East Africa is a wild kingdom of extraordinary cultures, people, landscapes, and wildlife mingled in the world’s most spectacular side of the African continent. Our list of the most popular safari destinations in East Africa explores the untamed wonders of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda, featuring stirring scenes of wildlife, fascinating human cultures, and incredible landscapes beyond eternity.
This is the birthplace and home of the Africa Safari, where angulates stampede in their millions across the savannah plains. These are destinations where travelers marvel at lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, and wild dogs roaming free in search of their next meal. Overwhelming scenes of abundance, life, death, untamed coexistence, and surprising fragility.
The list contains top safari destinations that offer remarkable primate trekking experiences in remote montane forest islands where chimpanzees and powerful yet gentle silverback male gorillas with their families flourish. To draw near to such wildness is to experience something so profound as to live forever in the memory.
These popular safari destinations offer countless chances to immerse yourself in East African life’s everyday elegance, facts, vibrancy, and people’s cultures. It is, after all, the people, with their warmth, hospitality, and fascinating history, who will provide you with so many of your journey’s most memorable moments.
So let’s dig right in and show you the top-most popular safari destinations in East Africa that you should include on your 2021/2022 holiday trip into the cradle of humankind.
Endless planes, that’s what Serengeti means in the Maasai language. Fourteen thousand eight hundred square kilometers (5,700 square miles) of African savanna stretching along a vast plateau between the eastern arm of the rugged Rift Valley and the massive expanse of Lake Victoria in northwestern Tanzania, contiguous with Maasai Mara in Kenya.
The Serengeti is Tanzania’s oldest park and arguably the most popular safari destination in Africa. It is the background of the biggest wildlife spectacle in the world, The ‘Great Annual Migration’ when millions of wildebeests and zebras migrate through its vast grassland plains and tangled riverine forest to the Mara and back.
The extensive southern Serengeti plains are the best for watching the wildebeest before they embark on their annual journey. The ungulates congregate in the southern breeding grounds between December and May to feed on the new greenery, give birth, and take care of their young before continuing their annual trek to the western corridor.
That’s just about the best time to visit the Serengeti when the proliferation of prey attracts armies of predators like Africa’s big game like the leopard, cheetah, hyena, and the endangered African wild dog. The Serengeti boasts the largest population of lions in Africa and is the best destination in East Africa to watch the big cats at their best hunting games.
Serengeti National Park is famous for its exclusive five-star camps promising heavenly getaways for luxury travelers. Don’t be too fast to write it off if you’re a budget traveler because all types of travelers will definitely find a spot to spend a night in the Serengeti.
However, camps in the Serengeti combine the romance of staying under canvas with the decadence of rustic ambiance and gourmet dining. In addition, mobile tented camps follow the migration, ensuring that you’re always at the heart of the action.
Now that there are direct connections to the primate destinations in Uganda, Serengeti National Park is an excellent addition to a gorilla trekking adventure in Uganda. A perfect primate safari will spend three days on Serengeti’s savannah plains and spend another three nights high up in the misty jungle canopies of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Contingent with northern Serengeti, is the magnificent Maasai Mara Nationa Reserve, Kenya’s top safari destination. Hardly any other region in Africa is home to a greater multitude of animals than the Maasai Mara. This region in the southwest of Kenya is the land of the Maasai, the semi-nomadic pastoralists who live off their herds of cattle and are known to be excellent warriors.
When the dry period begins in June in the southern Serengeti, innumerable herds of wildebeest join up to migrate over 800 kilometers across vast Serengeti plains to the Maasai Mara, forever on the lookout for fresh pastures. During this migration, they have to cross several rivers.
The greatest obstacle and one that they have to cross is the Mara River that flows from Kenya through the Masai Mara region and continues across the border into north Serengeti.
At first sight, it may not look particularly threatening, and it is indeed the main artery that keeps the Masai Mara alive. Hower after deliberate thought, It is what makes the Mara one of the most popular safari destinations in East Africa.
The river is a magnet to all kinds of wildlife, making it a shopping mall for predators that stick around for the market day dubbed “The Great Migration.” Maasai Mara is a quintessential attraction for Africa safari holidays.
The reserve is home to an excellent year-round concentration of game, a photographer’s and naturalist’s paradise. On safari in the Mara, one can easily spot the gentle elephant, buffalo, giraffe, lion, cheetah, the migratory wildebeest, and zebra. Travelers frequently spot out leopards, endangered black rhinos hiding in the dense thickets, and large rafts of hippo and enormous crocodiles are found in the Mara River. Birders will not get disappointed to tick off the list of over 450 bird species.
Accommodation in the Maara is spectacular, catering to all types of travelers, from budget backpackers to exquisite luxury camps. The latest development is that you can add Masai Mara to a gorilla trekking primate adventure in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, connecting the two destinations by small regional flight—an option becoming so popular with mid-range to luxury travelers.
In remote south-western Uganda, at the junction of the savannah plains and mountain forests, is Bwindi Impenetrable National Park protecting 127 sq mi (331 sq km) of exceptional biodiversity, with more than 160 species of trees and over 100 species of ferns. The forest has over 200 butterfly species, over 347 forest-bird species, and more than 120 mammal species, including the mountain gorilla.
The jungle heaven is believed to be more than two million years old. This UNESCO world heritage property is a biodiversity hotspot with possibly the wealthiest mammalian assemblages in Africa and the most famous of the bunch are the jealously-protected mountain gorillas.
Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is one of the last three destinations in the world that shield the endangered mountain gorillas. Visitors can track and spend precious moments with the magnificent giant primates under the verdant forest canopy—a jungle adventure experience that is still unmatched on the African continent.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is home to almost half of the world’s mountain gorilla population. It represents a conservation frontline as an isolated forest of outstanding biological richness surrounded by a terrace-farmed landscape supporting one of the highest rural-population densities in tropical Africa. The communities around the park directly benefit from gorilla tourism giving hope for the future conservation of this incredible Uganda destination.
Mountain gorilla trekking is the star attraction in Bwindi, with most tour companies operating safaris offering gorilla safaris starting out of Entebbe and driving 310 mi (500 km) for almost 10 hours to get to the gorilla sanctuary and spend one or three nights around the park. Visitors can also charter flights from Entebbe International Airport to one of the two small airports about 2 hours outside Bwindi.
Let’s imagine you’ve taken the 10-hour drive from Entebbe to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. You may never imagine that at the end of the day, you’ll throw your bags in a corner and drop back on a glamourous bed in a forest rustic room that makes the Burj look like your teenager’s bedroom. This misty primeval jungle has all kinds of lodging properties nestled among mountains, terraced hills, with spectacular views of the rugged volcanic slopes, dreamy landscapes, and beyond.
From deluxe “glamping” cottages occasionally visited by the mountain gorillas to private rooms on the edge of the ridge overlooking the forest canopies. From private cottages tucked into a tangle of the rainforest to backpack budget hostels. Every Bwindi visitor can get where to spend a night and track our forest cousins.
Gorilla trekking is undoubtedly Bwindi’s star attraction and an African safari bucket list activity. Still, visitors can also go bird-watching, hiking the enchanting forest’s ancient trails, or experiencing the local cultures in nearby villages.
Amazingly, tourists can now fly between East Africa’s two most famous safari destinations (the Mara & Serengeti) and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park too, using chartered or scheduled small regional flights. How incredible is that?!
Spreading out on the base of the Virunga extinct volcano mountains, Volcanoes National Park is a dramatic, misty tropical jungle protecting Rwanda’s side of the misty mountain and some of the last mountain gorillas roaming the mountain slopes.
It is mainly the mountain gorillas that place Volcanoes (Parc National des Volcans) on our list of most popular safari destinations in East Africa, right next to the Impenetrable Forest. In this ancient rainforest, Dian Fossey dedicated 20 years of research to save these gracious giants and the scene-setting of “Gorillas in The Mist”— a 1998 adaptation of wildlife expert primatologist’s autobiography.
The small attraction, half the size of Bwindi and the oldest in Africa, is one of the two most popular safari attractions in East Africa that offer remarkable encounters with the nonchalant human-habituated mountain gorillas. Visitors can drive 2.5 hours from Kigali capital and trek into the Afromontane forest, and spend up to 60 life-changing minutes with the mountain gorillas.
While gorilla trekking may undeniably drive most tourists to the park, there is good reason to stay around Volcanoes after the exhilarating jungle adventure. The mountain gorillas share the park with cute tiny-faced golden monkeys, also human-habituated.
Tracking gorillas in Rwanda cost more than double the same gorillas in Uganda or Congo. If you can’t let go of your hard-earned $1,500 for a gorilla permit, you can still enjoy the other list of activities around the park. The Virunga chain of volcanoes that tower over Rwanda, Uganda, and the DRC presents various rewarding climbing and trekking options.
The park offers enchanting nature trails, about 180 bird species, and a list of other rarely seen resident animals like the buffalo, elephant, bushpig, giant forest hog, and several antelope species. A hike to the former Karisoke Research Center to find Dian Fossey’s resting place is another popular trekking activity.
To get the most from Volcanoes National Park, spare yourself at least four days. This is absolutely one of the most popular safari destinations in East Africa that rewards those who linger.
Accommodation in the Volcanoes is readily available, ranging from dreamy luxury safari resorts to relaxed tented camps – enough to suit all tastes and budgets. So, lodging shouldn’t be your excuse for not choosing to go.
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a spectacular wildlife ecosystem that spans vast expanses of highland plains, savanna woodlands, and forests, from the plains of the Serengeti National Park in the northwest to the eastern arm of the Great Rift Valley in northern Tanzania.
Ngorongoro has been called one of the greatest natural wonders on earth. Its main feature is the expansive Ngorongoro Crater (the world’s largest caldera) and Olduvai Gorge—a 14km long deep ravine and one of the most important paleoanthropological sites.
The park is one of the best safari holiday destinations to watch the famous “Big 5” game (elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino). Though, the early start of the annual migration of wildebeest, zebra, Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles, and other ungulates into the northern plains is the most attractive to watch.
The stunning Ngorongoro highlands, which surround the Ngorongoro Crater, form a series of extinct volcanoes that once stood as high as Mount Kilimanjaro. An explosive eruption two million years ago caused it to collapse, creating a massive crater the size of downtown New York City.
Today, Ngorongoro Crater is home to the highest concentration of mammals in the world. The volcano’s outer slopes are covered by a thick montane forest home to a high population of elephants. It’s home to a population of some 25,000 large animals, mostly ungulates, alongside the highest density of mammalian predators in Africa, including the densest known population of lions.
Most fascinating is that the semi-nomadic Maasai tribe living and grazing their livestock alongside wild animals within Ngorongoro. Visit the native Maasai tribe to watch and listen to the chants of Maasai warriors, overlooking the game-rich Crater as the sun goes down.
Tourists can’t fall short of memorable activities around the Ngorongoro area. The attraction is steeped in cradle history, culture, and diversity. You can indulge in a feast at a private picnic spot on the Crater floor at any of the elegant baroque camps surrounding the crater. Put on your hiking boots for amazing hikes around the highlands, spend a morning with the Hadzabe people and visit the cradle of humanity at Olduvai Gorge.
If you have the Serengeti on your list of safari destinations to visit, take a leap and add Ngorongoro Crator on that list; it’s located en-route to the Serengeti. A typical East African Photography safari holiday through this area would have a night in Arusha (inbound airport), three nights in Ngorongoro, another three nights in Serengeti, and fly into Uganda and spend another three nights in the mountain gorilla highlands. Then, you would end the safari holiday with three nights of relaxing on the spice islands of Zanzibar.
Zanzibar is a magical, idyllic island off the coast of Tanzania with a quintessential leisure culture, turquoise waters. Its stretches of palm-fringed sandy beaches make for one of the most popular holiday attractions in East Africa.
Traders and travelers go wild about Zanzibar’s intoxicating aroma of spices, gorgeous beaches, and the bustling capital, Stone Town. As evocative as Timbuktu, Casablanca, or Serengeti, its name alone is alluring enough to haunt an adventurous dreamer.
The Indian Ocean archipelago floats a short hop from mainland Tanzania. It is a semi-autonomous territory in political union with Tanzania. Zanzibar consists of the island of Zanzibar (aka Unjuga), Pemba, and other smaller islands.
As you approach from the air, you’ll be enchanted by the clear, sparkling waters, darkened only by patch reefs, and punctuated by the billowing white sails of dhows.
On land, dashing beach retreats, adopted ancient palaces, private island villas, and pleasurable family resorts offer warm welcomes and enchanting tropical experiences. From trailblazing models of responsible travel to world-class elegance, Zanzibar provides many attractions to fill your safari holiday bucket list.
The heart of Zanzibar, Stone Town, a UNESCO Heritage Site jutting out from the western side of Unguja island into the Indian Ocean, is an outstanding labyrinth of narrow winding alleys dotted with bustling markets, eclectic souvenir shops, and hidden merchant houses. It’s an exotic urban backdrop and a fascinating insight into the islands’ Omani heritage.
For many safari holidays travelers, the Indian Ocean beach experience has the greatest lure: palm-lined stretches of powder-white coral sands, warm waters, and coral gardens teeming with marine life. From adrenalin sports to simple seaside fun, sipping sundowners, to deep-sea diving, some of the islands’ most magical moments definitely center on the sea.
Above the waves, kite-surfers showcase their aquatic aerobatics, snorkelers play around the shallow lagoons, and traditional dhows take fishers and kite surfers in photogenic flotillas beyond the reef. Below the surface, tropical fish and turtles entice divers of all abilities, and starfish-studded intertidal walks are fascinating. And from the shoreline, watching golden sunsets melt into the sea make for perfect ends to laid-back island days.
As one of the most popular safari destinations in East Africa, Zanzibar should be included in all packages for the most memorable experiences it offers. Your safari planner can add it on a gorilla trekking adventure trip in Uganda’s Bwindi or big game family safari itinerary.
Kibale National Park is Uganda’s enchanting wonderland beaming with exquisite savannah landscapes, woodland, and emerald tropical rainforests protecting a rich wildlife population. The 1969 sq mi (5,101 sq km) tropical jungle is the last stronghold for the highest concentration of primates on the entire continent, with chimpanzees being the most popular of the bunch.
Making the list of the most popular safari destinations in East Africa, Kibale National Park is compelling and mysteriously attractive to nature lovers who come to view a wide range of forest birds and track the chicky human-habituated chimpanzee troops.
The park’s scenic appeal, chimp tracking cost, and the rising number of safari accommodation choices make it a great alternative to the most popular gorilla destination listed above, the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Get into Kibale National Park, and you will immediately sense the freshness of the dew, the fragrances of endemic flowers, and the musty scents left behind by monkey troops in the canopy. The sounds are also alien, from the distant echoed hoot of red colobus monkeys to the exotic chirping of endemic birds.
In the distance, you may hear the sound of one of the park’s elephants plowing a path into the trees, and all-around your camp, there will be evidence of four-legged visitors, like the bushbuck and the warthogs. Gaze up, and a single scene might capture the iconic and the unique as an olive long-tailed cuckoo will fly above a small buffalo herd.
Kibale lies 310km west of the capital, Kampala, and is a superb addition to Uganda’s safari itineraries exploring the southwestern circuit. Visitors can wander into the jungle chimpanzee tracking, hiking, birding, or walking along cultural trails that climax with native stops at native villages surrounding the park.
Kibale offers the best primate viewing and chimpanzee tracking adventures worldwide, with some of the longest primates research conducted under its forest canopies. If you want to get in touch with your inner primate being, it is the destination I highly recommend.
There’s a reason Uganda is comfortably settling back into the “Pearl of Africa” branding. It’s gaining fast on the top Africa safari holiday destinations because of its stunning scenery and extraordinary wildlife. The rugged, isolated wilderness of the Kidepo Valley National Park is one of Uganda’s most prized and less explored safari attractions that barely place it on our list of most popular safari destinations in East Africa.
Thrilling game drives through Kidepo Valley plains take visitors to exceptional wildlife sightings. Here you find rare animals, (some not elsewhere in Uganda like greater and lesser kudu, eland, and cheetah). It’s easy to spot lion, leopard, elephant, and an assortment of plains game in Kidepo.
Kidepo National Park sits among the rugged hills and valleys of Uganda’s northeastern tip. It’s a safari holiday attraction so hidden away; its beauty has mostly gone unnoticed by most travel planners.
The 556 sq mi (1,442 sq mi) national park contains diverse landscapes, spanning from lush mountain ranges to vast savannah plains, and is a cradle to almost 500 bird species and 77 mammals. It is also home to one of Africa’s smallest ethnic tribes, the Ik, who live a nomadic life in the wild.
The heart of Kidepo National Park is Narus Valley, a permanent wetland around the Narus River that attracts a swarm of wildlife populations from much of northern Kidepo. In a hidden pocket of Kidepo, the heat of a prehistoric volcano bubbles a small collection of pools. The Kanangorok Hot Springs are a startling attraction for wilderness chillout.
Further south, the flat Kidepo Valley is dramatically shaped by the river that runs through it. During heavy rains, the river flash floods and flows through the park into South Sudan. Hours later, it disappears, leaving a river of sand as wide as 165 feet in some parts.
Off the beaten path, activities will let your fear dissolve into the warm winds of Kidepo’s savannah wilderness plains, guided by a knowledgeable guide. Popular walking trails walk you 3mi (5km) through the Narus Valley and take about 2 to 3 hours. It is the most rewarding trail in Kidepo, showing off magnificent mammals and birds within the backdrop of the valley’s stunning landscape.
A small number of accommodation options exist around the park boundaries, including the most popular luxury wilderness lodge, Apoka Safari Lodge. Apoka promises the Mara-kind of wilderness luxury in this remote game-rich park.
With this list of the most popular safari destinations, you can comfortably start planning your adventure vacation in East Africa. A great trip to include most of these attractions would start from Uganda, spending at least five days in the country.
From Uganda, you would fly into Arusha, take on the northern Tanzania plains from Ngororongo to Serengeti, and then cross the border into the exotic Maasai Mara plains. You would end your trip at the Zanzibar beaches on a three-day holiday.
Or you could take the safari holiday the other way round from Arusha to Ngorongoro, Serengeti, Maasai Mara, Bwindi Impenetrable and end with a three-day holiday in Zanzibar.
Whichever safari route you take to explore these highly-rated East African safari holiday destinations, you’ll need a local professional operator to help you plan your trip. Take a little time to find one that will deliver the right dose of magical experience because the market is washed with so many that may overwhelm your trip planning.