Benin travel guide
2 MINUTE SUMMARY
Synonymous with voodoo and slavery, both terrifying spectres viewed by many as brutal and outdated, Benin has a dark image. Both have left a powerful legacy on modern day Benin, and any journey here will be led by them – as travelers slip into a country still guided – or haunted – by voodoo spirits and fetishes, and the ghosts of departed slaves.
But the darkness has turned surprisingly colourful. Voodoo, the state religion surrounded in myth and misunderstanding, is less about sticking pins in dolls, and more about embodying Gods and spirits – with fabulous costumes, seductive drumming and energetic dance. It’s about sacred python temples, and enchanted forests sheltering vanished kings. Along the Slave Coast, the Door of No Return marks the tragic embarkation point for Africans shipped to the Americas. But across Benin, culture and architecture has been influenced by this darkest of pasts: incredible clay fortresses, a town marooned in the middle of a lake, faded Afro-Brazilian buildings constructed by freed slaves returning to their homeland. And who wouldn’t want to return? It’s old-fashioned magical here…
Lift the veil on this spiritual nation with our Benin travel guide.
incredibly diverse. Its 10 million inhabitants speak over 50 languages.
all about voodoo dolls.
Benin map & highlights
MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR TIME
Like many African countries, Benin’s national borders often seem arbitrary, as it shares its history and culture with its neighbours: the Slave Coast stretching west to Ghana, the Somba and Yoruba tribes extending into Togo and Nigeria. For this reason, a Benin vacation is usually combined with tours of Togo and Ghana, and the relatively compact nature of these countries means travel is by road – the best way to discover the changing landscapes and rural communities that lie between the bigger tourist hubs. Benin has a diverse landscape, with sandy plains along the coast giving way to forest savannah followed by northern mountains. Most cultural attractions are clustered in the south, though if you have time it’s worth exploring the more traditional, rural north.
Abomey was the centre of the powerful Dahomey Kingdom from around 1600-1900: an empire built by selling off captive enemies into the slave trade. Now a UNESCO site, the modest palaces and Abomey Museum house items belonging to former kings, including musical instruments, weapons, tapestries and – disturbingly – a throne set on human skulls. Local guides bring the brutal histories to life.
In the 1600s, the Tofinu were fleeing from the Dahomey, who wanted to sell them into slavery. The Dahomey’s beliefs prevented them from entering the water, so the Tofinu built a stilted village in Nokoué Lake. Today, 20,000 people live here, and while it may not merit the nickname “Venice of Africa”, it is fascinating to see the fishermen and floating markets – as well as a post office, bank and mosque – a true aquatic city.
Famous for being a major slave port and the birthplace of voodoo, Ouidah has a number of attractions which are both significant and unsettling. There is the Fetish Market; the Sacred Forest of Kpasse, complete with statues of gods and sacrifices; and the Temple of Sacred Pythons, worshipped by locals. There is also the Door of No Return – which marks the spot where slaves left Africa for the New World.
Pendjari National Park
Home to some of the last remaining big game in West Africa, this national park shelters elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo and hippos in its savannah and forest. The park is part of a larger protected area which extends across the Pendjari River into neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso – conserving epic migration routes so that these rare species may continue to thrive.
Benin’s capital is a rare example of beautiful African architecture. Emancipated Brazilian slaves returned here in the 1800s, where their craftsmanship was prized; many were carpenters, bricklayers and master builders. Many of their Brazilian baroque style buildings were commissioned by wealthy Beninese in Porto Novo. Also worth seeing is the city’s mosque; formerly a church, it’s rather faded but still beautiful.
The Somba people live in Togo and the mountainous Atakora region of Benin, and still hold traditional, animist beliefs. Their distinctive villages are made up of two-storey, clay buildings with thatched “turrets” called tata – where the Somba sleep, store grain and shelter cattle. The castle or fortresses-like structures may have evolved to protect the Somba from slave raids by Dahomey warriors in the 1700s.