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Things to Do Libreville, Gabon – Understand
Libreville is the biggest city in Gabon, a tiny country (and former French colony) of just one million people in Western Africa. The country is deeply split (as is the city) between the richer areas that feel more like southern France along the seashore and the interior which more resembles the Congo. In true African form, a corrupt elite receives 99% of the many proceeds from extraction (of oil and minerals) and a good part of the population live in shantytowns.
Libreville’s best areas are around the airport (where there’s many beautiful, but completely fenced-in embassy compounds) and along the ‘Bord de Mer’, which is full of high fences and rather modern buildings. If you just see this, it’s hard to remember that you are in Africa and not driving along a smaller French Riviera town.
The regime has a tight handle on its citizens and the general mood is xenophobic. There is little interest of locals wanting to talk to foreigners and they show it! Libreville is the rudest place I have been to in Africa and there is a complete lack of customer service. However, many parts of the city are efficient and work as what you would expect from a poorer part of France.
Libreville appears more like a Doha of Africa, with its tight grip on what citizens and the many guest workers are allowed to say or do. It depresses entrepreneurship and makes it harder for the riches to trickle through the economy. This makes it difficult for tourists and allows for very few things for you to do to fill more than a day or two. Tourists are not a welcome sight in this country and locals will make sure you understand that message sooner or later.
Keep in mind that photography of government buildings is a big no-no and, in general, photography isn’t something you can do without a permit. On the whole, things here are prohibited unless someone tells you they’re allowed (which is a big undertaking).
Things to Do Libreville, Gabon – Safety
Libreville’s better neighborhoods are safe throughout the day and night. The regime does worry about crime and enforces the laws that protect against acts of violence and property crime. It’s still not a good idea to go to unknown neighborhoods at night, especially without a dedicated driver, but downtown and around the areas of the airport safety isn’t a big issue.
Things to Do Libreville, Gabon – Get Around
Libreville is a car city, with many dark SUVs blazing at Top Gear speeds through the streets and along the seashore. In the better neighborhoods, the roads are excellent and traffic is very orderly, though drivers are aggressive. It’s possible to rent a car and drive yourself, but for the city you can live with taxis.
Taxis are a bit less beat-up than what you see in Douala in Cameroon and cost a bit more, but drivers are generally reasonable after the 10-minute negotiation that’s necessary to get a good price. This gets old quickly, so you will end up praying for a dedicated driver.
Things to Do Libreville, Gabon – Sights
I was out sick for more than a day while in Libreville, but I honestly could not find much to see even though I researched.
The seafront in Libreville looks pretty with palm trees and white/yellow sand all along the main coastal road, but the issues here are that it’s very loud, polluted by diesel fumes and the beach is too small in most places to provide any shelter. Plus the water is too murky and there is too much trash to actually go for a swim.
This is a good place to shop for souvenirs, as you get a bit less hassle here and given the many options on display there’s a good chance to get a deal.
For CFA 3,500 ($6.50), there are a few outdoor areas to see and the main exhibition. Not a single other soul went inside while I was there. There are two simple restaurants with local food right outside that seem to be popular lunch spots for locals (cow skin in fresh egg sauce anyone?)
Emperor Presidential Palace
Gabon had the same president for 42 years and, as luck would have it, President Bongo’s son also won the election once his dad passed away. (Tell me you were surprised about that?) The palace is fenced off and no visitation is possible but you can see the main buildings from the main road.
Oh and you can also go all the way to Bongoville – you guessed it, the town named after the one and only President Omar Bongo.
Just across the water from Libreville is Pongara National Park, which is easily visible from anywhere along the ‘Bord de Mer’ in Libreville. It is said to have cleaner beaches and wild elephants. Most hotels organize the tour as a full-day excursion for $100.
Things to Do Libreville, Gabon – Eat & Drink
Libreville prides itself on its French heritage, especially for culture and food, but the quality is lacking. Surprisingly, I found it even harder here to find inspiring places to eat than in neighboring Douala, which is already a city rough on travelers. Most places in Libreville are expensive and offer bland versions of what you will be used to.
This is Libreville’s best bakery, situated right downtown. It is expensive and I found the pastry items lacking, but it has a nice patio with seating outside.
This French bistro is very close to the original. It’s a bit further up away from the main road and looks gorgeous from the outside. However, I found the food to be bland here.
Likely the best place to eat in Libreville without breaking the bank. Fresh rotisserie and many Lebanese dishes are on offer. It’s still not cheap, though, and the portions are on the small side (especially the hummus).
This Italian restaurant comes highly rated, but I ran out of time to test it.
Sky Life is a building with 3 different restaurants (that likely share one kitchen) and a rooftop bar. Mexican, Italian and Indian cuisine are on offer. To give you an idea of prices, a burrito is priced at $23 – not exactly cheap. The Italian restaurant is the most moderately priced. However, on the day of my visit, the pizza oven was broken at dinner time, so no pizza. The food is OK, but bland.
The rooftop bar offers some good views over the Atlantic Ocean and lots of cooling winds; the lighting and smooth jazz music leaves a lot to be desired, though.
This is likely my favorite place in Libreville – a chill, down to earth beach bar that serves pizza and a few more snacks. You can sit right at the beach (as well as inside). La Voile Rouge invokes feelings of Bali and what Libreville could have been.
Libreville is a disappointment, as it has very little public life and no entrepreneurship to speak of. It requires you to pay a high price tag for mediocre offerings. Safety is not an issue but otherwise Libreville offers very little else for that EUR 80 fee you have to pay when entering the country.