Benin map & highlights

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.

1. Abomey

Abomey was the center 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.
Dankoli Fetish

2. Dankoli Fetish

This is a reeking mound of blood, guts, feathers and bones piled up beside a tree stump off which yet more animal parts are hung. But pass it at your peril; this is Benin’s most sacred spot, and here one can communicate directly with the spirits. Requests are made by sacrificing animals (usually chickens), spitting rum, hammering stakes and pouring palm oil into the shrine, as well as leaving cash to ensure a response.

3. Ganvié

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.
Kpasse Sacred Forest

4. Kpasse Sacred Forest

King Kpasse disappeared when the Dahomey invaders arrived in the 15th century. It is said he did not die, but took on the form of a giant iroko tree which stands guard over this forest. The space, more like a city park, is dotted with statues of the voodoo gods and other sacred figures, many made skillfully from old motorbike parts. Local people come here to leave offerings and share stories with the royal tree.

5. Natitingou

The northern base for excursions into Somba (aka Betammaribe) country, and conveniently close to the Togo border, Natitingou is northern Benin’s beating heart. The region is famous for its distinctive Tata Somba houses: distinctive, two-storey mud structures like something out of a storybook which were originally created to protect them from slave raids. The surrounding mountains are said to be inhabited by spirits.

6. Ouidah

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

7. 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.
Porto Novo

8. Porto Novo

Benin’s capital is a rare example of beautiful sub Saharan 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.
Somba villages

9. Somba villages

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.

Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Benin or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Sample itineraries

Benin to Ghana:
Ouidah > Python Temple > Gate of No Return > Ganvié > Bohicon > Abomey > Togo > Ghana

West Africa round trip:
Togo > Natitingou > Taneke > Dankoli Shrine > Abomey > Ganvié > Kpasse Sacred Forest > Gate of No Return > Python Temple > Ouidah > Togo
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Joachim Huber] [Abomey: Willem Heerbaart] [Dankoli Fetish: Dan Sloan] [Ganvie: Dan Sloan] [Kpasse Sacred Forest: David Stanley] [Natitingou: Baliola] [Ouidah: Shubert Ciencia] [Pendjari National Park: Marc Auer] [Porto Novo: Babylas] [Python Temple: Erik Cleves Kristensen] [Somba villages: Jacques Taberlet]