The port city of Cotonou is the largest and most prosperous in Benin, home to a bustling urban centre and remarkable traditional villages in the surrounding countryside. Here on the fertile south-western coast the red soil contrasts with the vivid green of tropical plants and trees. Colourful clothes, fresh produce and beautiful traditional bronzes fill the market stalls, and chameleons fill the surrounding trees – while the area's pythons are revered in a small local temple.
As one of the world's poorest nations, you'll be unlikely to find many grand museums and state-of-the-art visitor centres during your time in Benin. What you will find however is a real look at a culture virtually unchanged for centuries – where shrines and fetish dolls reflect the presence of voodoo, the official state religion. As well as the striking candy-striped Cotonou Cathedral, visitors will find a great variety of things to see during their time here:
One of Benin's most popular attractions is the remarkable village of Ganvie, a cluster of thatched wooden huts that stand on stilts in the middle of a lagoon. The village was founded by the Tofinu tribe during the height of the slave trade, when the neighbouring Abomey tribe would raid their villages to capture their people and sell them as slaves to the colonies. By building the Ganvie village on the lagoon, however, the Tofinu exploited Abomey religious practices which forbade them to attack people on water – and hence created a way for their people to live in peace.
Sacred Python Temple
Benin's traditional belief holds the python as a sacred animal, maintaining that the snake spirit Dangbe, who has since become prevalent in the voodoo religion, was descended from pythons. A trip to this modest temple may even give you the chance to handle the pythons which are revered and tended to here at the shrine; what better way to discover some of the rich culture of this small African nation?
Centre de Promotion de l'Artisanat
Contemporary native artists in Benin often find it difficult to get a foothold to promote and sell their work, as the country as a whole tends to prefer the art produced beyond its borders. In fact, many of the arts and crafts produced by native artists are overlooked merely as traditional items – with little value placed on them by many locals. The country's art and artists rely heavily on tourists and visitors taking an interest in their work, and this is where the Centre for the Promotion of Art comes in. Here you'll find colourful batiks and hand-crafted leather and jewellery, as well as striking frescoes, heads and animals sculpted in bronze – the perfect window into traditional Beninese culture.
Shopping in Cotonou
Keen shoppers in Benin will find a wealth of culture in and around Cotonou. Bookshops here offer plenty of works on West African history and culture, as well as photography books documenting the people and wildlife of the region. Visitors will also find market stalls selling traditional West African fetish dolls, harking back to the Voodoo religion which is still prevalent here.
Eating Out in Cotonou
Hungry tourists have a great range of restaurants to choose from during their time in Cotonou, and many provide typical Benin cuisine in bright, elegant surroundings. Expect large servings of fresh local grains and vegetables to accompany traditionally prepared chicken or fish, with plenty of seasoning and pilipili hot sauce. For dessert, try a fruit salad of the local pineapples, bananas, oranges and mangoes.