(CNN) — As with most of the world, the heart of Africa is found in its cities. And yet tourists in Africa seem to largely prefer seeking out the continent’s wildlife rather than its cultural city centers.
Safaris can be delightful, but the problem, as Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina has pointed out, is when tourists imagine an entire continent as one.
According to the World Bank, 40% of the African population south of the Sahara lives in cities, but you’d never know it looking at the average travel poster or website featuring graceful giraffes galloping past umbrella-like acacia trees in silhouette against burnt ochre sunsets.
While many travelers venture to Africa to go on safari, there are many cities, including Addis Ababa pictured here, that are worth exploring. Jenni Marsh/CNN
The reasons for this are complex, including Westerners’ tendency to treat the continent as a canvas on which to project their fantasies, the selective nature of the news coming out of Sub-Saharan cities, much of which creates a sense of danger and disorder, and the fact that the Serengeti is very pretty.
But the truth behind urban Africa is simple. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to some of the most vibrant, cultured and just plain fun cities anywhere in the world.
There are a few countries in turmoil, but even if you take those off the list, you’re left with about 45 others to explore, about the same number as there are in Europe.
Of the 40 or so cities with populations over a million, here are four cities in Africa you should visit right now:
While many travelers venture to Africa to go on safari, there are many cities, including Addis Ababa pictured here, that are worth exploring.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Country known for: Being one of only two African countries that was never colonized; having one of the world’s oldest alphabets; using a calendar that is about seven years and three months behind the usual one (i.e., it’s 2012 there).
Getting around: Taxis are fine; walking is better.
Currency: $1 = 30 birr.
Language: Amharic (English widely spoken).
Though Ethiopian food is familiar to a lot of people, on the streets of Addis, it’s all about the coffee. Ethiopia is supposedly where coffee originated, and social life in Addis is built on its preparation and consumption.
The most popular form is the macchiato, and you won’t have to look very far to find a coffee ceremony.
They’re set up on street corners and in malls; there’s even one near the arrival gates at the airport. The standard is typically a few cow-skin stools around a woman on a low dais, surrounded by mortars and small charcoal stoves.
It’s a chance to sit down among a mostly local crowd and order a coffee (English is widely understood). Customers are given popcorn to eat while the host roasts and grinds the coffee, brews it three times, and then pours it out of the pot, called a jebena, all while frankincense burns in the background.
The barista, if you will, introducers customers to each other and keeps the conversation going as she manages multiple cups at their various stages. Served in espresso-sized vessels, the drinking itself is quick, but the lead-up is worth savoring.
After coffee, it’s time for a culture fix.
There are many museums in Addis worth visiting, but if there’s only time for one, it should be the National Museum, where the famous Lucy skeleton is held, and where Emperor Halie Selassie’s throne can be seen. Most striking of all are medieval paintings that are a reminder Ethiopia has been a Christian nation state since a few decades after the crucifixion.
The big name hotel option is the Sheraton (from $300), but for a local and more authentic Ethiopian experience there’s the Taitu, the oldest hotel in town. The most expensive room at this establishment (built in 1898) costs about $55, but rooms (with shared bathroom) can often be snagged for as little as $11.
The rooms are clean, sparsely decorated, with views of the lush garden patio out back, or the bustling street of the city’s Piazza neighborhood out front.
There are jazz bars nearby, including the soon to re-open African Jazz Village at the Ghion Hotel, and when the sun goes down, many of the bars and cafes turn into makeshift dance clubs, with music from across the continent and beyond
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