East Africa is the part of Africa around and east of the Great Rift Valley, a land feature stretching from the Red Sea to the Mozambique Channel.
East Africa is the cradle of mankind, as the first species of the Homo genus evolved here, and migrated to the rest of the world. The region is also famous for its savannas, with the well-known African flora and fauna.
Within the historical era, East Africa has received immigration and influences from the Bantu peoples, Malay peoples of Southeast Asia, the Islamic world, and the Western world.
Prior to colonialism, the Swahili Coast, which comprised the coastal areas of what is today Kenya, Tanzania and northern Mozambique was a very prosperous region, being home to numerous wealthy city-states such as Zanzibar, Mombasa and Kilwa Kisiwani. The former in particular was the hub of trade routes that went across the Indian Ocean and Sahara Desert, including that of the Arab Slave Trade.
The East African countries have developed very differently in modern times. In the late 19th century, the British Empire tried to create a chain of colonies from Cape to Cairo, competing with German East Africa until the defeat of Germany in World War I, after which present-day Tanzania was transferred to the British. Ethiopia famously resisted European colonialism (except a brief occupation by Italy in the 1930s), and the Dervish State wasn't colonized until after most other precolonial African states. Economically the countries range from Kenya, an emerging economy, to Somalia, one of the world's least developed countries.
East Africa contains spectacular geography, with the African Great Lakes, and most of the continent's tallest mountains. It is geographically isolated from the rest of the continent by mountains, deserts, and the African Great Lakes. The climate is more arid than it is on similar latitudes on the Atlantic coast, which makes the land dominated by savanna and desert.
While the climate in East Africa is tropical (except the tallest mountains, where snow can occasionally be found), humidity varies a lot, with jungles, savannas, and deserts.
Countries and territories
On the shores of Lake Tanganyika; largely deforested and has precious little to interest the visitor
Small country across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen and largely Somali in nature
This relatively small nation has heavy Arab and Sub-Saharan African influences
Africa's second largest population; one of the world's oldest Christian countries, home to castles, beautiful monasteries, and wonderful food
Known for its world-class safaris, beautiful beaches and rich history
Gorillas in the mist
One of the least visited nations on earth, wrought with political instability, civil war, and rampant kidnapping/abductions
East Africa's newest nation, broke off from neighboring Somalia in 1991
Mt. Kilimanjaro, major game parks and the pre-colonial cities of the Swahili Coast.
Wildlife abounds and this is the best place for treks into the Congolese jungle to visit the nearly extinct mountain gorillas
- 1 Addis Ababa — the huge capital of Ethiopia and a major hub for NGOs and the African Union
- 2 Arusha — Tanzania's gateway to the Northern Safari Circuit
- 3 Dar es Salaam — Tanzania's hot and humid metropolis has little to keep the traveler there, but is a major transit point of the region
- 4 Kampala — the bustling, friendly capital of Uganda
- 5 Kigali — aside from the genocide memorials, there is little to interest the traveler in Rwanda's capital; this is a passing through city
- 6 Mombasa — historic coastal Kenyan city thought to be more than 2,500 years old
- 7 Nairobi — the capital of Kenya
- 8 Stone Town — the capital of Zanzibar, and a centre of Swahili culture
- 1 Axum (Aksum) — the ancient capital of Ethiopia famous for its stelae and the ruins of various palaces
- 2 Lalibela — attracts tourists and pilgrims alike to its medieval rock-hewn churches
- 3 Mount Kilimanjaro — Africa's highest mountain and a great trekking destination in Tanzania
- 4 Rwenzori National Park — home of the almost mythical, otherworldly scenery of the Mountains of the Moon in Uganda
- 5 Serengeti National Park — huge national park in Tanzania, perhaps the archetypal African game park; becomes the Masai Mara National Park over the border in Kenya
- 6 Simien National Park — stunning mountain scenery and important wildlife populations in Ethiopia
- 7 Volcanoes National Park — in Rwanda is full of impressive rainforest and volcanic scenery of the Virunga Mountains, and is perhaps the best place in the world to see rare mountain gorillas. Also crosses into Uganda where it is known as Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
Ramadan is the 9th and holiest month in the Islamic calendar and lasts 29–30 days. Muslims fast every day for its duration and most restaurants will be closed until the fast breaks at dusk. Nothing (including water and cigarettes) is supposed to pass through the lips from dawn to sunset. Non-Muslims are exempt from this, but should still refrain from eating or drinking in public as this is considered very impolite. Working hours are decreased as well in the corporate world. Exact dates of Ramadan depend on local astronomical observations and may vary somewhat from country to country. Ramadan concludes with the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which may last several days, usually three in most countries.
If you're planning to travel to East Africa during Ramadan, consider reading Travelling during Ramadan.
English is understood throughout some of the East Africa region.
Swahili is understood and spoken by a large number of people, especially Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, where it is an official language.
The vast majority of travelers to the region will arrive by air, and the larger East African capitals are accessible by air from Europe, the Middle East, and South Africa. By far the largest carrier in the region is Ethiopian Airlines, which maintains a large, crowded hub in Addis Ababa and which also connects the region to the Americas, several East Asian hubs, and a large number of smaller cities in Africa. Kenya Airways takes second place with a sizable hub of its own in Nairobi, and Rwandair punches above its weight. However, Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia are very poorly connected, and likely require a connection in Ethiopia or a trip on a dodgy local airline from Dubai.
Flying to this part of the world is likely to be expensive, though it increasingly features in cheap-flight deals. European budget and charter operators do run reasonable flights to coastal destinations like Mombasa and Zanzibar, however.
East Africa's dramatic landscapes - and the wildlife that inhabit them - are a major draw for East African tourists. This part of Africa is where you can find the quintessential savanna safari experience, venturing out in a Land Rover across the plains to scout lions, cheetahs and elephants. The Maasai Mara and Amboseli National Park in Kenya, and Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania are very popular locations for game drives, offering the visitor the chance to spot the vaunted "Big Five" (lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffaloes). However, there are dozens of locations offering wildlife spotting in these two countries, including both public parks and preserves and privately-run safari properties, and running the gamut from elaborate luxury experiences in the bush to a quick morning cruise through Nairobi's Nairobi National Park. Both Uganda and Rwanda also offer their own compelling safari opportunities, but both are better known for gorilla trekking, the once-in-a-lifetime (and hugely expensive) adventures into the jungle to spot silverbacks and mountain gorillas.
Looming large over many of the most visited natural areas is Kilimanjaro, the world's most prominent mountain and Africa's tallest. You don't need to climb it or even go out of your way to seek out a good view and appreciate its majestic beauty, since it's visible across a huge swath of both Kenya and Tanzania. Mount Kenya also dominates the landscape of Central Kenya's highlands, and the landscapes of Ethiopia's Simien Mountains and Uganda's Rwenzori Mountains are a draw for trekkers to those areas.
East Africa isn't just plains and mountains, however. Desert covers a huge chunk of the Horn of Africa, creating bizarre, almost extra-terrestrial areas like Ethiopia's Danakil Depression or Djibouti's Lake Assal. Much of Rwanda and Uganda is covered in lush, hilly jungles. And the white beaches of the Swahili Coast offer their own type of natural beauty.
The national parks of East Africa are known as great safari locations.
If you've never been to a developing country, it's important to be intentional in your approach to drinking water. Across the region, your best bet is to drink bottled water, which is widely distributed in all but the most backwater areas. Piped water is not particularly common outside of urban areas, is almost certainly not potable, and will likely still taste a bit like dishwater even after boiling. If you're traveling in rural areas or spending long periods in nature, it's advisable to bring water purification tablets.
The beverage the region is perhaps best-known for is coffee. Most East African countries have a solid chunk of their agricultural base devoted to growing coffee for export, and have some level of facilities for coffee tourism. While there is a large variety of high-quality coffee being produced in East Africa, Western-style coffee culture hasn't caught on with the masses, and is largely confined to the urban middle and upper classes. Drip coffee is nonetheless widely available in restaurants, though espresso drinks are less common.
Some may be surprised to learn that tea is even more popular than coffee in some parts of East Africa, and especially among the working classes (who often can only afford Nescafe). The drink was brought to the region during colonization, and is often cultivated in parts of the region with high and humid climates. East African tea is often served with lots of milk and sugar, and sometimes as a spiced flavor akin to Indian chai. Unlike with coffee, and in contrast to other tea-enjoying cultures like China, there is little artisanal/premium tea, and what is produced is chiefly for the mass-market.
Fruit juices are consumed throughout East Africa, and the fresh stuff can be of high quality. Local and foreign brands of soft drinks alike are widely available. Energy drinks are a new arrival, but are of growing popularity.
Alcohol is widely enjoyed in non-Muslim areas; in Muslim countries like Djibouti and Somalia, it is unheard of. Mixed areas like Ethiopia or the Swahili Coast still appreciate their tipple and distribute it widely. Beer is the most widely-enjoyed alcohol in the region and is widely available. Most beers produced in the region are Euro-style pale lagers, though Guinness (the stiff, caramel-y African "Foreign Extra" version) is also common, and craft beer has begun to emerge in expat-heavy capital cities. In rural areas, you may encounter home-brewed low-alcohol millet beers, which won't kill you but which also will probably not be an amazing experience.
Hard liquor is probably in second place after beer - sometimes a distant second - and both local and imported liquors can be found. Among the more professionally produced liquors are Ugandan waragi and Tanzanian konyagi, both of which are akin to a mild, low-grade gin. You can also find locally-produced whiskeys, rums and vodkas in most countries, along with typical Western mid-shelf brands.
Other local concoctions include "banana beer", a fermented banana drink known under a variety of local names in Rwanda and Uganda, and tej, a honey-based wine found in Ethiopia, where honey-flavored beer is also produced. Wine is not especially popular, as few grapes are grown in the region. It can be found in urban supermarkets and at higher-end restaurants, but the vast majority is imported.
Like other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, East Africa is known for its nightlife. In hotspots like Kampala and Nairobi, rowdy nightclubs keep revelers dancing until dawn. Local and continental hits are dominant on the region's dancefloors, though American hip-hop, Western EDM, and Caribbean dancehall also have a steady presence. In the 2010s, a homegrown alternative electronic scene developed. Outside of nightclubs, local bars are widespread, often decked out in the colors of a local beer brand. These can be as simple as a couple of plastic tables and chairs set up on a roadside to more elaborate multi-bar complexes. Note that music is often played at a volume that non-Africans would consider loud, even when there is no obvious place to dance. For those who like to sing, karaoke bars/nights are also popular.
If you are travelling by boat, yacht or jet ski, you should be vigilant around the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, due to the activities of Somali pirates. There have also been incidents involving jihadists attacking non-Muslims in various parts of East Africa where they would target those who are unfamiliar with the Quran.
Entering the Middle East is also possible.