Benin played a key role in the development of the African slave trade and was also the birthplace of the voodoo arts. These two ingredients are just a small part of the recipe that makes the complex and rich history of the African nation.
The nation is relatively small and has only a few large cities but Benin begs to be explores and rewards travellers with museums, wonderful architecture and markets that are truly memorable.
The national beauty of Benin also has a lot to tempt tourists. From the paradise Atlantic beaches fringed with palm trees to the national parks teeming with exotic beasts such as lions, cheetahs and elephants as well as rare bird species.
Benin may occupy a dangerous looking region of Africa but it is remarkably suited to tourism and is truly an unspoiled destination. The roads are good and the amenities for travellers are better than in many other African countries.
A trip to Benin will feel like a true adventure as there is still so much to discover and the country is only just beginning its life as a tourist destination. Benin is a good introduction to Africa as it has it all: great wildlife, great beaches, great people and culture and it caters well for tourists without felling like a tourist destination.
Here is our list of the 15 best places to visit in Benin:
It may not be the true capital city of Benin but Cotonou sure does feel like it. The city is an intense blast of urban energy combined with African charm. If it is your first time in Africa, the city can be a little bit daunting and full on but for those willing to risk the adventure, Cotonou has plenty of rewards.
These rewards include a number of stunning paradise beaches with golden sand and palm trees.The Pendjari National Park is also a must see in Cotonou and is seen as one of the leading animal reserves in Africa.
For those looking for a more obscure attraction, the “Fetish Market” sells a large variety of dead animals for voodoo festival celebrations.
Ouidah is a city that has a mix of influence from the French and the Portuguese due to various events in history. The city is located about 40km away from Cotonou and in contrast is more relaxed.
If you are interested in African history (and you should be) then this city should be top of your itinerary. It has fantastic museums exploring slavery and voodoo.
If all the history gets too much for you, there are stunning beaches to laze on in Ouidah too.
3. Porto Novo
Porto Novo is the capital city of Benin and former French capital of Dahomey. If you have visited Cotonou first, you will probably struggle to understand why Porto Novo is the official capital city, the population is only around 250,000 and the pace is much more leisurely than Cotono.
The influence of the Portugeuse in this area are still clear to see in the present day.
Sights in the city include the Royal Palace and gardens as well as the museum of Porto Novo kings.
Abomey was the capital of Ancient Dahomey for around 300 years starting in the 17th Century.
The main attraction and reason for visiting the city is the Unesco World Heritage Site of the Abomey Royal Palaces.
Although the palaces have largely been destroyed and are in a ruinous state, the site still has enormous historical value and the tales of kings that once resided here are fascinating.
The town of Grand-Popo has an intriguing history mainly due to the important role it played in the slave trade. The town oozes with African charm and the people are friendly.
Grand-Popo is about an hours drive from Cotonou and offers a perfect change of pace from the busy city. There are many backside hotels and resorts in the town and the beaches are a great place to relax and swim.
The nearby Mono River is a great place to walk and offers a chance to see mangroves and exotic bird life.
Located a convenient 50km away from the Pendjari National Park, the city of Natitingou also has some of its own attractions that make it a worth stop off on a tour of Benin.
The city has its own museum which is based in a French colonel building and documents the lifestyle of the Somba people. In fact the city of Natitingou is one of the best places to see the Somba people’s way of life and methods of building.
Natitingou is also a great place to see Shea butter being made.
Bohicon is more of a place to pass through than to actually spend an extended period of time visiting. The town is an almost entirely modern place but it is well worth visiting the market, which is arguably the biggest and the best in Benin.
The difference between the bustling market and the relative calm of nearby Abomey is startling.
The busiest times for the market are in the mornings, so these should be avoided if possible (unless of course you thrive on the chaos).
This charming town is a great place to see colonial French buildings in Benin. The population of the town is small: only about 20,000 people call Tanguieta their home.
Tanguieta also has a lively market, although it is nowhere near as lively as Bohicon’s, and is a great place from which to visit the Tonogou Waterfalls or the Pendjari National Park which is home to some of the most majestic beats in Africa including lions, hyenas and elephants to name only a few.
The second largest city in Benin, Parakou has an estimated population of 200,000 people. Despite its size, the city does not feel as lively and crowded as Porto Novo or Cotonou due to more open spaces and wider streets.
The city is industrious with most of its economy focusing on cotton, textiles and peanut oil.
There are a number of worthwhile things to see in Parakou including the open-air museum which shows traditional Bariba architecture and the market specialising in a traditional kind of beer.
10. Lake Nokoue
This lake and small village is a great place for birdwatching. The species that call this 16,000 hectare lake there home include the African Openbill and the white crested heron.
The lake is under threat from several environmental and biological issues such as logging, pollution and hunting of the wildlife.
Conservation efforts are being made but the threat level is classified as high, so view this amazing area while you still can.
Located roughly 60km to the south of Parkou, Tchaourou is primarily an agricultural town but is also know for its involvement with Nigeria in fuel trafficking.
The main sights in the town are the market, that takes place each Monday, as well as the hard to miss house’s of Benin president Yayi Boni which are both lavish and out of place but worth a look nonetheless.
The nearby cashew factory also offers guided tours for a low price (sometimes free) but no photographs are allowed.
The capital of historical Bariba, Nikki is also home to an ancient palace that still controls a large area including some of Nigeria. Nikki is relatively tourist free which makes it a great place to see Benin in all of its unspoiled glory.
Again, the market here is well worth visiting as well as the town center which has interesting shops and places to eat.
The main sight however is of course the Royal Palace and the museum of the Royal Palace which is ever improving and expanding.
Pehunco is another great place to escape from the well trodden tourist track (if there is a well trodden track in Benin). The town of Pehunc is known for its jewelery so the markets here are extra special.
Throughout the year ceremonies take place in Pehunco featuring the regional king’s horse.
There are not many sights as such in Pehunco, it is just a normal Benin village and this is the main reason for visiting. A stop off in Pehunco is a great lesson and insight into the village life of the people of Benin.
Another town with an impressive market, Boukoumbe is located about 40km west of Natitingou. The town is a great base for visits to the highest point of Benin; Mount Koussou-Kovangou.
Boukoumbe has its own attraction however, the tata sombas, traditional two-story castle like buildings that were originally built and inhabited by the Dita Mari people. The ground floor of the houses were used to hold livestock and the upper level was used by the families residing there.
The town has a “tats touristique” which is an example of the buildings for tourists which is reached via a guided hike or moped. Sleeping on the tata somba’s roof is also possible.
Not the easiest part of Benin to get to but worth a look nonetheless, Malanville is about 35km away from Karimama via a rough and ready dirt track. The best way to undertake the journey is probably a taxi as it is quite an adventure.
The market is the main attraction of the town although some locals would argue that the chicken and chips served by the Niger River Bridge is also worth a mention.
Malanville is another example of a village that is a good place to visit if you are hoping to avoid the tourist beaten track.