- Benin: The Land of the Ancient Kingdom of Dahomey
- Burkina Faso: Adorned with Traditional Architecture, African Culture, and Elephants
- Cape Verde: Archipelago Peppered with Greenery as well as Volcanoes and Vibrant with a Nightlife
- The Gambia: Land of African Beach Resorts, River Islands, and Wildlife
- Ghana: The Shiny Black Star of West Africa
- Guinea-Bissau: A Lush Africa with a Portuguese Twist
- Ivory Coast: Creating its Own Identity with Skyscrapers, Beaches, and Traditions
- Togo: The Miniature Africa
- Senegal: African Modernity Tangled with a Laid-Back Atmosphere
- Suggestions for combined country visits
Let’s face it, West Africa is probably the least touristic destination in the world. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t explore everything it has to offer. Quite the opposite actually. Those who venture into this part of the continent will be rewarded beyond their imagination. They will discover hidden gems with hardly any other tourists around. And as an added benefit, most sites haven’t been spoilt by tourism. A trip to West Africa is always full of genuine encounters and surprises, leaving you with incredible stories to cherish. Where should you go? What are the best countries to visit in West Africa?
West Africa comprises 16 countries. Each of them has plenty to offer, mostly off the beaten track activities. Many of these countries are small, which means you could visit several on the same trip. Here is our take on some of the best countries to visit in West Africa (in alphabetical order).
Benin: The Land of the Ancient Kingdom of Dahomey
Benin is a small country with diverse ethnic groups, a rich history, and beautiful landscapes. On the coast, Ouidah, a voodoo stronghold and home of the infamous Slaves Route, is a major attraction. The Royal Palaces of Abomey, the former capital of the Kingdom of Dahomey, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They house a museum explaining the history of the kingdom and how it fought against the French colonial empire. On Lake Nokoué, Ganvié, nicknamed the Venice of Africa, is a village where people live in stilt houses on the lake and move around in pirogues.
In the north, the Somba people live in mud houses that resemble miniature castles, a perfect example of traditional African architecture. Further north, the Pendjari and W National Parks offer some of the best wildlife adventures in West Africa with chances to spot elephants, lions, antelopes, monkeys, buffaloes, cheetahs, and other mammals.
Burkina Faso: Adorned with Traditional Architecture, African Culture, and Elephants
Ouagadougou, the capital city, has gained fame thanks to FESPACO, the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, where African filmmakers compete for prestigious prizes. In 2017, Félicité won the first prize at FESPACO and the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival.
The Senoufou villages are great examples of traditional mud architecture. Nearby, you can hike along the Sindou Peaks, spectacular rock formations sculpted by the elements. These peaks are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a highlight of Burkina Faso.
Bobo-Dioulasso, the country’s easy-going second largest city, is a paradise for music lovers with many cafés, restaurants, and night clubs, which offer live music. Here, you can also find Grande Mosquée de Bobo-Dioulasso, which is a masterpiece of Muslim mud architecture. The Nazinga Park, near the Ghanaian border, is home to more than 20,000 animals. During the dry season, it is easy to spot elephants, crocodiles, antelope, monkeys, warthogs, and many bird species.
Cape Verde: Archipelago Peppered with Greenery as well as Volcanoes and Vibrant with a Nightlife
Cape Verde is an archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, 300 miles off the Senegalese coast. The former Portuguese colony comprises 10 islands, each with a different flavor. The various landscapes of this cultural melting pot and the omnipresence of music give the country a unique atmosphere. Santo Antão is the greenest of the islands. Its canyons and valleys make it a paradise for hikers. Sal, the most touristic island, boasts white sand beaches as well as the best food and nightlife of the archipelago.
On Fogo Island, the Pico de Fogo, an active volcano that last erupted in 2014, dominates the landscape. You can hike up the volcano through a moon-like landscape or hike to Mostreiros through green, lush vegetation. On Boa Vista Island, you can sunbathe on the beautiful beaches and dive or snorkel in clear waters. You can also take a walk in the Vianna Desert among white dunes.
The Gambia: Land of African Beach Resorts, River Islands, and Wildlife
Although it is the smallest country in Africa, The Gambia made it to our list of best countries to visit in West Africa. Surrounded by Senegal, The Gambia has been enjoying great touristic activities for decades, primarily on the coast, where beach resorts developed. This is a great place for sunbathing and partying.
The interior of the country is considerably different. The River Gambia National Park comprises small forested river islands. Wildlife in the park includes crocodiles, hippos, primates, and numerous bird species. The main attraction of the park is the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project. More than 100 chimps live on the islands and can be observed from the river. The river islands of Albreda, Juffureh, and Kunta Kinteh are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They host the National Museum of Albreda, dedicated to the slave trade.
Ghana: The Shiny Black Star of West Africa
Ghana is obviously on our list of the best countries to visit in West Africa. This country is the poster child of Africa when it comes to economic development. The tourism industry has developed tremendously in the last decade. Additionally, the Year of Return campaign in 2019 encouraged Afro-Americans to visit Ghana, boosting tourism. The capital city Accra is an excellent example of African modernity with luxurious high-rise buildings as well as fancy restaurants, hotels, and museums. The coast of Ghana is dotted with ancient European forts used during the slave trade. They are testimonials of the horror that the captives had to undergo. The best conserved forts are the ones in Cape Coast and Elmina, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The coast is also where you can find beautiful beaches and soak in the sun.
In the center of the country, Kumasi is the capital city of the Ashanti kingdom, whose power culminated in the 19th century. The Volta Region, around the Akosombo Dam, which powers most of the country and neighboring countries, offers nautical and nature activities in delightful landscapes. In the north, the Mole National Park is one of the best places in West Africa for safaris. The newly built lodge inside the park is as luxurious as the ones in eastern and southern Africa.
Guinea-Bissau: A Lush Africa with a Portuguese Twist
Another tiny country, Guinea-Bissau, is an off the beaten path destination with real hidden gems. The Bijagos Archipelago, comprising 88 small islands, is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and the real treasure of the country. It boasts wild, lush, and varied landscapes, including gorgeous white sand beaches. The archipelago has protected areas where wildlife is abundant; one can spot sea turtles nesting as well as saltwater hippos. The local traditions are very strong, and there is a lot to learn about how people live.
The carnival in February–March entails numerous parties, and so, it is a great opportunity to mingle with people from different parts of the country. Bolama, once a symbol of Portuguese grandeur, is almost a ghost city today with crumbling colonial-style buildings. But tourists can take a pleasant stroll through the town.
Ivory Coast: Creating its Own Identity with Skyscrapers, Beaches, and Traditions
Abidjan is one of the most exciting African cities, with a spectacular skyline. The food scene, be it from restaurants or street food, is to die for. Attiéké, made from granulated cassava with tomato sauce and meat or fish, is a must-try. The city exhibits some of the finest contemporary African art in its galleries and museums.
Famous for creating new music styles, like coupé-décalé and zouglou, Ivory Coast is also a great place to enjoy a great nightlife, especially in Abidjan. In Grand Bassam, where the locals go for a fun weekend, you can relax on the beach during the day and party during the night. You can also enjoy a pleasant evening stroll and take in the colonial architecture of the houses.
You also have Man in the west, where you can explore the Toura Mountains. Rain forests, waterfalls, and cooler air make this a fantastic destination for hikers. Bouaké, the land of the Baoulé people and the second-largest city has a laid-back atmosphere. Through its traditional dances as well as weaving practices, ceramic artifacts, and artisan masks, you can experience its cultural and artistic appeal.
For all the above reasons, Ivory Coast is definitely part of the best countries to visit in West Africa.
Togo: The Miniature Africa
Nicknamed a miniature Africa, Togo is another tiny country that offers various attractions. Togo is also known for its delicious cuisine. Lomé, the capital city, is one of the liveliest cities in Africa with its massive golden sand beaches, big open-air markets, street vendors, and busy nightlife. Lake Togo offers relaxing and nautical activities. Togoville, located on the shores of the lake, is a mystical village where residents worship idols, and voodoo priests perform traditional ceremonies.
You can navigate a pirogue on the Mono river between healthy mangroves and observe villages on the shore and many bird species. In Aneho, the river meets the lake and the ocean. It has beautiful views, and the beaches in the area are magnificent.
Kpalimé is an easy-going town surrounded by Mount Agou and Mount Kloto, which are covered by fruit and vegetable plantations as well as forests hiding beautiful waterfalls. This makes it a great region for nature lovers and hikers. The area is also known for its artisans who work on wood as well as calabash and create batik paintings.
In the north, in Koutammakou, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Tamberma people live in traditional mud houses that resemble miniature castles, an exceptional example of traditional African architecture, which is similar to those of the nearby Somba people of Benin.
Senegal: African Modernity Tangled with a Laid-Back Atmosphere
Senegal’s economic success has transformed the country into a hot tourist destination and an obvious choice in our list of best countries to visit in West Africa. The capital city Dakar is a perfect example of a modern African city. Dak’art, the biennial of African Contemporary Art, has become a major cultural event on the continent. The Jazz Festival of Saint-Louis, the laid-back former colonial capital, is another world-class event held in the country.
You can indulge in exceptional nature activities in the National Park Doudj, where 300 species of birds, including flamingos, can be spotted, and in the Sine-Saloum Delta, where the mangrove can be explored in a pirogue. The Lompoul Desert offers a unique experience of lodging in a spacious and locally decorated tent in the middle of dunes. Hiking toward the beach through the desert makes for a good opportunity to meet the inhabitants of the desert.
In the charming island of Gorée, people peacefully stroll along the narrow streets while contemplating old colonial houses and admiring artist stalls. The island is also the home of the notorious House of Slaves, where captives were held before going through the Door of No Return. The Casamance region, which you can reach by ferry, offers a totally different experience in lush, green tropical forests, where one can meet the Dioula people.
Suggestions for combined country visits
This is our take on the best countries to visit in West Africa. As mentioned before, many of these countries are small and are located close to each other. So, it is a good idea to visit several countries at the same time. Our suggestion would be to combine Senegal – Gambia – Guinea-Bissau or Ghana – Togo – Benin on the same trip. Whichever countries you pick, you will have a fantastic African vacation. While you are in Africa, forget everything you have heard about the continent and go with the flow.