It’s no cliché to talk of Accra as a city of incredible contrasts. With its history of slavery, bewildering markets and sophisticated fabric shops, falling in love with this West African city is a breeze.
Settlements along the Ghanaian gold coast date back to 1482, when a succession of colonial powers that included the Danish, Dutch and English started building castles and forts along the 500km coastline between Keta in the East and Beyin in the West.
Examples of incredible architecture exist in the capital city of Accra, often alongside crumbling two-storey buildings and dusty, pothole-ridden streets.
A walking tour is a good place to start, taking in the 17th-century, Dutch-built Ussher Fort in the Jamestown area of Accra. Jamestown is host to a number of colonial-era buildings and is hemmed in by a sprawling fisherman’s village located on the beach. It’s a good idea to find a local guide (ask your hotel for recommendations) as tenacious salesman abound who could crowd your experience of the city.
Be sure to stop by the oldest hotel in Accra, the Sea View, another example of colonial architecture with a chequered past. Numerous boxing gyms are also situated in this area: look out for posters advertising local fights for another immersive experience of the city.
The Jamestown lighthouse is a must-see. Pay the nominal entrance fee to climb the spiral staircase to the top for a mind-boggling view of the city.
About 150km west of Accra is Cape Coast Castle, where the region’s history of slavery is on blatant display. A number of castles and forts exist on the coast, which hosted high-traffic trade routes established by the Portuguese in the 15th century. Attacked, sold and exchanged over the next few hundred years as European powers fought over the country’s vast gold deposits and later over the slave route, the dank dungeons require a steely heart to experience.
Until the abolition of the slave trade in the 1800s, it’s estimated that six million slaves were shipped off – 15% of them perishing at sea – from West Africa alone.
A stone’s throw away from the dungeons were the opulent quarters of the British governor and officers, with gorgeous Atlantic views and beautiful parquet floors. A visit here gives great context to the history of the region.
Accra is full of local taxis, or tro-tros, which are clearly marked. Ensure you confirm your fare with the driver upfront – most of them can be booked by the hour.
WHAT TO BUY
There are a few malls in the city, but the traditional markets and local brands provide a more interesting experience. The famous Makola market is sometimes a challenging feast for the senses, but it leaves you with a vibrant picture of local culture. Selling everything from meat and machinery to fabric and plantains, it’s a place where you need a guide, as not all stallholders take kindly to being photographed or filmed.
The Osu area provides a wide variety of home-grown Ghanaian brands like Heel the World shoes, which also has several rails of clothing designed by proprietor Fred Deegbe’s wife Nelly, who’s behind the Duaba Serwa luxury brand.
Also check in at Vlisco-owned Woodin, which has vibrant, modern outfits and textiles to die for. It has several locations in Accra, but the best store is in Oxford St, Osu.
WHERE TO PARTY
Head off to the Republic Bar & Grill in 3rd Street in Osu (+233 24 631 4044), where tables sprawl out onto the street. It offers delectable local snacks, pumping, home-grown beats and a cosmopolitan crowd. The cocktails are a must as they contain traditional ingredients like palm wine and beer sap.
Independence Square, with its colourful spectator stands and the Eternal Flame of African Liberation marking the country’s independence in 1957, is well worth a visit. Also go to Kwame Nkrumah Park, which houses the country’s first President’s mausoleum. It has a curious collection of his personal belongings, beautiful bronze statues and photos with world leaders such as John F Kennedy and Chairman Mao Tse-tung.
WHERE TO STAY
The Labadi Beach Hotel, perched on the eponymous famous beach, is an oasis of palm trees and five-star service. Renowned for its Sunday buffet, it also has a newly-refurbished spa. The on-site conference centre and boardroom facilities make the 164-room establishment perfect for business, too.