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Visit Benin and explore its rich culture and history

11 January 2024

Experience the mesmerising beauty and cultural richness of the Republic of Benin. The small Western African country has four neighbouring countries, namely: Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Togo. It is an underrated gem that is slowly gaining popularity with the travel community, attracting over 300,000 international tourists every year, but remains largely undiscovered. Therefore, it offers an off-the-beaten-path adventure that will be unique and unforgettable. Whether it's a safari adventure, reliving the country's ancient kingdoms, or connecting with the friendly locals, this West Africa destination is the place to be. As you start planning your trip to Visit Benin, let us guide you with a comprehensive travel guide that will make your journey smooth and hassle-free. 

Top Tourist Attractions in Benin

#1 reason to Visit Benin: Cotonou

Aerial view of the Red Star Place in Cotonou - Benin.
Aerial view of the Red Star Place in Cotonou - Benin.

Most tourists will enter Benin via Cadjehoun International Airport in Cotonou. Cotonou, which means mouth of the river of death, is the commercial capital and most populous city with over 700,000 residents. It is also one of the busiest ports in West Africa and a popular stop for cruises such as Regent Seven Seas Cruises that visit Benin.

One of the most visited places in Cotonou is Place de l’Etoile Rouge, a big roundabout with a giant monument in the form of a giant Red Star from which a tower with the statue of “a good man” stands tall. The Red Star is a symbolise for revolutions and was a gift from Russia in 1975.

Visitors must see the Grand Marché du Dantokpa, which is key to understanding the local economy of Cotonou. Make sure to visit the Fetish Market section which sells voodoo items including animal parts (skulls and bones) and voodoo dolls used for medicine rather than nefarious deeds. Some of the sellers might be Vodun priests who are happy to explain more about their religion. Travel tip: please ask for permission before taking photos.

Over 50% of Benin's population are Christian and it had one of the world’s fastest growing Roman Catholic constituencies when Pope Benedict XVI visited in November 2011. He visited the Notre Dame des Apotres Cathedral, which resembles candy with its red and white stripes. Do check it out.

The cathedral of Notre Dame de Miséricorde
The cathedral of Notre Dame de Miséricorde

Other popular tourist sites include the Fondation Zinsou which hosts art exhibitions and is free to enter.

#2 reason to Visit Benin:Porto-Novo

The official capital city of the Republic of Benin is located about an hour’s drive from Cotonou. It is home to Afro-Brazilians (Agudas) who returned to Africa from Brazil in the 1800s and descendants of Portuguese slave traders who chose to settle in Benin. The Agudas are credited with developing Porto-Novo’s unique architecture and for embarking on projects to save buildings that have been neglected over the years.

The Agudas built the Grand Mosque of Porto-Novo between 1912 and 1925 and it is a popular tourist attraction because it resembles a cathedral rather than a traditional masjid. The architectural style is similar to churches in northern Brazil and it has a multi-coloured facade with brown, yellow and blue hues.

Grand Mosque of Porto-Novo
Grand Mosque of Porto-Novo

The city has two museums worth visiting. The Da Silva Museum is the biggest museum in Porto Novo and focuses on the history and present-day contribution of the Afro-Brazilian community. The Alexandre Sènou Adandé Ethnographic Museum carefully curates Benin’s rich history and culture and has an impressive display of King Toffa's Palace to give visitors a glimpse of traditional royal life.

#3 reason to Visit Benin: Lake Nakoué and the floating village of Ganvie 

Right next to Porto-Novo is the small floating village of Aguegué. Visitors can take a two hour journey on a motorised canoe across Lake Nakoué to Ganvie, which is the largest floating village in Africa. The alternative way to get there is to drive 30 mins from Cotonou to the town of Abomey-Calavi and then catch a tour boat. Ganvie is often romanticised as the Venice of Africa even though it more closely resembles the floating villages of Tonle Sap in Cambodia.

Stilt houses on Lake Nakoué in Ganvie, Benin.
Stilt houses on Lake Nakoué in Ganvie, Benin.

The village first emerged in the 17th century and today consists of over 3,000 homes. The Tofinu tribe built the homes on the lake to defend themselves and evade capture by local slave traders. Ganvie is now a UNESCO world heritage site and attracts over 10,000 visitors every year. There is great potential to grow this tourist sit given that over 300,000 tourists visit Tonle Sap.

During the voodoo festival (see our article Experience the Benin Voodoo Festival Magic), Ganvie hosts some Gelede mask dances in honour of mothers.

#4 reason to Visit Benin:Ouidah

La Porte du Non-Retour (The Door of No Return) in Ouidah, Benin. It is one of the most visited tourist sights in the country.
La Porte du Non-Retour (The Door of No Return) in Ouidah, Benin. It is one of the most visited tourist sights in the country.

Ouidah is located an hour’s drive from Cotonou. The most famous attraction is the Door of No Return, where slaves boarded ships and were transported across the Atlantic. It is a reminder of the painful history of slavery and a must-see for those who Visit Benin . 

Buildings such as the old Governor's Palace and the Fort of São João Baptista de Ajudá, a former slave trading post, have been preserved. The fort was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century and is now a museum showcasing Benin's historical past.

#5 reason to Visit Benin: Grand Popo

Beach lovers will be thrilled to know that there is a beach located two hours’ drive from Cotonou. Grand Popo is the best beach in Benin with its soft brown sand and calm vibe. It is worth the visit!

If you plan to visit Benin for more than five days, then do venture north to see more sites.

Footprints on the sand in Grand Popo, Benin
Footprints on the sand in Grand Popo, Benin

#6 reason to Visit Benin: Royal Palaces of Abomey 

History buffs visiting Benin cannot miss Abomey, the former capital of the Dahomey Kingdom. The city is home to a cluster of 12 royal palaces that showcase the history and culture of the Fon civilization.

Royal Palaces of Abomey of Fon people in Benin
Royal Palaces of Abomey of Fon people in Benin

The ancient Kingdom of Dahomey was a powerful West African state that ruled the region for centuries before the arrival of the Europeans (Read our article Pivotal moments in Benin's political history to learn more). This vast kingdom is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and a top reason to visit Benin.

It is located near the town of Bohicon and is three hours’ drive from Cotonou.

#7 reason to Visit Benin: Parakou

From Bohicon, drive head north for four hours to Parakou where you can find the Ethnographic and Outdoor Museum. It was first opened as a botanical garden in 1968 and has since evolved to incorporate architecture and 600 pieces of ethnography.

#8 reason to Visit Benin: Natitingou 

Betammaribe house with granery, Benin
Betammaribe house with granery, Benin

The town of Natitingou is located four hours’ drive from Parakou. The main attraction is Tata Somba, the two-story fortified houses built by the Tammari people of the Atakora region. The first floor is where livestock are kept during the night and the second floor is where the occupants of the house sleep.

The Royal Museum of Natitingou has a collection of artefacts and traditional items from the Atakora region. The town also has a Museum of Ethnography, which provides more information about the way of life of the Atakora region people.

The Kota Falls are located 15km southeast of Natitingou and offer a quiet spot for swimming and hiking.

#9 reason to Visit Benin:Tanguieta

Tanongou waterfalls, Benin
Tanongou waterfalls, Benin

Tanougou Falls is located 20km northeast of Tanguieta, which is an hour away from Natitingou. It is a popular swimming spot and offers picturesque hiking trails. It is conveniently located just outside the national park.

#10 reason to Visit Benin: Pendjari National Park 

Tanguieta is the gateway to one of the largest national parks in West Africa. Wildlife enthusiasts will relish a visit to Pendjari National Park, Benin's flagship conservation area that offers a breathtaking array of wildlife and lush landscapes. 

Spanning over 4,000 km², the national park is home to various species of wildlife, including lions, elephants, hippos, the African buffalo, and antelopes. Take a safari ride and immerse yourself in nature. It also has a wide variety of birds.

Conclusion  

Whether you are interested in exploring Benin's historical and cultural heritage, visiting its top tourist attractions, or immersing in nature and adventure, the country has something for everyone. From the ancient Kingdom of Dahomey to the bustling markets of Cotonou and the lush landscapes of Pendjari National Park, Benin offers a diverse range of experiences that will satisfy your wanderlust. 

So, what are you waiting for? Pack your bags, book your flights, and get ready for an unforgettable journey to Benin. Start planning your visit today and experience the magic of West Africa for yourself. Don't miss this opportunity to create memories that will last a lifetime. Visit Benin and discover the heart and soul of Africa. 

FAQ

When is the best time of the year to visit Benin?

November to February, when the temperature and humidity when the temperatures are at their lowest 

Which airlines fly to Benin?

  • National Airline: Benin Airlines
  • Regional Airlines: Air Côte d’Ivoire, ASKY Airlines, RwandAir, Air Senegal, Air Burkina, Mauritania Airlines International
  • Star Alliance: Brussels Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines, Turkish Airlines
  • One World: Royal Air Maroc
  • SkyTeam: Air France

Are visas required and how much do they cost?

All African Union nationals can enter Benin for stays up to 90 days without a visa. Haitians are granted the same privilege. Hong Kong and Singapore passport holders are exempt from visas for stays of up to 14 days. Citizens of all other countries must obtain a visa. Details of e-visas and other options are available here.

Do you need any shots?

It is also important to check health advisories before travelling. The recommended vaccines include Hepatitis A, Poliomyelitis, Tetanus and Yellow Fever. 

Is it safe?

Due to the recent military coups in Burkina Faso and Niger, the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is advising against visiting the areas that border these two countries, including the Pendjari National Park. Check the latest travel advisory.

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