The latter-day history of Côte d'Ivoire dates back to 1842, when Gyaaman rulers signed a protectorate treaty with France, hoping it would defend them from the Wassoulou Empire, which was rapidly conquering vast tracts of West Africa. However, by 1895 the French had not established a physical presence, and Samori Ture, the leader of the Wassoulou, seized the opportunity to invade. Two years later, the French finally managed to expel 67-year-old Samori, and the present-day region of Côte d'Ivoire was incorporated into the colony of French West Africa.
In 1934, Abijan was decreed the capital of French West Africa and remained as such throughout Côte d'Ivoire’s successful bid for independence in 1960. The country was a West African powerhouse during the 1960s and 1970s, courtesy of its coffee and cocoa production. However, an economic crisis during the mid 1980s led to a period of political turmoil; it was during this time that Yamoussoukro, 240 kilometers inland from Abidjan, was made the nation’s capital.
In 1999, Côte d'Ivoire experienced its first coup, followed by another failed attempt in 2001 and civil war. However, UN involvement, elections, and a political agreement between the warring factions have returned stability to the country once more.
Present-day Abidjan is the country’s economic and administrative capital. The city is a little shabbier than in its early 1980s heyday, but it still has some interesting architecture and beautiful beaches to keep visitors entertained.
Abidjan is a sprawling city comprising a handful of far-flung districts separated by a lagoon; it pays to hire a taxi driver for the day to take you from place to place.
If you want to walk, start your tour at the surprisingly high-rise business district of Plateau. A short stroll north along Boulevard de la République takes you past Plateau market, before you arrive at Cathédrale Saint-Paul. One of Abidjan’s major landmarks, this imposing cathedral was built in 1985; its tower is a huge stylized figure of St. Paul, its nave sweeping behind like trailing robes.
One block west of the cathedral is the Musée National, which features a rather dusty collection of 20,000 objects, including wooden statues and masks, pottery, ivory, and bronze. From here it’s wise to summon your driver, as you head south over Ébrié Lagoon towards Treichville. The Treichville Market building may be ugly, but its wooden African masks and shell jewelry are not.
Finally, drive east along the coast to Grand Bassam, about 20 kilometers past the airport. This tiny town was the capital of French West Africa for three years at the end of the 19th century. Here you’ll find ancient colonial buildings, a great souvenir market, busy bars, and expansive sandy beaches. On weekends the beach is packed. Be careful of the surf—it’s strong.
Abidjan’s status as the historic capital of the colony of French West Africa has ensured that it retains a sizeable expatriate population, reflected in the range of bars and restaurants.
African cuisine is abundant and Ivoirian food is often served at roadside stalls or little terraces around Treichville or Marcory. Fresh fish and spicy chicken are popular, and staple accompaniments include rice, cassava, yams, and bread. European and international restaurants tend to be found in the wealthier areas, such as Cocody or Deux Plateaux, and are generally very good.
Treichville or Yopougon are also hotspots for Ivoirian nightlife, and visitors can choose from sports bars, reggae music venues, jazz lounges, and more. The expatriate scene is partially centered around the city’s upmarket hotels, but most Abidjan bars welcome a cross-section of Ivoirian residents.
Around 350 kilometers west of Abidjan is Taï National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site with some of West Africa’s last rainforests. The park features spectacular forests with trees that reach up 46 meters, assisted by huge trunks and supporting roots. The trees are so tall that they stop the sun from reaching the forest floor, preventing dense undergrowth and making walking easier. Wildlife is abundant—the park is home to elephants, leopards, golden cats, pygmy hippos, buffalos, warthogs, forest duikers, antelopes, Colobus monkeys, and chimpanzees—but unfortunately the thick forest doesn’t make wildlife spotting easy.