When travelling to Africa from North America or Europe, most flights tend to arrive too late in the day for the early morning transfers to the camps and lodges and so your itinerary is likely to include an overnight in the arrival destination. This is actually a blessing in disguise and presents an opportunity to beat the jetlag and spend an exciting 24 hours in one of Africa’s bustling gateway cities. So a city explore might pleasantly surprise you …

Here are some suggestions for the most common airport layovers:

South Africa: Johannesburg

Africa’s busiest airport and the chief gateway to Southern Africa, OR Tambo Airport has good connections to the rest of South Africa and beyond including charter or small plane flights to the Kruger National Park, Madkiwe, the Waterberg, and the Pilansberg. Jo’burg, as the locals call it, or ‘Jozi’ or ‘Egoli’ (place of gold), is a cosmopolitan city and the heartbeat of South Africa. There are all sorts of hidden gems to discover in a day.

Johannesburg dusk
Johannesburg at dusk.
  • Newtown: An arty precinct on the fringe of downtown Joburg, gentrified to include a funky Afro-fusion village of galleries, cool eateries, theatres, studios and museums.
  • Braamfontein: A genteel area on the edge of the CBD with cafes and delis, servicing the business district and students from nearby Wits University, and is a melting pot of cultures among the upwardly mobile.
  • Maboneng: A thriving,  funky urban renewal project in a downtown area that has been regenerated after long being off limits.
  • Soweto: The famous vast township south of the city which is an interesting mix of congested ghetto sprawl and newly prosperous neighbourhoods. This is where Mandela and many other influential black South Africans spent their formative years. Soweto is also the site of historic anti–apartheid uprisings. Guided tours are popular and safe, with an opportunity to meet the people and experience their culture.
  • Sandton: In stark contrast to Soweto, this is one of the most affluent suburbs on the continent –  a new place for the financial institutions to decamp, where malls and money reign supreme, where lawns are manicured and orderly, and every other car is a Mercedes. Comfortable and luxurious.
  • Overnight hotel suggestion: We suggest the eco-chic Peech Hotel, in pretty and refined Melrose halfway between Sandton and the city centre. The lush gardens and boutique restaurant will be a good introduction to your first African experience.
The Peech Hotel

Namibia: Windhoek

Windhoek is a laid-back and neat little capital city, surrounded by semi desert, that still retains some of the German colonial influence. With 24 hours at your disposal, here are a few interesting things to do before air hopping or driving out into the desert to either the Skeleton Coast, Sossusvlei or Etosha National Park.

  • Township tours: Katutura township is a similar experience to the Soweto tours and makes for a great half day trip to experience some of the many different cultural minorities that make up Namibia. The township is a work in progress in a progressive, free and independent country.
  • Joes Beer House: Get a taste of the curious and rare German colonial experience, with hearty portions of pigs knuckle, locally brewed beer and warm hospitality. It’s a local legend.
  • The Botanical Gardens:  It’s not exactly a lush garden but interestingly it showcases many of the desert flowers and plants that the Namib is famous for. The gardens date from 1969 and include The Desert Plants House with more than 200 rare species from this part of the world. We highly recommend lunch here.
  • Overnight hotel suggestion: Olive Grove Exclusive Boutique Hotel –  a stylish accommodation with simple elegance.
Plane over Windhoek
A plane flying over the surrounds of Windhoek.
Olive Grove Guesthouse Windhoek
Olive Grove Guesthouse Windhoek.

Kenya: Nairobi

Spending a whole day in Nairobi airport isn’t recommended! Rather take in Nairobi, a thoroughly African capital that’s bustling and congested, but full of character and much more authentic than Johannesburg. There are some lovely leafy neighbourhoods and we often accommodate our guests in Nairobi’s suburb of Karen before they head off into the Masai Mara. Some places to see to include:

  • The Giraffe Centre: Founded in 1979, it is known for preserving endangered wildlife – especially the Rothschild’s giraffe.
  • The Karen Market: A fun indoor organic farmers market, where locals go about their business, tourists watch and vendors hustle souvenirs.
  • Karin Blixen Coffee Gardens: Near the museum named after this famous author who ‘had a farm in Africa’. Not far from downtown. Sit and relax under ancient trees and enjoy delicious food. Karen Blixen museum is a mere 15 minutes from downtown Nairobi.
  • Overnight hotel suggestion: We recommend The Giraffe Manor, which dates back from the 1930s and forms part of the Giraffe Centre.
Giraffe Manor
Giraffe Manor.

Tanzania: Arusha 

Sometimes, due to connection scheduling, safari guests heading to or from the Masai Mara or Serengeti get held up in Arusha, but there are some engaging things to do while waiting. A stay in Arusha provides a good taste of life in Tanzania, considered by many to be Africa’s gem.

  • Shanga Market and Tea Garden: The Shanga market provides a means for local disabled people to create artworks available as souvenirs, which greatly contributes to the local economy.
  • Masai Market: Get your bargaining boots on for souvenirs and handicrafts made by locals from redwoods and local rattans.
  • Lower slopes of Kilimanjaro: Close enough for a day’s hike on this iconic mountain, Africa’s highest and one of the only places in the world where snow can be seen on the equator.
  • Arusha National Park: Located at the slopes of Mount Meru which might afford you a view of Kilimanjaro. Another alternative for adventurers is paddling canoes on Lake Duluti, especially when it’s hot!
  • Suggestion for overnight hotel: Arusha Hotel is a grand dame of more than a century old, making it one of the oldest hotels in Africa, and a good base for visiting icons of the region including Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Manyara and Olduvai Gorge – cradle of Mankind.
Mount Kilimanjaro
Mount Kilimanjaro in the background.

Africa’s major cities have an energy and colourful vibrancy that is totally unique to the continent and, with so much to see and do in each of the above cities, you’ll probably find that you wish you had more than a day to take it all in! We hope that you find our guide informative, and that your city layover is the exciting experience it should be before you swap it for the serenity of the African bush.

Have a question? Get in touch with one of our friendly safari experts and we’ll gladly answer it.