17 Breathtaking World Heritage Sites in Africa

Out of the 129 world heritage sites in Africa; 40 stand out with their natural features, 84 are known as cultural sites while 5 tend to just fall in-between.

From the most iconic natural places like the Serengeti, Table Mountain, and Victoria Falls to striking cultural heritages like Sterkfontein and The Cradle of Humankind, records of life have been painted on the walls of great regions across the continent.

We will be touring 17 of the best of the best of Africa’s astonishing world heritage sites. These unique places showcase the world of conservation, history and beauty that makes being alive so precious.

1. Robben Island

Robben Island was used as a maximum-security prison for political prisoners of South Africa’s apartheid regime, including former President Nelson Mandela.

For almost four centuries, Robben Island, about 12 kilometres from Cape Town, was a remote, inaccessible place – except for outcasts and prisoners. In 1997, however, Robben Island started functioning as a museum and focal point of South African heritage. It was later declared a World Heritage Site in 1999. The island is currently home to sea birds and 8,500 breeding pairs of African Penguins, the world’s second-largest colony of this species.

2. Cradle of Humankind

The Cradle of Humankind is an area in South Africa where many fossils, tools, and other traces of early humans have been found.

The Cradle of Humankind is a paleoanthropological site, 50 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa. Covering 47 000 hectares of land, the site consists of a strip of a dozen dolomitic limestone caves full of fossilized remains of ancient forms of life. These dolomites started as coral reefs from about 2.3 billion years ago.

3. iSimangaliso Wetland Park

iSimangaliso Wetland Park-world-heritage-sites-africa
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park was declared South Africa’s first World Heritage Site in 1999 and it is recognized for its global value as a place with great natural beauty.

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is one of the outstanding natural wetlands and coastal sites of Africa. Covering an area of 239,566 hectares, it houses a wide range of coral reefs, long sandy beaches, coastal dunes, lake systems, swamps, etc. The site serves as critical habitats for species from Africa’s marine, wetland and savannah environments.

4. The Vredefort Crater

The Vredefort crater is the largest verified impact crater on Earth.

The Vredefort Crater is 120 km southwest from Johannesburg. It represents a unique geological phenomenon formed about 2,023 million years ago. It is the oldest and largest known meteorite impact structure on earth. You will find here the effect of shock metamorphism of rocks, the transformation of crystal structures, and shatter cones of the immense force created by the meteorite impact.

5. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Ngorongoro Conservation Area, in northern Tanzania, is home to the vast, volcanic Ngorongoro Crater and “big 5” game (elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino).

Established in 1959, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (809,440 ha) spans expanses of highland plains, savanna, savanna woodlands, and forests, from the plains of the Serengeti National Park in the north-west, to the Great Rift Valley in the east. It has global importance for biodiversity conservation given the presence of globally threatened species such as the black Rhino. There’s also the annual phenomenal migration of wildebeest, zebra, Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles and other ungulates in its northern plains.

6. Kingdom of Mapungubwe

The Mapungubwe kingdom was powerful due to the strong culture of gold and ivory trade that prospered along the east coast of Africa.

Mapungubwe is an expansive savannah landscape at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers joining Zimbabwe and Botswana. What survives here are the almost untouched remains of the palace sites and also the entire settlement area presenting an unmatched image of the development of social and political structures over some centuries.

7. Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela

Nearly impossible to see at a distance, Lalibela — completed in 23 years — provided a safe space for Christians to pray, hidden from Muslims invading from the North.

Lalibela is a high place of Ethiopian Christianity. Till today, it is a place of pilgrimage and devotion. This 13th-century, 11 medieval monolithic cave churches are situated in a mountainous region in the heart of Ethiopia. The churches were not constructed traditionally but were hewn from living rock of monolithic blocks which were further chiselled out to form doors, windows, and so on.

8. Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and the major waterfall on the Zambezi River in Africa.

Victoria Falls typifies a spectacular sight of awe-inspiring beauty on the Zambezi River. It forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. It was described by the Kololo tribe living in the area in the 1800s as ‘Mosi-oa-Tunya’ – ‘The Smoke that Thunders’. In more modern terms, Victoria Falls is known as the greatest curtain of falling water in the world.

9. Virunga National Park

Virunga National Park is home to the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas. (Martin Harvey)

Virunga National Park, formerly Albert National Park, is situated in Kinshasa, northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Created in 1925, and covering an area of 790,000 ha, it contains a vast diversity of habitats from swamps, steppes and snowfields to lava plains, savannahs, and slopes of volcanoes.

10. Stone Town of Zanzibar

Stone Town got its name from the ornate houses built with local stone by Arab traders and slavers during the 19th Century. (AfroTourism)

The Stone Town of Zanzibar is a typical example of the Swahili coastal trading towns of East Africa. It retains its urban fabric and townscape virtually intact and contains many fine buildings that reflect its particular culture. This has brought together different elements of the cultures of Africa, the Arab region, India, and Europe over more than a millennium.

11. Garamba National Park

Garamba elephants. (AfricaGeographic)

The Garamba National Park extends over 490,000 ha and is surrounded by 752,700 ha of hunting grounds that all contribute to the protection of the natural area. The park’s immense savannahs, grasslands, and woodlands, gallery forests, riverbanks, and swampy depressions are home to four large mammals: the elephant, giraffe, hippopotamus, and above all the white rhinoceros.

12. Great Zimbabwe 

Great Zimbabwe was a medieval African city known for its large circular wall and tower. (LiveScience)

The ruins of Great Zimbabwe – the capital of the Queen of Sheba, according to an age-old legend – are a unique testimony to the Bantu civilization of the Shona between the 11th and 15th centuries. The city, which covers an area of nearly 80 hectares, was an important trading center and was renowned in the Middle Ages.

13. Djenné

Djenné was founded between 800 and 1250 C.E., and flourished as a great center of commerce, learning, and Islam. (TheTravelBlog)

Djenné is one of the oldest towns of sub-Saharan Africa. Located 130 km south-west of Mopti (the regional capital) and roughly 570 km north-east of Bamako (the national capital), the place is an ensemble that symbolizes the typical African city. It is also representative of Islamic architecture in sub-Saharan Africa.

14. Drakensberg

Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal is the highest mountain range in Southern Africa. (SANatureReserves)

Drakensberg is the main mountain range of Southern Africa. Rising to more than 11,400 feet (3,475 meters) and extending northeast to southwest for 700 miles, it is parallel to the southeastern coast of South Africa. In 2000, Drakensberg Park was designated as part of UNESCO World Heritage sites. The site is part of the Great Escarpment and separates the extensive high plateaus of South Africa from the lower lands along the coast.

15. Royal Palaces of Abomey

Abomey is a city in southern Benin.

The Royal Palaces of Abomey are the major material testimony to the Kingdom of Dahomey. They were developed in the mid-17th century. From 1625 to 1900, the kingdom established itself as one of the most powerful in the western coast of Africa. Today, the palaces are no longer inhabited. They however illustrate the history of the kingdom and its symbolism. This was shown through their desire for independence, resistance, and fight against colonial occupation.

16. Tassili n’Ajjer

Tassili n'Ajjer
Tassili-n-Ajjer in Algeria is one of the most famous North African sites of rock painting. (ScienceSource)

Tassili n’Ajjer is a vast plateau in south-east Algeria at the borders of Libya, Niger, and Mali. It covers an area of 72,000 sq. km. This site has one of the most important groupings of prehistoric cave art in the world. More than 15,000 drawings and engravings record the climatic changes, the animal migrations, and the evolution of human life. The geological formations are also of unique scenic interest, with sandstones forming ‘forests of rock’.

17. Twyfelfontein

Twyfelfontein means “doubtful fountain“ or “Fountain of Doubt“

Twyfelfontein has one of the largest concentrations of petroglyphs, i.e. rock engravings in Africa. Most of these well-preserved engravings represent rhinoceros. The site forms a coherent, extensive and high-quality record of ritual practices. This was common in the hunter-gatherer communities in southern Africa for around 2,000 years. It illustrates the links between their ritual and economic practices in those days.

Watch this video to learn more about these amazing world heritage sites:

These world heritage sites are a reminder that Africa is the birthplace of humankind. It is where our collective umbilical cord lies buried. Africa ignited humankind’s imagination. All of humanity shares an African heritage. We are only one diverse species spread across the globe.

Which of these inspired you the most and where would you love to visit?

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