The West African nation of Côte d’Ivoire is rich in both natural beauty and cultural depth. From elegant mosques to rural mud huts to the laid-back beach resorts of the coast, a true exploration of this vast country will leave your head spinning. At the risk of using a well-worn travel cliche, Côte d’Ivoire really is a country of contrasts.
West Africa in general has seen more than its share of troubles – civil war, Ebola, and relentless poverty to name a few – and Côte d’Ivoire is no exception.
But things are currently looking up, and this beautiful part of the world deserves more visitors than it gets. Though Côte d’Ivoire – or Ivory Coast in English – receives more tourists than most of its neighbors, the entire region is still very much off the tourism radar.
I spent three weeks in Côte d’Ivoire in 2018 during a longer meander through West Africa. In this post I’ll give you my personal list of favorite places to visit in Côte d’Ivoire, and some general Ivory Coast travel tips.
If you consider yourself an adventurous traveler, one who enjoys a healthy dose of spontaneity and authenticity in your travels, you’ll want to put Ivory Coast on your travel wishlist.
Abidjan, the country’s economic capital, is where you’re probably start and end your Côte d’Ivoire trip if you’re flying in and out. This bustling city of several million people is relatively posh by West African standards, though only in certain pockets; it has its share of slums as well.
In the upper class and expat areas you’ll find upscale French cafes with prices comparable to San Francisco or Paris. In other areas you’ll find the poor, urban neighborhoods more typical of the region’s cities.
Though much of Abidjan is considered pretty safe, there are certainly some neighborhoods where you could find trouble, especially at night. Feel free to explore, but trust your gut and don’t go wandering anywhere you feel unwelcome.
Abidjan is a tough city for budget travelers. It’s big enough that you’ll need taxis to get around, and these can cost a few dollars per ride. Budget accommodation is particularly hard to find.
I’m pretty sure I stayed at a brothel in a very “local” neighborhood, and though the owners were kind, I’m not going to recommend it. My recommendation for visitors: budget enough money to stay in a reputable mid-range hotel during your stay in Abidjan.
It’s a big, complex city and I only spent a couple days there, so I’ll refer you to this excellent guide by a longer term visitor instead of attempting to tell you more.
A beach resort town with an impressive collection of historic colonial architecture, Bassam is one of the most touristy places in Côte d’Ivoire. It’s worth spending a day relaxing at the beach, though the hotels are generally not cheap and the touts may intrude upon your peace and quiet.
For a change of pace mosey through the Quartier Colonial, where faded stucco walls blend with colorful street art. The costume museum is surprisingly well done and definitely worth a visit for glimpses into the local culture and painful history of colonialism.
It’s easy to get to Abidjan Airport directly from the resort area of Grand Bassam in a private taxi, though it’s not all that cheap. Cheaper rates can be found by shared taxi from the central taxi park, though when I tried this I was dropped off in a somewhat dodgy neighborhood.
Two kind local passengers walked me to another taxi and made sure I arrived safely, but I would only recommend this option if you speak decent French and can work out the details better than I did.
Those looking for fewer touts and less hectic beaches might want to consider Assinie instead, known to be more peaceful but also offering fewer accommodation options.
This lovely, hilly town in the Dix-Huit Montangnes of the northeast is a can’t-miss place to visit in Côte d’Ivoire. Clean, modern buses run there on reasonable roads from Abidjan, San Pedro, and Yamoussoukro, making it a relatively painless journey.
Definitely spend some time wandering the colorful yet surprisingly relaxed market. The most hassle you’ll get here is the occasional polite “bonsoir madam.” Stoplights look out of place where paved and dirt roads intersect. Occasionally women in skinny jeans, and some in traditional dress, zip by driving motorbikes, unusual in patriarchal rural West Africa. A few women covered head to toe in traditional Islamic burqas nurse their babies in market stalls.
Hire a guide (ask at your motel) for a half-day hike up the nearby Dent du Man, including waterfalls and views over the picturesque town. Those with more time and stamina can arrange a longer full-day hike up Mount Tonkoui, the country’s second highest peak.
The city of Korhogo, in the far northern Savannah region, is a cultural center satisfyingly far from the busier and more touristed south. In my opinion it’s worth the trek and one of the more interesting places to visit in Côte d’Ivoire.
I don’t often hire guides when I travel, preferring to explore solo, but I was glad to have hired a guide for a day in and around Korhogo. We visited local villages, learned about animist traditions still regularly practiced (including a rather morbid chicken sacrifice site), watched weavers of the famous Korhogo cloth in action, sampled the local brew, and hiked up the nearby hill for sunset.
For reasonably priced lodging I recommend the perplexingly named Hotel Non Stop, which has a bar and restaurant on site. They (or most other hotels) can help you arrange a tour guide for excursions to local villages and handicraft centers. For those looking to buy authentic local handicrafts such as cloth, jewelry, and metalwork, Korogho is one of the best places to visit in Côte d’Ivoire.
The easy way to reach Korhogo is by modern bus and good road from Abidjan, Bouaké, or Yamoussoukro. But where’s the fun in that? For a more exciting journey, try connecting from Man through the pleasant town of Odienné to the west, or from Kong to the east.
The peculiar town of Kong lies a few hours drive east of Korhogo, and makes an interesting sidetrip for those with enough time. Its main attraction is the mosque, an unusual example (in this region) of the mud Islamic architecture style usually found further north.
The mosque compound may be open, or you may need to ask a shopkeeper if you can enter. During my visit an enterprising man hanging around the taxi park attempted to charge me an entry fee, but I believe this was unofficial.
Also probably unofficial, a little girl led me inside the mosque and up the stairs, a sheepish grin on her face. Later a group of children gathered to pose for endless pictures, amused to see their own faces on the camera screen.
Though worth a visit, I personally found Kong to be a bit more challenging than other towns in Côte d’Ivoire. Maybe I just had bad luck, but a higher-than-usual number of my interactions with locals involved them asking for gifts or trying to charge me too much money.
Budget travelers take note, Kong only seems to have one hotel – L’Auberge de Kong – and it’s more of a mid-range option. The town also seems to lack commercial motorbike taxis, though a couple kind drivers gave me rides for free before I realized this.
Getting into Kong from Korhogo wasn’t hard, but leaving south to Bouake was surprisingly tricky! There was supposedly a scheduled bus early in the morning, but everyone swore it left at a different time. In the end I missed it, only to have another show up that was already full (like truly full, even by taxi brousse standards).
When I finally got a seat, it was a full day’s journey, complete with many breakdowns and flat tires. I’d suggest hopping off early to avoid being on the roads after dark if needed; I ended the day’s ride in Katiola.
If you’re traveling in West Africa, presumably you’re not afraid of a little adventure. So by all means, go ahead and visit Kong.
Yamoussoukro is the administrative capital of Côte d’Ivoire (that’s right, there are two different capitals), and it’s one of the most mind-bending places I’ve ever visited. It’s straightforward to reach via comfortable bus on main roads from Abidjan, the country’s other (economic) capital.
The town is an interesting place to wander. Women sell mangoes and kids play, just as in any African town. But it’s an odd contrast against wide lanes of crumbling concrete, marking out vast half-empty blocks in a grandly imagined city, never completed and past its prime.
The true head scratcher is the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, the largest church in the world. Let that sink in for a minute. This marble and stained glass wonder beats out even the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica! And, at least on the day I was there, it was eerily empty. For a reasonable fee you can wander around, take pictures, and join an informative tour led by an English or French speaking guide.
I doubt there’s anywhere else in the world as grand and as simultaneously empty as the basilica in Yamoussoukro. Whether you agree or not with former president Félix Houphouët-Boigny’s controversial use of wealth in a poverty-plagued country, the structure he commissioned is impressive and memorable.
The ostentatious building of the Boigny Félix Houphouët Foundation for Peace Research is also worth a look. They offer tours, but the day I was there they had no English speaking guides.
For something a little different, the Grande Mosquée (Grand Mosque) is a beautiful building, more modest than the others, but absolutely worth a look.
Yamassoukro has no shortage of hotels, but for those on a budget I can recommend cheap and cheerful Hôtel Akwaba in the Habitat neighborhood. It’s easily walkable to the town’s major attractions, and their restaurant serves tasty grilled fish.
Côte d’Ivoire is big by West Africa standards. To see any of the interior beyond Yamoussoukro, you’ll want at least a couple weeks. Roads and transportation get a lot more variable the farther north you go, so excursions to places like Odienne or Kong are best approached on a flexible schedule.
For those with around three weeks, an example itinerary could include a big loop heading clockwise from Abidjan:
- Grand Bassam
- Korhogo (via Odienne if time)
During my visit I entered overland from Liberia near Harper, definitely an adventure, and a topic for another time. If you do that, you can head to San Pedro and then directly north to Man, saving Abidjan for the end of the trip. Note that there’s no public transportation from the Liberian border, but the occasional private vehicle passing through will likely be happy to give you a lift.
Côte d’Ivoire Travel Basics
While Côte d’Ivoire might be one of the more developed and popular tourist destinations in West Africa, it’s still a West African country. That means travelers should be prepared for a certain amount of challenge, unpredictability, lack of infrastructure, and cultural confusion. It’s a great destination for folks with some experience under their belt, but probably not recommended for very young or inexperienced travelers.
Safety is never a sure thing anywhere in the world, but Côte d’Ivoire is safer than most people think. The civil war ended in 2011 and political unrest is currently a non-issue for tourists (always check the latest before planning a trip though). Violent crime against foreigners is quite rare, but petty theft does happen, particularly in cities at night. Explore freely, but use a healthy dose of common sense and basic safety precautions.
More realistically, your biggest risks will be transportation accidents on dangerous roads (be off the roads by dark) and potential illness (check vaccination recommendations, purify your drinking water, and take malaria prevention measures).
French is the official language of Côte d’Ivoire, and if you’ve never visited Francophone Africa before, you’re in for a treat. There’s something so alluring and surprising about West African French, and the educated class of Abidjan speaks some of the best French in the region.
English is rarely spoken, so as a visitor you’ll absolutely need at least “survival level” French. I managed with some fairly poor self-taught French, but it was a struggle.
Even if you do speak French, be prepared for occasional communication difficulties, as Ivorians without formal education typically only speak their local mother tongue.
Côte d’Ivoire uses the West African Franc, or CFA, pronounced “say-fah”). One peculiarity of the CFA in Côte d’Ivoire: nobody ever has change. Shopkeepers will say they don’t have any, even when they do. They might send you off in search of change, or ask you to come back for it tomorrow, or simply refuse to sell to you. When you do manage to get your hands on some small change, use it wisely!
This is always a more nuanced question than people would like to think, but I would say generally speaking yes, Ivory Coast is safe for female travelers.
However, this only applies to female travelers who understand the local culture. This means dressing modestly and understanding that some local men believe most western women are promiscuous. It would be easy for a naive female traveler to encounter some sketchy situations in such a culture.
You’ll need to be adept at firmly fending off unwanted attention, but rarely will you feel physically threatened by it. I traveled solo as a woman all throughout West Africa, including Côte d’Ivoire. While the attention from men was sometimes frustrating, I never felt physically unsafe.
As with the rest of the region, Bradt guidebooks are the primary game in town. The Bradt Travel Guide to Ivory Coast is available on Kindle and paperback and is the best (only?) English language guide to the country.
If you’re looking for an unusual travel experience, or have already tasted West Africa and want to go deeper, Côte d’Ivoire is an excellent travel destination. I hope this list gets you dreaming of your next trip!
For those with more time, or who feel intrigued by West Africa but intimidated by learning French, consider visiting some of Côte d’Ivoire’s English-speaking neighbors: Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ghana. The third is most popular with tourists, which is exactly what makes the first two so exciting to visit. No matter what though, it’s West Africa, so you know it’s going to be an adventure!
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