The capital of French Guiana is an agreeable town with weathered Creole and colonial architecture.
Throw in Cayenne’s museums and a buzzing market and there’s enough here to keep you engaged for a day or two.
But the true marvels are offshore at islands that used to be France’s most feared penal colonies, or a short way down the coast where exotic snakes, caimans and spiders make their habitats in the Kaw swamp.
And don’t pass up the Guiana Space Centre, run by the European Space Agency and an odyssey for anybody curious about how a 21st-century spaceport works.
Lets explore the best things to do in Cayenne:
1. Place des Palmistes
Somewhere for locals and tourists to meet up and relax, Place des Palmistes is a linchpin of social life in Cayenne.
It’s a large square gridded with palms and edged by Creole houses with wooden balconies over shops, bars and eateries.
At the centre of the lawn is a statue of Félix Éboué, a Guianan administrator who in 1936 became the first black man to hold a senior colonial position when he became Governor of Guadeloupe in 1936. He was also the first black man to have his ashes placed at the Pantheon in Paris after he died in 1944. The square also where a lot of the festivities go down during the epic 10-week carnival at the start of the year.
2. Cayenne Cathedral
Having just come through a renovation, Cayenne’s 19th-century cathedral is as splendid as ever.
The architecture is in the colonial style, and work was completed in 1833, but it would be another century before the church would become a cathedral, when the diocese of Cayenne was created in 1933. Pause in front to check out the portico and balustrade, and then go inside to escape the heat.
Keep an eye out for the clock, which was made in 1871, and see the pulpit, altar and confessional box, which were all crafted from local wood instead of being shipped over from France.
3. Musée des Cultures Guyanaises
In a lovely refurbished Creole house on Rue Madame Payée is a museum showcasing the diversity of native ethnic groups in French Guiana.
You’ll get a fascinating overview of the culture and story of the native Amerindians, and later, the Creoles and the Maroons.
The museum also deals with the more recent immigrants like the Haitians, Brazilians and the Hmong people from southeast Asia.
There are loads of artefacts to browse, including textiles, baskets, earthenware, jewellery and weapons such as arrows.
4. Fort Cépérou
On a headland on the west side of Cayenne is what remains of a fort from the early days of colonisation.
It was built in 1643 and is named for the chief of an Amerindian tribe that had occupied this land before the French arrived.
The fort saw action later that century, when the Dutch landed and claimed the territory: This event triggered a decisive battle in December 1676, after which Cayenne became permanently French.
There’s isn’t a whole lot left of the fort save for a few stone walls, but its elevated position gives you a far-reaching panorama of the city.
5. Cayenne Market
A couple of blocks down from Places des Palmistes on Rue de Lieutenant Becker is the city’s market, which trades on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Come for a taste of Guianan culture, sampling the various rum punches and browsing stalls selling anything from Vietnamese pho noodles to local handicrafts.
The fruit and vegetables come from all over French Guiana, but also Surinam, Laos, Brazil and even Haiti.
You can shop for things you know, like bananas, pineapples or mangoes, or more exotic produce like awara or rambutan.
If it’s all a bit bewildering the traders are approachable and always happy to offer advice
6. Devil’s Island
This is one of the Îles du Salut, a trio of volcanic islands 14 kilometres off the coast of Kourou.
From Cayenne you can catch a catamaran or motorboat to the archipelago, and it’s a definite must-do.
First there’s the historical value, as Devil’s Island was an infamous penal colony from the 1850s onwards, and a place of exile for people from all over the French Empire.
This is where Alfred Dreyfus of the Dreyfus Affair ended up before being exonerated, but most who were sent here never returned.
Old prison buildings and graveyards are obscured by tropical vegetation on islands inhabited by monkeys and capybaras.
7. Musée Départemental
In a lovely Creole mansion with pale yellow weatherboarding and blue shutters is a museum presenting a cross-section of life in French Guiana from its foundation to the present day.
The galleries are a quirky miscellany of minerals, historic paintings and Amerindian crafts.
You can learn the story of the notorious 19th-century serial killer D’Chimbo and swot up on Félix Éboué, one of Guiana’s most famous sons.
The museum also covers those dreaded penal colonies, and you can pore over the 4,000-strong insect collection of the 20th-century clergyman and naturalist Père Yves Barbotin.
8. Jardin Botanique
On the equator a cool day is anything below 30°C, so shade is a valuable commodity.
And you’ll have abundance at the botanic garden, which is the largest landscaped space in the city and goes back to the first decades of the 19th century.
There’s ample tropical vegetation, all well-labelled and sheltering paths that weave through the fronds, crossing a pond and leading up to a statue of Gaston Monnerville, another of Guiana’s influential politicians.
Find a bench in the shade and cool off, or have a dip at the outdoor Centre Aquatique de Cayenne a couple of minutes down the road.
9. Guiana Carnival
The big annual event in French Guiana kicks off on Epiphany just after Christmas and doesn’t end until Ash Wednesday in February or March.
The carnival has Creole origins, and started during the days of slavery as a way for people to celebrate fertility and harvest and poke fun at Europeans in secret at a time when public celebrations were banned.
On Friday and Saturday nights throughout this period there are masked balls, but the whole thing builds to the four days before Ash Wednesday when there are all kinds of parades and organised craziness like burlesque weddings where men and women swap genders.
10. Sentier du Rorota
The best thing about this hike is that you get a dose of tropical forest without having to stray far from the city.
It’s a six-kilometre circular trail that loops around the 149-metre Mont Caïa.
The path is well-maintained and has information boards every few hundred metres so you shouldn’t get lost easily.
There are photo-friendly views of the coast, and if you go slowly your attention will be diverted by vibrant tropical plants, monkeys, sloths, colourful birds and perhaps the occasional massive spider.
If you’re feeling more confident you can turn off for the Sentier Fort Diamant, which wends down to a coastal fort built in the 1840s.
11. Zoo de Guyane
It’s not often you can say that you’ve been to a zoo in a real jungle.
And the Zoo de Guyane is just that, with paths through luxuriant tropical foliage and bridges suspended in the canopy to get you closer to the monkeys.
There are 450 animals from 75 species, all native to Guiana, and in a much more convenient setting than if you were hacking through genuine wilderness.
There are macaws, pumas, jaguars, ocelots caimans, giant anteaters and iguanas, all in spacious and humane enclosures.
It will take at least two hours to investigate every trail, which are well-signposted and adapted for wheelchairs and strollers.
12. Plage Rémire-Montjoly
A strange thing about the coastline around Cayenne is the absence of those classic tropical beaches: The powerful Cayenne and Mahury rivers pull silt out of Guiana’s inland and deposit it all along the coast, leaving the shoreline muddy and the water a little murky.
Most people do their bathing at hotel or municipal pools, but the palm-lined Plage Rémire-Montjoly is a good pick if you want the ocean, and lies a maximum of 15 minutes from the centre of Cayenne.
At night in May, June or July you may witness the memorable spectacle of sea turtles scrambling ashore to lay their eggs.
13. Guiana Space Centre (CSG)
You’ll need an hour to reach the space centre, which is just the other side of Kourou.
But as this is a rare chance to see an operating spaceport you’ll have no second thoughts . Even if you only have a passing interesting in space exploration and astronomy you’ll be amazed by the kind of access you’re given at the CSG: You can visit the banks of consoles in mission control, get close to launch pads that conduct around ten missions a year.
The guided tour is in French but does cater for English and Dutch speakers, and doesn’t skimp on the technical details if you’re a real enthusiast.
14. Marais de Kaw
The Kaw Marshes are a big swampy area in a natural reserve on the banks of the Approuague River.
It’s a destination to meet and photograph wildlife that you’ve only seen on TV, like caimans and poison dart frogs in their natural habitat.
You can go on night time nature-spotting safaris or discover this incredible habitat by day on large canoes.
On land there are also plenty of hiking trails on which you’ll see some spectacular snakes and spiders, and the most vibrantly-coloured birds you’ll ever spot in the wild.
Guides will keep you safe the whole time and help you find these extraordinary creatures.
15. Îlet la Mère
The only island on the Rémire archipelago to have ever been inhabited, Îlet la Mère is a quick boat ride from Cayenne and will go down very well if you have kids with you.
That’s because the island has lots of tame and friendly spider monkeys, which don’t think twice about approaching people for food and attention.
This island was cleared first for a farm and then the Devil’s Island penal colony in the 1850s, and there are wells, paths, walls and quays on the coast serving as faint reminders of this time.