Month by Month
Cape Town Minstrel Carnival, January
Saint-Louis Jazz Festival, May
Festival of the Dhow Countries, July
High season across most of Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. The northern-hemisphere winter is also cooler in North and West Africa; one downside can be the early arrival of the dust-laden harmattan winds.
Cape Town Minstrel Carnival
Called the Kaapse Klopse in Afrikaans, the Mother City's equivalent of Mardis Gras runs throughout the month. The big parade on 2 January sees thousands take to the street in satin- and sequin-bedecked costumes.
Ethiopa's most important Christian festival is this celebration of Epiphany on 19 January involving elaborate costumed processions and ritual.
Held on 10 January across Benin; the celebrations in the voodoo heartland around Ouidah are the largest and most exuberant.
Relatively cool, dry weather in North, East and West Africa makes for good hiking and it’s the last month where you would sensibly head into the Sahel. Rains, high temperatures and good birding in Southern Africa.
Buganu (Marula) Festival
One of Swaziland's most popular 'first fruits' harvest festivals, Buganu celebrates the marvellous marula. Throughout this month and March women make buganu (marula wine), men drink the results and everyone celebrates. Swazi royals attend the three-day ceremony.
The wine-producing region of Robertson, South Africa, celebrates the first of its five annual festivals (www.handsonharvest.com). Budding vintners can help with the harvest and sample the results.
Sauti za Busara
Zanzibar gets even more rhythm than usual with the three-day Sauti za Busara. Swahili songs from every era fill the night, and dance troupes take over the stages of Stone Town and elsewhere on the island.
The annual wildebeest migration midyear may grab the headlines, but the species’ great calving, a similarly epic yet also heartwarming sight, occurs in February in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, with approximately 500,000 births occuring in a three-week period.
Held on even-numbered years, the Marrakech Biennale is the city's foray into both high and popular artistic culture, with everything from public art displays to chin-scratching conceptual installations.
West Africa’s former Portuguese colonies celebrate Carnival (sometimes spelt Carnaval) with infectious zeal. Bissau – with its Latin-style street festival of masks, parties and parades – or Mozambique are the places to be; Porto Novo in Benin also gets into the spirit. Usually in February, but sometimes January, sometimes March.
Held in the villages around Man in western Côte d’Ivoire, the region’s most significant mask festival (Fêtes des Masques) brings together a great variety of masks and dances from the area.
Africa’s premier film festival is held in February or March in Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso in odd years. Cinemas across the city screen African films, and there's a prestigious awards ceremony.
While temperatures are warming up in North and West Africa, the harmattan winds are blowing in Southern and some of East Africa. It's beginning to cool down as the season moves to autumn.
Cape Argus Cycle Tour
Held in mid-March, this spin around the Cape Peninsula is the world's largest timed cycling event, attracting more than 30,000 contestants from serious racers to costumed Capetonians.
Infecting the City
Cape Town's squares, fountains, museums and theatres are the venues for this innovative performing-arts festival featuring artists from across the continent.
Runners can take part in the full marathon, half marathon or fun runs around the base of the great Tanzanian mountain. The entire race (www.kilimanjaromarathon.com) is held between 830m and 1150m above sea level, on good tarred roads.
Marathon des Sables
Starting and finishing in Morocco’s movie town, Ouarzazate, the Saharan ultramarathon is an epic. The gruelling six-day challenge, held in March or April, crosses 243km of desert. Water is provided.
Enjando Street Festival
The Namibian capital's biggest street party, also known as Mbapira, occurs in March every year. It's also a good excuse for people to dress in extravagant ethnic clothes that bring the streets to life.
Botswana’s largest performing-arts festival is held annually over seven days from mid-March to early April in Gaborone. The festival features an outdoor program of music, theatre, film and dance, with top performing artists from around Africa.
Much of the Sahel is too hot for comfort and the harmattan is a staple throughout the month. The humidity along the West African coast and hinterland gets uncomfortable as temperatures drop in Southern Africa.
Inspired by the USA's Burning Man event, this is both a subcultural blowout and a survivalist challenge. Art installations and themed camps turn a corner of the South Africa's Karoo into a surreal experience even without mind-altering substances.
Jazz à Ouaga
An established fixture on West Africa’s musical circuit, this fine festival traverses jazz, Afrobeat, soul and blues with some respected regional names in attendance.
Festival of Sufi Culture
Fez’ festival hosts events including films and lectures, and concerts with Sufi musicians from around the world. The setting is the Andalusian-style garden of the Batha Museum, which is housed in a 19th-century summer palace.
Avoid the northern and western desert and coastal areas unless you favour extreme heat and humidity. Rains should be easing in green-as-green East and Southern Africa.
Harare International Festival of Arts
A not-to-be-missed event in Zimbabwe, Harare International Festival of Arts features local and international performers in opera, jazz, classical music, funk, theatre and dance.
This Maputo-based extravaganza has become Mozambique's largest arts and culture festival, featuring artists from Mozambique as well as elsewhere in the region.
In even years in May, Dakar hosts the Dak’Art Biennale, which is easily West Africa’s premier arts festival. In addition to the main exhibitions, there’s some fabulous fringe stuff happening.
Saint-Louis Jazz Festival
Hands down the most internationally renowned festival in West Africa, this Senegal festival attracts major performers to this sexy, Unesco Heritage–designated colonial town.
The rains are underway in West Africa. Morocco and other North African countries start to see the annual influx of summer visitors from Europe. High season, with great weather and growing crowds, in Southern Africa.
Lake Turkana Cultural Festival
One of Kenya’s biggest cultural events, this fascinating festival focuses on the numerous tribal groups that inhabit northern Kenya, among them the El Molo, the Samburu, the Pokot and the Turkana.
Festival of World Sacred Music
Fez’ successful world-music festival has hosted everyone from Youssou N’Dour to Bjork. Equally impressive are the concerts by Moroccan tariqas (Sufi orders); fringe events include exhibitions, films and talks. May be held in May depending on Ramadan dates.
Gnaoua & World Music Festival
A passionate celebration held in Essaouira in late June, with concerts featuring international, national and local performers, and art exhibitions. A great chance to hear some bluesy Gnaoua, developed here by freed slaves.
Rain is heavy south of the Sahara – it's a good time for a travel bargain in South Africa, for example. In Morocco, Europeans flood the country; accommodation can be pricey and scarce. High-season peak in Southern Africa.
National Arts Festival
Feel South Africa's creative pulse at the country's premier arts festival, held in Grahamstown in early July.
Festival of the Dhow Countries
The Zanzibar International Film Festival is the centrepiece of this two-week jamboree of arts and culture that can sometimes kick off at the end of June.
Lesotho Ski Season
That's right, skiing in Southern Africa. Lesotho's peaks and passes receive snow in winter – particularly around Oxbow where a ski slope makes the most of snowfall. It all happens at Afriski Mountain Resort.
Travel to the South African Garden Route resort of Knysna to indulge in a 10-day oyster orgy. Events include the Knysna Forest Marathon.
East Africa Migration
Wildebeest cross the Mara River en masse, passing from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park to Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, with predators following in their wake. It’s one cliché that just happens to be true: this is the greatest wildlife show on earth.
Marrakech Festival of Popular Arts
This street-theatre festival is a typically colourful Marrakshi event, highlighting the best of Moroccan traditional and popular culture. Djemaa el-Fna is even more anarchic than usual during the opening-night parade, featuring 500-plus performers.
Rains and humidity make travel difficult in West and East Africa. The peak of Southern Africa's high season, with Europeans escaping their winter in Botswana, Namibia and elsewhere.
Ghana’s Cape Coast hosts the biennial Pan-African Historical Theatre Festival (Panafest) with a focus on African contemporary and traditional arts, including music, dance, fashion and theatre. Its centrepiece is a moving candlelit emancipation ceremony to honour African slaves.
A showcase of potential wives for the king: marriageable young Swazi women journey from all over the kingdom, carrying reeds, to help repair the queen mother's home around August or September (dates vary).
Maralal’s Yare Camel Cup in northern Kenya is at once serious camel racing and a chance to join the fun. It’s a huge event.
The wet weather is beginning to ease in East and West Africa while Southern Africa moves out of winter towards spring – look out for brilliant displays of wildflowers in South Africa's Northern and Western Cape regions.
Hermanus Whale Festival
One of the world's best land-based whale-watching destinations is the town of Hermanus, 122km east of Cape Town – visit during this annual September/October 'enviro-arts festival'.
Starting on 27 September, this two-day festival is the most colourful after Timkat. Bonfires are built, topped by a cross to which flowers, most commonly the Meskel daisy, are tied. Priests don their full regalia. Addis Ababa, Gonder and Aksum are good places to be.
Lake of Stars Music Festival
‘Glastonbury on the beach’: this brilliant three-day Malawian festival bubbles with stellar UK and African bands, and a host of celebrated global DJs. Money raised goes towards the Children in the Wilderness charity.
Coinciding with the yam-harvest season, the Adae Kese Festival in Ghana celebrates the glorious Ashanti past and involves ritual purifications of the ancestral burial shrines.
Clear, post-rain skies make for good visibility and the high-season crowds have yet to arrive across much of the continent. Temperatures can be decidedly chilly in Morocco, especially in the High Atlas. Rains on the way in the south.
The weeklong celebration of Afrobeat-legend Fela Kuti in October in Lagos takes place around the great man’s birthday on the 15th. Concerts, theatre pieces and exhibitions, culminating in a free gig at the Shrine.
Windhoek in Namibia stages its own Oktoberfest – an orgy of food, drink and merrymaking in an event that showcases the best in German beer, usually drunk at tables set up inside large marquees. There’s plenty of traditional German dress on display too.
Although the dry-season months of June to September are the prime months for gorilla tracking in Uganda, the short (and not-so-disruptive) rains in October and November see permit prices drop; permits are also much easier to obtain.
The beginning of the month can be a quiet time to travel across the continent. Rains in the south and East Africa. Nighttime temperatures in desert regions drop close to zero.
The Kenyan port city celebrates Rio-style with this street celebration of dance and music involving two converging parades.
Kirstenbosch Summer Sunset Concerts
Summer music festivals take place in stunning settings nationwide. In the Western Cape province, the choice includes the Kirstenbosch Summer Sunset Concerts in Cape Town's botanic gardens.
East African Safari Rally
This classic car rally held in late November is more than 50 years old, and there’s more than a whiff of colonial atmosphere about it. The rally traverses Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and is open only to pre-1971 vehicles.
A huge celebration in Lamu, Kenya, this annual four-day celebration of the Prophet Mohammed's birthday falls in October/November in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Festival of Maryam Zion
This vibrant festival is held in Aksum, Ethiopia. In the days leading up to the event on 30 November, thousands of pilgrims head towards Aksum. Celebrations start in front of the Northern Stelae Field, where the monarchs of the Orthodox church line the steps.
High season is very much underway south of the Sahara, and accommodation should be booked months in advance; beach areas are particularly busy with sun-starved Europeans. Weather is mild and dry.