A friend from the Czech Republic emailed me the other day to ask for advice on what to see and do in Accra. I realized that I’d answered a similar question for Xeni Jardin a couple of weeks ago and was statistically likely to face this question again in a few months, at maximum. So I figured I’d offer a blogpost on what to see and do in Accra, knowing that by posting in this fashion, I’ll rapidly be corrected, augmented and generally improved by my Ghanaian and Ghanaphile readers. Please chime in on the comments to let me know what I missed and what I got wrong.
Where to stay
There’s basically three classes of hotels in Accra. The top-end hotels, like La Palm and Labadi Beach, cater primarily to people working on international aid contracts, the UN or other multinational entities. They’re very nice, but they’re quite expensive if your employer hasn’t negotiated a special US government/EU/UN rate. (I could stay in Labadi or La Palm for about $110 a night if I was on US government business, but it was about $300 otherwise.) These places are very comfortable and have nice swimming pools (and very depressing casinos), but are quite far from downtown and minimize your chances of meeting actual Ghanaians (or Ghanaians not employed in the hositality industry.)
On the low end, there are countless inexpensive hotels that cater to backpackers and to Ghanaian travellers, many of these in the Nkrumah Circle area. These places can be under $20 a night, but you need to make sure your room includes a fan and mosquito netting, or you could be in for a very, very long night. If you’re travelling with computers or other expensive gear, you also may want to be very careful about leaving gadgets in your room when you’re not there…
There’s a small number of hotels that occupy the middleground between opulence and backpackerdom. My favorite of the lot is Frankie’s on Cantonments Road in Osu. The ground floor of Frankie’s is an ice cream parlor, the first floor has a pretty good restaurant with the best pancakes in town. And the top two floors have basic but clean – and very safe – rooms. I’m partial to the windowless single rooms, which are quite a bit cheaper than the doubles which face the road. Accra is so overwhelming to the senses that having a white, tiled room that looks a bit like a sensory deprivation chamber can be a good thing. The listed room prices at Frankie’s aren’t all that cheap, but I’ve found you can often get a deal if you stay a couple of days, pay cash and negotiate well. And breakfast is included, which can be a real highlight, especially if you order the crossaints.
Other hotels in the mystical middle tier include Korkdam and Gye Nyame, both in the Ring Road area between Sankara Circle and Nkrumah. La Paloma also fits this definition and, like Frankie’s, can be very convenient as there are a couple of restaurants in the same complex as the hotel (including a Mexican restaurant which is a great place to watch international football games.) I’ve never stayed at Chez Lien, a French/Vietnamese place in an obscure corner of Osu, but the food there is amazing, and the hotel looks quite beautiful.
What to eat
The food in Accra is good enough to make it worth visiting just to have a couple of extraordinary meals. It’s hard to go wrong if you keep your eyes open for restaurants that draw a crowd. French chef Anthony Bourdain did a food show on Ghana a few months ago and declared, over a bowl of street food, that he hadn’t had a bad meal in Accra – that’s pretty much been my experience as well (so long as you don’t eat in the five star hotels…) Here are a couple of places I try to go every time I’m in town:
Papaye – There’s only one thing on the menu – chicken – and really only four possible ways to order it. And I only ever order one thing: charcoal grilled chicken, heavily seasoned with ginger, and fried rice, with plenty of shito, the fish and pepper sauce that can turn any ordinary Ghanaian meal into something special. It’s on Cantonments Road in Osu, and every cab driver knows where it is. The crowds can be absurd, but it’s really worth it – when I’m longing for Accra, this is usually the food I’m missing.
Blue Gate – Down the street from Papaye (about a quarter mile down the side street to the left of Papaye) is a legendary local institution. Blue Gate has only one dish on the menu – grilled tilapia with banku, a fermented cornmeal mush. You pick out your fish, how many balls of banku you can eat, and swill beer while the fish grills. One quick tip – friends of mine have gotten sick here, not from the food but from inadvertently putting too much unfiltered water into their mouths by using the handwashing bowls (essential, as you eat the sticky banku with your hands.) The easy solution to this is to dump out the water in the bowls, fill them with bottled water and go to town. About 30m further down the road Blue Gate is on, the road Ts – the apartment buildings just to the right of the T are where I lived in 1993-4 – wave at them for me.
There are a number of excellent Ghanaian restaurants that I frequent to get my recommended weekly allowance of red-red (black-eyes peas with fried plantains), palaver sauce (spinach and pumpkin seed sauce served with slices of starchy yam) and groundnut soup (spicy peanutbutter soup over rice, or fufu – yam and cassava pounded together into a sticky paste.) I’m partial to the restaurant inside the National Theatre of Ghana, to Home Touch restaurant (between 37 military hospital and the army base) and Labone Coffee Shop.
Near Labone is Maquie Tantie Marie, an amazing pan-West African restaurant. It’s a two level complex of wooden porches which surround barbeque pits. The menu leans heavily towards Iviorian and Senegalese food – there’s a remarkable Iviorian fufu which involves cassava and sweet bananas, and the Senegalese Ceebu Jën, which is the wonderful distant ancestor of Ghana’s jollof rice.
On Labadi beach, there are countless bars that serve amazing fresh seafood – pull up a table, order a beer and see if the waiters can bring you lobsters, or even just good fresh beef kebab. My favorite of these joints is Next Door, which is a healthy walk down the road from Labadi Beach Hotel. It’s best late at night, and almost always turns into a dance party when a highlife band gets going.
Finally, you can’t go to Ghana without eating street food. Yeah, I know, everyone tells you not to. Ignore them. Eat kebab, yam chips with pepper, kelewele (plantain fried with ginger and pepper.) Eat as many pineapples as possible, peeled and sliced through a magic process that begins with a whole pineapple and leaves you with a plastic bag full of the most flavorful fruit you’ve ever eaten. Drink coconuts. Ask the guy with the big machete to find you a “hard one” so you can chew on the meat after you drink the milk.
What to see and do
I try to take all first-time visitors to Accra to Makola Market, mostly to see how long they can survive. Makola is one of the most astounding markets in the world, and you can get anything there. Anything. It’s acre after acre of crowded, strange-smelling visual stimulation. You turn a corner and suddenly a dozen women are grinding fresh red pepper and serving it in kilogram bags. Turn another corner and there’s stacks of smoked fish, live snails trying to climb out of aluminum basins, tables piled with grasscutter (a tasty rodent popularly refered to as “rat on a stick”). Another corner and there’s nothing but chinese-made underwear, or clothing from American thrift stores. You can occasionally get amazing deals at these clothing stores – ask someone to help you find the “Obruni Wao” market – the phrase means “the white man is dead”, which is how we explain what all this western clothing is doing for sale in the market.
I’m also very fond of walking around the General Post Office, where secretaries prepare documents on creaky typewriters under umbrellas. Some of the buildings in this area have rooftop bars where you can catch a sea breeze and glimpse of the Atlantic. Take a cab to Timber Market and you’ll get an interesting introduction to juju, traditional Ghanaian magic and healing. One of the corners of Timber market has vendors of some of the strangest things you’ll ever encounter in a market: forged iron snakes, porcupine quills, turtle shells, dried lizards, cowrie shells. The market has figured out that there’s a tourist trade, so someone will attempt to sell you an obviously fake voodoo doll. Hang around long enough and the cool stuff comes out – elephant teeth, cheetah hides, things that you frankly don’t want to know about… A friend of mine makes Joseph Cornell-inspired boxes, and she asks me to just bring her care packages of random stuff from Timber Market so she can turn it into art…
The Arts Center, on the beach between the post office and Black Star Square, exists primarily to part tourists from their cash, but it can be a worthwhile stop. Much of the stuff here is airport art, which is to say that it’s carved from cheap, white wood and colored with shoe polish to make it look like ebony. It’s actually good fun to walk all the way through the market towards the beach and watch the young counterfitters at work. But there’s good stuff here, too – my musician friends buy a lot of their instruments here, and the textiles and beads are quite good, as is the brasswork and leather. The key, I find, is to ignore the aggressive salesmen and negotiate with the quiet ones. In practice, this means ignoring most of the young men and talking mostly to women and older men.
To see a newer, more modern Accra, it’s worth spending some time hanging out at Busy Internet, a massive internet cafe and business center on the Ring Road. I’m partial to hanging out at the cafe here, using the free wifi and watching the Ghanaian digerati go by.
If you’ve got a bit more time, it’s worth getting out of the city proper. The beaches are fantastic, of course, both Labadi and the beach at Kokrobite is worth a bus ride, especially if you’re interesting in taking some music classes at the school near the beach. The University of Ghana at Legon is quite beautiful, a little like Stanford relocated into a lush red-earth landscape, and the bookstore is excellent. Aburi Botanical gardens is also very much worth a daytrip, especially if you rent mountainbikes to explore the park.
In the evenings? Catch any performance at the National Theatre – if it’s not excellent, it will be, at the very least, memorable – stand-up comedy, hiplife concerts, traditional music and dance, beauty pageants – they’re all worth your time, at least once. Catch a film at Ghana Films Theatre, the Executive Filmhouse (both near Sankara interchange) or really any of the theatres in town – the Ghanaian film industry is small in comparison to Nollywood, but produces excellent and distinctive material. Go dancing at any number of clubs and discos – I used to give recommendations on my favorites, but I invariably hear that the places that used to be good are closed, less good, filled with prostitutes, etc. Just go out – there’s something going on almost every night in Accra, and it’s often a very good time…
To my friends heading to Accra in the near future, hope this helps. And to my readers who know the city better than I do, please fill up the comment thread with your own suggestions…