Africa‘s colonial architecture is striking and evocative. Its western shores are marked by colorful coastal enclaves, Parisian-style boulevards, and medieval Portuguese fortresses. These all pour out a difficult part as binding sites for the transatlantic slave trade. The southern part of Africa is home to some of the world’s distinctive styles of ‘settler’ architecture, which constitute impressively preserved German and Cape Dutch houses and beautifully restored colonial towns. Meanwhile the Eastern part of Africa, the maritime trade now only brought never before seen goods but also a unique blend of Eastern and European architectural forms. 

Nnamdi Elleh, in his book African Architecture: Evolution and Transformation (1997), sums up the sources of Architecture as indigenous, Western, and Islamic and calls it the “triple heritage architectural concept.” These are vast concepts and vary from region to region and place to place. Moreover, the relationship between these three concepts cannot be completely isolated in many cases because the cultures have intermixed with time. However, there are two well-defined phases during which Western-inspired architectural styles were brought into Africa. The initial phase began with the Roman conquest of the North African city-state of Carthage in 146 BC during the end of the Third Punic War. The second phase began during the fifteenth century when European explorers started to look for a sea route to the Orient. 

Top Spots for Colonial Architecture Sight Seeing 

Western Region

Île de Gorée, Senegal

Île de Gorée lies off the coast of Senegal, opposite to Dakar. This beautiful island makes for a delightful yet contemplative escape from city life. Gorée island is sprinkled with palm trees, pastel-colored shuttered buildings, a pink-colored lake, and buildings with wrought iron balconies overlooking shaded squares. From the 15th to 19th century, this island was the largest slave-trading center on the African coast. The architecture is characterized by the stark contrast between the elegant houses of the slave traders and the grim slave quarters. Gorée Island in Africa continues to serve as a reminder of human exploitation and a sanctuary for reconciliation. 

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Île de Gorée, Senegal_©

Forts of the Gold Coast, Ghana

Ghana is concentrated with over 29 ancient castles. The two most famous forts at Cape Coast and Elmina are open to the public after undergoing extensive renovations. Inside the high defensive walls, the past comes to light with echoes of bloody battles between Portuguese, Dutch, and English, along with the brutal largest forced migration in History. In addition, there are many smaller forts in the area, some of which are ruined, while others are preserved and provide tours. 

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Cape Coast Castle_©

Southern Region

Swakopmund, Namibia

Swakopmund is sandwiched between the Namib desert and the ocean. The laidback town has charm by the bucketload with its oceanfront promenades, historical sights, colonial architecture, cost guesthouses, top-notch restaurants, and beer houses where one can sample traditional German beer and food. This beautiful town in Africa houses one of the world’s best examples of traditional German colonial architecture, with streets palm-lined in true German style. The main attractions include the old prison, the lighthouse, the Woermannhaus building, and the old railway station. 

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Swakopmund, Namibia_©

Stellenbosch, South Africa

There are plenty of typical Cape Dutch designs across the Cape Winelands, but the authenticity, abundance of colonial architecture, and homogeneity in Stellenbosch make it the top spot. The colonial History in this town is everywhere, from the Cape Dutch farmsteads whose white exteriors stand out against the green countryside to the Georgian and Victorian mansions that dot the streets lined with 300-year-old oaks. Any new building that is to come up in this beautiful town in South Africa must retain the Cape Dutch style, featuring grey thatched roofs, white-washed walls, and prominent ornate central dormer gables. 

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Stellenbosch, South Africa_©

Eastern Region

Lamu Town, Kenya 

Lamu old town is situated on an island known by the same name on the coast of East Africa. It is one of the oldest and best-preserved examples of Swahili settlements in Eastern Africa. Lamu town is characterized by narrow streets and beautiful stone buildings with curved doors, influenced by a fusion of Arabi, Persian, Swahili, Indian, and European building styles. The buildings along the seafront have arcades and open verandas, providing a unified view of the sea. In contrast, the vernacular buildings are internally decorated with large niches (madaka), painted ceilings, small niches (zidaka), elaborately carved wooden front doors, and pieces of Chinese porcelain. 

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Lamu old town, Kenya_©

Stone Town, Zanzibar (Tanzania)

Stone town in Tanzania was once a critical Arab commerce route, where merchants flocked to build their fortunes. Trade with the east found a fusion of local and Middle-eastern architectural forms, including Indian, Persian, and European elements. However, the most prominent style is Arabic. Stone town’s houses are distinctive due to intricately carved, brass-studded, wooden front doors. Houses in this town are mostly tall, with an atrium for ventilation. This town is a fine example of the Swahili coastal trading towns of East Africa.

Stone town, Tanzania_©


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