A bit smaller than England and a bit larger than New Mexico this chunk of West Africa (formally known in French as Côte d'Ivoire), gets only some 670,000 visitors a year but deserves many more, as a fascinating mix of natural, cultural, and historical attractions. Here are its top draws:
The country's largest city as well as sub-Saharan Africa´s sixth largest (pop. around 5.7 million), the former political and still economic capital is a bustling metropolis with a mix of modern skyscrapers (in its business district Le Plateau), vibrant markets, cultural sites, and the national airport. Top musts include the vibrant Treichville Market, the 43-year-old Roman Catholic St. Paul's Cathedral in Le Plateau, the affluent suburb of Cocody with some beautiful stretches of beach; and Banco National Park – just 13½ square miles (about 35 sq. kilometers) but the world´s only primary dense tropic forest in an urban area apart from Tijuca Forest in Rio de Janeiro.
Located inland a 2½ hour drive north of Abidjan, the country´s political capital since 1983 (pop. 422,000) was a village of just 500 up till the 1950s and was afterward developed and elevated to capital status by Ivory Coast´s first and longest serving president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, a native son. He was also responsible for the construction here of the Roman Catholic minor basilica Notre-Dame de la Paix (Our Lady of Peace, above), the world's largest church (with space for up to 18,000 worshippers), with architecture inspired by Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. There´s also a white Grand Mosque (Muslims make up around 39 percent of the population, as against 33 percent Christians). The rest of the city´s architecture has been described as a dilapidated “time capsule of the 1970s,” with landmarks such as the Presidential Palace (known mostly for its three lakes stocked with big – and reportedly several man-eating – Nile crocodiles) and the Boigny Felix Houphouet Foundation for Peace Research.
Speaking of dilapidated, down on the coast a half hour from Abidjan, the French colonial capital (though just briefly, from 1893 to 1900, though it remained a key seaport for years afterward(,with a current population of around 125,000, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with plenty of colonial-era buildings – many pretty shabby and some even abandoned – with standouts including the Post Office and Customs House, the Ganamet House, the Hotel de France, and the main bank. Other attractions include the Akan Costume Museum, which offers insights into the local culture, showcasing a variety of traditional costumes and masks. However, most people actually come here for the long beach, lined with restaurants, bars, shops, and hotels.
Ecotourism in Nature Parks and Reserves
Taï National Park
Near the border with Liberia – just 215 miles northwest of Abidjan but reachable only by a five-hour flight– one of West Africa´s last remaining primary rainforests (above) is a 1,300-square-mile UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its biodiversity. Taï is home to a wide variety of wildlife including pygmy hippos, chimpanzees, and various species of monkeys.
Comoé National Park
Ivory Coast´s other UNESCO World Heritage reserve is way up north –a more than six-hour flight from Abidjan – and at 4,440 sq. mi. is West Africa’s largest. Renowned for its biodiversity, Comoé´s habitats range from savannah to forest and its array of wildlife is extensive, with more than 500 species of birds and some 135 of mammals, including elephants, hippos, and many species of antelope. It’s also listed by UNESCO as in danger due to poor management, unregulated poaching, and overgrazing.
Îles Ehotilés National Park
Located near Assinie (see below) a three-hour drive east of Abidjan, these half dozen small islands offers nearly 41 square miles´worth of lovely landscapes/seascapes, mangroves, and diverse birdlife of 128 species, mostly aquatic.
Apart from the beaches at Cocody and Grand Bassam, the country´s main strands are the following:
Located an hour 40 minutes east of Abidjan, this long stretch of golden sand and crystalline waters (above) also features swaying coconut palms; a wide variety of water sports such as Jetskiing and parasailing; and an array of beachfront bars, restaurants, and hotels/resorts from budget to luxurious.
On the other side of Abidjan – on a barrier island just under an hour´s drive westward – this hidden gem is a long stretch of white sand that´s relatively undiscovered by tourists, yielding a more peaceful and secluded beach experience yet also a variety of beachfront bars and restaurants. Jaqueville also offers an appealing ecotourism bonus in the form of nearby mangrove forests, harboring a variety of wildlife and explorable by kayak or boat.
Somewhat farther west – four hours from Abidjan – this laid-back fishing town offers an ideal respite for those looking for a more relaxed environment, along with golden sand with clear waters and a variety of bars and restaurants; dramatic cliff scenery; and a lagoon visitors can explore by boat or kayak.
Even farther west than Sassandra – a five-hour drive from Abidjan and just under three if you fly – another tranquil fishing village is home to another stretch of golden sand and amenities similar to Sassandra, minus the lagoon and mangroves.
The Man Region
Located inland in the west of the country –6½ hours by car and three by plane from Abidjan and a four-hour drive from Yamassoukro, Man is famous for its scenic beauty, with rolling hills, cascading waterfalls like Le Cascade; dense rainforests; and peaks such as La Dent de Man and Mount Tonkoui, which at 3,027 feet is the country´s second highest
While the Akan are by far the majority - more than 42 percent - there are around 60 other ethnic groups throughout this small country, such as the Ebrie, the Gur, the Krous, and the Mande. And a number of Abidjan-based tour operators can introduce visitors to their cultures and ways.