Madagascar isn’t a country where you do things — it’s not renowned for its nightlife, and it doesn’t have any Hollywood theme parks. But if you want to see things that don’t exist anywhere else on earth, then you need to start planning a trip.
Our article looks at 7 of the best places to visit in Madagascar, including one or two that you won’t find in many guidebooks. We’ll give you some background on each place, and let you know what you can expect to find when you get there.
From crazy aye-ayes to stump-tailed chameleons, and from forests of limestone needles to upside-down trees, Madagascar offers a visual feast for everyone. So read on, as we offer you our pick of the best places to visit in Madagascar — and the marvels that wait to be discovered.
But first, here’s a quick overview.
Madagascar in One Minute
Madagascar is an island lying about 250 miles off the east coast of Africa. Home to 22 million people, it’s the fourth-largest island in the world, and also the second-largest island nation. Previously part of the French Colonial Empire, Madagascar has been independent since 1960, although French is still one of its official languages (the other is Malagasy).
Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot; over 90% of its plants and wildlife are found nowhere else on Earth, and for that reason many ecologists refer to it as ‘the eighth continent’. Unfortunately, a lot of the creatures that live in Madagascar are under threat, as more and more of their natural habitat is used for the growing of coffee and vanilla, which are both important exports.
There are only two seasons in Madagascar: a hot rainy season from November to April, with frequent cyclones, and a cooler dry season from May to October. In general, the best times to visit are between July and September, when daytime temperatures aren’t too hot. But many people prefer to visit in October, because that’s when the island is full of baby lemurs (and, let’s face it, baby lemurs are the cutest!)
The Best Places to Visit in Madagascar: Our Top 7 Choices
Tsingy Rouge Park
Tsingy is a Malagasy word, which loosely translates as ‘where one cannot walk barefoot’. This is a perfect description of the unique limestone needles that make up the alien-looking badlands of western Madagascar.
Tsingy — a type of karst — is a naturally-occurring limestone formation that has been shaped by groundwater. There are many areas of tsingy in Madagascar, including the tourist-magnets Great Tsingy and Little Tsingy, found at the Bemaraha National Park on the western coast.
However, the Tsingy de Bemaraha are both grey tsingy, which is quite commonplace in Madagascar. For a truly unique experience, you need to head north to the town of Antsiranana. Here, at the Rouge Park, is where you’ll find Red Tsingy. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll be the only people there.
Actually, the Red Tsingy isn’t really tsingy at all. It’s not even made from limestone — instead, it’s made from tall columns of red-tinged sand, once covered by clay. But while the science behind it is interesting, it’s not the reason to visit. No: the real reason to go is because it’s simply stunning.
How to get there / entrance fee
Rouge Park is about a 90-minute drive from the town of Antsiranana (formerly Diego Suarez) at the far north of the island. The road is in pretty poor condition, and you might manage it yourself in a hire car. However, the journey continues with a 30-minute true off-road drive, which definitely requires a 4×4.
Unless your hire car is certified for off-road, you’re better off booking a taxi. Most taxi drivers are also knowledgeable guides, which is a definite advantage as there are no tourist signposts anywhere.
There’s an entrance fee of 10,000 Ariary (about €4), which you pay at a small house just before you go off-road.
Although they run wild throughout the whole of Madagascar, at the Lemurs Park you’re guaranteed to meet Madagascar’s most famous mammals face-to-face. And this is a sanctuary, not a zoo: the fence is there to keep people out, not lemurs in.
Most of the park’s lemurs were once illegally-kept pets, and have been entrusted to the park for rehabilitation and reintroduction into the wild. Of the thirty-two species of lemur in existence today, there are nine kinds to be found at the park, seven of which are active during visiting hours. The population of about 50 individuals includes the black-and-white ruffed and the mongoose lemur, both of which are critically endangered and rarely seen in the wild.
One great advantage of meeting lemurs at the park is that they’ve all grown very used to humans, and they’re more than happy to pose for photos. During peak times — usually the feeding times of 10:00 am and 4:00 pm — the park can get crowded, so visits are limited to 90 minutes.
During your visit, you’ll be accompanied by a guide, who will be able to help you identify the lemurs and also the other wildlife at the park, which includes breeds of tortoise, iguana and chameleon. The guides are extremely knowledgeable and their services are included in the entrance fee, so it’s customary to give a tip.
How to get there / entrance fee
Depending on traffic, the park is a 60 to 90-minute drive (22 km) from Madagascar’s capital city Antananarivo (locally known as ‘Tana’).
The entrance fee is 40,000 Ar for adults (about €10) and half-price for children under 12. There’s an on-site restaurant which serves the only food in the area: the price of a three-course meal is 48,000 Ar (about €12).
Royal Hill of Ambohimanga
For over 500 years, the Royal Hill of Ambohimanga has been one of the most sacred places of the Malagasy people. Once a simple hilltop village called Ambohi Manga (hill of blue) and populated by the Merina people, its central position became very important as a base for military campaigns.
In the mid-16th century, King Andriamanelo fortified the village with earthen walls, deep moats and seven stone gateways. The main entrance of these seven gates was known as Ambatomitsangana, the standing stone. This was a massive stone disc weighing 12 tons, and every night 20 guards would roll the 130-foot stone into position, blocking off the main entrance to the town. The standing stone is still there, ready to defend the village once more if called.
Today, the entire Ambohimanga area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As well as many royal buildings and places of worship, the complex is home to a sacred forest and the former seat of justice, which is set on an enormous granite rock shaded by a royal fig tree. The walled village also houses burial sites of many key monarchs, and these graves are regarded as extremely significant to the Merina people still living in Madagascar.
Right at the centre of the complex is the simple house of King Andrianampoinimerina, essentially just one room with walls of untreated rosewood and a shingled roof. Inside you can see spears, knives, and some original cooking pots next to the remains of an open hearth. Members of the public are welcome to step inside but, in accordance with tradition, you must enter with your right foot first, and exit backwards starting on your left.
How to get there / entrance fee
Depending on traffic, the park is a 60 to 90-minute drive (23 km) from Tana.
Unlike most other UNESCO sites this one does charge an admission fee; but only if you want to enter the King’s house. The fee is 13,000 Ar (approx €2.80) plus an additional charge of 600 Ar (€0.13) for a photo-taking permit (but why?)
Ranomafana National Park
In 1986, an American primatologist named Dr Patricia Wright came to Madagascar in search of the rare golden bamboo lemur, which at the time was thought to be extinct. Her perseverance paid off and, after her sightings had been confirmed, the area of dense rainforest was granted National Park status and named Ranomafana (‘hot water’), because of the nearby hot springs.
Now regarded as one of the most beautiful national parks in Madagascar, Ranomafana covers an area of 420 square kilometres of tropical rainforest, set right in the middle of Madagascar at altitudes of up to 1,200 metres. A haven for wildlife, there are at least 12 known species of lemur, including the famous ring-tailed lemur and the rare and mysterious Aye-Aye.
Aye-ayes spend their lives in the rainforest canopy and try to avoid coming down to earth. They are nocturnal and spend the day curled up in a ball amongst the leaves and branches. They use an extra-long and spindly middle finger to tap rapidly on the bark of trees, using the echo in the wood to locate empty chambers beneath the bark where their prey can often hide. Early settlers of Madagascar thought the Aye-Aye was a symbol of death, especially if it pointed its long finger in their direction. As a result, most were killed on sight, which possibly accounts for their shy nature today.
How to get there
Ranomafana is located in the very centre of Madagascar, approximately a 7-hour drive from Tana. The park has five trails, which take from 4 hours to 2 days to complete. The 4-hour trail, called the Varibolomena circuit, offers great opportunities to spot the bamboo lemurs and there’s a very picturesque waterfall en-route.
There’s no entrance fee, but you should definitely arrange to pay for a guide.
Avenue of the Baobabs
The ‘Allee de Baobab’ is a stretch of dirt road which links Morondava and the Kirindy Forest Reserve. The road itself is nothing special, but the rare baobabs that line each side create a landscape that’s both stark and beautiful. When viewed in silhouette, it’s easy to understand why a visiting group of Arabian seafarers declared that the trees were cursed, for it looked “as if the devil has ripped the trees out of the ground and put them back upside down!”
Of the eight species of baobab in the world, six are only found in Madagascar, the largest of which is Adansonia grandidieri. Often called ‘Grandidieri’s Baobab’, these are the trees that line the most famous dirt road in Madagascar. At least eight centuries ago, the trees you see now were part of a rich forest that supported a huge diversity of animals and plants, including many more baobab trees. But civilization brought massive deforestation, and many of the 800-year-old trees, with their 150-feet thick trunks, were used for construction.
For reasons still unknown, the twenty-or-so remaining examples were left alone, although back then there was no attempt at conservation. Thankfully, efforts by the National Parks and local businesses have made some headway, and the Avenue is now recognised as a National Natural Monument, with protected status for the trees.
As you’d expect, the Avenue of the Baobabs is incredibly popular with tourists, who are all waiting to get that perfect sunset shot (and who can blame them?). Another option, just as majestic, is to capture the road at sunrise: at that time of day, the area is practically empty of tourists.
How to get there
The Avenue, even though it’s a dirt road, is actually a national highway (Route Nationale N8). It is possible to drive there yourself in a 4×4, but the road is in a terrible condition and considered very dangerous. The best way to reach the Avenue of the Baobabs is by taxi from Morondova, which will set you back 50,000 Ar (€12.50) for a return trip.
A filter water bottle is an effective way of purifying water to remove any impurities or contaminants.
Nosy Be, also called Nossi-Bé, is an island about 5 miles (8 km) off the northwestern shore of Madagascar. It’s the top beach destination for both tourists and locals, and it’s not hard to see why. The sand is soft and white, the waters are the perfect shade of turquoise and the seafood is deliciously fresh.
Nosy Be (which means ‘big island’) is the largest of more than twenty islands scattered across the Mozambique Channel off Madagascar’s northwest coast. The French colonized the island in about 1840 and founded an outpost which they named Hell-Ville (in honour of the French Admiral de Hell). Hell-Ville is now the tourist centre of the island, and it’s here that Madagascar’s visitors flock for the nightlife, with the Ankoay Bar a popular favourite.
Nosy Be is an expensive destination compared to everywhere else in Madagascar, but it’s still relatively cheap for tourists. And there’s one special place on Madagascar’s ‘big island’ that you really need to visit: Mont Passot.
Mont Passot is a volcanic mountain located about 30 km north of Hell-Ville. The summit (3,298m high) offers an amazing panoramic view of the sun setting over the Mozambique Channel, fronted by Nosy Be’s stunning crater lakes (all of which are home to Nile crocodiles!)
It’s probably the most popular viewpoint across the whole of Madagascar, and many visitors choose this as their last farewell before boarding a plane and heading back home.
And so we conclude our short guide to some of the best places to visit in Madagascar. If you’re thinking of travelling there, then we hope we’ve given you some food for thought. If we can help in any way, or if you have any comments or questions, please use the comments box or click one of social media icons – we’d love to hear from you!
Where is the best place to go in Madagascar?
The Avenue of the Baobabs is probably the most famous tourist destination in Madagascar, but the Tsingy Rouge Park arguably has a bigger ‘wow’ factor.
Where do tourists stay in Madagascar?
There are plenty of hotel options in either the capital city of Tana (Antananarivo) or on the island of Nosy Be. Tana is best if you plan to stay on Madagascar’s main island, whereas Nosy Be is more of a beach/nightlife destination.
Where is the best place to go in Madagascar for families?
Undoubtedly Nosy Be. Not only does it have the best beaches in Madagascar, but it’s great for fun water sports and spotting wildlife which kids will enjoy. And there’s plenty of activities for all the family, such as the great chances of spotting humpback whales.
As for accommodation, the west coast has plenty of family-friendly hotels, or for larger groups there are cost-effective eco-lodges.
What can you do in Madagascar for free?
The best things to see in Madagascar are all free because they’re all part of the landscape. If we had to whittle them down to just one, it would have to be the ‘otherworld’ scenery of Rouge Park. But having friendly lemurs follow you around is also a unique experience, so it’s a tough call!