East Africa’s 10 Cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites
East Africa is well known for its natural attractions, many of which – for instance, national parks such as Kilimanjaro, Serengeti, and Bwindi Impenetrable – are inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in recognition of their unique natural qualities. More surprisingly, perhaps, this popular safari destination is also home to a wealth of fascinating historical and archaeological sites that have been accorded UNESCO World Heritage Site status on a cultural basis. Some, such as Zanzibar Stone Town and Mombasa’s Fort Jesus, are popular tourist attractions. Others, for instance, the magnificent rock art sites around Kondoa and enigmatic stone ruins at Thimlich Ohinga, remain sadly obscure. Here we provide an overview of all of East Africa’s cultural World Heritage Sites, eight of which are split evenly between Kenya and Tanzania, while the other two can be found in Malawi and Uganda.
Stone Town of Zanzibar, Tanzania
Year of Inscription: 2000
Key Attraction: Arguably the most atmospheric settlement in subequatorial Africa, Zanzibar Stone Town is studded with historical landmarks – an Omani Fort converted from a 16th-century Portuguese church, an 1870s Anglican Cathedral built on the once notorious slave market – but it is most striking for the strong sense of place determined by its unique fusion of African, Arabic, European and Indian influences.
How to get there: Domestically, several scheduled flights daily connect Zanzibar to Dar es Salaam, Arusha, Kilimanjaro, and most major national parks. A good network of international flights also links Zanzibar to other countries in the region and further afield.
Accommodation: From cheap and cheerful backpacker hostels to swanky 5-star hotels, lodging is plentiful in Stone Town. Further afield, hundreds of resorts line the beaches of Zanzibar Island.
More information: https://fairtradesafaris.com/summer/8-cool-things-to-do-on-zanzibar/
Fort Jesus, Kenya
Year of Inscription: 2011
Key Attraction: Portuguese-built in the 1590s, Fort Jesus was regarded to be the most strategic building on the Swahili coast for the next three centuries, and the subject of several naval blockades and battles. Now a well-curated museum, the fort, and its 50-foot-high turrets dominate Mombasa’s old harborfront to this day.
How to get there: Kenya’s most important seaport, Mombasa is linked to Nairobi and other parts of the country by regular flights, trains, and buses. Most beach hotels outside Mombasa offer guided city tours that include Fort Jesus.
Accommodation: A few small hotels can be found in central Mombasa, but most people stay at one of the upmarket resorts that line nearby beaches such as Diani, Nyali, and Bamburi.
Chongoni Rock-Art Area, Malawi
Year of Inscription: 2006
Key Attraction: Malawi’s premier collection of rock art sites demonstrates a rare continuum between ancient and living traditions. Here, both the red schematic paintings attributed to long-gone Akafula hunter-gatherers and newer white paintings executed by the local Chewa depict rainmaking and initiation ceremonies similar to the contemporary Gule Wamkulu masked dance.
How to get there: The closest town is Dedza, which lies just off the main road between Lilongwe and Blantyre (Malawi’s two largest cities). You can pick up a guide or ask for directions at Dedza Pottery.
Accommodation: These are limited to a budget rest house at Chongoni Forestry College and a few low-key hotels in Dedza, notably Dedza Pottery.
Sacred Mijikenda Kaya Forests, Kenya
Year of Inscription: 2008
Key Attraction: Scattered along 120 miles of coast, this fragmented site comprises ten sacred forest pockets that started life in the 16th century as fortified Mijikenda villages, or kayas. Abandoned in the mid-20th century, the kayas are still revered by the local Mijikenda as the abodes of ancestral spirits.
How to get there: Now a community-based tourist site, the sacred forest of Kaya Kinondo stands less than a mile south of Diani, a popular beach resort near Mombasa. It is easy to walk there from Diani or catch a tuk-tuk, and the guided tours are highly informative.
Accommodation: Diani’s idyllic beach is lined with attractive resort hotels.
More information: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1231
Tombs of Buganda Kings at Kasubi, Uganda
Year of Inscription: 2001
Key Attraction: The former palace of King Mutesa I of Buganda is a 50-foot-high thatch-and-reed dome that was constructed in the 1880s and remained little changed until it burned down in 2010. Now being rebuilt with UNESCO funding, this reed-walled complex houses the graves of Mutesa I and his successors Mwanga in 1910, Daudi Chwa II, and Mutesa II.
How to get there: Kasubi Tombs lies 4km northwest of central Kampala and can easily be visited from anywhere in the city by taxi or on a guided tour.
Accommodation: Hundreds of hotels catering to all budgets are scattered around Kampala, the capital of Uganda.
More information: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1022
Thimlich Ohinga, Kenya
Year of Inscription: 2018
Key Attraction: Thimlich Ohinga is an abandoned fortress-like drystone complex that resembles the ruined city of Great Zimbabwe more than any other site in East Africa. Enclosed by a 3ft-thick, 13ft-tall drystone wall, this mysterious ruin dates to the 16th century, and thus predates the arrival of the Luo people who currently live in this part of Kenya.
How to get there: Thimlich Ohinga is included on very few tour itineraries due to its remote location. For self-drivers, it is easy enough to reach by road from Homa Bay, Kisumu, or elsewhere in the Lake Victoria Basin.
Accommodation: The closest town with acceptable accommodation is Migori, 30 miles to the southeast.
More information: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1450
Ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara, Tanzania
Year of Inscription: 1981
Key Attraction: In its medieval prime, island-bound Kilwa was the most important of the many Swahili city-states that lined the East African coast from Somalia to Mozambique. The Moroccan globetrotter Ibn Battuta, who visited Kilwa in its 14th-century prime as a gold-trading emporium, described it as “one of the most beautiful and well-constructed cities in the world”. Kilwa never recovered from being sacked by the Portuguese in the 16th century, but the remains of its old palaces, mosques, fortresses, and wells pay testament to its former glory.
How to get there: The springboard town of Kilwa Masoko stands on the mainland directly opposite Kilwa Kisiwani. There are no longer any scheduled flights to Kilwa Masoko, and it is about half a day’s drive from Dar es Salaam or Nyerere National Park. Once at Kilwa Masoko, it’s straightforward to arrange a dhow across the channel to Kilwa Kisiwani.
Accommodation: A fair selection of midrange beach resorts can be found in and around Kilwa Masoko.
More information: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/144
Kondoa Rock-Art Sites, Tanzania
Year of Inscription: 2006
Key Attraction: East Africa’s most extensive prehistoric painting site, Kondoa comprises 150 scattered rock panels, some up to 4,000 years old, depicting geometric patterns, wild animals, and therianthropes (humanoids endowed with animal features). Many of the panels here contain superimposed layers of stylistically distinct paintings, suggesting that they were created over several centuries.
How to get there: Mungomi wa Kolo, the best and most accessible painting, lies within easy striking distance of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it village of Kolo, on the surfaced road between Arusha and Dodoma, and is easily visited as a day trip from Tarangire National Park. You can pick up a local guide at the Kolo site office.
Accommodation: Kolo has one very basic campsite and a tented camp. There are plenty of upmarket lodges and camps in and around Tarangire National Park, and decent budget hotels exist in the nearby towns of Babati and Kondoa.
More information: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1183
Lamu Old Town, Kenya
Year of Inscription: 2001
Key Attraction: A more laidback and lowkey northern counterpart to Zanzibar Stone Town, Lamu old town dates back to medieval times, and its cobbled alleys, lined with traditional Swahili whitewashed houses, are renowned both for their time-warped feel and welcoming atmosphere.
How to get there: Daily scheduled flights connect Lamu to Nairobi, Mombasa, and Malindi.
Accommodation: There’s plenty of accommodation, most of it set in renovated Swahili houses and more low-key than you might expect. Beach resorts can be found elsewhere on Lamu Island and Archipelago.
More information: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1055
Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania
Year of Inscription: 1979, 2010
Key Attraction: Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) is East Africa’s only ‘mixed’ World Heritage Site, meaning that it has been accorded this status on both ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ criteria. The NCA’s ‘natural’ claim to fame is the Ngorongoro Crater, the world’s largest intact volcanic caldera. The equally compelling ‘cultural’ component is the wealth of hominin fossils and footprints, spanning almost four million years, that have been unearthed in and around Oldupai Gorge.
How to get there: The excellent site museum at Oldupai Gorge is easily accessed from the bumpy main road connecting Ngorongoro Crater to Serengeti National Park via the eastern NCA.
Accommodation: Several upmarket lodges and tented camps stand on the Ngorongoro Crater rim, as does a campsite catering to budget travelers. A broader choice of accommodation can be found in the vicinity of Karatu, just outside Ngorongoro Conservation Area.