Step out of the Congo's wilds and into Brazzaville or Pointe-Noire and discover what some call the heart of French Africa. Though both urban centres exude a distinctive Francophone style that's not replicated elsewhere on the continent, the two couldn’t be more different. Pointe-Noire is a coastal boomtown flowing with oil money and expats, while Brazzaville is a classic central African city with walkable streets which convey a sense of peace that is absent from its neighbour Kinshasa across the river in the DRC.
Pleasant is not a word one uses often in the humid and dusty urban areas of central Africa, even more so in a capital city, but it describes Brazzaville quite well. The city can be a welcome relief after hard overland travel in the region, or for regaining one's senses after crossing the Congo River from Kinshasa. Having been the capital of ‘Free France’ for a number of years in the World War II, the city owes a lot to the habits and attitudes of France. It is laid back and easily walkable, with numerous tree-lined streets, quaint pavement cafes and restaurants.
It couldn’t be more different than the heaving megapolis of Kinshasa on the opposite riverbank, with all its traffic, razor wire and harsh intensity. Brazzaville is much more manageable and welcoming to visitors. Besides the strong Francophone influences, it's hard not to notice those from Asian cultures. If budgets allow, the city boasts numerous quality hotels with amenities not too far from what is available in France itself.
There are also cultural and natural attractions that other cities in the region are often lacking.
Along Avenue Cabral in the centre of Brazzaville is the recently completed memorial to Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, the founder of the city and the father of the Congo. His body was returned to the Congo in 2006 and interred in this gleaming memorial.
House of Charles De Gaulle
The house built for Charles De Gaulle during his stay here in exile during World War II sits atop a hill near the end of Ave de Brazza in the southern section of the capital. It's normally closed to visitors, but nearby is another monument to Pierre Savorgnon de Brazza, as well as a few good drinking spots with views over the Congo River to Kinshasa on the other side.
The famous stone arches of this church are a great sight, and the views from the front courtyard are particularly pleasant. Inside is less ornate, however, and it is still used for regular services.
Just a few minutes by car outside of the city are good viewing spots to see the rapids of the Congo River which stymied many an explorer in the 19th century. Now they are a decent spot for lunch or a late night drink. There is also golfing nearby, and some good views of unique rock formations along the banks of the river.
Brazzaville is a hotspot for African painting, and there's no better place in the country to browse the work of artists than just outside the post office on most afternoons. Painters will display their wide variety of works, often adopting European painting styles and sometimes demonstrating styles for something else entirely. The painting school, where art can usually be procured as well, is just up the road in the neighbourhood of Poto Poto.
With a decent vehicle, head south to the Loufoulakari Falls and Bela falls deep in the jungles. They are impressive and wholly undeveloped, though be sure to hire a local guide to find them, with nothing less than a four-wheeler to get you there and back.
Far and away the economic centre of Congo, Pointe-Noire's surprisingly broad and high quality of amenities can come as a surprise after time in the rest of the country. Its variety of restaurants and accommodations can keep one occupied and comfortable, even if working here (which most visitors do). Congo's west coast has significant oil reserves and most of the foreign presence here relates to this industry. The city also makes a great base for exploration of the country's west coast, especially heading north to the Jane Goodall Chimpanzee Sanctuary or Conkouati-Douli Park. The city has two distinct sides, with the European quarter and African quarter (La Cité) offering wholly separate experiences – Pointe-Noire is a great example of urban dimorphism if there ever was one.
Pointe-Noire has two separate beach areas: Côté Sauvage and Côte Mondaine. Sauvage is the traditional beach of choice for European visitors, with numerous hotels alongside its shore. There are also several restaurants perched right on this beach offering dining and drinks options for most budgets. Less developed is Côte Mondaine, the western coast, which has more evidence of the oil industry along its shores as well as the city's Harbour. Nonetheless there are a few decent restaurants along this stretch and the yacht club where one can inquire about boat hires.
African quarter (La Cité)
Pointe-Noire's African quarter has a vastly different feel and form than the European side of the city – it's crowded, busy, often impossible to navigate in a car due to traffic, has lively restaurants and bars, and offers significantly cheaper accommodation options. Inside this area is the Grand Marché, a bustling market where Africans from across the continent mingle. La Cité is also known as the best place to seek out traditional African food.
If the beaches inside Pointe-Noire aren't secluded enough, Pointe Indienne is an ideal option and it's just an hour north of the city. Numerous bungalows dot the white-sanded beaches and there is no sign of the city's bustling industry. It's easily reachable with tour operators or a private vehicle. Another wonderful site to see just north of Pointe-Noire is Diosso Gorge, a large canyon with numerous red peaks. There is a small museum nearby detailing the history of the region.
Visiting Brazzaville & Pointe-Noire
Both cities have reliable air connections to the African hubs of Addis Ababa, Johannesburg and Casablanca. The only direct flights to Europe are through Paris on Air France. Most nationalities will require obtaining a visa ahead of time, which usually requires a confirmed hotel reservation. Frequent flights connect Pointe-Noire to Brazzaville, often stopping in Dolisie. The train connection between the cities runs several times per week, and a newly completed highway provides reliable land transport from the coast to the capital.