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Slicker cities

African metropolises may not be obvious tourist hotspots – but some of the continent’s cities are evolving into standalone destinations. Lizzie Williams reveals five great places worth visiting in their own right

According to the UN, over half of Africa’s population will live in cities by 2050. In fact, already more than 500 African cities have populations over 250,000 and three - Cairo, Kinshasa and Lagos - have reached megacity status (populations over 10 million). Africa’s turbocharged urbanisation is driven by several factors, such as high fertility and migration from rural areas for better life chances. The outcome of such unprecedented transition rather depends on Africa’s leaders. Some cities are already overstressed, with people living in poor conditions, but when the right steps are taken, innovation, employment and economic growth have followed smoothly.

So what does this mean for urban tourism in Africa and how has it changed in the last 20 years? In other places in the world, tourists head to cities as destinations in their own right, to see the landmarks and historical sites and enjoy good shopping and restaurants. African cities, on the other hand, have tended to be seen as chaotic with few sights worth visiting, merely airport stopovers on the way to somewhere else. But thanks to booming economies, this is changing rapidly. Many are now very pleasant places to spend a few days. Greater prosperity means local demands for better lifestyles, and emerging middle classes want decent restaurants, shopping and leisure options and the opportunity to appreciate their history, culture and environment, whether it’s a museum, concert, beach or wildlife reserve. As visitors, we can benefit from these attractions too, and enjoy the vibrancy, friendliness and authenticity that make the continent’s cities uniquely African.

HIGH AND MIGHTY: The massive and ornate Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, is the final resting place of Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife Empress Menen Asfaw

Addis Ababa

In the highlands bordering the Great Rift Valley, Ethiopia’s once poverty-ridden capital is now on the rise thanks to a swiftly expanding economy. While highways, five-star hotels and gleaming office and apartment blocks take shape, the city retains its unique heritage of orthodox religions, traditional dress and customs, reflected by magnificent churches and energetic markets on jacaranda-lined streets. It’s a good place to get an understanding of Ethiopia’s ancient culture and sample the cuisine, plus there are wonderful museums and places to stay.

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