Vacations to Africa: The best countries in Africa for gay travellers

As a haze of terracotta dust kicked up from under the wheels of our Jeep safari finally dissipates, we catch sight of a magical savannah sunset foregrounded by baby giraffes and their parents, legs splayed and necks bent at a watering hole. It could be fiction or the distant scene on a computer screensaver, but in Africa, it’s also a reality. This continent is much more than just desert safari wonderment, however, as vibrant cities such as Cape Town, Cairo and Marrakesh bring us closer to the cultural intrigues of Africa, rubbing up against world-class wine regions, paradise coastline and soaring mountains.

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Cape Town, South Africa | Photo: Joshua Earle

LGBTQ Travellers in Africa

A big proviso to gay travel in Africa is the legal situation for the LGBTQ+ community. Sad to say, in over half of all African countries homosexuality is still considered a criminal offence, while, in a small minority (Mauritania, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan) the death sentence remains in place. This reality is largely a result of outdated colonial laws and evangelical influence in government; prior to European rule there existed much more tolerance for same-sex relationships. Don’t let today’s reality rule out vacations to Africa however, as there are still ways to travel the continent safely as a gay person, without fear.

Researching more liberal countries and their urban areas is a good place to start, as these places tend to be more accustomed to western ways and therefore welcoming to same-sex couples. Twenty-two countries in Africa have legalised homosexuality, with tolerance among locals continuing to grow. Below we list a number of them as our top choices for travel. Be aware that even in countries where homosexuality is legal, some anti-gay sentiment may remain. Though hate crimes are a very real threat for LGBTQ+ locals, as a discreet visitor with an awareness of cultural norms and taboos, you can avoid any such confrontation.

Morocco | Photo: Zakaria Boumliha

Johannesburg | Photo: Maatla Seetelo

1. Cape Town, South Africa

Playing host to many of the continent’s biggest charms, South Africa is an easy mention on the list of best African countries to visit. Capital city Cape Town, in particular, is a hub of all the action, known Internationally as the gay capital of Africa for its openness and tolerance of the LGBTQ+ community. Alongside Johannesburg, Cape Town has one of the largest LGBTQ populations in South Africa, with a large selection of gay bars and gay-friendly accommodations concentrated around Green Point, Sea Point and the De Waterkant village.

More than that, Cape Town is rich in culture both old and new, on display across its world-class museums and historic places. While some attractions have a sombre undertone, such as exhibits at The District Six Museum and Nelson Mandela’s jail cell on Robben Island, all of them — in combination with a lively food, music and festival scene — show the colourful resilience of this post-apartheid city. Nature too is a big reason to come to Cape Town, edged as it is by the iconic Table Mountain, gorgeous Atlantic Coast beaches and a rolling wine region. For wildlife, Cape Town is a top jumping-off point, in easy reach of a number of national parks offering South Africa safari vacations that can almost guarantee sightings of the ‘Big Five’ (lion, leopard, black rhino, elephant and buffalo).

Visit Cape Town in the shoulder seasons for the best weather and the fewest crowds at the best prices (from March to May or September to November). Note that the seasons are reversed when compared to the Northern Hemisphere, meaning summer in South Africa is Europe and America’s winter. Summer in SA (November to February) is, therefore, the most expensive and busiest period, while winter (June to August) the region comes cooler and wetter, and less crowded in the capital because of it.

Kloof Corner, Cape Town | Photo: Joshua Kraus

Cape Town | Photo: Craig Chitima

2. Johannesburg, South Africa

Second, only to Cape Town in terms of its outsized LGBTQ community, Johannesburg is highly deserving of its title as one of the top vacation destinations in South Africa. Instead of having an official gay village, Johannesburg’s gay rainbow colours the entire city, particularly in Melville, Parkhurst and Rosebank, as well as within smaller gay communities in Berea, Bloemfontein, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Stellenbosch. As the gay scene grows, so too does the city’s sleek vertical skyscape, where new architecture is styled to fit with the cosmopolitan lifestyles of Joburgers. Of the top cultural offerings, we start and end with Johannesburg’s array of Pan-African dining options, though the annual Pride of Africa festival is also hard to beat for its open celebration of local LGBT life.

As in much of South Africa, the social and economic scars of apartheid remain, and though Johannesburg is a wealthy city, it is also very young and the unequal distribution of this new wealth is stark. Nonetheless, if you remain aware of the crime risk, walking the city is a joy, showcasing the dynamism of the South African people and their diversity on streets that speak 11 official languages. Delve further back in time while in Johannesburg, learning of humanity’s collective past at museums hosting many of the world’s oldest fossil remains, or simply see mankind for his achievements at the world’s largest manmade forest or at the finest gold jewellers across town. Otherwise, nature can always come calling, and Johannesburg is another great starting point for safari vacations South Africa en route to game reserves such as Kruger, Pilanesberg and beyond.

Johannesburg | Photo: Clodagh Da Paixao

3. Seychelles

Hello Seychelles; an easy mention among the best countries in Africa thanks to a built-up tourism industry that revolves around paradisiacal beaches, private island resorts and on-the-water adventures. For gay travellers, in particular, a Seychelles vacation is a top choice owing to the islands’ liberal policies that protect LGBT people following the decriminalisation of “same-sex acts” in 2016. Though locals still face some social stigma, tourists are largely exempt, allowing for carefree vacations across a wide choice of luxury resorts and island lodges close by (or even on) the beach.

Away from snorkelling, diving and glass-bottomed boating opportunities on the water, Seychelles also offers much in the way of culture centred on the capital city of Victoria on the largest island of Mahé, with local lifestyles varying upon each of the 114 other islands in the archipelago. Of the Inner Islands, Praslin and La Digue stand out for their castaway vibes, the latter a bicyclist’s paradise home to the pristine Anse Source d’Argent beach. Chartered journeys to any of the 72 Outer Islands meanwhile can put you in touch with remote cays where wildlife reigns supreme. Visit Seychelles in the transition periods between the hot and windy summer months (November to March) and the cooler — yet also very windy —winter months (April to October). Avoid these seasons by booking your dates in April, May, October or November, to be rewarded with mild conditions (hovering around 26°C) and fewer crowds.

Seychelles | Photo: Christian Cacciamani

4. Madagascar

The sweet-sounding name on every conservationist’s lips is the wildlife-filled land of Madagascar, found far off the east coast of Africa. Offering a different perspective on safari vacations in Africa, Madagascar goes one step wilder with its endless sprawl of undeveloped coastline that hems in some 47 national parks and reserves, home to 19,000 types of plant, 340 kinds of chameleon and over 100 species of lemur alongside a long list of other wildlife. Gay travellers who love dusty adventures into the wilderness will love Madagascar, where Morondava’s iconic Avenue of the Baobabs links the island’s beaches to its trekking regions, such as the Anja Community Reserve or the climbing paradise of Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve. For the animals, however, it’s Isalo and Mantadia national parks that win out, for unbeatable sightings of lemurs, boa constrictors and all manner of birdlife watching on from the canopy above.

When resting up, the capital of Antananarivo and the island of Nosy Be are top bases, close to snorkelling (at Nosy Sakatia), swimming (at The Three Bays) and optimal sunset views (by the baobabs). The best time to visit Madagascar is in the dry season from April to October when fewer rain showers mean less disruption for hiking, wildlife watching and water sports. You will pay a premium in these months but the comfortable temperatures and clear roads make it worth it.

Photo: Alexander Wendt

Avenue of the Baobabs | Photo: Yasmine Arfaoui

5. Kruger National Park

We’ve already mentioned two of South Africa’s best cities but we can’t neglect its many memorable national parks. The country’s nature reserves are so fine in fact that you could spend an entire vacation inside them, leaving only to catch your flight and foregoing time in the chaotic urban centres if you so wish. We choose Kruger National Park as it is one of the largest and oldest game reserves in all of Africa, and though it gets crowded, there is good reason for it. It is within this five-million-acre reserve where you are almost guaranteed to spot all of the Big Five game animals, as well as much other wildlife, from crocodiles to exotic birds. To get up close to the wildlife, sign up for a game drive or a guided bush walk on which you’ll stop by areas such as the Hippo Pool, Kruger Tablets and the Red Rocks for life-changing sightings.

Alongside wildlife, best sure to keep your eye out for the park’s human history, inclusive of a number of Albasini and Masorini ruins (structures once used as trading posts between Portuguese colonists and the indigenous Ba-Phalaborwa ethnic group. Kruger offers self-drive safaris and camping options at all budgets, making it one of the more accessible parks in the country. Otherwise, the nearby Sabi Sands Game Reserve offers more upscale safari experiences. Visit South Africa’s national parks at the beginning or end of the dry season for the best experience (between April and September), when temperatures are bearable, with daytime highs of 30°C and nighttime lows of 10°C. See which other countries contend with SA safaris in our rundown of the five best African safari tours.

South Africa | Photo: Redcharlie

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Outside of the Medina, Marrakech is also moulded by its relationship to Europe, most visible in the northwesterly neighbourhood of Gueliz where trendy bars and gay venues convene on Avenue Mohammed V

6. Marrakech

Those who enjoy the satisfaction of solving puzzles will love the labyrinthine journey through Marrakech’s winding streets. Along the way, you’ll get thrown off track by snake charmers, fortune tellers and spice vendors, enthralled by the exotic smells and sights within this Moroccan capital’s pink-walled, millennia-old medina. The UNESCO-listed part of the city shows Marrakech’s Middle-Eastern influence and lifestyles, throughout its cuisine, culture and architecture. See traditions most alive at Jemaa el-Fnaa, Africa’s busiest square and home to the largest Berber market in Morocco. Here you’ll find sellers touting all kinds of wares including ornate carpets, sheep’s heads and woven scarfs, close to both the iconic Koutoubia Mosque and Bahia Palace. Outside of the Medina, Marrakech is also moulded by its relationship to Europe, most visible in the northwesterly neighbourhood of Gueliz where trendy bars and gay venues convene on Avenue Mohammed V.

Morocco is a conservative country with a majority Muslim population, but, within Marrakech, both French colonial influence and a sizeable expat community do wonders for the city’s tolerance levels. Today, homosexuality remains outlawed nationwide (and subject to a short jail term) but the reality is that these laws are sporadically enforced and tourist hubs are given leeway, allowing for a small yet vibrant Marrakech gay scene. After touring the markets, mosques and palaces of Marrakech, jump off on excursions into the Atlas Mountains nearby.

One of the best countries Africa has to offer for gay travellers, Marrakech is best seen in the shoulder seasons (March to May; September to November) when the weather is non too scorching (between 22°C and 32°C) and hotels are affordable. Summer can get extremely hot (topping 37°C on the regular) but the heat doesn’t deter travellers as you might expect. Winter is also a busy season for its mild temperatures (moving between 5°C  and  20°C), with Christmas, Ramadan and other national holidays (on the lunar calendar) serving the biggest disruptions for public transport and attraction opening hours as well as the highest room rates.

Morocco | Photo: Zakaria Boumliha

Photo: Zakaria Boumliha

7. Rwanda

One of the best countries to visit Africa that few people consider is the East African country of Rwanda. In the eyes of history, Rwanda may be seen as a troubled nation, but the truth is that the Rwandan people have spent the twenty years since its civil war, building back a truly beautiful and progressive home. Intrepid gays will be won over by Rwanda’s rugged charms as well as its relatively liberal stance on LGBT rights (homosexuality is legal here and the country is a signatory of the United Nation’s condemnation of violence towards homosexuals, though discretion is still advisable). Explorers on a budget will also do well in Rwanda, undertaking guided trekking exhibitions in Volcanoes National Park to spot rare mountain gorillas, less than three hours outside of Kigali, the tidy capital. The only possible downside to trekking in Rwanda may be the price tag at around $1,500 (USD) per permit, but bear in mind that this price does factor in high levels of sustainability and quality.

Follow in the wake of Ellen Degeneres and her wife Portia whom both had humbling experiences in the mountains of Rwanda, viewing gorillas and chimpanzees in their natural rainforest habitat. Though trekking is muddy business, back in the capital there are plenty of luxury accommodations to help you recoup. A cultural tour in Kigali is a nice alternative to trekking, allowing visitors to gain insight into the country’s tumultuous history and heritage, such as across the city’s Tutsi memorials. Adventure tours can also come mud-free, including ziplining, canopy walks and safari drives starting from Kigali, plus boating and kayaking on Lake Kiyu near the border.

Rwanda | Photo: Deinarson

8. Mauritius

Eight hundred kilometres off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, a small volcanic island holds a big legacy, as the native home of the now-extinct dodo. Despite a dearth of dodos, Mauritius is still a dream for nature lovers and, within its rainforests, there lies some of the rarest plants and animals in the world. Like Rwanda, Mauritius is a signatory of the anti-discrimination UN statement and LGBT people are protected in the workplace, but outdated laws remain and homosexuality is still illegal despite recent efforts to overturn this. While there is a long way to go and local gay people are still subjected to stigma, social attitudes are starting to turn and, as a tourist, you’re unlikely to experience problems other than the absence of any gay bars.

Start your trip in the capital of Port Louis, enjoying the beaches by day and the waterfront bars, restaurants and shops by night. Coral reefs edge the island, making for fantastic scuba diving and snorkelling, or otherwise, you can catch a boat to the gay-friendly Reunion Island. The Champs de Mars racecourse is also a famed attraction in the capital, though beach lovers may prefer to head north to the resort village of Grand Baie. Along the way, you’ll find remnants of Dutch, French and British rule, though the true story of Mauritius’ rise comes from the mouths of locals in a range of languages including French, Chinese, Creole and Indian dialects.

Mauritius | Photo: Xavier Coiffic

9. Victoria Falls

A worthy mention among the most beautiful waterfalls in the world, Victoria Falls also earns its place here as one of the best destinations in all of Africa. These epic falls are a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, dwarfing Niagara Falls at double its height and width. The falls area is known as the adventure capital of Africa and beyond the cascade itself, there are various trails, landscapes and experiences to be had. If an adrenaline hit is what you’re after, try the 400-metre zipline, 70-metre free fall gorge swing or white water rafting excursions on rapids named things like ‘the gnashing jaws of death’. Bungee jumping and bike tours are also on offer, close by a range of accommodation options and stress-free tourist hubs.

If the activities thus far sound a little too thrilling, seek out a quieter perspective on the falls at viewpoints such as Knife-Edge Bridge, Livingstone Island and Devil’s Pool, swimming in the Zambezi River in the hottest part of the afternoon. Rainfall patterns dictate the ferocity of the falls with high water occurring between February and July and the falls’ spray soaking everyone in its path. White water rafting is not available during this time but a helicopter trip over the scene can be a winning alternative. At times of low water levels, water activities are back on and all-encompassing views of the falls are suddenly possible.

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe | Photo: Jason Zhao

Victoria Falls, Zambia | Photo: Paul Milley

10. Take the most amazing train journey in Africa

It is said that happiness lies not in the destination but in the journey, and no truer is this statement than when considering the Rovos Rail train ride through Southern Africa. World-famous for its luxury facilities and old-school elegance, the Rovos Rail spans a number of great attractions in one hassle-free trip, going from Cape Town to Victoria Falls and continuing on to Namibia, Zambia and Tanzania if so wished. During the 3,200 kilometre Namibia Safari trip for example, passengers go from South Africa’s Pretoria, through the diamond-rush town of Kimberley and onwards across the Kalahari Desert to Namibia, where stops in the capital of Windhoek and the Namib Desert preclude the final stop at the medieval German town of Swakopmund on Namibia’s coast.

The beauty of journeying through Africa by train is especially salient for gay travellers who otherwise might not feel safe enough to tour each country individually. This way, travellers can cover great expanses, viewing rural savannah regions, uninhabited desert and lesser-known parts, from the comfort of their five-star cabin suite. Travellers can also embark on a number of multiple-day trips such as safari in Etosha National Park or trekking to Big Daddy peak in Sossusvlei Desert, all seamlessly organised by Rovos Rail partners. Suites vary according to price, though the Deluxe Suite is sized at 10 square meters with en suite, complimentary minibar and convertible lounge area. Twenty-four-hour room service, laundry service and free bathrobes are also offered, with the last car hosting a bar with panoramic windows and African entertainment to while away the time before your next stop.

Discover our full list of the 10 most amazing train rides around the world.

Photo: Ellena Mcguinness

11. Safari in Kenya

Last but by no means least is Kenya, one of the most iconic Africa holidays safari destinations as home to the 373,100-acre Masai Mara National Reserve. Though the battle for gay rights is well underway, homosexuality is still illegal across Kenya and subject to 14 years in prison if prosecuted. As such, gay travellers should be cautious when heading outside of the capital Nairobi, which is the centre of LGBT activism in the nation. Prosecutions are rare but poor treatment of the gay community and blackmailing remain common. Travellers are advised to stay alert in urban areas, or otherwise enjoy Kenya safari vacations from the safety of luxury resorts and camps. Find these to the west side of Masai Mara National Reserve, signing up for a safari across the park to view rolling grasslands alive with migrating wildlife from mid-July to mid-September.

Hot air balloon safaris and horseback riding excursions are alternative ways to view the Great Migration, when wildebeest, zebra and gazelles head en masse through Tanzania’s Serengeti and across the perilous, alligator-filled Mara River, many lost even before that to hungry lions and other predators. This is nature at its greatest and most ruthless, with likely sightings of the Big Five, making it one of the best-loved national parks in all of Africa. Find which other places rank beside the Masai Mara in our guide to the best African safari tours.

Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya | Photo: David Clode

Kenya | Photo: Kureng Workx

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