Essential travel guide Cotonou – the unofficial capital of Benin

Cotonou or as it was originally known, ‘Kotònu’ is the largest city of the West African country of the Republic of Benin. An unconventional travel destination, Cotonou is, in fact, the gateway to discovering Benin, and its history of powerful empires, tumultuous changes and the contemporary melting pot that now exists.  sits on the mouth of the river. Cotonou’s location at the mouth of a river opening onto the Atlantic Ocean is the very reason for its existence and allows the city to connect much of land-locked West Africa to trade with the outside world.


In 1830, having already passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, the British began to patrol Ouidah’s natural harbour which connected European slave merchants to a major slave trading post. By 1832, and with the complicity of the King Guézo a new trading hub had been established to the East of Ouidah at Kotònu which permitted the other European slave traders to evade the British patrols. In the regional language, Fongbé, ‘Kotònu’ means “the mouth of the river of death.” The port’s significance to the contemporary Beninese economy cannot be understated, procuring the majority of the country’s GDP each year. It brings in business from Benin’s landlocked Northern neighbour such as Niger and Burkina Faso and at night lines of trucks can be seen heading to the port. As such, Cotonou is the throbbing economic heart of the country. Although it is also home to the Presidential Palace and foreign embassies it is not the country’s political capital; that honour is reserved for Porto Novo.

Why Visit?

Today, Cotonou is the gateway to everything the narrow West-African country of Benin has to offer. It hosts the country’s International airport and for that reason alone it will be the first destination of some international visitors. If you’re coming overland it’s only a few hours by car or bus from Nigeria to the East or from Togo on to the West. Cotonou can also serve as a base for venturing to other intriguing Beninese cities such as Ganvié, Ouidah, Porto Novo and Abomey. Cotonou itself is inseparable from the turbulent history of this region from it time as the Kingdom of Dahomey to the modern-day Republic of Benin. French has remained the official language since independence from French colonial rule in 1960 so you’ll need to use the French names to get around. Taking a motorbike taxi is the most efficient type of transport. Buy yourself a helmet and remember you’ll have to negotiate a fare. Local languages such as Fongbé are equally prominent but you shouldn’t have much trouble finding a French speaker. Travelling with only English might be a bit more challenging but a lot can be achieved by pointing at a map, some charades and a piece pen and paper! Surpassing the challenging is half the magic of travelling off the beaten road. In just one day you can really get a feel for Cotonou and, in a couple more, feel like you’ve been part of the city.

Must see & must do

  1. Zinzou Foundation (La Fondation Zinzou)

This is my absolute number-one recommendation for sites in Cotonou, a must visit for art-enthusiasts and shoppers alike. The Zinzou foundation is contemporary African art gallery featuring both permanent and temporary expeditions. A professionally guided tour through this impressive three-story gallery is free. In addition, it is refreshingly air-conditioned, a welcome reprieve from the heat that radiates off the concrete and bitumen outdoors in a city devoid of trees and green spaces. There is also a café and boutique attached where you can give back to the foundation after your tour, all the while treating yourself to some house-made sorbet or finding gorgeous and unique gifts for those back home.
  1. French Institute (L’institute française)

This cultural centre provides much of the city’s musical, theatrical, poetic and cinematic entertainment. Events are often free, or a reasonable price for high-quality entertainment. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the city’s expat population will also emerge.
  1. Obama Beach (Obama plage)

Obama Beach bathed in beautiful sunset colours. A must see in Cotonou, Benin

That’s right, Obama beach. This beach was named after Barack Obama when he elected president of the United States of America, a moment of astonishment and joy among the people I talked to. Benin, as the country that led the democratic transition among French-speaking African nations, also appears to feel a sense of democratic affinity with the US. Obama beach has paid entry but there are playgrounds for the kids, a bar and lots of colourful shaded areas. On the weekends there are also concerts by local bands. Unfortunately, swimming at Obama Beach is prohibited, in part due to the strong currents and the fact that most locals are unable to swim. Be alert while walking to the beach and while you are there, especially in the evening or if alone. While I had no problems, muggings in the areas are not unheard of and it pays to be prudent.
  1. Dantokpa market (Marché Dantokpa)

Said to be the largest open-air market in West Africa, this is not a site to be missed. Dantokpa market stretched over 20 hectares buzzing with motorcycles, pedestrians and vendors. Wandering through the market is both fascinating and overwhelming, it’s as if all of Cotonou has been condensed into a designated area. You will stumble anything you can think of from produce, to live animals, to clothes and toys. Mobile vendors weave along the streets carrying all manner of products on their head: 20 chickens tied-up in a bowl, a tower of folded ‘pagne’ (patterned cloth) even a rack of clothing that sways on its hangers around the vendor’s body. Be sure to put your bag in front, clear your pockets and be vigilant. It’s no surprise that such a bustling site is home to pickpocketers.
  1. Notre Dame Cathedral (La Cathédrale Notre Dame)

This old cathedral has been repurposed into a book sore. Its peculiar aesthetic makes it hard to miss and impossible to forget; it has a tiled exterior coloured in horizontal burgundy and white stripes. Inside there is a wide selection of Beninese and African French literature and well as school books.
  1. The Square of the Red Star (La place de l’étoile rouge)

In 1975 the Soviet Union erected a giant five-pointed red star to celebrate the government’s adoption of Marxist-Leninist ideology. The Republic of Dahomey became the People’s Republic of Benin. This monument marks an intriguing moment in the state’s history and alliances, a contrast from the symbolism of Obama beach. It is situated at the centre of a roundabout connecting the city’s major roads and is often the site of public activities.
  1. The martyrs’ square (La place des martyrs)

Martyrs’ Place (Place des martyrs), Cotonou, Benin

Up a set of stairs is a memorial to the Beninese martyrs of the 16 January 1977. French mercenaries led by Bob Denard parachuted into the People’s Republic of Benin with the intention of toppling the socialist government. The coup attempt failed, and the mercenaries retreated but many Beninese soldiers also lost their lives. This memorial looks over an area often used for public events. Beneath it is a free open-air art gallery.
  1. Friendship stadium (Le stade de l’amitié)

The Friendship stadium is not just a stadium, but rather a sporting complex and hub of activities. There are basketball courts and soccer fields, a gym, a pool, a mosque, food stores, banks and bars. Its constant hum of activity accelerates on the weekends when half the city makes the most of the fresher morning air to run around or play a sport. If you have the chance, join a sporting match and you’ll meet locals instantly. After having visited Cotonou, you’ll be itching to get further off the beaten track in West Africa.  

Samantha Goerling

An adventurous Aussie gal in my early twenties, you’ll find me alternating between the water and my book at the beach, immersed in conversation with someone I’ve just met, cooking food from around the world for my friends, intently listening to current affairs on the radio or learning a new language. The desire to discover all corners of the earth and share moments with people I never expected to meet has plunged me into the world of languages and adventure. I’ve found myself running across Samoa, walking barefoot through a python temple West Africa and hiking an active volcano in Indonesia.