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12 Things to Know Before Traveling to East Africa

12 Things to Know Before Traveling to East Africa

Picture of Leah Feiger
Updated: 5 January 2018

East Africa, with its picture-perfect beaches, impressive cities, and diverse wildlife, makes for a flawless vacation destination. The region provides some of the best cuisine, art, and culture on the continent, and tourists are able to while their days away on the Swahili coast, in the savannhas of the Serengeti, and on the tops of volcanoes. Before booking your ticket, check out these things that you need to know before traveling to East Africa.

Get ready to explore one of the world’s most gorgeous regions

If you’re planning a trip to East Africa, get ready for the trip of a lifetime. Panoramic vistas, waterfalls, white-sand beaches, turquoise waters, rolling green hills, volcanic summits, and gleaming city centers are scattered throughout the region. This place is unique, and it’s one of the world’s most stupendous areas.

Find those hidden gems

A lot of tourists get to the region with the intention of doing only the most popular activities. For a better travel experience, get off the well-trodden (and often expensive) tourist track, and search out East Africa’s most exciting hidden gems. For example, instead of (or in addition to) hiking with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, doing a Big 5 safari in the Serengeti or Maasai Mara in Tanzania and Kenya, and sunning yourself on the beaches of Zanzibar, look into kayaking the shores of Lake Kivu in Rwanda, swimming with whale sharks on Mafia Island in Tanzania, and exploring the ancient streets of Lamu in Kenya.

Much of the region is really cosmopolitan

Though visions of Mount Kilimanjaro and safaris permeate the dreams of most travelers to East Africa, the region has a lot to offer city-dwellers too. Leave those zip-off safari pants at home, and get ready to hit the town in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Bujumbura, Kigali, or Kampala. The region’s cities are truly cosmopolitan, offering some of the best art, culture, food, and music on the continent.

You’ll need to practice photography etiquette

East Africa is every photographer’s dream. However, do your best not to exotify the people that live here. Take photos of the animals you see on safari and the gorgeous sunsets, but avoid photographing locals without their express permission. You wouldn’t walk up to random children in your hometown and start taking their pictures, so don’t do it here.

It’s not all safaris

Although the safari parks of Tanzania and Kenya are at the top of many bucket lists around the world, there’s more to East Africa than the Big 5. Spend some time hanging out on the beaches of Kenya, hiking volcanoes in Rwanda, and exploring Kampala’s coolest cafés.

East Africa is not a country

Regardless of how the region is referred to by tour operators and international visitors, East Africa is not a country. Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, and Kenya have a lot of different histories, traditions, languages, and customs. You’ll definitely offend residents if you mix up their countries of origin or paint the area with a wide brush.

There are great culinary options

East Africa is a global melting pot. In addition to East African-specific traditions, Arabic, Indian, British, Chinese, Belgian, French, and German influences (ah, colonialism) permeate the region. As a result, the range of available cuisines is impressive. Though a lot of tourists assume their food options will be limited, that is just not the case. Spend some time working your way through East Africa’s best restaurants, enjoying a selection of mouthwatering choices.

Go Kigali lunch break

Lunch break with Go Kigali tours | Courtesy of Go Kigali

There’s a lively arts and music scene

East Africa boasts some of the continent’s most impressive artists and musicians. Sauti Sol, one of Kenya’s hottest bands, perform some of the region’s most electric shows, while Rwanda’s art and photography scene is continually growing, and Zanzibari artistic tradition is unparalleled. Try to catch a live show while visiting, and don’t hesitate to visit as many galleries and museums as possible.

Don’t make assumptions

Don’t believe what you’ve seen in the movies. East Africa is not constantly embroiled in famine, dispute, or civil war, and is actually a highly diverse region with a multitude of different people. Do remain aware of your own privilege while you are traveling, but don’t assume that everyone you meet is poor, starving, and uneducated, and remember that East Africa is not homogeneous.

Get ready to shop

Though the activities and attractions in East Africa are undoubtedly some of the world’s best, take the time to indulge in a little shopping, too. Handcrafted leather bags, intricate jewelry, and woven baskets are available throughout the region, though each country has its own unique items to offer the discerning traveler. Make sure to check out Amahoro peace baskets in Rwanda, tingatina paintings in Tanzania, haute couture in Uganda, wooden crafts in Burundi, and brass jewelry in Kenya.

Avoid the rainy season

Although it varies from country to country, the general breakdown is this: Rwanda’s rainy season is March to May and October to mid-December; Kenya’s rainy season is April to June and a few weeks in November and December; Tanzania’s rainy season is March to May and October to November; Uganda’s is March to May and October to November; and Burundi’s is February to May and September to November. Though lodging and activities are much cheaper during the rainy season, the inconvenience is honestly not worth it. It’s often continual and difficult to manage, making the extra expenditure to travel during the dry season a necessary expense.

It’s really easy to get around

Plentiful flights and buses, in addition to easily traversed borders and visas for most countries, make East Africa one of the best locations for diverse travel. Spend a couple of weeks backpacking through Tanzania before hopping across the border to Kenya, hightailing your way to Uganda, and heading south to Rwanda and Burundi. Take advantage of the ease of travel, and enjoy all the wonders East Africa has to offer.