Lomé was previously, and very affectionately, known as the ‘Pearl of West Africa’. Sandwiched along the Gulf of Guinea between Benin and Ghana, its wide promenades, European influences and sandy beaches could easily lend itself to that description. But years of political strife and deadly street violence left the capital a crumbling version of its former self. Whilst that illustrious past may have come and gone Lomé retains a charm and intrigue that makes it a fascinating place to visit. From the World’s largest voodoo market to the bustling Grand Marché, Lomé is a sensory overload that shouldn’t be missed.
Lomé Top Tips
Lomé’s Gnassingbé Eyadéma International Airport (also known as Tokoin Airport) opened its sparkling and shiny new terminal in 2016 to much fanfare. When you compare it to some of its other regional compatriots (I’m specifically thinking of Cotonou’s airport in Benin) then it starts to feel like Togo has joined the space age. Unfortunately, those shiny new toys don’t appear to come with a shiny new attitude to airport corruption. Although there have, apparently, been efforts by the government to stamp it out, you might well be approached by airport officials (especially in departures) looking for bribes – or the much more polite, but no less ‘bribey’, request for a ‘gift’.
The airport is located about 8km outside of the center of the city which equates to about a 20 minute taxi ride so long as the traffic isn’t snarled up (which, in fairness, it quite often is). You can forget about public transport and focus solely on taxis, which are available directly outside the terminal building. As you’d probably expect the taxis are unmetered; so your first act upon arriving in the country will be to negotiate a decent fare and make sure that the taxi driver actually knows where your accommodation is (if I were you I’d print out a location map and take it with you; especially if you don’t speak French). At the time of writing if you manage to negotiate anywhere around CFA 4,000 for a ride into the center of town then you’ve got yourself a decent enough deal (it’s not really worth haggling for any less). You’ll need to pay in cash and there are ATMs located inside the terminal building.
If you’re coming across to Lomé through the land border with Ghana then you’ll find taxis (and zemi-johns if you’re traveling light) on both sides of the border. The ride from the border into Lomé city center is a matter of minutes along the beach road; so make sure you don’t get stung on the price.
For zipping around the city, and attempting to avoid the traffic, your best option is going to a motorbike-taxi (otherwise known as a Zemi-John). These are much cheaper than a regular taxi and work really well as long as you aren’t a nervous (or unbalanced) passenger (they are known to take a few risks on the road I personally wouldn’t take). Most rides in and around the city will be around CFA 500.
I’m a stereotypical Brit; I only speak English and the French and German lessons I took back in school appear to have been lost to the sands of time. If you’re an Anglophone like me, my advice is to take a French phrasebook with you. Whilst most people you encounter will be much more linguistically adept than you are (and willing to give speaking English a go), there will definitely be occasions when you’re going to have to try your hand at speaking French (giving a destination to a motorbike taxi is a good example). I find people in Francophone West Africa to be really friendly (that’s obviously a mass generalisation), so make a joke of it and you’ll be just fine.
It’s definitely worth considering the weather patterns when planning a trip to Lomé as there are very distinguishable wet and dry seasons. In general the climate is fairly tropical and the main dry season is from the end of November to January (with December being the driest). If I were you I’d try and avoid June as it’s typically the wettest month of the year. If you’re not a fan of the heat then you’re pretty much SOL although August is traditionally the coolest of the typically scorching conditions. I last visited in March which is supposedly the hottest month of the year. I managed to walk two blocks in the Grand Marché (see below) before my shirt was soaked through and I couldn’t breathe (it probably didn’t help that the Grand Marché was so packed with shoppers that we could barely move).
Like much of Africa it’s a sad fact that Lomé’s poverty makes petty theft pretty common. Whilst I haven’t encountered any problems myself it’s always worth taking some basic steps to avoid making yourself a victim. The most obvious spots for petty crime are crowded areas (pickpockets operating around the Grand Marche, for instance) and the potential for more violent crime after dark (for example, I would avoid the beachfront after dark because drug dealers are known to operate there). The bustling area in and around the border with Ghana is also a hotspot for theft, so make sure all of your valuables are well-guarded as you cross. Other than that it’s just a case of common sense; don’t wear valuable watches or jewelry; make sure cameras are securely strapped to your wrist; and keep cash and credits cards safely tucked away and out of your pockets. In all honesty, this isn’t much different from the advice I would give in any major city, my home town of London definitely included!
The Grand Marché: Lomé’s main market is the center of life in the city and the primary place that locals do their shopping. It’s an absolute labyrinth of streets crammed full of market stalls and, on particularly busy days, can be an almost overwhelming riot of colour, smells, and sound. I’d advise that you try and visit early in the day before the heat gets too overwhelming; to do otherwise can end up being an unpleasant experience. If you’re looking for souvenirs then make sure you visit the Rue des Artisans portion of the market which is one street west from Rue de la Gare. Here you’ll find an abundance of tribal masks, other wood carvings, jewelry, and leather goods. Make sure you barter with the stall holders or be prepared to pay overinflated prices. For example, I negotiated 50% off of the price of two tribal masks and even then I got the sense that he was extremely happy with the deal.
Monument de l’Independence: Togo gained its independence from France on April 27, 1960 and this monument, located in the center of town, commemorates the event. Unfortunately, the park in which the monument stands is closed to the public most of the time; meaning you can only take photos from the edge of the road (and being careful to dodge traffic as cross!). If you’re lucky enough to spot a member of the garden maintenance or security team then apparently, at least according to my driver, they’ll let you inside if you slip them a few notes. Unfortunately I couldn’t spot anyone! Either way, it’s worth a flying visit; particularly as it’s located just across the road from the Congressional Palace and National Museum.
Akodessawa Fetish Market: Being the largest voodoo market in the world, Lomé’s Fetish Market is equal parts, fascinating, educational and gory. My advice is to pay for one of the market’s guides (who you’ll find by the entrance gate) to walk you around. Without the guide you’re basically just wandering around the dead corpses of thousands of animals (which, I admit, smell particularly awful on a hot day). The guide’s fee also pays for a quick visit to one of the on-site fetish priests (also known as voodoo high priests, or healers). What’s important to note here is that this isn’t anything to do with black-magic or juju (so don’t worry, you won’t have anyone sticking pins in your effigy). In the West Africa region, and in particular Togo and Benin, Voodoo is a bone fide religion. Whilst the religion’s sometimes gory traditions might seem odd to some visitors, the role of the Fetish Market in finding solutions to those things that Western medicine can’t is an important cultural one. If you want to read more about my visit to the Fetish Market then you can read my post here.
Village Artisanal: This is arguably the best place to buy souvenirs in Lomé (although it’s not the biggest of artisan villages); especially if you don’t like being put under pressure (or chased down the street by an overzealous vendor like you might be on Rue des Artisans). However, I felt that I was paying a price for a more serene shopping experience as I could barter more successfully at Rue des Artisans – that’s not to say that the prices weren’t reasonable at Village Artisanal – I just like a good adversarial negotiation. You can find the village on Avenue de Noveau Marche.
Religious Sites: Lomé has two main religious sites worth a quick visit; the first being Lomé Cathedral. Built in 1902 by the German Colonial Authorities, and one of the most iconic buildings in Lomé, the Sacred Heart Cathedral is located in the heart of the Grand Marché right in the center of town. Although it’s probably one of the most photographed buildings in the capital it’s really just a church (albeit an aesthetically pleasing one). You’ll no doubt pass it if you’re wandering the around the Grand Marché; if so it’s definitely worth popping by. The second religious building worth a quick visit is Lomé Grand Mosque (located up by the bus station). It’s nothing overly special (hence I haven’t included a photo) so I’d probably leave it until last and make the other things I talk about here a priority.
Museums: There are two museums worth visiting. The first of these is the National Museum; which is located on the far side of the Palais de Congres (directly opposite the Independence Monument). It’s a pretty small museum but does have a sobering exhibit on the West African slave trade that makes the stop worthwhile. The other museum is the Musee International Du Golfe De Guinee (which I’ve also, somewhat confusingly, heard called the Musée International d’Art d’Afrique (West African Art Museum). The museum is a bit of a hidden treasure and many taxi and zemi-john drivers don’t know where it is without an address (1603 Boulevard du Mono). Its focus is West African sculpture and the museum is set around a nice courtyard which provides some much needed tranquility from the bustle of the city.
The Beach: I’ll admit, when you’re in the center of town in the scorching heat and you look across the road and see the ocean it’s really tempting to hit the beach. But my advice is totally ignore the downtown beach front. Put simply, it’s one of the best places in Lomé to get hassled by hawkers and subjected to pickpockets and other petty crime (after dark the crime gets less petty and more dangerous). Instead, my advice is to hop in a taxi and head over to Coco Beach. Here you’ll find a host of beach ‘resorts’ where you can park yourself for the day in relative luxury and without having to deal with any hassle (they’re also worth staying at if you don’t want to be in the center of town). The resorts will also be able to grab you a taxi when you want to head back into town which is handy. Just note that whilst most allow you to sunbath and generally relax in the resort for free some do charge a fee to use loungers or covered cabanas/huts (that provide much needed shade for redheads like me). Check out Hotel Coco Beach as a good example.
Lomé Gnassingbé Eyadéma International Airport Website: http://aeroportdelome.com
Hotel Coco Beach Website: https://www.cocobeachhotel.net/