Cotonou

Travel Guide Africa Benin Cotonou

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Introduction

Although Porto-Novo is the administrative capital of Benin, the nearby and larger coastal city of Cotonou is where most of the real action takes place. Even many of the governmental and diplomatic services are located here. Officially there are around 800,000 people living here, but it could well be over 1,2 million as the city continues to expend and absorbs other nearby towns and residential areas. It is located in the southwestern coastal area between the Atlantic Ocean and Nokoué Lake.

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Sights and Activities

Cotonou is far from an attractive city, even accounting for the expected sprawl and poor sanitation one expects in urban West Africa. Still, there are a few things to see. For those who prefer to stroll aimlessly, the most interesting scenes will likely come in the Zongo neighborhood, the city's busy Muslim quarter centered around the huge main mosque of Cotonou, a hub of street activity. Wandering on the beach - strictly during the daytime, as it's a spot for crime at night - can also provide great views of the ocean thrashing about. Areas near to central Cotonou are calm, with a few private beaches aimed at exclusive clienteles, but the beachside neighborhood of Fidjirossé has a slew of beachside maquis that attract locals to hang out during the weekend.

  • Fondation Zinsou - Avenue Germain Olory Togbe, Quartier Zongo (Just north of Carrefour St. Michel), ☎ +229 21 30 99 25, e-mail: information@fondationzinsou.org. M-Sa. Run by one of Benin's first families (current head Lionel was recently defeated in a presidential bid), the Fondation Zinsou is devoted to showing contemporary art in Benin and providing supporting arts education for children. Their main Cotonou gallery hosts rotating exhibitions and is probably the best place to snag a peek of contemporary Beninese art, though the Fondation also exhibits internationally-renowned artists to provide the Beninese public the chance to see these works in person. An institution worthy of any city, but acutely needed in Cotonou. Free.
  • Dantokpa Market
  • Place Lenine
  • Cotonou Cathedral- Notre Dame des Apotres - Noted for its distinct burgundy and white striped tile architecture. The cathedral is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cotonou.
  • Place de l'Etoile Rouge

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Weather

Cotonou is hot and humid yearround, with temperatures around 30 °C on most days. February to May is a bit hotter, when even nights are very warm at 26 °C on average. Although the rainy season lasts from May to October, there generally is a peak in May/June and another in October, while in between it is relatively dry.

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Getting There

By Plane

Cotonou Cadjehoun International Airport (code: COO) receives a number of international flights. Destinations include Douala, Tripoli, Libreville, Lomé, Ouagadougou, Paris (Air France), Abidjan, Lagos, Niamey, Bamako, Bangui, Brazzaville, Conakry, Dakar, Kinshasa, Malabo, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Casablanca and N'Djamena.
Benin Golf Air has most connections.

If you're coming from the Americas, you may want to consider taking the direct Ethiopian Airlines flights from Newark or Sao Paulo to Lomé, a relatively painless 3.5 hour drive away, including border formalities. Another option is flying into Lagos, which has a direct flight to Atlanta, though Lagos' airport is likely to be an even more maddening experience and Lagos to Cotonou is not an easy or particularly safe overland journey. Short-haul flights are a popular way of reaching Benin from Lagos, though most nationalities will still need an expensive Nigerian visa to tack on a separate flight to Cotonou.

By Bus

Buses connect Cotonou with Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso and Accra in Ghana. To Niger, there are buses from Cotonou to Niamey as well. Further, there are buses and bush taxi's on the routes towards Nigeria (including Lagos) and Togo (Lomé).

Virtually every Beninese town has bush taxi transport to Cotonou, although smaller towns in the north will probably only have one per day or fewer, or may only get you to the next-closest town with bush taxis running to Cotonou. Count on paying about 1000 CFA per hour of travel.

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Getting Around

By Car

Conventional drop taxis taking you directly to your destination like you might find in New York or London are not the norm in Benin - most taxi drivers wait at fixed intersections for passengers willing to rent the entire vehicle. Dantokpa market, the Étoile Rouge roundabout, or Gare de Jonquet bus station are the most likely places you can find taxis, although other secondary junctions may also have taxi drivers available during the day. Many people know a taxi driver whom they contact by phone or WhatsApp when they need one, so you can get in touch with a driver by asking around. However, they will generally not be interested in short intercity trips - preferring passengers to hire a taxi for several hours at a time. Still, figure about 3000 CFA for a 30 minute voyage, or 10000-15000 CFA to rent a cab for a few hours. Keep in mind that most taxis are in a decrepit condition. The exceptions are taxis available at major hotels (such as the Novotel or Azalaï) or the airport; these are usually late-model compact cars, but figure to pay at least double and up to 4-5 times the above prices.

There are also taxis plying a fixed route - these taxis are often headed to other cities, but can be hailed for voyages within Cotonou. They follow the main national highway out of Cotonou, starting from the Dantokpa market and heading west beyond the Godomey interchange. Count on paying 200 FCFA from the market to Étoile Rouge, and another 200 FCFA to continue to the Stade de l'Amitié. They also head east, crossing the lagoon to Akpakpa. Bush taxis also follow this route. Keep in mind that taxis often cram two passengers in the front and four in the back, though you can double your fare if you want more comfort - so if you have a group of three or more, you may want to negotiate with the driver to take you to your exact destination. Some Cotonois will take the taxis (which are safer than zems, and marginally cheaper) for as much of their way as they can, then hail a zem to the destination.

Driving in Cotonou can be harrowing. Most foreign drivers will have never shared the road with this many motorcycles in their life, and rush hour is especially harrowing as motorcycles scoot in and out of traffic. Many vons (narrow side streets) are bumpy at best and underwater at worst. Still, the grid layout makes Cotonou not terribly difficult to navigate, and having your own car is certainly the safest way to travel. Most establishments have parking of some sort, but nobody will bat an eyelash if you pull up onto the sidewalk to park.

By Public Transport

Moto taxis - locally called zemidjans or kekenos, are the most common form of transportation for the average Beninese person. These are very popular, and while not unique to Benin, are probably more highly concentrated here than anywhere in the world. Fares are negotiable, and there are no meters. The minimum fare is CFA 100. Expect to pay about 100 francs per kilometer. As long as you're staying within central Cotonou, the fare should not exceed 400 CFA. Bring a helmet along or buy one once you get to Cotonou - it's absolutely essential for your safety, and even with a helmet riding a zemidjan (or "zem") is much more dangerous than driving a car. However, many visitors to Benin, especially budget travelers and thrill-seekers, will take a zem at some point - it's simply not practical to avoid using zems without your own car, and the short hail times and door-to-door service make zems a highly functional mode of transport for many.

By Foot

Cotonou is not a particularly attractive city to wander about on foot, but much of it is also based on easily navigable grid system - making foot travel a decent option for those looking to wander or squeamish about hopping on the back of a zemidjan. In particular the easiest area to navigate on foot for visitors stretches from Dantokpa market down to Ganhi, and west to Jonquet. These are the main commercial areas of Cotonou, so shoppers will want to park the car and walk about to check out the shopkeepers and vendors selling anything and everything. Pay attention to your belongings, however, and avoiding walking around after dark is probably your best bet.

The upmarket Haie Vive area is also a good place to explore on foot, as it's concentrated along a single strip - but don't be surprised expats take their SUVs with NGO plates to have another drink a few doors down.

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Eat

You're likely to find innumerable street stalls and local restaurants in Cotonou. These can range from a woman on the side of the road with a vat of oil to large open-air bars that double as restaurants during the day. Street snacks to look out for include atta (bean flour fritters), doko (small fried donuts, sometimes made with mashed bananas), and igname frite (fried yam slices). Most neighborhoods will also have a blue-awning cafe bar or "Cafette Diallo", serving Nescafé and local variants on spaghetti for less than a dollar, catering to a very working-class crowd. Local maquis are also numerous and serve a basic combination of rice or pâte and meat at dirt-cheap prices.

  • Ci'gusta, Rue 449 (Near Pharmacie Camp Guezo), ☎ +229 96 31 01 01. M-Su 8AM-11PM. Cotonou outpost of a chain that serves Italian-style ice cream, paninis and pizza across the Global South, Ci'gusta rapidly became the city's top spot for ice cream upon its opening. A welcome respite from the equatorial sun, though it does get crowded. 1000-6000 CFA.
  • L'Aubergeade, 76 rue des Cheminots (On the main Jonquet bar street). A French-run restaurant with spiffy throwback décor, L'Aubergeade serves African and European fare in large portions, especially grilled meat and fish. There's also a smart cocktail menu here - overall, great value for your franc. 3000-5000 CFA.
  • La Cabane du Pêcheur, Route des Pêches, Fidjrossé (7km west of Fidjrossé fin pavé on Route des Pêches), ☎ +229 97 21 08 78. 11AM-11PM Tu-Su. A veritable oasis way out from the center along the beach, La Cabane du Pecheur is the best spot in Cotonou for seafood. There's a large selection of fish and other sea critters, usually caught fresh, and grilled in a style that will satisfy both African and European palates. Take a 4x4 if possible. 5000-7000 CFA/mains.
  • Mandarine, Route de l'Aéroport (Next to the Air France office), ☎ +229 21 30 14 57. 11AM-2AM M-Su. This is an incredible spot for Lebanese food - you can tell by the heavily Lebanese clientele. Fantastic hummus, baba ghanouj, and other Lebanese specialties, fresh-baked bread, perfectly grilled meats and more at reasonable prices. Note no alcohol served here. 2000-6000 CFA/main.
  • Maquis du Port, Boulevard de la Marina (Ganhi, avant l'Hotel Azalaï), ☎ +229 21 31 14 15. 11AM-2AM M-Su. Maquis du Port does excellent pan-West African fare at upmarket prices. With its seaside location, it can be counted on for fresh fish and is open late. 5000-7000 CFA/main. (updated Feb 2017 | edit)
  • Pili-Pili, Boulevard Saint-Michel (In the 2nd von heading south from Carrefour Saint Michel), ☎ +229 21 31 29 32. 12PM-4PM, 7-11:30PM. Pili serves up classic grilled meats - chicken, guinea fowl (a bigger, uglier, tastier chicken), beef and fish - with a liberal helping of piment on the side. There's salads, sides and wines here too, but that's not why you're here. 4500-9000 CFA/plate.
  • Shamiana, Haie Vive (In the von next to the Tresor Publique), ☎ +229 97 97 09 33. 11:30-23:30 M-Su. Probably the best restaurant in Cotonou. Serves up a wide variety of Indian dishes from across the subcontinent, and has a few Chinese-style dishes as well. Good luck finding a nicer, more engaging person to take your order than the guy who runs this place - he's a gem who will make absolutely certain you have as much or as little spice as you want. 4000-8000 FCFA/mains.

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Drink

Cotonou does not exactly have a ton of nightlife to explore, but all the establishments listed below are recommendable - if a bit expat-oriented. After all, the lion's share of drinking in Benin is done at local buvettes, outdoor bars where all you need for a good time are a few plastic tables and chairs, an oversized speaker, and a large beer: Beninoise, or for the hardy, a Guinness or Awooyo. Anyone seeking local color should ask around and wander over to the nearest rickety watering hole for the experience.

  • Djunta, Fidjrossé, fin pavé. Most folks come by for live music on Friday nights, when the house band plays afrobeat, jazz and even 50s rock-and-roll until the wee hours of the morn'. But it's good to drop by any night of the week for a cheap beer right on the beach under the glow of the Christmas-kitsch lights. 500-2000 FCFA/drink.
  • Drink City, L'esplanade du Stade de l'Amitié. There are innumerable buvettes in the complex surrounding Stade de l'Amitié, so you really can't go wrong, but a good choice is Drink City - chiefly due to the beer on tap that is available here. There are even rumors that they have had Guinness on tap - a real rarity - in addition to the more common Castel. Rotisserie chicken and grilled fish are on hand for the hungry. 500-2000 CFA/drink.
  • La Maison Blanche, Gbegamey (In the 2nd von east of La Poste Gbegamey). 24/7. A sprawling, multistory complex that includes a nightclub and rooftop lounge, Maison Blanche is one of the more comfortable places to enjoy beers at local buvette prices. 500-1500 CFA/drink.
  • Le Livingstone, Haie Vive (On the main Haie Vive strip), ☎ +229 21 30 27 58. 10AM-2AM. Voila, this is the main spot for expats to hangout in Cotonou. Come by for a Saturday night happy hour (6-9PM) to order a beer tower and see yovos gettin' rowdy. 1500-5000CFA/drink.
  • Le Parking, Fidjrosse, Place Calvaire. Part buvette, part funky art installation, Le Parking is a neat corner out in Fidjrosse. You'll see why they've named it Le Parking once you've arrived...one of the artists here has repurposed an old VW that isn't going anywhere anytime soon. 500-1500 CFA/drink.
  • MAD Lounge, Haie Vive (Haie Vive fin pavé), ☎ +229 66 21 89 89. M-Su 9AM-3AM. Tucked away at the end of the Haie Vive strip, MAD Lounge is a hookah bar popular with Cotonou's twentysomethings, who come dressed to impress. It's the kind of place that has Trace Urban on at a good volume, but still feels relaxing - thanks to the airy, thatched-roof setup and comfortably plush furniture. Good spot to start out before a night of dancing. 1500-6000CFA/drink.

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Sleep

  • Le Crillon Hostel, off ave Steinmetz, ☎ +229 21315158. Fan room with own bathroom. CFA 8000.
  • Centre Paul six Hostel, Blvd St Michel. Fan room. CFA 3000 per per person.
  • Hotel du Lac, ☎ +229-21331919. Check-out: Noon. Great for those needing access to Akpakpa and central Cotonou. Has free Wi-Fi and a rather nice swimming pool. The Sunday all-you-can-eat buffet (10000 CFA) is worth the trip even if you're not staying here. 60000-90000 CFA/night.
  • Hotel du Port, Boulevard de la Marina (Just before the port), ☎ +229 21 31 44 44. Far from the newest hotel in town, but one of the more comfortable lodgings at this price in Cotonou. The stars here are the bungalows more typically found in a rural setting, and the spacious pool with ample lounge chairs (non-guests can enter the pool area for 2500 CFA, one of the best such deals in town). Also has a restaurant and nightclub. 30000-60000 CFA/night.
  • Hotel Azalaï de la Plage, Quartier Ganhi, ☎ +229 21 31 72 00. An African hotel chain popular with business travelers. This isn't the newest hotel by any means, but it's been well-maintained, the rooms are comfortable and even stylish, and it's close to the Port of Cotonou and the main commerical areas in Ganhi. 75000-150000 CFA/night.
  • Novotel Cotonou Orisha, Boulevard de la Marina, ☎ +229 21 305662. A newish, mid-tier hotel that is in good shape.

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Keep Connected

Phone

See also International Telephone Calls

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Quick Facts

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Coordinates
  • Latitude: 6.3505
  • Longitude: 2.4332

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This is version 17. Last edited at 11:56 on Feb 5, 19 by Utrecht. 18 articles link to this page.

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