City Focus: Cotonou Benin
Cotonou, formerly Kotonu, is the largest city and economic centre of Benin, although Porto-Novo is the capital.
Its official population count was 761,137 inhabitants in 2006; however, some estimates indicate its population to be as high as 1.2 million; the population in 1960 was only 70,000. The urban area continues to expand, notably towards the west. The city lies in the southeast of the country, between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Nokoué.
In addition to being Benin’s largest city, it houses many of its government and diplomatic services. The city is a major port, and is also home to an airport and a railway that links to Parakou. Other features of Cotonou include Cotonou Friendship Stadium,Cotonou Cathedral, Cotonou Central Mosque, the Ancient Pont Bridge and the 20-hectare Dantokpa Market, which has a commercial turnover of over one billion CFA Francs a day. The National University of Benin is located in Cotonou. Another familiar feature of the city is the motorcycle-taxis known as Zémidjans.
The international airport is on the western fringe of town, in Cocotiers. If flying out, arrive early – checking in is a predictably long-winded process.
A private taxi from the city centre to the airport costs around CFA2000, although drivers will demand double this amount from the airport.
A zemi-john will whiz you around town for CFA100 to CFA300 depending on the distance, though this is a dangerous way to travel on Cotonou’s crowded roads.
Fares in regular taxis and minibuses start at CFA150 for a shared ride. Taxis can be hired for CFA2000 per hour; rates increase from early evening. Tariffs are often written on the dashboard. Gare du Dantokpa (Ave de la République) is a good place to pick up taxis.
Things to do
Grand Marché de Dantokpa
The seemingly endless Grand Marché du Dantokpa is Cotonou’s throbbing heart, bordered by the lagoon and Blvd St Michel. Everything under the sun can be purchased in its labyrinthine lanes, from fish to soap, plastic sandals to goats, pirated DVDs to spare car parts. More traditional fare, such as batiks and Dutch wax cloth, can be found in the market building. The fetish market section is at the northern end of the larger market.
New York, New York
This Cotonou institution has been around for yonks and isn’t showing signs of slowing down. If you want to rub shoulders with hip-gyrating Beninese dancing to African tunes, this is the place.
This fantastic exhibition space seeks to promote contemporary African art among Beninese people. The chic boutique sells beautiful art books and the cafe offers wi-fi access.
Musée da Silva
This wonderfully eclectic museum is housed in a beautiful 1870 Afro-Brazilian house.
The Centre Songhai is a major research, teaching and production centre in sustainable farming. There are one-hour guided tours to visit the plantations and workshops. You can also buy the centre’s produce – anything from fresh quail eggs to biscuits and preserves. Songhai is about 1km north of town. Every zem knows where it is.
Musée Ethnographique de Porto Novo
Housed in a pretty colonial building, this museum is well worth a gander. The top floor is organised thematically around birth, life and death, with everything from costumes to carved drums. Downstairs there’s an impressive display of ceremonial masks.
This establishment is housed in the walled compound of King Toffa, who signed the first treaty with the French in 1863. The site hasn’t been well maintained and you’ll need some imagination to make something out of the bare chambers but François, the guide, puts on a good show.
Considered by some connoisseurs to be one of the most refined restaurants in town, with excellent French and fusion cuisine, and an ambience that’s as optimal for business lunches as it is for a romantic evening out.
One of Cotonou’s older Chinese restaurants, this has an atmospheric covered roof terrace overlooking the bustling Carrefour de Cadjéhoun, a row of red lanterns, a comprehensive menu and a complement of Chinese expat clientele – always a good sign.
This is a super atmospheric Beninese maquis (rustic open-air restaurant) with little more than a few wooden benches and tables under a corrugated iron roof. Here you’ll get a blob of pâte (starch staple, often made from millet, corn, plantains, manioc or yams) and ladle of sauce for next to nothin’. And yes, you’ll eat with your fingers. There’s no signboard; it’s in a von (alleyway) off Place de Bulgarie.
Maquis du Port
Great-value local food. More an upmarket African eatery than a maquis, this hugely popular venture serves a good mix of local classics like ndole (a stew made of leaves and nuts), salads, braised fish and meat stews. It’s in a multistorey building overlooking the fishing harbour.
Chez Maman Bénin
This long-standing no-frills canteen off Blvd St Michel has a large selection of West African dishes scooped from steaming pots. There’s no decor except for a couple of blaring TVs showing the latest football action.
This small French restaurant, in a pretty residential area next to the US embassy, is a perennial favourite that churns out excellent French specialities as well as pancakes and sandwiches.
Les Trois Mousquetaires
This fine establishment serves delicate French cuisine and features an extensive wine list. The old colonial dining room is the perfect setting for a sophisticated evening.
For quality Dutch wax fabric, head to Woodin, where demi-pièces (6m of material) start at CFA15,000.
A smart bookshop which stocks the latest periodicals, maps and some photography books on West Africa.
Centre de Promotion de l’Artisanat
Here you’ll find woodcarvings, bronzes, batiks, leather goods, jewellery and appliqué banners.
Where to Stay
A quiet, sometimes overlooked boutique hotel catering to business travellers in a tranquil location close to the sea. The rooms are generously sized and tastefully designed, and the communal areas are expertly decorated with arts and crafts. Other perks include a soothing plant-filled garden, a gym, a pool and a panoramic terrace with sea views. Evening meals are available by request. Rates include breakfast.
Bénin Royal Hôtel
Offering an indoor pool and a spa with a wellness centre, Bénin Royal Hôtel is located in Cotonou. Free WiFi access is available.
Each room here will provide you with a TV, air conditioning and satellite channels. Featuring a bath, private bathroom also comes with a bath or shower and a hairdryer. You can enjoy city view from the room.
At Bénin Royal Hôtel you will find a restaurant. Other facilities offered at the property include meeting facilities, a shared lounge and luggage storage. The property offers free parking.
Azalai Hotel De La Plage
The ultramodern rooms at this waterfront hotel are arguably the best in the city – especially those with sea views – with sleek bathrooms and attractive decor. The list of facilities is prolific, with a restaurant, a bar, a swimming pool, a business centre and tennis courts. Rates include breakfast.
Novotel Orisha Cotonou
Offering outdoor pool and a restaurant, Novotel Cotonou Orisha is located in Cotonou. Free Wi-Fi access is available.
Rooms here will provide you with a flat-screen tv, air conditioning and a minibar. Private bathrooms also come with a bath or shower. Extras include a seating area and satellite channels.
At Novotel Cotonou Orisha you will find a 24-hour front desk, a terrace and a bar. The property offers free parking.
Cotonou Airport is over 5 km away.
Hotel du Port
The carpeted rooms and, overlooking the popular pool, spacious bungalows, restaurant and bar make this Cotonou’s best midrange hotel. It’s in a bad area of town though.