Located on a coastal lagoon in the southeastern part of the country on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea, Porto-Novo is the official capital of Benin and the second-largest city in the country after Cotonou, which is the main port city and de facto capital. Its colonial past and various cultural influences are reflected in the city’s Afro-Brazilian architecture, and today’s Porto-Novo is a vibrant and diverse city with a population of around 250,000 people.
Originally a small fishing village, Porto-Novo was founded in the 16th century by King Te-Agdanlin of Allada, which was a coastal West African kingdom. Around the same time Portuguese traders arrived to buy slaves from the kingdom, and by the 18th century it had become one of the main trading posts during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in West Africa. In 1863, the British attacked, persuading the city to accept the presence of a French military to protect against British rule. By 1900, Porto-Novo was controlled by the French and became the capital of the entire colony of French Dahomey, which later gained its independence from France in 1960. In 1974, after a military coup, Dahomey became the People’s Republic of Benin.
As to be expected, there is a strong Western influence in the city today. French is the main language spoken, along with Portuguese and the local language of Yoruba. The region around Porto-Novo largely produces palm oil, cotton and kapok, and crops such as cassava, yams, and maize. Notable city landmarks include the Royal Palace, the Porto-Novo Museum of Ethnography, the Royal Palace of King Toffa, the Great Mosque of Porto-Novo, the Brazilian Quarter, and the Central Market. The Vodoun Festival, held annually in January, is a great time to visit, though seasoned travellers will often prefer the ceremonies outside of festival time. Additionally, the nearby Ganvie stilt village, which is built in the middle of a lagoon, makes for a wonderful day trip.
A 25-kilometre drive from Porto-Novo and built on a series of lagoons and canals, Cotonou is Benin’s largest city and it is its unique location at the intersection of the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Nokoué that makes it an important economic hub for trade and commerce in the country. It is home to the largest port in the region, which handles a significant portion of the country’s imports and exports. The city is also a hub for the cotton industry, with many textile factories located in the area. Other industries include brewing and palm oil production.
For visitors interested in history and culture, the Ouidah Museum of History is a must-visit, featuring exhibits on the city’s past, as well as the history of the slave trade in the region. Other spots to explore in the city include the Grand Marche du Dantokpa and Fetish market, one of the largest open-air markets in West Africa, and Cotonou Cathedral, famous for its distinct burgundy and white striped architecture.