Founded in the late 1970s, Abuja, the relatively new capital of Nigeria, is situated in the heart of the country in an area called the Federal Capital Territory - a location chosen for its neutrality in a country rife with ethnic and religious division. Divided into four districts, with designated business and residential sectors, the city has leafy, wide roads, high office towers, and large apartment blocks.
It is infinitely less congested and polluted than Lagos, the former capital. Much of the city is still under construction and its population remains small, thus it lacks the colour and bustle of other Nigerian cities. However, it must be noted that for tourists not used to travelling on the African continent, Abuja makes for a far gentler introduction to a Nigerian holiday than Lagos does.
Aso Rock is the landscape's dominant feature; an ancient 400-metre high outcrop on the city's outskirts, which looms behind the attractive government buildings. Although there is little else on offer in the way of tourist attractions in Abuja, visitors can explore the nearby Zuma Rock, the National Mosque, the National Church, Parade Square, and the Wuse Market.
Abuja is often used as a jumping-off point for exploring the rest of the country, and most visitors only take a day or two to take in its limited sights. Perhaps as it grows in stature and size, Abuja will become more of an interesting tourist destination in its own right.
Abuja experiences three seasons each year: a hot and humid rainy season from April to October; a dry season from October to April; and a brief windy season in between known as the Harmattan season, when the dry and dusty West African trade wind blows through the city, coupled with intense cold. Sometimes the dust storms severely limit visibility and can even block the sun for several days, comparable to a heavy fog. During the rainy season average daytime temperatures reach around 86°F (30°C) while nights are relatively warm. In the dry season, daytime temperatures in Abuja can soar as high as 104°F (40°C) and evenings can be chilly, with temperatures dropping as low as 54°F (12°C).
Abuja's nightlife scene lags far behind that of Lagos, yet still features a few decent bars where tourists can unwind after a hard day's sightseeing. Unfortunately, most of Abuja's nightlife remains rather segregated between bars frequented by expats and 'local bars' - which aren't considered completely safe for visitors to Abuja. A good bet is the Elephant Bar (attached to the Sheraton Hotel), where the drinks may be overpriced, but at least there is always some great live music to enjoy.
Like most large towns in Nigeria, there are plenty of options when shopping in Abuja. The best places to find souvenirs are certainly the local markets, of which the Wuse Market is the most established and the most tourist-friendly.
Everything you can think of is available at the Wuse Market, and it is a wonderful place to buy Nigerian souvenirs such as adire (patterned, dyed cloth), batiks and pottery from the southwest, leatherwork and kaduna cotton from the north, and carvings from the east.
Traditional beadwork, basketry, and ceremonial masks are also popular choices. You are expected to bargain at the Wuse Market: initially offer a third of what the vendor quoted you, but be prepared to part with at least half of the original asking price.
For those not keen on braving a local market, Abuja abounds with ritzy shopping plazas, largely designed for wealthy Nigerians and for foreigners doing business in Nigeria. The best of these include the Ceddi Plaza, Dunes Center, Banex Plaza, and Maclewis Plaza. There is a wonderful fresh fruit market in Maitama, one of the wealthiest areas of Abuja. Again, the majority of this market's clientele are foreign businessmen working in Abuja.
Although much less chaotic and stressful than Lagos, it is still not recommended that travellers drive themselves around Abuja. Tourists to Abuja who will be doing a lot of travelling around the city should look into hiring a private driver along with a rental car. The pre-planned nature of the city's design and its relative compactness make certain areas easy to explore on foot, but this should not be done alone or after dark. Private taxis in Abuja are generally safe; motorcycle taxis (okada) tend to be less so. Visitors may find that taxi drivers in Abuja are not always familiar with all parts of the city; it is a good idea to carry a good map and to point out your desired destination to your driver.
Primarily a destination for business travellers in Nigeria, Abuja is a little short on mainstream tourist attractions. It is, however, a welcoming city, and it offers a gentle introduction to Nigeria for those nervous about flying directly into Lagos.
While in Abuja, be sure to check out the Wuse Market, where souvenir shopping is the order of the day, and the Abuja National Mosque, a gorgeous building with an enormous dome and towering minarets. Tourists to Abuja are also urged to make the short excursion out to Zuma Rock - an outstanding geological feature, which appeared on the shortlist of the New7Wonders campaign.
Visitors with children will be happy to hear that Abuja is home to the region's first ever amusement park, Magic Land. Featuring rides, shows, games, and even faux castle walls, the entire family will enjoy a day out at Magic Land. It is a great place for expatriate families in Nigeria to meet each other and allow their children to socialise in a safe and comfortable setting.
The Abuja Millennium Park is also a nice place to spend an afternoon, with expansive green spaces and walking paths. The park is home to several important local sites, including the Cotton Tree and Aso Rock.