In the Fon language, the word 'cotonou' means "the mouth of the river of death". The area was settled as a fishing village during the time of the Dahomey Kingdom. The French were given permission to build a trading post, until they were given the region altogether in 1868. The city was used to defend against the British in their conquests.
Cotonou grew to become the largest city in the country, right up to independence. Although the capital is located at Porto-Novo, Cotonou is still the nation's economic and population centre. It also attracts many government institutions and embassies, regardless of Porto-Novo's status, leading to the city being referred as Benin's de-facto capital.
- 1 Cadjehoun Airport (COO IATA) (extremely close to the city center in the Haie Vive neighborhood). It is the primary airport serving the city and the country. It has regular scheduled services from many African capitals, especially Francophone ones, along with connections to Brussels, Paris, and Istanbul. It's a miserable experience. Its facilities are extremely cramped, and offers almost no services for passengers. There is a currency exchange available with windows on the arrival and departure sides. The arrival windows are between the exit doors. ATMs are only available in the departure area. You can exit and re-enter the departure area, but you’ll have to go through a security check. There is a duty-free shop in the departure area, though you might as well be paying duties with how much they charge. Keep your sticker identifying that you are the owner of your checked bag that you receive at check-in; you aren't supposed to leave the baggage claim without it, but a small bribe is really what most security guards are after.
Taxis are available in the parking lot, but it's best to prearrange transport in advance. Most nicer hotels run airport shuttles for their guests. The parking lot is also somewhere you can buy a Beninese SIM card or change money, but be wary of getting ripped off.
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 3½-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.
There are bus services from Cotonou to every good-sized town in the country. Some run buses in good condition on regular schedules; others manage neither. Book with a skeptical eye, though a bus is likely to be safer than a bush taxi, although it may or may not be any more comfortable.
By bush taxi
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.
There is no longer train service in Benin.
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 100 CFA. Expect to pay about 100 CFA 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 1 Cotonou Cathedral (Notre Dame des Apotres) (Near the Ancien Pont Bridge). Noted for its distinct burgundy and white striped tile architecture. The cathedral is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cotonou.
- 2 Fondation Zinzou, Avenue Germain Olory Togbe, Quartier Zongo (Just north of Carrefour St. Michel), ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. M-Sa. Run by one of Benin's first families (current head Lionel was defeated in a presidential election in 2016), 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.
- 3 Grande Mosquée de Zongo. The largest mosque, and possibly all of Benin, it's a center of it all for Cotonou's Muslim communities. Zongo is a Hausa word meaning "foreigner", which gives an idea of the pan-Africanness you'll find in the neighborhood.
- 4 Place de la Bulgarie. A bizarre Cold War anachronism, this traffic circle features a larger-than-life statue - seemingly rising out of nowhere - of Bulgaria's first Communist leader, Georgi Dimitrov. There used to also be a statue of Lenin in the city, but it was torn down when Benin ceased its efforts to become a communist nation.
- 5 Place des Martyrs (Martyrs' square). A big North Korean-built monument to those who died defending against colonialism. Hosts artists, a food truck, and occasional public concerts. Free.
- 6 Etoile Rouge (Red Star), intersection of Rue 400, Rue 560, and Ave de la Victoire. Open 24 hours. A roundabout that is another tribute to Benin's communist past in the form of a large red star, but you are probably better able to see it from a plane if you get the chance upon departure or arrival.
- 1 Institut Français, Avenue Jean Paul II (across from the CNHU hospital complex). Hours vary by event. The Institut Français is a fixture of the Cotonou cultural scene, holding concerts, film screenings, theater, stand-up comedy, and more. 0-3000 CFA.
- 2 Stade de l'Amitié, Rue 2651, ☏ . The national stadium of Benin and anchor of a sports complex, Stade de l'Amitié hosts not only football matches, but also concerts and markets on the adjacent esplanade and parking lots. The Stade is also the site of a large number of restaurants and bars, making it a popular location for Beninese to head on weekend evenings to get the party started.
- 3 Air de Jeux Plage Erevan (Yerevan Beach Playground), Rue 230 / Boulevard de la Marina (just across beach road from airport runway), ☏ . Interesting stretch in that you have an Airbus A300 parked in the sand behind you. May be a little dirty. Just west of here is an extensive beach called Fidjrosse Beach (Plage De Fidjrosse). With both of these, watch out for powerful surf and don't go after dark.
- 4 Obama Beach (behind Congress Palace and not far from Novotel Cotonou Orisha), ☏ . Another beach with the well-known namesake and even a sign of him if you want a photo op. This beach is a little dirtier than the other, and also subject to strong surf and security considerations. 300 CFA.
- You can do a boat tour of Ganvie, the stilt village that is known as the Venice of Africa on the other side of Lake Nokoue. It should be possible to take a boat from the Hotel du Lac in Cotonou, where the price may be around 5,000 CFA, then different tours and such are available at the village. Another option is to hire a boat operator at the point of embarkment in Abomey-Calavi for Ganvie. Just don't touch the water, as the lack of any sewer system translates into the lake being a septic tank. Even the Lagune de Cotonou has heaping piles of garbage along the banks, so I'm sure you won't want to.
- 1 Grand Marché de Dantokpa, Boulevard St. Michel (by the lagoon). A fascinating place that is allegedly the largest market in West Africa, and it is huge in both size and range of products. Be prepared to bargain and brace yourself for noise, crowds, scents and sensory overload.
- 2 Centre Artisanal (on Boulevard St Michel about 1 block southwest from Foundation Zinsou), ☏ . 07:30-20:00 daily. Where artisans sell their products, everything from figurines traditional masks to richly-coloured cloth. Can be a bit of a tourist trap with some pressure to buy.
In addition to what's listed here, 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.
- 1 Boucherie Zitawi, Ganhi, near the Avenue Steinmetz overpass (In the von across from Pacha nightclub). The go-to for fast-food here. Cotonou may lack McDonald's and KFC, but it's got a proper shawarma spot that also does ace burgers and other Lebanese dishes. 1000-4000 CFA/meal.
- 2 Chez Maman Bénin, Rue 201A (In the von one block north of Boulevard Saint-Michel, near Hall des Arts), ☏ . Daily 11:00-00:00. A local institution that's been running for several decades. This is not the very best Beninese food you will eat, but it's a great introduction: they have an ample selection of dishes and an indoor dining room, both of which are far from the norm at low-end restaurants and maquis here. 1000-3000 CFA/person.
- 3 Fifadji Pork Maquis, Rue 2650 (Across from Pharmacie La Tamaya). Daily 12:00-18:00. This maquis does not have a name, but you'll know you're there when you see a grillmaster tending to meats cooked over a grill made from an oil drum. This is the best place in Cotonou to score grilled pork or "hanlan", more traditionally associated with Porto-Novo. 500-1200CFA.
- 4 La Galette à Sucre, Route de L'Aéroport, Cotonou (next to the Turkish Airlines office). Daily 06:00-23:00. A bakery and brunch spot that's always packed. Offers a range of breads and pastries, often using locally-sourced products (some of which are also sold here). Affordable crêpes, omelettes and sandwiches are available if you want to sit in. 500-2500 CFA.
- 5 Ci'gusta, Rue 449 (Near Pharmacie Camp Guezo), ☏ . Daily 08:00-23:00. 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.
- 6 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.
- 7 La Cabane du Pêcheur, Route des Pêches, Fidjrossé (7km west of Fidjrossé fin pavé on Route des Pêches), ☏ . Tu-Su 11:00-23:00. An oasis way out from the centre along the beach, La Cabane du Pecheur is the best spot in Cotonou for seafood. There's a large selection of fish and other seafood, 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.
- 8 Mandarine, Route de l'Aéroport (Next to the Air France office), ☏ . Daily 11:00-02:00. An incredible spot for Lebanese food, with a significant Lebanese clientele. Fantastic hummus, baba ghanouj, and other Lebanese specialities, fresh-baked bread, perfectly grilled meats and more at reasonable prices. Note no alcohol served. 2000-6000 CFA/main.
- 9 Maquis du Port, Boulevard de la Marina (Ganhi, avant l'Hotel Azalaï), ☏ . Daily 11:00-02:00. 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.
- 10 Pili-Pili, Boulevard Saint-Michel (in the 2nd von heading south from Carrefour Saint Michel), ☏ . Daily 12:00-16:00, 19:00-23:30. Pili serves classic grilled meats: chicken, guinea fowl (a bigger, uglier, tastier chicken), beef and fish - all with a liberal helping of piment on the side. There are salads, side dishes and wines, but that's not why you're here. 4500-9000 CFA/plate.
- 11 Shamiana, Haie Vive (In the von next to the Tresor Publique), ☏ . Daily 11:30-23:30. 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 certain you have as much or as little spice as you want. 4000-8000 FCFA/mains.
- 12 Bangkok Terrasse, Rue 449 (Quartier Camp Guèzo), ☏ . Tu-Su 11:00-23:00. Believe it or not, Cotonou even has decent Thai. With the local preference for piquant plates, Southeast Asian food actually fits in well here. Wide range of curries, soups, noodles and rice dishes available. 5000-15000 CFA/mains.
- 13 Rousski Dom, Haie Vive (in the von next to the Tresor Publique), ☏ . Daily 12:00-23:00. As a former Marxist-Leninst state, Benin cultivated ties with Mother Russia - sending students for cultural exchanges and building Stalinist monuments around town. Those days are gone, but Slavic gastronomy still survives in the form of this swank outpost, which also boasts a well-stocked vodka bar. 6000-15000 CFA/mains.
Cotonou does not have much nightlife, 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 colour should ask around and wander over to the nearest rickety watering hole for the experience. However, Cotonou is not one-dimensional, and those seeking diversity should check out the haunts listed below.
- 1 Café Fondation Zinsou, Boulevard Saint-Michel, ☏ . Cotonou is very short on the type of coffee shops where hipsters congregate to bury their nose in their laptops. This is the closest thing to it, and probably the only place you can find iced coffee. The colonial undertones are wack, but they always have a rad collection of African tunes and books for sale. Also does a happy-hour on Fridays from 18:00-21:00. 1000-3000 CFA/drink, food 4000-7000 CFA/main dish.
- 2 Djunta, Fidjrossé, fin pavé. Most come for live music on Friday nights, when the house band plays afrobeat, jazz and even 1950s rock-and-roll until the wee hours. 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 CFA/drink.
- 3 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. There are even rumours 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.
- 4 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.
- 5 Le Livingstone, Haie Vive (On the main Haie Vive strip), ☏ . 10:00-02:00. The main spot for expats to hangout in Cotonou. Come by for a Saturday night happy hour (18:00-18:00) to order a beer tower and see yovos gettin' rowdy. 1500-5000CFA/drink.
- 6 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 van to be part as part of the fixtures. 500-1500 CFA/drink.
- 7 MAD Lounge, Haie Vive (Haie Vive fin pavé), ☏ . Daily 09:00-03:00. Tucked away at the end of the Haie Vive strip, MAD Lounge is a hookah bar popular with 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. 1500-6000 CFA/drink.
Music venues and nightclubs
- 8 Africa Sound City, Kindonou (In the von across from Pharmacie Kindonou, one block in from the street). Probably Cotonou's foremost live music venue. It's not very big, but there is a good-sized, professional-looking stage in the back, and a bar stacked with cases of beer in the front. Has an eclectic roster of bookings. The kind of place with Fela Kuti and Thomas Sankara portraits on the walls. Entry up to 2000 CFA, 500-2000 CFA/drink.
- 9 Code Bar, Tri-Postal (just after the airport roundabout, before Erevan hypermarket), ☏ . Su-Th 18:00-02:00, F Sa 18:00-dawn. Code Bar has been the trendiest spot for both locals and visitors to party since it opened. It's not quite a club, more an open-air layout and lounge-y cabanas. Plenty imbibe the bottle service or cocktails and take a turn on the dance floor to the blend of African and hip-hop beats. Also hosts a popular Thursday happy-hour BBQ. 1500-3000 CFA/drink.
- 10 Le Yes Papa, Place de l'Étoile Rouge (From the roundabout, follow the sign for Sikacodji and it's on the left). Is a local artists' collective that hosts weekend concerts: Thursday salsa, Friday reggae, Saturday jazz, though the program can vary. Get in touch with the local Rastafaris in the upstairs lounge. 1000 CFA entry, 500-2000 CFA/drink.
- 11 Sanctuary, Cadjehoun (Near the main Cadjehoun stoplight ("le feu à Cadjehoun")). Seems a bit out of place: like a Hard Rock Cafe descended on a slapdash African city. Nonetheless, you'll find lots of bluesy electric guitar music, and drink prices aimed at the wealthy toubab clientele. 3000-6000 CFA/drink.
- Le Crillon Hostel, off ave Steinmetz, ☏ . Fan room with own bathroom. CFA 8000.
- Centre Paul six Hostel, Blvd St Michel. Fan room. CFA 3000 per per person,.
- 1 La Maison de CanelYa (The House CanelYa) (in Fidjrosse), ☏ . Smallish accommodation in a converted apartment building type of situation, with garden and bar and a few blocks from the beach. ~17872 CFA.
- 2 Hôtel Tahiti benin, Rue 1531 (on east bank of Cotonou Lagoon), ☏ . This one is right on the beach with a restaurant and bar overlooking the beach, and has a pool, a/c, and wifi. ~27366 CFA.
- 3 Hotel du Lac, ☏ . Check-out: 12:00. Great for those needing access to Akpakpa and central Cotonou. Has free Wi-Fi and a rather nice swimming pool. There is a free shuttle service for the airport. The Sunday all-you-can-eat buffet (10000 CFA) is worth the trip even if you're not staying here. 50000-90000 CFA/night.
- 4 Hotel du Port, Boulevard de la Marina (Just before the port), ☏ . Far from the newest hotel, 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.
- 5 Hotel Azalaï de la Plage, Quartier Ganhi, ☏ . 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.
- 6 Novotel Cotonou Orisha, Boulevard de la Marina, ☏ . A newish, mid-tier hotel that is in good shape.
- United States, 1BP 2012, ☏ , fax: . M-Th 08:00-12:30, 13:30-17:00.
- Greece, PO Box 8116, ☏ , fax: .
- Porto-Novo - capital city of Benin
- Abomey - UNESCO world heritage site with a number of mud-brick palaces
- Bohicon - a city in the south of the country