Hayden shares the 7 top African celebrations and festivals, spanning the continent from Kenya to Egypt, Zanzibar to Chad – pack your bags!
There are some awesome festivals around the world and these look fantastic!
With more than 3000 ethnic groups and some 2000 different languages, the African continent is the very embodiment of cultural diversity. Combine this fact with the amazing biodiversity and natural beauty of the continent along with incredible features such as the Kruger National Park and the city of Cape Town; planning a holiday in Africa becomes an opportunity not to be missed!
Let’s explore our top seven cultural festivals from various countries across the continent to give you an idea of the immersive and exotic experiences you can expect to encounter when you visit this magical place.
7. Mombasa Carnival – November, Kenya
Kenya’s largest annual festival, organized by the Ministry of Tourism, is a carnival of floats, costumes, music and dance that perfectly showcases the region’s cultural diversity. Traditional and contemporary musicians perform, and the streets are lined with stalls offering all sorts of local delicacies, such as fresh coconut milk and the brewed concoction known as mnazi, which is made from coconut sap.
Participants often dress in traditional kikoy and kanga, and the parade finally winds its way down to the beach at Fort Jesus for a boat regatta!
Other things to do in Kenya
Where to stay in Mombasa?
- Hike Mount Kenya
- Masai Mara safari
- Relax on Diani Beach
- See gorgeous views at Watamu
- UNESCO World Heritage City of Lamu
- Lake Nakuru National Park (Rhino spotting)
- See beautiful elephants at Amboseli National Park
- Visit the town of Kilifi
- Hells Gate National Park
- PrideInn Hotel Nyali – for a cheap, clean and comfortable room in a homely hotel, this is the place for you. Rooms start at $35 and the hotel even has a pool.
- Ziwa Beach Resort – for a quirky, treehouse vibe, check out this beach resort, with rooms starting at $40.
- Afrochic Diani – For 5-star luxury, splash the cash for this full-board resort.
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6. Festival of the Dhow Countries – July, Zanzibar
Often described as East Africa’s largest cultural event, the Zanzibar International Film Festival, or Festival of the Dhow Countries, brings together the arts and cultures of several East African countries with those of India, Pakistan, the Gulf States, Iran and the Indian Ocean islands.
While the film competition is the main event, it attracts an enormous variety of cultural experiences from music, theatre and performing arts, to workshops, seminars and conferences. The festival sprawls between several beautiful and historical venues near the seafront in Stone Town, with a Village Panorama that extends the festival outwards to the rural communities.
Other things to do in Zanzibar
Where to stay in Stone Town?
5. National Arts Festival – June to July, Grahamstown, South Africa
Africa’s largest cultural event, this annual extravaganza sees the normally quiet streets of Grahamstown transformed into a hive of colorful activity which attracts local and international stars alike. Every available room becomes a performance venue, and every park or sports field becomes a flea market to showcase over 600 separate acts, from drama to music to stand-up comedy and everything in between!
Other things to do in Grahamstown
Where to stay in Grahamstown?
- Cathedral of St Michael and St George
- International Library of African Music
- Provost military prison
- 1820 Settlers National Monument
- Kwandwe Private Game Reserve
- Kwantu Private Game Reserve
Grahamstown is full of fantastic guest houses to try, suiting all budgets. Here are some of our favourites:
- A Stones Throw Hotel ($43)
- 8A Grahamstown Luxury Guest House ($85)
- Jenny’s Guest House ($63)
4. Hermanus Whale Festival – late September, South Africa
Described as an ‘Enviro-Arts’ festival, the real stars of this show are the migrating Southern Right Whales, who are the main focus of this South African event. Hermanus is renowned as the best land-based whale watching destination in the world, and each year some100,000 visitors flock to the pretty seaside town to experience the whales, enjoy some truly delicious food and revel in great music and a festive atmosphere!
This is a great festival for the whole family, with kid’s entertainment, street parades, live shows, film, music, local arts and crafts, the Marine ECO Village, and even a Whales and Wheels Classic Car Show!
Other things to do in Hermanus
Where to stay in Hermanus?
- Hermanus Cliff Path Walk
- Fernkloof Nature Reserve
- Hermanus Wine Tours
- The whale museum
- Old Harbour Market Square
- House on Westcliff – This boutique-style guest house is the perfect little getaway place for couples on a budget.
- Ocean Eleven Guest House – This 5-star luxury home is simply gorgeous, with rooms starting at $190 a night.
- Beaumonte Guesthouse – With rooms at $120 expect a spacious and comfortable stay as well as a guesthouse pool.
3. Maitisong Festival – April, Gaborone, Botswana
Now in its 30th year running, this annual event is a favorite among locals and international visitors alike. Music is one of the biggest attractions, with gospel, kwaito, and Afro-pop as just some of the styles on showcase. The event hosts both free and paid events so that everyone has a chance to get in on the action!
Other things to do in Botswana
Where to stay in Gaborone?
2. Abu Simbel Festival – February and October, Egypt
Fans of Ancient Egypt will adore this festival, which takes place twice a year on October and February 22nd. The magic of this festival is all in the timing – at these two times of the year, the sun aligns with the entrance of the Abu Simbel temples honoring Ramses II and his wife, Queen Nefertari, to illuminate two of the three statues within – leaving Ptah, the god of the underworld, in darkness.
Interestingly, the entire temple had to be moved when the Egyptian government made plans to dam Lake Nasser in the 20th century. This was achieved by cutting the monument into massive blocks for transport, each weighing 30 tons! Needless to say, there was some careful maths involved to get the temples to align again as they used to, although in the process the day had to be moved forward. Originally, the alignment would have occurred on the 21st of October and February.
Today the festival is celebrated by accompanying traditional Nubian dances, live music, and plenty of street food outside the venue – and it might be one of the coolest additions to an Egyptian holiday!
Other things to do in Abu Simbel
Where to stay in Abu Simbel
- Explore the many temples
- Lake Nasser
- Tombs of the Nobles
- The Nile river
There aren’t many accommodation options at the temples but you can choose to stay in nearby cities such as Aswan or Luxor.
- Hapi Hotel – Located in Aswan, this is a budget hotel with rooms starting at $31.
- Pyramisa Isis Island Aswan Resort & Spa – Treat yourself with this fabulous 5-star hotel costing $79 a night.
- Pavillon Winter Luxor – Another great hotel with rooms starting at $70 a night.
- Aracan Eatabe Luxor Hotel – A 4-star hotel with rooms costing just $32.
1. The Gerewol Festival – late September, Chad
If you’re up for having your beliefs about marriage and gender roles challenged quite a bit, then this has to be one of the most interesting cultural experiences a traveller can experience. Each year the nomadic Wodaabe tribes gather at the end of the rainy season, usually during the last week of September, for what has been described as the world’s most competitive male beauty pageant!
During this week-long festival, tribes gather on foot, via camel or donkey to come together to dance, feast, and most importantly – attract a lover or mate. The men, who carry a small pocket mirror with them at all times, spend hours preparing their clothing and makeup for the Yakke dancing – in which three female judges each pick a winner who will carry acclaim and fame for years.
The Wodaabe are polygamous, and it is the women who take the lead in partnerships. During the dance, a woman who wishes to be ‘stolen’ from her current husband by a more attractive mate taps him on the shoulder to indicate her choice. Being witness to the Gerewol festival is a rare opportunity for travellers to broaden their cultural horizons, and definitely worth planning a trip around!
Other things to do in Chad
Where to stay in Chad
- Visit the capital; N’Djamena.
- Aouk National Park
- Musee National N’Djamena
- Zakouma National Park
- Tibesti Mountains
- Unwind on the Chari River, Douguia
We hope our top seven picks have encouraged you to consider visiting an African festival or two – it can really set the mood and make you feel more connected with the country you’re visiting!
More African festivals
Africa is home to so many amazing festivals and these are just our opinion of the best 7. But there are many more and here are a few:
- Zimbabwe’s Harare International Festival of the Arts – this festival showcases the creativity, resilience and strength of the Zimbabwean people. Taking place each April, the festival attracts over 1000 musical performances.
- Morocco’s Fez Festival – This is a World Sacred Music festival, with Moroccan Song, Italian Renaissance Music, Balinese Dance and African Sufism. Alongside the music, you can enjoy the international food and incredible art displays.
- Chana’s Afrochella – Drawing thousands of music lovers from all over the world, this festival highlights Musical talents from Africa. It is only a few years old but is becoming a major event in Ghana, running during the last week of December.
- Knysna Oyster Festival in South Africa – Each year, South Africa hosts a half marathon, cycling race, swimming, scuba diving and canoeing event alongside a food celebration; particularly focusing on Oysters.
- Ouidah Voodoo Festival – Each January, Benin holds a national celebration in honour of its traditional religion and the associated cults.
- Festival of the Dancing Masks in Burkina Faso – This festival brings together people from over 40 different villages, wearing masks and costumes to celebrate, story tell and perform music.
- Timkat in Ethiopia – This Orthodox celebration is a 3-day celebration, held in towns and cities across the country. The most famous celebration is in Gondar, where thousands of pilgrims join, dressed in white robes. The waters of the Fasiladas’ bath are blessed and pilgrims renew their baptism vows.
- Tunisia’s International Festival of the Sahara – this 4-day event celebrates the rich culture of the Sahara Desert and its people; full of singing, poetry readings, feasting and dancing.
- The Great Wildebeest Migration – Each year, the great migration takes place through Tanzania and Kenya and you can plan a trip to witness natural wildlife at its best.
African Celebrations and Festivals FAQ
There are many African Traditional Festivals but the Mombasa Carnival in Kenya and the Gerewol Festival in Chad are two popular, traditional festivals in Africa.
The Central African Republic holidays are generally celebrated throughout the continent.
- New Year’s Day
- Anniversary of Barthelemy Boganda’s Death (29th March)
- Easter Monday
- Independence Day (August 13th)
- Feast of the Assumption (August 15th)
- National Day (December 1st)
- Christmas Day
Each year, Africa day commemorates the founding of the Organisation of African Unity. Africa Day celebrates the solidarity, unity, diversity, creativity and successes of the continent.
31 African Leaders convened a summit meeting, where they founded the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) on May 25th 1963. This date is known as Africa Day and as such, is celebrated each year on the 25th May.
South Africa have many different celebrations and festivals including:
- Cape Town Minstrel Carnival
- Knysna Oyster Festival
- Cape Town International Jazz Festival
- Royal Reed Dance Festival
- Oppikoppi Bushveld Festival
- National Arts Festival
- Arts Alive Festival
- Jacaranda Festival
- Up the Creek Outdoor Music Festival
- Ultra Music Festival
- Splashy Fen Festival
- Bushfire Festival
- Grahamstown National Arts Festival
The Bakatue Festival is celebrated in the Central region of Ghana, by the chiefs and people of Elmina. It runs each year on the first Tuesday of July, dating back to 1847.
December 25th is a public holiday in South Africa, with Christians commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ. Schols close for Christmas holiday and many towns and cities host carol singing events on Christmas Eve. It is the summer time in December but Christmas Trees, decorations and Christmas meals are popular in the country too. South African’s also say Merry Christmas or Happy Christmas by saying ‘Geseënde Kersfees’ (Afrikaans), ‘UKhisimusi omuhle’ (Zulu) or ‘Le be le keresemese e monate’ (Sesotho).
The Homowo Festival of Africa celebrates a traditional harvest festival. As the largest cultural festival of its kind, it is celebrated by the Ga people of Ghana, West Africa.
Homowo is the grandest festival in Ghana – celebrating harvest, occurring each year in May. Aboakyir is also celebrated in May and is a ceremonial and cultural event with the the Effutu-Winneba people competing in a deer hunt. Bakatue is celebrated in July whilst another harvest celebration runs in August, named Asafotufiam.