The Surprising Truth about Brazzaville, Congo
I recently had the unique opportunity to travel to Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of the Congo, and the place really surprised me.
What I thought was going to be a scary, intimidating destination turned out to be one of the safest, friendliest cities I’ve ever visited in Africa.
Prior to my trip, I had the impression that the Congo was a dangerous, lawless country. While this is a pretty accurate description of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, things are very different in the neighboring Republic of the Congo.
Congo Brazzaville vs. Congo Kinshasa
Did you know that there are two Congos? Both are named after the Congo River that divides them, and their capital cities face each other on opposite banks of this mighty body of water.
Indeed, they are the closest pair of capital cities anywhere in the world (unless you count Rome and the Vatican City). To avoid confusion, the two countries are often referred to by the names of their capitals.
Thus, the Republic of the Congo is called Congo Brazzaville, while the Democratic Republic of the Congo is called Congo Kinshasa.
The two share a similar culture and language, but their tragic colonial histories have led them down different paths. Check out this video for a short but insightful history lesson that explains why there are two Congos.
So while Brazzaville is incredibly safe, even for solo female travelers, it’s reputation by association with the DRC has kept tourists away.
It doesn’t help that there’s very little information about places to see or things to do in Brazzaville, and the little info that is available is mostly in French.
So, in an effort to help more people discover this fascinating and little-explored corner of Africa, I’m sharing my list of the top things to do in Brazzaville (plus one thing to avoid).
Top 20 Things to Do in Brazzaville
1. Basilica of Saint Anne of the Congo
This striking Catholic church was built in 1943 by a Protestant French architect named Roger Erell.
At that time, Brazzaville was the official capital of Free France, the government-in-exile led by Charles de Gaulle that continued to fight against Hitler even after France had fallen. The basilica was envisioned as a strong and visible symbol of the power of Free France.
It wasn’t consecrated until 1949, several years after the war had ended, and even then its construction was incomplete. In 2011, the spire of the bell tower was finally finished.
Its roof of emerald green tiles is said to represent the scales of a snake. Much like the gargoyles carved on the façades of medieval churches, these scales are symbolic of the evil that lies outside the church.
Mass is held every morning at 6:30 am, and the main mass is on Sundays at 10:30 am. When you visit, you may be lucky enough to stumble upon a wedding like I did!
2. Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza Memorial
This memorial to Brazzaville’s namesake was quite controversial when it was erected in 2006. Opinion is divided about De Brazza, an Italian-born Frenchman who convinced the local king to place his kingdom under the protection of the French, making the Congo a French colony.
Some view De Brazza as a humanist, pacifist and abolitionist who campaigned against the slavery and ill-treatment of Africans. Others say he was a colonizer like all the others, and even a rapist.
Upon his death, De Brazza’s body was originally buried in Paris and then moved to Algeria. But in 2006, a memorial and mausoleum was built for him in Brazzaville, and his ashes were transferred here.
Initially, most locals avoided the site, even claiming that it was a place of black magic and a masonic temple (De Brazza was a freemason).
Now, though, the controversy seems to have died down, and locals come to take selfies in the attractive, flower-filled gardens. Entry is free, but the guard at the gate will ask for your ID and will keep it until you exit.
The building itself was closed when I visited, so I wasn’t able to visit the graves of De Brazza and his wife and children inside the crypt. Apparently there’s also a 15-meter long fresco depicting De Brazza’s voyage to the Congo.
3. Nabemba Tower (Tour Nabemba)
Love it or hate it, you can’t miss this cylindrical 30-floor skyscraper in the middle of downtown Brazzaville. It’s the tallest building in the country and is fittingly named after Mount Nabemba, the tallest mountain in the Republic of the Congo.
Built in the 1980s with money borrowed from a French oil company, it was then severely damaged during the civil war of 1997. The subsequent renovation cost more than $20 million, which was even more than what it had cost to build it in the first place.
Annual maintenance costs are close to $4 million, which is a lot of money for such a poor country. Hence the controversy surrounding the tower, which houses offices and government ministries and is closed to the public.
Architectural Digest recently dubbed Nabemba Tower one of the ugliest skyscrapers in the world. I’m no fan of modern architecture in general, but I personally think that’s a bit harsh. What do you think?
4. Stroll Along the Corniche
The word “corniche” usually refers to a road that runs along a coastline. But Brazzaville is not on the coast, so in this case it’s the road that follows the riverbank of the Congo River. Avenue Fulbert Youlou is the official name of the road, but everyone knows it as the Corniche.
It’s a beautiful, peaceful walk, and all the more so right now since it’s currently closed to vehicles. In January 2020, just a month before my visit, part of the road collapsed due to flooding and erosion.
There are allegations that corruption, embezzlement and poor construction also played a role. So, currently, the section between the Mami Wata restaurant and Case de Gaulle is open only for pedestrians.
From there, the Corniche continues all the way to the rapids, another must-see attraction in Brazzaville (more on that below). The whole walk from Mami Wata to the rapids should take a little less than two hours.
5. Independence Bridge (Pont de l’Indépendance)
Inaugurated in 2016, the bridge’s real name is the Bridge of 15 August 1960. This is the date when the Republic of the Congo gained independence from France, and most people just refer to the bridge as “Independence Bridge” for short.
Since the partial collapse of the Corniche, this cable-stayed bridge is currently open only to pedestrian traffic. You would expect such an imposing landmark to be a busy thoroughfare buzzing with vehicles, and maybe it was before the road collapsed. Walking across the bridge when it’s virtually empty feels kind of surreal.
It’s quite an impressive feat of engineering, and you may wonder why no such bridge has been built to connect Brazzaville and Kinshasa. But that’s more of a political issue than anything else.
Be sure to come by in the evening to see the cables that support the bridge illuminated in a rainbow of changing colors. The Chez Dom bar and restaurant at Case de Gaulle roundabout is a great vantage point from which to view it.
6. The Rapids (Les Rapides)
At the point where the Djoué river flows into the Congo river, it creates a series of rapids that will send your heart aflutter if you like whitewater rafting. Although, a few daredevil locals seem to enjoy the thrill of the rapids without the need of any raft.
As I was sitting at a popular restaurant and bar called Les Rapides, I was astonished to see a young man swim right through the rapids wearing nothing but his underwear. At first I was afraid he was drowning, but then he did it at least five more times.
When he saw that I was filming him, he even started hamming it up for the camera. While I definitely don’t recommend you try this yourself, watching the locals tackle the rapids is certainly entertaining.
And even if you don’t spot any stuntmen, watching the canoes and other riverboat traffic is also a great way to pass an afternoon. It’s even more fun when you have a cocktail in hand, which leads me to my next suggestion of things to do in Brazzaville.
7. Have a Drink on the Banks of the Congo River
The Congo River is most definitely Brazzaville’s best feature and makes the city what it is. There are a number of well-placed bars and restaurants right on the riverbank where you can enjoy a drink or a meal.
Here are my favorites, listed in the order in which you will find them when walking along the Corniche.
A solid favorite among expats and middle-class locals, this is the most expensive of the options but is worth a splurge. It’s also the most central, right in the center of town.
The dining area is a beautiful terrace jutting out over the water, with great views of Kinshasa on the other side of the river. Vegan options consist mostly of side dishes, or you could probably order a salad or a vegetarian pizza without cheese.
Alternatively, just come for one of their delicious fruity cocktails, served with a complimentary plate of peanuts.
Soon I will publish a guide to vegan food in Brazzaville. But for now, check out this guest post by my friend Moise from Kinshasa on what it’s like being vegan in the other Congo.
A very local bar with rickety plastic tables and chairs scattered over a green lawn. Try to snag a table close to the river for the best views of the water and the nearby Independence Bridge.
Like most Congolese restaurants, the menu is quite meat-heavy. But there are a few vegan side dishes, and itinerant peanut sellers will probably pass by your table at some point. For vegans and vegetarians, it’s probably best to come here just for a drink or light snack.
This place is very popular with locals on the weekends but is pretty quiet on weekdays. Seating is spread out over a few different levels, with the lowest tables right next to the rapids. Prices are pretty reasonable here, but don’t expect them to have everything listed on the menu.
I had spotted some promising veggie options, such as vegetable skewers, but in the end all they could offer me was saka saka (a popular leafy green vegetable) with rice. It’s still worth stopping here for a drink, though. And it also doubles as a hotel, so you could even book a room here for a night or two to really relax.
The official name of this place is River Appart, but the locals I spoke to all referred to it as “L’Hôtel Rose”, which means “the pink hotel” in French. It’s certainly an accurate description!
You can’t miss the big pink building that sits on the bank of the Djoué river. While I didn’t eat or drink anything here, I did poke my head in to check it out and chat with the staff.
They seemed quite professional and willing to accommodate vegans and vegetarians. Similar to Mami Wata, the dining area is a terrace perched above the water. Except that in this case, the body of water is the smaller Djoué river rather than the Congo.
Practically next door to River Appart, the vibe here is much more casual and chilled out. There’s even a real beach with sand!
I’m not sure if they serve food; it seems like more of a place where you would go for just a drink. The tables are under makeshift cabanas, both on the beach itself and higher up on the terrace.
From here, you can also hire a canoe and boatman to take you to one of the nearby islands for a closer view of the rapids.
8. Eat Congolese Street Food
The downtown area near the Nabemba Tower and the train station is mostly office buildings and seems eerily quiet for an African capital. For a livelier atmosphere, head to Moungali, Poto Poto or Bacongo.
In these neighborhoods, you’ll find lots of people milling about and all kinds of things being sold on the street. The street food tends to center around grilled meats, especially at night, but there are some yummy plant-based snacks too.
One of my favorites is safou, also known as the African pear. I’d never seen a safou until I arrived in the Congo, but I quickly became hooked on them!
The pulp is quite creamy and fatty like an avocado, but with a tart citrus flavor. Roasted peanuts and banana chips are other very common street food snacks.
9. Take a Selfie at the “I Heart Brazzaville” Sign
It really surprised me to see such a blatant Instagram spot like this in Brazzaville, a city that’s not exactly a top destination for travel influencers. I couldn’t find any info about this “I Heart BZV” sign, but judging by the date next to it, it’s clearly a new addition.
Perhaps it was erected by GHS, the fancy four-star hotel that it sits in front of. I’m yet to see anyone posting photos of the sign on Instagram, so maybe you can be the first!
10. Sapeur Street (La Rue des Sapeurs)
What is a sapeur, you ask? If you look the word up in the dictionary, you’ll find that it means “firefighter”, but that’s not the type of sapeur we’re talking about here.
In the Congo, a sapeur is someone who belongs to the Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, or S.A.P.E for short. This translates as something like “The Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People”.
Sometimes referred to as “dandies” in English, the sapeurs of Brazzaville are men who dress up in stylish, colorful suits and strut their stuff around town. It’s about more than just clothes, though; it’s an identity and a way of life for these guys.
While the sapeurs are admired by many, their lifestyle is also controversial. After all, they often spend enormous sums of money on designer clothes, even while they and their families are living in poverty.
Although one sapeur in particular, Maxime Pivot, is changing the game and teaching aspiring sapeurs how to dress in style without going bankrupt. You can find out more about this unique Congolese lifestyle in this short documentary featuring Maxime.
If you want to see the sapeurs in person, the neighborhood of Bacongo on a Sunday is your best bet. A bar called La Main Bleu is a popular hangout for them, and there’s even a street that’s unofficially known as Rue des Sapeurs (“Sapeurs Street”).
Ask any taxi driver to take you there. It’s also worth asking around about any special events, as they sometimes put on sapeur parades!
Unfortunately, by the time I found out that Sunday is THE day to see the sapeurs, I already had other plans for that day. My biggest regret about my time in Brazzaville is missing out on meeting these colorful characters. Don’t make the same mistake I did!
11. Drink Cocktails Out of a Pineapple
It’s an undisputed fact that cocktails taste better when sipped from a hollowed-out pineapple. At Chicha Café in downtown Brazzaville, they serve these delicious treats on the covered terrace upstairs. Next time, I’ll remember to ask for no straw.
While the view is not as good as at Mami Wata or the other riverside bars, It’s a very relaxing atmosphere. And you can also smoke flavored tobacco out of a water pipe (shisha) in between sips.
12. Listen to Live Congolese Music
Congo is famous for its rhythms. And while you will hear music playing out of speakers set up on the streets everywhere you go, there’s nothing quite like hearing it played live.
Les Bantous de la Capitale is a legendary band created in 1959 right here in Brazzaville. They’re kind of the Congolese equivalent of the Buena Vista Social Club in Cuba.
In other words, they’re a bunch of old men who have been making music together for a very long time (more than 60 years!) and have gotten really good at it.
Even the style of music they play is known as “Congolese rumba” and was inspired by the Cuban rumba of the 1930s. Like the sapeurs, the best day of the week to catch Les Bantou de la Capitale is on a Sunday.
Usually, they’ll be playing either at the Institut Français du Congo or at a bar in Bacongo called La Détente.
13. Shop at Marché Total
There are quite a few markets in Brazzaville that are worth a visit, but the Marché Total tops them all. I suspect it might be named after the Total gas station nearby, but the name happens to fit perfectly. This really is the total African market experience.
The place is absolutely huge, and you can find pretty much anything you want within the depths of its meandering alleyways. Whether you’re looking for fresh produce, cutlery, a new radio or a bar of soap, you’ll find it here. Eventually.
The experience can be quite chaotic, so be prepared for a sensory overload. And with all the stalls jumbled together with no rhyme or reason, vegans beware that it’s pretty much impossible to avoid passing by the stalls selling meat and fish.
Oh, and if it’s been raining then you’ll be walking through mud pretty much the whole time. I guess I’m not really selling this market very well, huh?
The truth is, it’s pretty intense, and I would not choose to do my weekly shopping here if I lived in Brazzaville. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of the local people, and I recommend visiting at least once.
14. Poto-Poto Painting School (Ecole Peinture Poto-Poto)
This painting school was founded in 1951 by a French mathematician and amateur painter named Pierre Lods. It’s a rather unorthodox school, where the teachers refrain from teaching as much as possible.
Instead, they encourage their students to expand their own creativity and originality. Currently, there are 7 professional painters working here and about 20 students who tend to come and go.
Set inside peaceful grounds where huge old trees provide welcome shade, the building itself is quite basic and in need of repairs. You’ll find the entrance on the corner of Avenue de la Paix and Rue Mayama.
Most of the artwork on display is for sale, with the smallest canvases going for 25,000 CFA. And if you want something even smaller and cheaper, they also have paintings on square pieces of wood that sell for 10,000 CFA.
Most of the subjects are typical African themes, focusing on the continent’s animals, people and landscapes. The artists are quite welcoming and happy for you to look around even if you don’t plan to buy anything.
15. Poto-Poto Market
If you find Marché Total to be a bit too in-your-face, try wandering around the more manageably sized Poto-Poto market instead. Poto-Poto is the West African quarter, where you’ll find immigrants from Mali, Senegal and other countries in that corner of the continent.
While most Congolese profess to be Christian, the West African population here is largely Muslim. You’ll see many women in headscarves and men wearing skull caps and long flowing robes. The market stalls spread out in all directions from Mosquée Sounna, the largest mosque in the country.
Much like Marché Total, this market is a maze of narrow alleyways. Duck inside, and you’ll find everything from avocados to tennis shoes to foam mattresses.
And while the Poto-Poto market is less chaotic than Marché Total, you’ll still have to deal with the mud here, which can be even worse than at Marché Total. In fact, the name “poto-poto” means “watery mud” in Bambara, a language widely spoken in Mali.
16. Take a Canoe to M’Bamou Island
This large island sits in the middle of the Congo river between Brazzaville and Kinshasa. There are a few villages on the island, where people live a quiet life that seems a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
My original plan was to take a boat to a village called Sinoa and walk about four kilometers to the next village, called Kitengé, then return by boat from there.
I ended up just staying in Sinoa the whole time, which was just as well because it was a bit too hot for hiking. Bring plenty of water and sun cream.
This trip was a bit tricky to organize, but it ended up being one of my favorite things I did in Brazzaville. I highly recommend it! Here’s how to do it the right way, so you won’t waste time and energy like I did:
The easiest but most expensive way would be to hire a motorized canoe at Mami Wata. But they charge between 45,000 and 60,000 CFA, which is kind of a rip off.
If you’re a bit adventurous, go instead to the port where the boats leave for Kinshasa. This is officially called the Port Autonome de Brazzaville, but everyone seems to just call it the “beach”.
Ask for a boatman named Papa Denis, who will take you to Sinoa and back for 10,000 to 15,000 CFA round trip. You can also call him at +242 069224608 or +242 069357211 to arrange this in advance.
Bring your passport, as the port immigration officials will check it. Important: do NOT go to the Port de Yoro, which is a different port where the immigration officials are very corrupt. I tried there first, and they insisted I needed an authorization from the Ministry of Tourism to visit the island.
I’m sure they were just looking for a bribe, but I wasn’t going to play their game. The officials at the “beach” port were quite friendly and helpful, in contrast to those at Port de Yoro.
Once you make it to the island, you’ll find a very relaxed atmosphere and friendly locals. Try to visit the school if classes are in session. Or if not, just chat with the ladies as they grind cassava by hand.
17. Enjoy the Rooftop View at Edmund Hotel
This hotel in the center of the city has a fabulous rooftop bar and restaurant on three levels. It’s a great place to come at night to watch the lights twinkle in the city down below.
And the food is surprisingly good too! The waiter seemed a bit skeptical when I ordered a vegetarian pizza with no cheese, but the chef did a great job.
Unfortunately I don’t have any decent photos from here because it was already quite dark when I arrived, and the lighting is very low. But trust me, it’s a great place to spend an evening!
18. Ride the Gazelle Train to Pointe-Noire
Chinese engineers refurbished this train line a few years ago, which connects Brazzaville with Pointe-Noire. The latter is the country’s second largest city and in many ways its economic capital, thanks to the offshore oil field nearby.
Travel on the line was suspended due to conflict in the Pool region, but that seems to be over now. I’d heard and read conflicting reports about whether the trains were running again, but when I went to the train station it was padlocked shut.
Hopefully by the time you read this the train service will have resumed. Apparently the Chinese train (dubbed the “Gazelle”) is pretty nice, and there’s even an overnight sleeper carriage.
If the train is still not running, I’ve heard that the trip by bus is also very scenic. It passes right through the Réserve de la Biosphère de Dimonika. A bus company called Océan du Nord does the route in about nine hours, and tickets cost 12,000 CFA.
And even if you don’t plan to ride the train, it’s worth visiting the train station to see the statue that stands in front of it. Which brings me to the next Brazzaville attraction…
19. The Congolese Statue of Liberty
Standing proudly in front of the Brazzaville train station is a figure that looks oddly familiar. Holding a torch above her head in her right hand and a tablet in her left, her pose is virtually identical to that of the statue of liberty that guards New York harbor.
Her physical features are distinctly African, though. And her tablet is inscribed not with the date when the U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed, but with the words “Unity, Work, Progress”.
Intrigued, I did some research to try to find out the backstory behind this Congolese statue of liberty. But all I found were articles about the Congolese-American activist who climbed the New York statue of liberty to protest Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy.
So all I can tell you about the statue is what the plaque on the pedestal says. Namely, that it was inaugurated on 28 December 2009 by the President of the Congo and the Minister of Culture and the Arts.
The same figure is portrayed on the top of a column in the middle of nearby La Couple roundabout, where the I Heart Brazzaville sign is. Except that there, she’s crouched down and hugging the tablet.
Speaking of statues, between the train station and Nabemba Tower is a quiet street lined by busts of important figures in Congolese history. I must admit that I’d never heard of most of them, but I’m curious to know more about them.
Like, for example, the journalist Felicité Safou. Could my favorite Congolese fruit be named after her??
20. Take a Day Trip to the Lésio-Louna Natural Gorilla Reserve
If you only visit one place in the Congo outside of Brazzaville, make it the Lésio-Louna Natural Reserve. This reserve serves as a rehabilitation center for western lowland gorillas, with the goal of eventually releasing them back into the wild.
In the meantime, they live in semi-liberty in their natural habitat while they (re)learn survival skills like foraging and climbing. Most of the gorillas were orphaned at a young age when poachers killed their parents.
In the Congo, adult gorillas are eaten as bushmeat or sold for their body parts to be used in “black magic”. Babies are kept by the wealthy as exotic pets, then abandoned when they grow too big.
The Gorilla Protection Project, created by the John Aspinall Foundation, rescues these orphans and other gorillas from abusive situations. When I visited the reserve, I had the privilege of meeting three different male gorillas.
The first two, Kebu and Fubu, came from a zoo in the UK. They currently live together in a large fenced-in area and will eventually be released into the wild.
Sid, on the other hand, lives alone on an island and doesn’t seem to like visitors. Indeed, he threw sand at us as we watched him from a safe distance in our small boat.
Disfigured by polio at a young age, Sid has had a difficult life and has not been able to integrate into any gorilla group. But at least he is no longer confined to a cage. You can read the story here of how Sid arrived on what’s known as “bachelor island”.
Trips to the reserve are not exactly cheap, but it’s still cheaper than seeing mountain gorillas in Rwanda, Uganda or the DRC. I booked a day trip with Wild Safari Tours and paid 245,500 CFA.
The road to Lésio-Louna is in terrible shape, so it’s about 8 hours of driving there and back. This is a lot for one day, so if you have time and money to spare, I’d recommend an overnight trip instead.
This would allow you time for extra activities like hiking and boat rides, and you would also have more chances to see the gorillas. If you decide to do a daytrip, you’ll only have one shot at seeing them, so try to ensure there’s no miscommunication (as there was when I visited).
Make sure the staff at the reserve know that you’re only coming for the day, so that they will wait until you arrive to do the morning feeding. You will need to leave Brazzville very early to arrive in time for the feeding. We left at 6 am, but a 5 am departure would have been better.
Places to Avoid in Brazzaville
While there are many fun and exciting things to do in Brazzaville, there’s one attraction that you should definitely avoid. I mention it here only so that you don’t end up there by accident and regret it.
The Brazzaville Zoo
After a long closure ever since the civil war in the late 1990s, the Brazzaville zoo has recently reopened. I wish it had remained shut. While I don’t condone visiting any place that keeps animals in captivity for entertainment, this one is particularly awful.
Please don’t support the animal abuse that goes on here by paying the entry fee. I did not visit the zoo myself, but I spoke to someone who did, and she was very distressed and saddened by what she saw there.
The animals are kept in dark, concrete cages and can’t even feel grass underneath their feet. And the caretaker does nothing to stop visitors from feeding them chocolate, potato chips and other human junk food.
When asked what the crocodiles eat, he openly admitted that people catch dogs on the street and sell them to the zoo to be fed to the crocs. This zoo is purely a money-making scheme that clearly does not have the animals’ best interests at heart.
Brazzaville thoroughly surprised me, and I found myself wishing I could spend even more time there. While it does have the usual problems that plague most African cities, it’s safer and friendlier than most.
If you’re looking for a truly off-the-beaten-path destination that’s been completely overlooked by tourists, I highly recommend it!