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.
Cadjehoun AirportIs 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. ATMs are available landside, and there is a duty-free shop in the departure area, though you might as well be paying duties with how much they charge. Be sure to keep your sticker identifying that you are the owner of your checked bag that you receive at check-in; you technically aren't supposed to leave the baggage claim without it, but in reality 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 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 busBuses from nearby capitals Accra, Lagos and Lome are plentiful. Amongst others, ABC Transport offers daily services.
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.
By trainInformation on train service is hard to come by - it's unclear if any train service is still running these days.
But once upon a time (2012?), there was a train route that went halfway up the country, from Cotonou to Parakou, run by L’Organisation Commune Benin-Niger des Chemins de Fer et Transports (2132 2206). The train would leave Cotonou three times a week (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday) at 8AM precisely, arriving at Parakou about 6:30PM, returning the next day, leaving at 8AM from the Parakou train station, arriving 6:30PM in Cotonou. First class costs CFA 5600, while second costs CFA 4000.
The trains on these schedules would also stop at Bohicon, which is 4 hours from Cotonou. The fare costs CFA 1400 for first class, and CFA 1100 for second.
A tour company also hired out 1920s colonial-period trains for multiple-day touring trips at expensive, but good value prices (CFA 50,000+). The service, called Train d'Ebene was operated by Voyageur SARL - but no word on if it's still going.
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.
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.
Cotonou CathedralNoted for its distinct burgundy and white striped tile architecture. The cathedral is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cotonou.
phone: +229 21 30 99 25address: Avenue Germain Olory Togbe, Quartier ZongoRun 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.
Grande Mosquée de ZongoThe 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.
Place de la BulgarieA 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.
Place des Martyrsaddress: Place des MartyrsA big North Korean-built monument to those who died defending against colonialism. Hosts artists, a food truck, and occasional public concerts.
address: Avenue Jean Paul IIThe Institut Francais is a fixture of the Cotonou cultural scene, holding concerts, film screenings, theater, stand-up comedy, and more.
Stade de l'Amitiéphone: +229 21 38 17 84address: Rue 2651The 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.
French Institute's Cultural Centre
Grand Marché de Dantokpaaddress: Boulevard St. MichelThe Dantokpa market is allegedly the largest in West Africa, and it's huge indeed. You can buy everything here, be prepared to bargain and brace yourself for noise, crowds, scents and general sensory overload. A fascinating place to visit.
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.
Boucherie Zitawiaddress: Ganhi, near the Avenue Steinmetz overpassThe 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.
Chez Maman Béninphone: +229 21 32 33 38address: Rue 201AA 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.
Fifadji Pork Maquisaddress: Rue 2650This 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.
La Galette à Sucreaddress: Route de L'Aéroport, CotonouA 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.
phone: +229 96 31 01 01address: Rue 449Cotonou 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.
L'Aubergeadeaddress: 76 rue des CheminotsA 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.
La Cabane du Pêcheurphone: +229 97 21 08 78address: Route des Pêches, FidjrosséA 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.
Mandarinephone: +229 21 30 14 57address: Route de l'AéroportThis 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.
Maquis du Portphone: +229 21 31 14 15address: Boulevard de la MarinaMaquis 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.
Pili-Piliphone: +229 21 31 29 32address: Boulevard Saint-MichelPili 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.
Shamianaphone: +229 97 97 09 33address: Haie ViveProbably 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.
Bangkok Terrassephone: +229 21 30 37 86address: Rue 449Believe 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.
Rousski Domphone: +229 21 30 37 86address: Haie ViveAs 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.
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. However, Cotonou is not one-dimensional, and those seeking diversity should check out the haunts listed below.
phone: +229 96 71 42 70address: Boulevard Saint-MichelCotonou is very short on the type of java joints where hipsters congregate to bury their nose in their laptops. This is the closest thing to it in Cotonou, and probably the only place you can find iced coffee here too. 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 6-9.
Djuntaaddress: Fidjrossé, fin pavéMost 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.
Drink Cityaddress: L'esplanade du Stade de l'AmitiéThere 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.
La Maison Blancheaddress: GbegameyA 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.
phone: +229 21 30 27 58address: Haie ViveVoila, 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.
Le Parkingaddress: Fidjrosse, Place CalvairePart 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.
MAD Loungephone: +229 66 21 89 89address: Haie ViveTucked 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.
Music Venues and Nightclubs
address: KindonouProbably 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.
Code Barphone: +229 96 90 10 10address: Tri-PostalCode Bar has been the trendiest spot in town for locals and visitors alike to party pretty much since the day it opened. It's not quite a club - its open-air layout and lounge-y cabanas defy the norm here - but you'll find plenty of folks imbibing bottle service or cocktails and taking a turn on the dance floor to the blend of African and hip-hop beats. Also hosts a popular Thursday happy-hour BBQ.
address: Place de l'Étoile RougeYes Papa 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.
Sanctuaryaddress: CadjehounSanctuary 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 licks here, and drink prices aimed at the wealthy toubab clientele that appreciates them.
Le Crillon Hostelphone: +229 21315158address: off ave SteinmetzFan room with own bathroom.
Centre Paul six Hosteladdress: Blvd St MichelFan room.
phone: +229-21331919Great 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.
phone: +229 21 31 44 44address: Boulevard de la MarinaFar 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.
Hotel Azalaï de la Plagephone: +229 21 31 72 00address: Quartier GanhiAn 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.
phone: +229 21 305662address: Boulevard de la MarinaA newish, mid-tier hotel that is in good shape.
- phone: +229 21 30 06 50address: 1BP 2012
Greecephone: +229 90 15 16address: PO Box 8116
- Porto-Novo - official 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