Benin is a country in West Africa. You'll find culture through a large collection of palatial ruins and temples of the once powerful Kingdom of Dahomey (1800s–1894). Moreover, Benin is the birthplace of Vodun (Voodoo) and all that goes with it — Vodun is the official religion of the country, and an important part of the life of ordinary Beninese. Many important tourist sites are linked to Vodun or the slave trade. The national parks of Benin are well worth a visit for their wildlife. It is also, fortunately, one of the most stable and safe countries of the region for travelling. With its rich history, vibrant culture, protected wildlife, Grand Popo ocean beach, and artisan market in Se, Benin is one of the best kept tourist secrets in West Africa.
|Northern Benin |
Arid landscapes and tribes
|Southern Benin |
The coastline, the capital and most of the sights
- 1 Porto-Novo — The capital, if only in name, hosting the parliament and a unique Afro-Portuguese heritage
- 2 Abomey — The pre-colonial capital whose Royal Palaces are on the UNESCO World Heritage List
- 3 Cotonou — Benin's largest city and de facto capital, the hectic and cramped home to many government offices and the country's port
- 4 Grand-Popo — A sleepy beach resort town close to the Togolese border
- 5 Malanville — A border town with Niger, with not much else besides a border post
- 6 Natitingou — Largest city on the way to northern Togo or Burkina Faso and a jumping-off point for exploring the Tata Somba
- 7 Ouidah - A former slave-trading port that is a center for the country's vodun heritage
- 8 Parakou — The largest city in the central region and the capital of the Borgou Department
Benin, formerly a part of Dahomey until 1960, was one of the few countries to transition from Marxist rule to a democratic system in the 1990s. The country enjoys an island of stability and provides a complex heritage, handful of spiritual traditions and endless tropical landscapes.
To understand the roots of Benin, you must look at the Kingdom of Dahomey, whose origin story begins with the Adja of present-day Togo. Around the 12th or 13th century, the Adja people of Tado, a village on the banks of the Mono River, migrated to present-day Benin. Fighting for succession among three brothers split the Adja in the early 17th century. The brothers divided the territory and founded their own kingdoms. Kokpon founded the Kingdom of Allada, Te-Agdanlin founded the Kingdom of Hogbonou, which the Portuguese later named Porto-Novo, and Do-Aklin founded the Kingdom of Abomey, which would soon be known as Dahomey.
The Portuguese arrived in Benin's territory in the fifteenth century, and established significant trading posts in Benin's coastal areas. Soon following the Portuguese came French, Dutch, and British traders. Over time, Benin's coast developed into the largest center of the slave trade in Africa, run by the Fon people, who founded the Kingdom of Dahomey, a highly militaristic kingdom that actively sold their neighboring peoples to the Europeans. As the slave trade increased in volume (10,000–20,000 slaves shipped off per day), the coast of Benin became known as the Slave Coast. Around this time, the port cities of Porto-Novo and Ouidah were founded and quickly became the largest and most commercially active cities in the country, while Abomey became the Dahomey capital.
|Currency||West African CFA franc (XOF)|
|Population||11.1 million (2017)|
|Electricity||220 volt / 50 hertz (Europlug, Type E)|
|Time zone||UTC+01:00, Africa/Porto-Novo|
|Emergencies||112 (emergency medical services), 117 (police), 118 (fire department)|
|edit on Wikidata|
The fall of the Dahomey Kingdom was precipitated by the banning of slavery throughout Europe in the mid-19th century, followed by the French annexation of the territory under colonial rule. Much of the Dahomey leadership broke even in the annexation, being appointed to top government posts throughout all the French colonies in West Africa. In 1960, Dahomey gained its independence, under the name République du Dahomey, which set off a long and destabilizing series of coups. In the course of just one decade, 1960—1972, the government changed hands nine times, and experienced four violent coups.
In 1972, Major Mathieu Kérékou, a staunch Marxist, organized the fourth of the military coups, and renamed the country the People's Republic of Benin. Kérékou's regime proved more successful at maintaining power, and reorganized the country on his interpretation of the Maoist model. In 1989, the French government, in exchange for financial support of Benin's flailing economy, persuaded the Benin government to abandon its one-party Socialist rule, and to move to a multiparty republic. In 1990, the country was renamed the Republic of Benin, and in 1991, Benin held its first free elections with significant success, and Kereku lost to Nicephore Soglo—Benin was thus the first African nation to successfully coordinate a peaceful transfer of power from a dictatorship to a functioning democracy. Soglo remained president through 1996, but his administration was marred by poor economic performance, leading to his electoral defeat to Mathieu Kérékou in 1996, who ruled the country and maintained popularity despite corruption scandals until 2006.
Benin remains as an extremely poor country, suffering from poverty and corruption. Infrastructure remains very poor in condition, and the struggling economy is recovering after decades of political unrest.
The equatorial south of Benin experiences two rainy seasons of the year, from April to mid July and from mid-September through the end of October. The rainy period in the subequatorial north runs from March until October. The best time of the year to visit the country is from November to February, when the temperature moderates, and the weather is dry with low humidity.
Benin is smaller than its neighbours, being 112,620 km² or a similar size to Honduras or the US state of Ohio. The country is divided into five geographic zones, from south to north: the Coastal plain, the plateau, the elevated plateau and savannah, hills in the northwest and fertile plains in the north.
The nation consists of more than 60 ethnic groups. The major tribes include the Fon (40%), Aja (15%), and Yoruba (12%) in the south of the country, and the Bariba (9%), Somba (8%), and Fulbe (6%) in the north.
The most widespread religion is Christianity (43%), predominantly in the south, and Islam in the north (24%). Most interesting for many visitors, however, is the strong influence of Vodun on Benin, practiced as a principal religion by a good 18% of the populace, and which was spread about the globe largely by the massive number of enslaved people exported by the Dahomey Kingdom.
- January 1: New Year's Day
- January 10: Traditional Day (Fête de Vodoun)
- August 1: Independence Day
- October 26: Armed Forces Day
- November 1: All Saints Day
- November 30: National Day
- December 25: Christmas
- December 26: Boxing Day
Citizens of all countries may apply for eVisa online. Visas can be 30 days single entry (€50), 30 days multiple entry (€75) or 90 days multiple entry (€100). For longer stays, it is recommended to come with an e-visa and apply for a permit in-country.
There are many international flights arriving at the main airport in Cotonou: Paris (Air France, Corsair), Istanbul (Turkish Airlines), Brussels (Brussels Airlines), Casablanca (Royal Air Maroc), Kigali (Rwandair), Dakar (Air Senegal), Douala (Rwandair), Addis Ababa (Ethiopian Airlines), Tunis (Tunisair), Lome (Asky), Abidjan (Air Cote D'Ivoire), Pointe-Noire (Trans Air Congo).
To enter the country, you will need proof that you have had a yellow fever shot, and this will need to be readily available at the airport.
There are no international train services to Benin.
There is an extremely timely and reliable bus system that typically operates a tour-style bus through every major city in Benin every day, and even some international services in and out of Benin. There are many major lines with a range of quality of buses. The main systems are Confort Lines and Benin-Routes. Confort Lines seems to provide more of a variety of routes, and you even get some water and a little sandwich for long trips. Reservations for Confort Lines can be made in advance for CFA 500 at any regional office or by calling +229 21-325815. Bus lines run through: Porto-Novo, Cotonou, Calavey, Bohicon, Dassau, Parakou, Djougou, Natitingou, Tanguieta, Kandi, and even all the way up to Malanville.
Buses run on the two major paved roads running north and south, and you can have the bus stopped at any point you would like to get off at, and for differing rates. No discussion of prices is needed with the bus, as they use fixed rates. To give you an idea of prices, buses running from Cotonou to Natitingou (or vice versa) cost CFA 7,500 one way, and Cotonou to Parakou (or vice versa) costs CFA 5,500. These are examples, because there are also buses that go as far as Tanguieta and Malanville.
By bush taxi
Bush taxi is possible between most cities, every day in major cities, periodically for the more remote ones. The price for long distances will be a little higher than by bus, and comfort and security are significantly lower. Drivers are often trying to maximize the number of people in the car so one can expect an intimate experience with the local population. However, bush taxis do offer flexibility that the bus systems do not; you can always find a taxi fairly quickly (at the autogarres). For trips of 3 hours (approx. 150 km) or less, a bush taxi might be a more flexible and reasonable option. Unlike the buses though, prices must be discussed in advance. Cost depends on the destination and price of gas. Ask other passengers what they are paying and always try to pay on arrival, although the latter is not always possible. A decent option for travelers not trying to go on the cheap is to buy up all the seats in a bush taxi, or at least all the seats in one row. It not only avoids having to wait until the taxi driver has filled up every seat, but it's much more comfortable than being crammed in with lots of sweaty people! If you do this, you'll typically need to give the driver some money up front so he can buy petrol along the way.
Hired drivers cost more and is the typical means of transport for foreigners. The price depends on the driver and a local (Beninois) helping to negotiate is recommended. For example, a three-hour car ride from the south central region along the main highway costs CFA30,000-40,000 if the car is hired, but a bush taxi would cost CFA 5000-10,000.
Traffic is chaotic and the rules of the road are rarely enforced. If you are planning on driving yourself in Benin, an International Driver's Permit (IDP) is required. Traffic flows on the right hand side of the road.
Hiring a local guide is recommended.
Police roadblocks at night occur regularly and traveling alone with a driver (especially if you are a woman) may put the driver in an awkward position explaining and/or bribing the police.
Travelling by car is recommended only between major cities. For example, to travel from Cotonou to Porto Novo or Cotonou to Abomey. Traveling by car within the city is not recommended because it is unnecessary and uneconomical.
It is recommended to travel with a local as much as possible, mainly from a financial aspect. Also, driving yourself around in a car is not a good idea. The roads are mostly of hard-packed sand, with a few paved main roads in the cities and on the highways between the major cities.
The cheapest way to travel within a city or village is by motorcycle taxi (moto, zemidjan or zem). They are cheap and the drivers usually know the city well. An average ride costs between CFA 100-300, and they are easily recognizable by their matching colored shirts with their ID numbers on them. Prices must be discussed beforehand, and payment is made upon arrival. Remember the driver's ID number just in case. Choose your driver carefully: drinking and driving in Benin is very common and moto drivers are sometimes involved in crime rings in major cities.
Motos have colors for different cities (for example):
- Cotonou: yellow
- Natitingou: green with yellow shoulders or light blue with yellow shoulders
- Kandi: light blue with yellow shoulders
- Parakou: yellow with green shoulders
- Kérou: green with yellow shoulders
There are many pirogues (kayak/canoe) used for the fishing industry. Normally, one can use a pirogue to visit the lake villages.
As of 2022, the train is not operating, but a new rail project is planned to connect Cotonou (and its port) to Niger via Parakou.
The official language is French — the language of the former colonial power. Native African languages such as Fon and Yoruba are spoken in the south, Bariba and Dendi in the north, and over 50 other African languages and dialects are spoken in the country. English is on the rise.
Cotonou and around
Benin is perhaps best known to the world as the birthplace of the Vodun religion—voodoo. Voodoo temples, roadside fetishes, and fetish markets are found throughout the country, but the best known is the skull and skin-filled fetish market in the Grande Marche du Dantopka — Cotonou's overwhelmingly busy, enormous, and hectic grand market.
Ganvie, just north of Cotonou and accessible by boat from Abomey-Calavi is home to 30,000 people, whose ancestors fled the brutal Dahomey kings by building their town on stilts right in the center of Lake Nokoué. Ganvie is without question a fascinating and naturally beautiful locale, and a popular stop as one of the largest of West Africa's lake towns.
West of Cotonou
Benin under the rule of the Dahomey kings was a major center of the slave trade, and the Route des Esclaves in Ouidah, terminating at the beachside Point of No Return monument is a memorial to those who were kidnapped, sold, and sent off to the other side of the world. Ouidah's local history museum, housed in a Portuguese fort, focuses on the slave trade in addition to other facets of local culture, religion, and history, and is a real must see for anyone passing through the country. As many towns, Ouidah has its own Sacred Forest, where guided tours on part of the grounds are given and different voodoo beliefs are explained; the other part of the grounds houses a convent for initiates and is closed to the public.
Continuing westwards from Ouidah towards Togo lies Grand Popo, a relaxed seaside town, often used for conferences and events. Grand Popo offers boat trips to the Bouche du Rois, the point where the Mono river meets the ocean, past mangroves, villages, birds and fishermen.
East of Cotonou
While manic Cotonou is the country's largest city and economic center, Porto Novo, the capital, is small and one of West Africa's more pleasant capitals. Most of the country's major museums are located here amidst the crumbling architectural legacy of French colonial rule: the royal palace of the king of Porto Novo (Honme Museum), the colourful mosque in style of a Brazilian church, the Ethnographic Museum and the Da Silva Museum.
A very short trip north-east of Porto Novo lies the village of Adjarra and the Black River (riviere noire), a slow-flowing body of water surrounded by lush vegetation with only traditional and engine-less wooden boats crossing it.
Abomey was the capital of the Dahomey Kingdowm, and its ruined temples and royal palaces, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, are one of the country's top attractions. The ruins, their bas-reliefs, and the Abomey Historical Museum in the royal palace (which contains all sorts of macabre tapestries and even a throne of human skulls) are a testament to the wealth brought to the Dahomey kings from the slave trade, and brutality with which they oppressed their enemies, fodder for human sacrifice and bondage.
Next to Abomey in the city of Bohicon lies the Underground Village (village sous-terrain), which in fact are many dug-out caves used for protection of the Abomey Kingdom. Soldiers used to hide in the caves in the forest and ambush their enemies from behind. A museum now showcases these caves and it is possible to climb down into some of them, as well as enjoying the forest overground.
South of Bohicon on the way to Cotonou lies the Lokoli swamp forest (forêt marécageuse de Lokoli) in southern Benin is the only known aquatic/swamp forest in West Africa. It is permanently flooded by a river and shelters a unique ecosystem, including populations of primates like the red-bellied monkeys.
The most important fetish in the country is the monstrous Dankoli fetish, on the northerly road near Savalou, which is a pretty good spot for beseeching gods.
In the north, you'll find a very different sort of Benin from the mostly crowded, polluted cities of the south, of which Cotonou is such a prominent example. Pendjari National Park and W National Park (which Benin shares with Burkina Faso and Niger), is considered West Africa's best for wildlife viewing, and are set in beautiful, hilly highlands. However, due to the security situation (as of August 2022), a visit to these national parks is not recommended.
The unique and eccentric mud and clay tower-houses, known as tata, of the Somba people in the north, west of Djougou near the Togolese border, are a little-known extension into Benin of the types of dwellings used by the Batammariba people of Togo just west. Virtually all tourists to this area flock to the UNESCO-designated Koutammakou Valley across the border; the Benin side has the advantage of being even off the beaten path.
- Whale watching
- Check out sea turtles
- Shop for artisanal goods and handicrafts
- Make your own pottery: While in Se (close to Gran Popo) be sure to stop by for a refreshing drink at North Pole or Victoria Palace. Peace Corps volunteers say Se is one of Benin's best kept travel secrets, where you can take a tour of the local pottery production and make your own pottery.
Prices for goods purchased in a store, restaurant, hotel, bus tickets, etc. are non-negotiable, but almost everything else is. Depending on the item, it's not uncommon for foreigners to be quoted a price that is double the final purchase price.
You can find any type of African commodity all over Benin.
Exchange rates for CFA francs
As of January 2023:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
The currency of the country is the West African CFA franc, denoted CFA (ISO currency code: XOF). It's also used by seven other West African countries. It is interchangeable at par with the Central African CFA franc (XAF), which is used by six countries. Both currencies are fixed at a rate of 1 euro = 655.957 CFA francs.
The West African CFA franc is to be replaced by the "eco" in 2021. It would continue to be fixed to the euro.
There are banks in all the major cities, and most of the banks have cash machines. Keep in mind that many businesses and offices, including banks, close for several hours in the middle of the day.
MasterCard and Visa can be used to withdraw cash at the ATMs of Ecobank, Banque Atlantique, BIBE, and SGB.
In every city/village one will find street vendors selling anything from beans and rice to grilled chicken, goat and turkey. Prices are nominal. But one must be careful, always choose a vendor whose food is still hot, and they have taken care to keep the bowls covered with a lid or a cloth.
- Boulettes de Poulet avec Sauce Rouge (Chicken Meatballs with Red Sauce)
The beer is cheap and good! Local pubs (buvettes) are on every corner in every neighborhood. You can get a bottle of local beer "La Béninoise", Heineken, Guinness, Castel and others depending on the bar. They all cost about CFA 250 for a small bottle or CFA 500 for a large bottle. In the nightclubs beer is excessively expensive, like CFA 30,000 a bottle! So stick to the local pubs, or avoid buying beer at the nightclub. There is also the local vin de palme (palm wine), an alcoholic beverage that is made from the sap of the palm tree. A fermented palm liquor (Sodabi) is also available, it costs about CFA 2000 for a liter and it is very strong stuff.
Benin's sleeping habit is a vast contrast compared to Westerners. While most rise before the crack of dawn, they all work hard straight til 12:30, when most take a 2½ hour siesta. Then it's back to work for 3 hours.
Depending on how far they've commuted to work, most are back home by 19:00. The next 3 hours are consumed by preparing dinner, TV, dancing or mingling with friends and neighbors. Then it's time for bed around 22:00, to rest and do it all over again tomorrow.
The best way to stay safe in Benin is to always always always be in the presence of a local person whom you can trust, such as a friend or even a hired tourist guide. They know which areas are safe and which are not, they know the prices of things so you won't get ripped off, they speak the native languages, they know which venues sell good food that is safe for westerners to eat.
For women, avoid travelling alone, try to be in the company of other people as much as possible. Do not travel at night alone: attacks along the beaches are frequent, and of course near hotels, nightclubs and other venues. Ignore any person who whistles at you during the night if you are alone. Benin is a peaceful country and the people are very kind and generous, but muggings and robberies occur everywhere, no matter how peaceful the place seems, so be on guard. If you are a victim of a crime, contact the Gendarme (Police) immediately.
Homosexuality in Benin is not criminalised, which means that the police and government authorities are there to help you in case of need. LGBT events take place across the country, often discreetly. Occasional violence against LGBT people, especially trans people, is unfortunately present.
Watch what you eat/drink and where you eat/drink it. If you are going to eat street food, make sure it is served very very hot, since bacteria will not live in hot food. The most common causes of sickness is E.coli bacteria found in undercooked meat.
Drinking water is readily available, if you want bottled water there is "Possatome"- a natural spring water bottled in the city with the same name. It is very good and about CFA 500 a bottle. In Cotonou, the tap water is safe to drink but is treated with chlorine which some people may be sensitive to.
Malaria is a reality in Benin. Mosquitoes appear from dusk to dawn, and they use standing water as a breeding ground. Medications are available by prescription only. The only compulsory vaccination needed to enter the country is against Yellow Fever. The customs agents at the airport generally do not check to see if you have it, but it is strongly advised to get it before entering for your own health. Along with vaccines against polio, hepatitis A and B, Measles, Mumps, Rubella, Lock Jaw, Rabies and all the other standard childhood vaccines.
AIDS is an issue in Benin as in all sub-Saharan African countries; use of a condom is highly recommended if entering into a sexual relationship with a Beninese partner. Other risks pertaining to unprotected sex are the same as in any other country whether developed or not: Syphilis, Chlamydia, HPV, etc.
If visiting Benin it is highly recommended that you speak to a doctor who specialises in travel. Ask your family doctor or public health nurse for the name of a travel clinic in your area. Go to them about 6 months prior to travel to Benin if possible. This information is designed as a guide and should not be taken as an expert account on how to stay healthy in Benin, only a licensed health professional can provide such information.
Ramadan is the 9th and holiest month in the Islamic calendar and lasts 29–30 days. Muslims fast every day for its duration and most restaurants will be closed until the fast breaks at dusk. Nothing (including water and cigarettes) is supposed to pass through the lips from dawn to sunset. Non-Muslims are exempt from this, but should still refrain from eating or drinking in public as this is considered very impolite. Working hours are decreased as well in the corporate world. Exact dates of Ramadan depend on local astronomical observations and may vary somewhat from country to country. Ramadan concludes with the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which may last several days, usually three in most countries.
If you're planning to travel to Benin during Ramadan, consider reading Travelling during Ramadan.
|This article is significantly based on work which can be found at The Russian Wikivoyage. A list of authors can be found here.|