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north africa vs south africa

North Africa Vs South Africa: Which Region Should I Pick?

If you’re planning a romp in the land of roaming elephants and jumping gazelle, the mysterious Pyramids of Giza and the rolling surf breaks of Morocco, but can’t quite decide where exactly you’d like to go, then read on. This guide will run through the ins and outs of North Africa Vs south Africa – not the country, but the whole southern end of the continent!

It’s pretty important reading for any budding safari goer or hikers who can’t quite decide what half of the landmass they’d like to visit in 2023. There’s plenty to consider, because there’s plenty to get through, from the bucket-list ancient history sites that dot the snaking Nile in the north all the way to the penguin-stalked beaches of the Garden Route in the south.

Mhmm…there’s SO much to get through, in fact, that we think it warrants a whole guide and a whole host of separate sections. Cue our comparison of North Africa Vs south Africa, which offers insights into the sorts of destinations you can look forward to in both places, the activities that are on offer in each region, and a whole load more…

North Africa Vs south Africa: Key differences

Tunisia North Africa
Photo by Noelle Guirola/Unsplash

Before we get stuck into the detail of what’s on offer for travelers in both these parts of the planet, we think it’s a good idea to outline some key differences between the two. That should help set the scene a little and add a bit of context to what, exactly, we’re comparing.

First off, the obvious one: North Africa is a vast part of the continent made up several individual nations, whereas south Africa (note the small ‘s’) is mainly dominated by one country; a country that’s, confusingly, called, simply, South Africa.

In this guide, we’ll draw the dividing line between northern and southern Africa beyond the boundaries of just South Africa itself, to include pretty much anywhere south of Lake Malawi. Meanwhile, we’ll define north Africa as anywhere north of the Gambia, which includes the Sahel, the Sahara, and the Maghreb.

The upshot? North Africa is going to be a whole load more diverse. At a glance, it comprises of something like 12 countries to the six or seven found in our self-defined southern part of Africa. It’s also a MUCH larger region geographically, spreading a whopping 3,400 miles from the Red Sea to the Atlantic.

Winner: No winner here, just key differences.

North Africa Vs south Africa: Ease of travel

penguins in South Africa
Photo by Harry Cunningham/Unsplash

For most travelers from most parts of the world, northern Africa is going to be a whole load easier to reach. We say that mainly because it’s right on the cusp of Europe, which means it’s surely more accessible out of the major air hubs of countries like the UK, Germany, France, and Spain. What’s more, because North Africa has something like 12 countries to its name, you can pick from a whole range of different arrival airports, including the busy hubs of Casablanca, Marrakesh, and Cairo.

There’s one thing that helps southern Africa here, and it belongs to South Africa itself. Cue the O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, officially the busiest air hub on the whole continent by passenger numbers. More than 21 million people pass through that each year, and there are long-haul links to Europe, North America, and Asia in the offing, though most involve at least one stopover and usually take overnight to get on the ground.

Winner: North Africa – lots more arrival airports and lots more flights jetting over.

North Africa Vs south Africa: Countries

the pyramids of Giza
Photo by Leonardo Ramos/Unsplash

One of the most important things to consider when looking at the differences between northern Africa and southern Africa are the countries that you can visit in each part of the continent. We have to say, both sides of the proverbial coin are pretty darn tempting here. First, let’s peek at what we think are the bucket-list nations below the Equator…

  • South Africa – For us, the fabled Rainbow Nation is by far the biggest draw in the south of the continent. It’s got some seriously bucket-list attractions, topped out by the wild Kruger National Park and the snaking Garden Route, which some say is the most scenic drive anywhere.
  • Botswana – Botswana is now firmly established as the luxury safari hub of southern Africa. It’s got more game lodges with hot tubs than you can shake a stick at, plus the fabled Big Five animals.
  • Mozambique – Go off-the-beaten-track to white-sand beaches and idyllic lagoons in coastal Mozambique. It’s really not that busy yet but looks downright paradisiacal.

As we’ve mentioned, there are more places to explore up north. However, we should also mention that not all of them – Sudan, Chad, Niger – are open to travelers these days due to Foreign Office and State Department warnings. That said, there are still some epic highlights in the region, including:

  • Morocco – There’s no doubt about it, Morocco is the pearl of North Africa. It’s currently in the midst of a tourism boom. Come to surf Anchor Point, hike the Atlas Mountains, and get lost in the bazaars of Marrakesh and Fez. There’s nowhere else quite like it!
  • Egypt – History buffs cannot miss Egypt. Relics dating back nearly five millennia await here, in the form of the Giza Pyramids, the temples of Luxor, and the mysterious Sphinx.
  • Tunisia – The R&R center of North Africa, Tunisia has medina towns and sparkling Mediterranean beaches. It’s great for a touch of winter sun and package holidaying.

Winner: The north. There are more countries to pick from.

North Africa Vs south Africa: Things to do and see

a giraffe in south africa
Photo by Harshil Gudka/Unsplash

There’s no guide on the internet long enough to encapsulate all of the amazing things there are to see and do in these two halves of a continent. There’s too much to get through. That’s why we’ve picked out what we consider to be the highlights of both. To begin, here’s a look at some of the bucket-list draws on offer in northern Africa…

  • Diving in the Red Sea – Some scuba buffs say that the Red Sea is the single best place to dive on the planet. The reefs around Hurghada and Sharm host everything from whale sharks to brain corals and visibility can exceed 35 meters!
  • Hiking the Atlas Mountains – The great peaks of Morocco are difficult to ignore if you’re an avid hiker. The best routes weave around the highland town of Imlil.
  • Surfing in Morocco – Morocco is now one of the planet’s top surf destinations. It’s peak season is midwinter, when the wind dies down and the waves get clean. Look to the village of Taghazout for the top surf camps.
  • Camel trekking in the Sahara Desert – Says it all really. Imagine following in the footsteps of Bedouin nomads on this shifting sand sea. Once-in-a-lifetime sorta’ stuff.

The attractions of southern Africa are, for us, largely centered around safari and nature. But that’s not entirely the case. Here’s what would be on our bucket list down in this part of the continent…

  • Safari – Of course! There are umpteen places where you can do game drives, and the nations of southern Africa (South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe) host the fabled Big Five game that most people dream of seeing in the wild.
  • The Garden Route in South Africa – Drive the whole of the Garden Route and you’ll be treated to visions of white-sand bays, penguin-spotted rocks, and even whales. Oh, and you’ll get a chance to sample some of the best wines in the Southern Hemisphere as you go.
  • Hiking in Lesotho – Totally off-the-beaten-path Lesotho is an incredible place to pull on the boots. It’s 100% landlocked but offers jagged canyons and barren plateaus.

Winner: Draw. This is up to you. Will it be safari or surf?

North Africa vs south Africa: Cities

cape town
Photo by Tobias Reich/Unsplash

The general rule here is that the more modern cities are located in the south of Africa. Or, to be more precise, the more modern cities are in South Africa itself. That’s because the Rainbow Nation is among the most developed parts of the continent and travelers often say that its towns are reminiscent of major European and North American cities. Prime examples would be Johannesburg, with its enthralling township areas, and Cape Town, a vibey hipster city with fantastic urban beaches. Beyond that, you can visit lesser-known African capitals in the form of Harare (Zimbabwe) and Windhoek (Namibia).

Up north, the towns take a turn for the uber-historic. It’s there that you can delve into the smoke-plumed medinas of Marrakesh to see snake charmers and spice sellers. It’s there that you’ll get to wander the narrow alleys of Old Cairo, spotting 1,000-year-old monuments and sets from Game of Thrones as you go. North Africa also hosts two personal favorites: The maze-like eastern Moroccan city of Fez, and the coastal city of Essaouria, which has a certain European flavor to it.

Winner: Probably the north, because of the historic towns of Egypt and Morocco.

North Africa or south Africa – our conclusion

North Africa and south Africa are pretty tricky to compare. They are vast cut-outs of a whole continent, hosting a range of different countries that each have their own histories and cultures. What we would say is that we think you’ll find North Africa altogether easier to reach. That’s down to the multiple arrival points in Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia. It’s also the more historic of the two regions, offering enthralling cities like Marrakesh next to the wonders of Giza in Egypt. Where southern Africa excels is on the safari front (some of the world’s best reserves are here) and for coastal lovers, largely thanks to the epic Garden Route in South Africa itself.