There’s no question about it: Nigeria is huge. And just as the naysayers say size doesn’t matter, you realise that in West Africa, where just a couple of miles adds another fascinating tribal group, or that journey over the Obudu Plateau makes the difference between Guinean savannah grasses and verdant tropical rainforest, it really, really does! The point is that Nigeria is a country of many colors and creeds.
Its character morphs and shapeshifts almost as elegantly as a white-throated monkey swings between the boughs of the jungle. City wise, it’s got the colossal sprawl of Abuja – one of the fastest growing urban areas in the world. And then there’s Lagos – 17.5 million strong, but still finding time to chill on the Atlantic beaches.
Moving away from the towns and to the country, and Nigeria’s many faces continue. This time they peer like humans in the form of chimpanzees from the forest-clad gorges of the Gashaka Gumti. Or, they are plumed in pink like the black cranes of the Bade-Nguru Wetlands. It’s all very wonderful stuff.
Lets explore the best places to visit in Nigeria:
The gateway to the reserves of the Cross River (the state of which Calabar is the capital), and the further-flung rainforests of the Afi Mountains (home to gorillas, chimps, rare rockfowl and craggy peaks of stone), the town of Calabar is a well-honed tourist stop-off on the way through to Cameroon or the southern Nigerian coast.
Before making a beeline for the amazing primate sanctuaries outside of the town though, be sure to linger a little and case out the darker past of the city at the Calabar Museum – Calabar was once one of the principle slave trading ports in West Africa.
Also worth a look is the Duke Town chapel, which is considered one of the oldest Christian worshipping houses in Nigeria.
Frenetic and packed, Lagos is not only the largest city in Nigeria, but also the single largest on the entire African continent.
Yep, nearly 18 million people call this one home, and boy does it show! Throbbing streets of beer bars and clubs pepper the districts of Ikeja and Victoria Island, where ex-pats and sailors and locals alike chat over frothy brews.
There are also salt-washed promenades on the coast, and the beautiful reaches of Lagos Bar Beach – a sloping stretch of golden sand that meets the waves of the Atlantic Ocean in style.
Meanwhile, jet skis purr across Tarkwa Bay, and the sobering histories of the slave trade continue to move at the Point of No Return.
Nestled inland, directly north of sprawling Lagos, the regional capital of the Ogun State can be found surrounded by great swathes of yam fields and maize farms, swaying wooded savanna and palm oil plantations.
An historic location on the important trade routes between the coast and the heart of West Africa led to previous inhabitants raising adobe fortifications around the old town, many of which can still be seen today.
However, it’s the bulbous rises of the Olumo Rock that soars atop the town that really draws the eye.
This ancient natural fort plays host to a great cultural museum, a craft shop selling local artworks, and caves that showcase the human history of the Ogun region as a whole.
4. Yankari National Park
Whether you make the arduous journey east from Abuja and south from Gombe to the Yankari in search of the roaming herds of African elephants (rumored to be the most numerous on the continent) or to seek out the fascinating relics of earlier peoples in the caves, you can rest assured that this well-serviced national park won’t disappoint.
More than 20,000 people come here to partake in ecotourism every year, which means there are plenty of lodges and tour operators on the ground.
Don’t leave without scaling the lookouts on Kalban Hill, or wondering at the chiseled rocks of the awesome Tonlong Gorge.
Okay, so Abuja ain’t no Lagos. Purpose-built, enfolded by the soft topography of the inland hills, and formed from clearly delineated districts that house business-suited men and politicians, there’s no grit or grime here (or at least not relatively). That means the capital is a nice place to relax and unwind following the energy and action of the megalopolis on the coast.
And there are other interesting sights too, like the Abuja Millennium Park and the quad of spear-like minarets that heralds the beautiful Abuja National Mosque.
Meanwhile, Wuse Market is great for shoppers, and the National Assembly Complex offers a glimpse into the country’s modern political system.
State capital and erstwhile stronghold of the old Oyo Empire, Ibadan hides quite a lot of history and heritage between its streets.
The only problem is, those streets seem to go on forever and ever (some estimations say that Ibadan is the single largest metropolis by geographical coverage in Africa), making the interesting parts pretty hard to find! A good place to start is in the exhibition rooms of the National Museum of Ibadan, where traditional Egungun garments meet tribal war drums and more.
Then, try to discover the Bower Memorial Tower, before hitting the colonial facades of Mapo Hall.
7. Kainji Lake National Park
One of the natural jewels of north-western Nigeria is actually not all that natural at all.
Yep, the eponymous Kainji Lake of the Kainji Lake National Park is actually a reservoir, created in 1968 and now surrounded by protected game reserves.
On the western banks of the water is the Borgu area, which hosts sporadic pockets of Guinean woods and plains, the stomping ground of some truly fascinating beasts: hippopotami; roan antelopes and swinging baboons.
This eventually gives way to the reservoir itself, where primeval jungles dip down into the croc-spotted waters.
8. Gashaka Gumti National Park
Vast and breathtaking at every turn, the Gashaka Gumti National Park covers more than 6,000 square kilometers of land in the extreme south-east of the country.
Made in 1991 after the fusion of two great Nigerian game reserves, it’s famed for its winding rivers (some of which also occasionally turn into awesome shows of roaring waterfalls) and riparian habitats, which host rare avian species like the red-faced lovebird.
On the ground, you can expect to be in the company of African golden cats and elephants.
Chimps swing in the trees of the forests too, while buffalos pepper the watering holes.
A green and leafy town that’s nestled almost equidistance between the Cross River National Park (the home of Nigeria’s gorillas) and the delta of the River Niger (where the Bayelsa National Forest has baby chimps), Enugu certainly doesn’t want for natural attractions.
In fact, that prime location close to some of the best natural draws of the Nigerian south-east is one of the main reasons tourists come here.
Others will enjoy the tidy streets and the low-rise buildings, the down-to-earth locals (the lifeblood of the small bottling and movie industries that have germinated here), and the gushing waterfalls and caves of the Ezeagu Tourist Complex – just on the edge of the city.
10. Port Harcourt
Okay, so it’s hardly a secret that industry comes first in the rambunctious oil boomtown of Port Harcourt.
A soaring population, endless developments of cookie-cutter tenements and the logos of major oil companies are just a few of the things this throbbing petroleum town wears on its sleeve.
And while the frenetic buzz of depots, trucks and tankers here certainly isn’t for everyone, the down-to-earth character of the place, mixed with a particularly raucous nightlife scene means that some will love the earthy, raw and unpretentious nature of it all.
The tiny town of Erin-Ijesha is really only known for one thing and one thing only: it’s eponymous waterfall that crashes through the southern Nigerian jungles, spans two individual states, and counts as many as seven tiers in total! The beautiful water feature draws oodles of people to this tiny speck on the map a little way from the historic city of Ilesa.
The journey’s worth it though.
You’ll get to climb through the verdant woods and bathe in the cataracts as they crash over the cliffs.
You’ll learn about the forest spirits, and even discover the nearby hot springs at Ikogosi – a little to the east, and a great place for soothing those tired hiking muscles.
Another great gateway to the trans-border Cross River National Park, and a brilliant stopover on the way to Calabar city, the town of Uyo is a clean and efficient urban center with a pretty lively nightlife scene of music bars and beer haunts.
It’s surrounded by green swathes of mangrove forest, out of which pokes the city’s famous golf resort (run by the prestigious name of Le Méridien no less). In the town there’s also the endless boutiques and fashion stores of the Ibom Plaza, where Nigerian celebs often strut their stuff.
And if the city gets too much, make a beeline for the coast.
Ibeno Beach is the top choice, with its footprint-spotted sands coming in as some of the longest in all of West Africa.
13. Okomu National Park
One of the few remaining enclaves of the virgin rainforest that once dominated the territories of southern Nigeria for its entirety, the Okomu National Park can be found sandwiched between the endless mangroves that crash into the Atlantic Ocean and the streets of Benin City.
Untouched and undeveloped, the spot’s remoteness has allowed it to become a refuge for some of the country’s rarer creatures, like the pangolin, chimpanzees, leopards and even forest elephants.
There’s also a smattering of rustic tribal villages still here, where visitors can encounter the age-old way of Nigerian country life.
14. Benin City
Located just a little to the east of the aforementioned reserves of the Okomu National Park, Benin City is not only a great place to launch your explorations through the wilds of southern Nigeria, but also an interesting, lived-in industrial town with plenty of history of its own.
In fact, the town was once the middle of the Benin Empire, back when it was called Edo, and thrived with the creation of architectural feats like the old Oba Palace – still visible in the center.
There are also fascinating open-air bronze workshops along bustling Igun Street to see, along with a branch of the National Museum.
15. Edumanom National Forest
The great mass of greenery that caps the very end of the Niger River, this delta forest plays host to one of Nigeria’s most amazing displays of biodiversity.
It’s headed by the presence of some of the largest remaining chimpanzee colonies in the world, who patrol the freshwater swamps and the verdant canopies, casting howls through the wilderness as they go.
It’s also a home to the rare Niger Delta colobus and other primates worth seeing.
Thanks to its far-flung location, travel here won’t be easy, but the untrodden undergrowth and untamed wilds might just be worth it!