When my schedule and a cheap flight lined up this year, I had to go. I booked a flight from the European winter and headed down to Abidjan, where I spent nearly two months enjoying the bustling capital.
I can’t say it’s my favourite city, but it’s definitely unique and a place any traveller should experience. The francophone side of Africa is a planet of its own.
An Abidjan overview
First thing – Abidjan is not a city for Africa beginners.
If you’re on a tour or an arranged trip you’ll be fine (although those aren’t common here) but as an indie traveller it’s challenging, particularly if you don’t speak French.
The people are not hyper-friendly, things are not very cheap and barely anyone speaks English. The language barrier makes it quite difficult to navigate the city and it would be doubly so for someone new to the continent. This is a sprawling metropolis, not a little town, things move fast here and people are rather Frenchy. Even I felt timid walking around the first few days, and not many places make me feel that way.
It’s also not a city for beginner budget travellers. You will need to be rather travel savvy to stay on a tight budget here; that means staying in neighbourhoods that are quite far out of the city centre, seeking out (very local) markets and roadside stalls to get your food, and negotiating in French for every single taxi ride. Public transport is almost non-existent.
If it’s your first time in Africa, be ready to go straight in the deep end.
However that doesn’t mean you can’t do it! You will likely spend a lot of money but the city is safe by most standards and first world amenities are easily available (for a price), so it just depends on what kind of trip you’re looking for.
Two sides to a city
Abidjan is very business oriented and things move reasonably fast. It has all the modern amenities you want, such as large supermarkets, electronics stores, designer brands, Burger King and KFC, luxury hotels, fancy restaurants, European cars etc etc.
There is a lot of business here which obviously leads to a lot of money floating around. People spending big in nightclubs, driving an Audi, living in luxury apartments and so on.
You’ll quickly see the modern side of Abidjan is extremely expensive – on par with France – the kind of places where you might pay $5 or $6 for a coffee. However, that’s only one side of the city, the side that all the expats and foreign companies come for.
The other side of the city – people living in high density housing, selling snacks on the street for 50 cents, hustling every day to get by – obviously exists too. This is the side of the city most people live on.
The gap between rich and poor here is probably the biggest I’ve seen in any major city, so you essentially have two halves of a city living completely different lives. As a human it might be disheartening, but as a traveller it sets a very interesting scene.
There is also an extremely fast growing middle class in Abidjan from all the money that’s been pouring in; this is the second fastest growing economy in the world. If there was any doubt about the changing fortunes of Africa, that will all be dusted once you set foot in this city.
Getting your Ivory Coast Visa
Unless you’re from one of the ECOWAS nations, you’re going to need a visa to enter the Ivory Coast, regardless of your reason.
There are no visas on arrival, or if there are, they are very time-consuming to get.
Instead, you need to get an e-visa prior to arriving. It’s straightforward and is done completely online. It takes around 48 hours and costs around $100.
You also need a yellow fever certificate – there is even a health centre right there in arrivals where (I assume) people who don’t have a certificate will need to get a yellow fever vaccination before entering. If the thought of getting vaccinated in an Ivory Coast airport doesn’t excite you, I suggest you get vaccinated at home.
Arriving at Abidjan Airport
I arrived in Abidjan in the middle of the night, around 1 a.m.
In Europe or even much of Asia, arriving in the middle of the night isn’t a problem and public transport will still get you anywhere you need to go.
Not west Africa. In fact five years ago I would’ve paid extra just to avoid this flight and the midnight airport antics. Cab drivers in African airports are some of the worst when it comes to hustling tourists.
I had a very friendly man approach me as soon as I exited the gates, as I was expecting. I went straight to the ATM and he followed me, acting like he was being my security guard and making lots of small talk.
Then I walked over to the info desk and asked the guy which taxis were safe. He chatted quickly in French with the guy following me, and then told me it would be fine to go with him.
My contact in Cote d’Ivoire had told me the correct price is 6,000 francs during the day, but during the night it could be 8,000 or slightly more. Just as I was about to start talking price he said “So you give me 20,000 okay?” and started walking off with my bag. I stopped him and laughed and told him I’ll find someone else. He offered 15,000 and I just tried to ignore him. Then he got annoyed.
“You think you know the price? You don’t know the price!” and he stormed off.
The guy at the information desk was really helpful and even called my Airbnb to double check the address, then called a taxi driver for me and gave him all the instructions. In the end I paid 10,000 to 7eme tranche, which is around $17.
You could bargain the price down more if you have the energy, otherwise just live with the few dollars extra, known in this part of the world as the “white tax” 😀
Where to stay in Abidjan
The map above shows the main areas of Abidjan, which is split into two parts – the north and the south.
As you can see it’s connected by three bridges, so in peak hour traffic getting across town is extremely slow. From Marcory to Angré might take 15 minutes late at night, but over an hour at 6pm.
A few quick one liners about these neighbourhoods:
Marcory – Very active area with lots of malls, restaurants and bars.
Cocody – Upper class area with many expats.
Angré – Northern suburban area
Riviera – Middle upper class area with many bars, restaurants.
Plateau – Central business district with many office buildings.
Treichville – Rougher and more local side of Marcory.
Yopougon – Very large, local area.
Probably the easiest way to describe it is if Abidjan was New York then Plateau would be Wall Street, Marcory would be Times Square, Treichville would be Harlem, Yopougon would definitely be Queens, Riviera and Cocody would be Brooklyn and Angré might be the Bronx. Something like that!
Staying in Marcory
Marcory is the most central part of town where you can do everything – eat street food but also eat in nice air conditioned malls, stay in nice hotels but also cheap guesthouses etc. You will also see quite a lot of expats and foreigners around here running their businesses, shopping, and just doing daily errands. Many of them are out here eating/drinking during the nights as well.
As a tourist, you probably want to stay in and around Marcory if you’re on a short trip. It’s the central hub that connects all the different corners of the city.
Traffic in Abidjan is not a joke and you don’t want to be spending your trip commuting down to Marcory every other day.
You can find a great range of accommodation on Booking.com for the areas in and around Marcory.
Staying in Cocody/Angré
If you’re staying in the city longer (more than two weeks) you might want to stay up in the northern neighbourhoods around Cocody and Angré.
Angré is where you will find most of these places, especially around 7eme tranche and 8eme tranche which is where I stayed. You won’t see many foreigners around these parts, in fact I rarely saw any at all, except for a few Lebanese that owned restaurants and shops. Also I got a good number of stares each day so you know they don’t see tourists too often around here!
However the area is safe and security guards are everywhere, even walking around after dark was safe and normal judging by locals’ behaviour.
For those wanting to stay here, this is where the Airbnb game is at. There are many cheap Airbnbs up here that should only cost you $20 a night so you can stay longer term without hurting your budget too much. If you’re new to Airbnb, you can get $25 off your first booking with this link.
Staying in other areas
The Riviera zones are also nice but it’s quieter and more spread out and harder to find tourist accommodation around there.
Plateau is also possible but it’s mostly very pricey hotels – but if that’s what you’re looking for you’ll have many quality places to choose from.
For example, I visited the Sofitel Ivoire one afternoon and it literally has the largest pool I’ve seen in my life.
This is one half of their swimming pool:
Staying in a place like that will cost you around $250-$300 USD per night. Not a bad place if it’s in your budget 😉
Airbnb is quite rare in this part of town, so again Booking.com is your best bet for getting a good rate.
As for Yopougon and Treichville, you probably don’t want to stay around there as a tourist unless you want to go full local, but those places are probably better for day visits.
Money in Abidjan
The currency in Ivory Coast is the franc, or the CFA (Communauté Financière Africaine). It’s a common currency used in all the former French colonies in west Africa. The other countries using the franc are Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo.
The exchange rate is currently around 570 CFA to $1 USD.
One piece of advice here – the thing that plagued my trip was the issue of having the right change. For some reason, nobody ever has change in Abidjan.
I went to buy bread one morning which was 300 francs, and I only had a 5,000 note. They wouldn’t accept it, so I spent around two hours walking around trying to buy stuff like fruit or eggs to try and get change, but nobody had any change so they wouldn’t sell me anything.
I even asked my Airbnb security guard if he could help, so he went walking around with me to some shops and still no dice.
I never thought I’d see the day where I literally struggled to give money to people, in Africa!
Another time I bought some laundry powder from the shop down the road, it was 300 and I paid with a 1,000. The guy gave me 500 in change and told me to come back tomorrow for the other 200 (which I did).
This was practically a daily occurrence throughout my stay in Abidjan.
The point, always keep your small change! When you get money from the ATM you’re going to get a stack of crisp 10,000 franc notes, which nobody is going to want. Break them every opportunity you get and refrain from spending your small notes and coins until you really need to. It will make your days so much easier.
Getting Around In Abidjan
Most people, even locals, get around by taxi or private car.
Taxis are the red/orange cars you see in the photo above. They’re often poorly maintained (you’ll see them broken down all the time) but they are everywhere so never hard to find.
They will usually cost you around 1,000 CFA ($1.75) for a short trip, such as if you’re just going to the next neighbourhood or somewhere nearby (say 10 minutes or so). Usually you don’t even need to negotiate for these trips, just give the driver 1,000 when you get out.
Longer trips you’ll have to negotiate. If you’re going from Angré down to Marcory it will be 2,500-3,500 CFA ($4.30-$6), depending on your negotiating skills, the time of day, and how nice the driver is. If he’s cool he’ll just agree to 2,500 off the bat, if he’s a dickhead he’ll try and push you for 4,000 and make you haggle down to 3,500. But if he insists on ripping you off just wave down another taxi, there’s a new one driving past you every minute.
You can imagine this is quite draining (even local friends complained about this) but try and embrace it as part of your Abidjan experience. If anything it certainly improves your French!
There are also yellow taxis which are shared taxis and are cheaper, but they are quite complicated to use.
Again remember to keep small change for taxis, or at least ask them before the ride if they have change for a 5,000 or a 10,000. This will avoid a debacle when it finally comes time to pay.
Safety in Abidjan
Abidjan is a safe city.
There are police around quite often, but they never looked twice at me or gave me any troubles.
You can also feel from the general vibe that most areas aren’t considered dangerous. All the indicators of safety (women walking alone at night, street stalls open after dark, kids playing outside etc) could be seen in most parts of the city. Also when I walked around alone at night nobody gave me the “what are you doing!” look so overall things felt very safe. Most local contacts told me the same.
After the civil war, the military presence in the city increased significantly and is still there. My cab was even stopped and I was body searched at one in the middle of the night. The cab driver just rolled his eyes like it was standard procedure so I wasn’t too worried about it. He looked curiously at my camera tripod, but that was it. Didn’t ask for a bribe or anything.
Of course there are definitely parts of the city you shouldn’t be wandering around alone in, but I can’t imagine you have any reason to go there. Common sense should be enough to keep you out of trouble.
As for personal experiences I didn’t experience any danger during my stay. However my phone did get stolen and apparently this is quite common so be wary of this.
It was while I was sitting in a traffic jam at night, and I had the window down. I was scrolling through something on my phone and then suddenly – whoop! A hand reached in and snatched it. I looked out the window and saw a street kid, probably around 18 years old, running up the hill into the bushes.
The funny thing is I was actually warned about this about a week earlier – I was in a cab using my phone with the window down during the day, and the driver told me to be careful because people can reach in and steal it. One week later, someone reaches in and steals it. What a surprise…
However petty theft like this is common in almost all of the developing world and it doesn’t concern me much. I’m only concerned about violent crime, and that seems pretty rare in Abidjan (at least in the places you’re likely to visit).
People in Abidjan
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This was probably the most interesting part of my visit as I never really came to a concrete conclusion.
My first observation was Abidjanians (if that’s a word) seem to have inherited some of the French preciousness. The average person on the street can seem stand-offish or even unwelcoming. Even when you make eye contact, they won’t return or even acknowledge a smile, or at times may even ignore your bonjour or bonsoir. Sometimes they stare at you like “Why are you talking to me?”
Many middle and upper class Ivorians have lived in Paris and other parts of France, so that may be part of it.
However a good percentage of people will also greet your eye contact with warm smiles and greetings and make you suddenly feel like you’re in the heart of Africa again.
It’s two polar opposites.
Sometimes it’s hard to judge as well. Security guards often seem like they’re giving you the death stare as you walk past, but as soon as you smile and wave they transform into a Sesame Street character and wave back with a huge grin.
Even when you go to buy stuff at fruit stands etc, people don’t tend to welcome you with big smiles or anything. The one fruit stand around the corner from my apartment was very cold and impersonal on my first day, but on the subsequent days she greeted me with a big smile and a bonjour chinois! like she was my best friend. So it seems that you need to develop some kind of familiarity with people first before their warmth comes out. Again it feels a bit like France in that sense.
This might be more of a big city mentality rather than specifically an Ivorian thing, but it’s what you’ll find in Abidjan.
They’ve inherited the good side of the Frenchness too however! For example whenever I was invited out for meals or to meet people, they always insisted on paying the bill and were super hospitable and treat you like a special guest, always asking if you need another drink and so on. Compare this to a place like maybe Tanzania, where people often see you as the wealthy foreigner so expect you to pay. So seeing all the sides of the culture is very interesting.
Also it helps to remember Abidjan is one of the major cosmopolitan cities of west Africa so there are a lot of Malians, Nigerians, Ghanaians, Guineans and so on living here, so you don’t even know who is from where. Many of the people you walk past probably aren’t even Ivorian!
Overall people are still very decent here, but if you’re expecting the African mega-friendliness from strangers like you do in Uganda or Tanzania you’ll be disappointed.
English in Abidjan
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This is my buddy and fellow blogger Yasmine, one of the few people I met in Abidjan who spoke fluent English (after studying in the UK). But that’s definitely not the norm here.
Overall, English is poorly spoken in Abidjan.
Almost every taxi driver will speak no English, or very little, and even staff in shopping malls will probably only speak French.
Even very well educated people won’t speak great English – it’s just not a priority here. The language is French and absolutely everything is done in French.
That means French is essential if you plan on staying here for more than a week or two. Even if you don’t want to put much effort into learning, you should definitely learn your numbers so you can understand prices, and learn basic phrases for food and asking directions.
You might want to use my guide for learning a language in seven days.
Food in Abidjan
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The food is varied as there is a large Lebanese, French, Chinese and other west African population in the city. However I mostly stuck to Ivorian food. A few things you should try are:
Attieke – A bit like a cassava couscous, which is a staple here and you’ll see it sold all over the city.
Alloko – Deep fried chopped plantains, just think french fries, but as bananas.
Foutou – A pounded cassava and banana mash, almost like mashed potatoes.
Placali – Like foutou but without the banana.
Fufu – Like foutou but without the casava.
You can try the above with all different kinds of sauces, usually the menu changes every day, and revolves around fish, chicken, snails, crab, beef. The sauces are generally spicy.
In the night it’s all about the braises. Most popular are the chicken (poulet braise) and the fish (poisson braise), both go great with attieke or alloko!
It’s hard for me to recommend places to eat as I just walk around and pop into wherever looks good, but I will suggest checking out Yasmine’s blog afrofoodie.com and her Instagram – she’s one of the bigger food bloggers in Abidjan and knows pretty much every joint in town, you’ll find endless ideas on her feed!
Another thing you should definitely try is the fruit! The papayas, the pineapples and the cacaos are amazing in Cote d’Ivoire, some of the best I’ve ever had and they’re super cheap. A papaya or a pineapple might cost you 200 CFA (35 cents) on the street.
And lastly make sure you get your fair share of bread and baguettes in. Obviously the French were here for a long time and the baguettes are as good as if not better than in France itself, 100-150 CFA (25 cents) each. Eat them while they’re hot!
Always drink bottled water. It is inexpensive and safe.
Some people sell plastic sachets of water on the street, but be warned that this is simply filtered water and if you have a very sensitive stomach it may not sit well with you.
I also recommend you read my article on preventing traveller’s diarrhea.
Getting a sim card in Abidjan
The biggest network in Cote d’Ivoire is Orange and I’d recommend getting your sim with them. You can get a sim card with around 12GB/month (changes all the time) for 10,000 CFA ($17 USD). The internet is 4G/LTE and the coverage is good.
Just find an Orange store and take your passport and they’ll set it up for you. However be warned that nobody spoke English at any of the Orange stores I went to, so be prepared!
The other networks are MTN and Moov, but everyone recommended going with Orange.
Getting out of Abidjan
The two obvious trips are to Grand Bassam, the UNESCO beach town to the east, and Assinie, the beach resort area even further to the east.
To get to Grand Bassam, the cheapest way is to get the bus. You can catch a bus from the bus stop at Adjame, or you can also catch a minibus from the bus stop at Treichville. The price will be around 500 – 1,000 CFA ($1.75).
To get to Assinie, definitely go to Treichville as it has a van that goes direct. The price will be 1,500 CFA.
You can also get asked to pay extra if you have a large bag that needs loading, around 1,000 CFA.
To get to these bus stops just ask a taxi to take you, they all know where it is. You can also negotiate with the taxi to drive you to these places himself, you might pay anywhere from 12,000-20,000 CFA for a round-trip, but you’ll need to negotiate hard.
The other way to get to these places is to make some local friends. It’s really popular to head to Bassam for the beach during the weekend, if you make the right connects you can just hitch a ride!
How Much To Budget in Abidjan
Abidjan is not cheap.
I stayed in Abidjan for around six weeks (43 days), here’s how much I spent:
Transport: 84,000 CFA
Food and water: 148,000 CFA
Accommodation: 623,000 CFA
Misc: 59,000 CFA
Total: 914,000 CFA ($1,600 USD or around $37 per day).
Here’s how this breaks down:
Food was mostly cooked myself with stuff bought from the market and stalls like this:
Usually 2,000 CFA ($3.50) should get you enough fruit and veg for 2-3 days.
I did eat out every few days at local eateries and roadside places which are usually cheap-ish. For example this meal with a bottle of water was 2,700 CFA ($4.70):
Accommodation was all Airbnb, staying in studios around Angré 7eme and 8eme tranche. Usually around 15,000-20,000 CFA ($25-$43) per night for a place like this:
Transport was all local taxis, sometimes I went into Marcory to meet friends or just wander around, but I didn’t do that every day. Often I just stayed around Angré.
Miscellaneous includes things like cellphone, laundry, tips, and other random everyday things.
So what’s the right budget?
If you want to go hyper-budget travel and really live locally, you can get by on $10-20 USD per day. However that is going to be uncomfortable for even the super experienced backpacker.
I would say a more reasonable budget is around $40-$50 USD per day – this will include staying in an Airbnb and eating local food at local places.
If you think you will be spending more time in expat-oriented places, such as eating at shopping malls and restaurants, you’ll be at around $80-$100 USD per day, and closer to $150 per day if you’re staying in a nice hotel.
As a guide, there are many decent hotels on Booking.com for around 20,000-30,000 CFA ($35-$50 USD) and much nicer ones in the $100+ USD range.
Airbnb has many good options, especially in outer neighbourhoods. If you’ve never used Airbnb before, you can get $25 off your first booking with this link.
Any questions, leave them below.
Featured image: husseinabdallah@Flickr