Ganvié, Bénin Republic: Exploring the African Venice

By Sandra Idossou

Africa is beautiful, and each time I visit places, I wish Africans knew how blessed they were, so many hidden jewels that need to be discovered by all. One of such places is Ganvié, a beautiful historical lake city where life on water is as vibrant as on dry land. Take time to indulge yourself in two to three hours visiting schools, float markets, hotels, mosques and many other places all built on stilts.

This lake-city is located on Lake Nokoué in the northern part of Cotonou, the economic capital city of Bénin Republic. From Cotonou, one just has to reach Abomey Calavi (that is 30 km) then board any of the traditional canoes to visit one of the many lake cities in the Sô-Ava area. If you are like me, you will probably prefer the non-motorized canoe when you are in Ganvié to visit the areas of the city because the tranquility and the serenity of the water will soothe your soul.


Nicknamed “Venice of Africa,” Ganvié includes over a thousand wooden houses all set up on pilotis and count approximately 30,000 inhabitants who live mainly today on fishing and tourism.

The history of this lake city dates back from over 500 years is tragic because, during the eighteenth century, slavery raids led the people of the region to take refuge in the swamps of the lake to escape a sad fate. In fact the name Ganvié in Fon, the local language means Gan (we are saved) and Vié (Community).

For history purposes, note that in the 17th century, Benin (then known as the kingdom of Dahomey) was one of the most influential regions in West Africa. Inhabitants of this region were raiding neighbouring villages to kidnap and sell them as slaves.

Spread on 277 km2, our “Venice of Africa” is by far one of the most beautiful and floating places to visit. It is simply fun to see kids paddling to go to school or women selling foodstuffs on their canoes; side by side to create floating markets. There are also several shops, restaurants, a community center, a barber or tailor shop. Only the school and the cemetery are built on pockets of dry land.

Itinerary to the Ganvié lake city

From Cotonou, take a cab to Abomey Calavi lakeshore side. There is a tourist bureau on arrival that issues official tickets that include the cost of renting the boat and a tourist guide. The cost is basically like 6 dollars a person or less if you are many.

Things to do in Ganvié

1. Discover the lake village

Pretty much incredible to discover a whole community live on the lake where inhabitants greet each other from their canoes or expertly glide about in pirogues (canoes made from dug-out tree trunks). Quite a unique scene.

2. Learn to paddle

There is no better way to learn how locals do all their errands on canoes than to learn to paddle with them. This is probably one of the few places in the world where you will need to paddle to go and have a beer with a neighbour. It is funny to see that even on that lake, there are signposts indicating the traffic.


3. Watch kids swimming

A joke is said that children in Ganvié first learn how to swim before learning how to walk. Because they barely walk, every kid swims, and it is awesome to see all little kids swimming everywhere, as in normal cases, kids walk on dry land.

4. Spend a night in a hotel on water

I am sure this is an activity you have probably never done before. Book a room in one of the hotels there and sleep to have a better experience of life on water. This special atmosphere is just epic as you get to see the nightlife with all the lights and lanterns on the wooden houses.

5. Get some water lilies

The lake is covered by beautiful lilies everywhere that if you love exotic plants, you would definitely need to get for yourself some of these flowers along the crossing only need to be left in water back at home.

6. Get some souvenirs from the art shops

There are several art shops and my favourite is the one that sells traditional cotton tablecloths or hammocks with Benin traditional symbols. You can get other beautiful souvenirs in wood for your loved ones.

7. Attend a Fish Market

As the major activity on this lake city is fishing, you will see fishing nets everywhere… or women selling fresh fishes. Join one of the fish markets early in the mornings especially if you spent the night in the village.

8. Take beautiful pictures

One of the must-do pictures is a fisherman casting his nets or a little kid paddling to school.  It is said that the best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart. Your pictures will show the in-depth beauty of the landscape.

9. Have lunch

Because Ganvié has different restaurants, you can have lunch there and choose from the traditional menu especially fresh fish, shrimp, but also some local grilled chicken and fried plantain.

As Saint Augustine once said, the world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page. Ganvié is indeed one of the lakeside cities in the world that you need to visit to fill some of the blank pages of your book. It is a unique and hidden extraordinary beauty that will enchant you forever.


Sandra Idossou is an Afropolitan, Afro-Optmistic trainer, traveler, consultant, writer, author, activist, social entrepreneur, arts lover, columnist, publisher. She was an expatriate in 7 African countries (Tchad, Togo, Nigeria, Ghana, Rwanda, Gabon and Congo) between 1999 and 2017.

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