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City Guide: Accra, Ghana

Accra is a vibrant, bustling space and one of Africa’s fastest growing cities. Traffic takes forever (so ensure you add on extra time if moving around for meetings), but there are some great venues to meet and some superb business hotels to hold conferences and meetings.

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.

Elmina, Ghana: Elmina Castle, an old Portuguese fortress used as a slave transit point from Africa to America – São Jorge da Mina castle, Feitoria da Mina, Portuguese Gold Coast – Unesco world heritage site – photo by M.Torres

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.

Calling Accra vibrant is an understatement. The capital of Ghana is a heaving affair where life is lived on the streets with markets, food stalls, pumping music and hooting traffic.

Its architecture dates from colonial times, with 17th century castles overlooked by modern skyscrapers. There are endless shanty towns, classy hotels, a smattering of places to view good art, and lots of places to indulge in the local food. Most foreigners travelling to Accra are there for its booming businesses, and you certainly won’t be short of entertainment after the work is done.

City Guide – Accra, Ghana

Getting there 

South African Airways has daily flights between Johannesburg and Accra.

Kotoka International Airport is 10km from the city centre and the journey can take 25 minutes to an hour, depending on traffic. There’s an official taxi stand where the fares are controlled. If you go with a random taxi tout you’re likely to be taken for a ride. Several car hire companies have booths there.

The airport is undergoing an upgrade to relieve the congestion and long queues that plague the arrival hall. By the end of 2015 there should be four, not just two, baggage carousels and 26 immigration booths instead of 12. The air conditioning will also be overhauled.

When to go 

Accra has high temperatures year-round, with a minimum of about 23°C. June to September are the cooler months when the main rains arrive. May and June are wet and December to February is the dry season.

Language

English is the official language, but not the first language for many people. The local language in Accra is Ga. The temperature is permanently hot, with June to September promising the best chance of cooler weather, but a higher risk of rain.

Currency & Costs

The Cedi is the currency in Ghana and its symbol is GH¢. There are forex bureaus throughout the city, and most big hotels also change money. Stockpile your smaller notes for taxis because the drivers often don’t have change. Hotels and upmarket shops accept credit cards. ATMs are available across the city, so you can withdraw cash as you go.

Safety tips

Visitors to Ghana are at risk of crimes such as pickpocketing and purse snatching, especially in busy tourist areas such as the beaches, markets, parks and attractions.

Safety precautions include traveling in a group, avoiding street demonstrations and nighttime travel, and limiting your display of jewelry and money.

Visitors should also keep a watchful eye on luggage and personal items, and put travel documents in a secure place to prevent theft.

Limiting your credit card use reduces risk of credit card fraud, another growing problem in Ghana.

Getting around 

Accra has extensive bus and taxi services, but stick with the taxis. Agree on the fare first because they are unmetered. Most drivers will inflate the fee hugely for foreigners, so haggle before you jump in.

As a foreigner, up until a few years ago you couldn’t hire a car in Ghana (the roads are a law unto their own). Hiring a car with driver advisable and is relatively inexpensive, and taxis are available at all the main centres. There is a public bus transport system, but it’s not always the most reliable mode of transport.

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.

Mobile phone & Internet access 

The city is well covered by the mobile networks. Internet connectivity has improved greatly in recent years, and there are plenty of internet cafes and a few wifi hotspots. BLU Telecommunications has installed free wifi at the Accra Mall.

Where to eat

If you’re staying at one of the four or five star hotels, the hotel restaurants are generally good value for money and offer extensive buffets where you can also taste the local cuisine.

Heading in to town for a night out is always an option: make your way to Oxford Street in Osu, where an assortment of restaurants are located close together; Accra Mall has modern cafés and fast-food outlets, but for local and pan-African fare from Nigeria, Togo and Senegal, hip and stylish Buka is the restaurant of choice.

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.

Where to stay

The New Haven Hotel and the Crystal Hostel are recommended in the affordable price range, with the pricier Pink Hostel as an alternative (and sexier) option.

The Paloma’s beachfront location makes it desirable, while Villa Monticello attracts the boutique hotel crowd.

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.

If you’re doing a quick in and out into the city, you might want to try the Best Western Premier Airport Hotel Accra.

What to buy

Kente cloth from a local market, the one compulsory buy every traveller should make.

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 go

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.

Head for the Arts Centre Market with its many stalls celebrating local craftware and art. Makola Market is the locals’ preferred and busy produce market, while the Accra Mall offers indigenous fabrics and knick-knacks, chain stores and supermarkets.

Great views of the city from the Jamestown lighthouse. Local bands play at restaurants and pubs around the city at evenings out can be pretty festive.

by Sheena Adams

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