cape Town, I’ve been wowed by thriving arts, shopping, and restaurant scenes, and they’ve enticed me to turn my urban stopovers into extended stays.
But Megan Bowren, a South Africa native, knew this a long time ago.
“People come to Africa for safari and they don’t necessarily think to go into a city,” says Bowren, cofounder of African City Guide, an independently run website that launched in March and offers insider travel tips for 27 cities, from Cairo to Cape Town. “But all of these cities are so incredibly vibrant. The people, the food, the culture, and the art could offer a rich dimension to your trip.”
Bowren’s other work in private equity has taken her to urban hubs across the continent, which is home to six of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Often, she’d find herself stuck in her hotel room because she didn’t know how to begin exploring the places she was passing through.
So in March, she and fellow Cape Town friends Eva Shuman and Frances von Hasselt, who also travel for business, joined forces and founded African City Guide to offer other travelers the insider recommendations they’d always craved. When a friend of mine in Cape Town connected me to Bowren and African City Guide, I was thrilled to find such a treasure trove: The site breaks information down into seven categories, including restaurants, galleries, reading lists, and ways to give back. Each guide is updated monthly to reflect new and noteworthy places, thanks to the help of 20 local tastemakers.
It could take a lifetime to explore all of these cities: There’s Maputo, Mozambique, which has a mix of neoclassical and modernist architecture, along with a Portuguese-influenced culinary tradition and—who would have guessed it—a notable jazz scene. And cities like Dakar, Senegal, and Lagos, Nigeria, are becoming hot spots for design with events like Lagos Fashion Week and Dak’Art, the Art Biennale in Dakar.
On a recent trip, I dug into the cultural life of two cities. Nairobi is full of creative minds, be they artists, designers, or the chefs behind modern restaurants, and Kigali is evolving into a hub of young entrepreneurs. Read on for my own Rolodex of favorite spots in these two cities—they’ll whet your appetite for the rich and ever-evolving arsenal of destination tips you’ll find in Africa City Guides.
Worried about safety? In any unfamiliar city, common sense and awareness go a long way. Check State Department warnings (which tend to err on the side of caution) for your destination, and be sure to read up on where you’re going to get the lay of the land.
Consider pairing up with a trusted local or hired guide. I did my urban exploring in Nairobi with Micato Safaris, a family-owned, Nairobi-based safari company. And in Kigali the local Heaven Tours took me on a cultural spin.
With its fascinating history, fraught politics, burgeoning arts and dining scenes, and even a national park inside of it—Nairobi is a must for any visitor to Kenya.
Taste modernized Kenyan cuisine at Nyama Mama, known for such dishes as nyama choma (roasted meat) with ugali, a starchy staple grain similar to polenta. The One Off Contemporary Art Gallery in the leafy suburb of Runga is one of the city’s longest-established contemporary art spaces. The gallery features emerging Kenyan voices such as world-renowned conceptual artist Beatrice Wanjiku, along with exciting, lesser-known talent such as Richard Kamwathi. And if you want something special to take home, carve out time to peruse the pretty handcrafted baubles, bags, and accessories at Adele Dejak, a local designer whose pieces are inspired by African designs.
In the wake of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the country has become the world’s second fastest-growing economy. And its capital, Kigali, has become a hotbed of creativity. “Kigali is incredible, with its thriving designers, tech entrepreneurs, and coffee culture,” says Bowren.
I got a taste of the excitement on a recent visit, where I stayed at Heaven Retreat, the city’s most luxurious boutique hotel. The hotel’s sister company, Heaven Tours, took me to see some of the city’s most exciting up-and-coming designers. I loved House of Tayo, a men’s store started by Matthew Rugamba in 2011 that reinterprets Rwandan culture in a number of ways, whether it’s a bow tie created with local textiles or a T-shirt that sports the silhouette of the amasunzu, an elaborate and sculptural hairstyle worn by young Rwandans generations ago. Rwanda Clothing, founded by designer Joselyne Umutoniwase, is an international design lover’s dream: She uses her own Rwanda-inspired aesthetic to reconfigure bold regional fabrics into everything from dresses to throw pillows.
For a pick-me-up, try a cup of pour-over coffee at Question Coffee, a cooperative that supports female coffee growers. And for full context on just how far this country has come in recent years, a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial is a must: It’s a moving tribute to the close to one million people who perished in 1994.