Things to see and do in Nigeria

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From the loud laughter of traffic-choked Lagos to the green-fringed villages that line rivers and streams, Nigeria is one of the most exciting places to visit in Africa.

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Once known only for oil and chaos, the country is changing rapidly. It has a rising middle class, a dynamic arts scene and more miles of golden sand than you can shake a bucket and spade at. Its national parks are home to some of the last remaining endangered species in West Africa, while its mountains offer a cooler climate and spectacular views of the most populous country in Africa.

Those 177 million people are as diverse as the nation itself; in the north, you'll see men in colourful Muslim dress lining prayer mats on Fridays, while their southern counterparts play checkers before church. The cuisine too is varied; there are hot and spicy dishes, fresh fish and meat, fast food and imported fare.

But Nigeria's greatest asset its wealth of native races and religions, its vibrant population have also proven its downfall on countless explosive occasions, and military overthrows, coups and assassinations have been numerous. The situation is particularly fraught in northern Nigeria, which is home to the jihadist group, Boko Haram (meaning Western education is forbidden).

For all its domestic difficulties, Nigeria remains a major regional power and lays claim to the biggest economy in Africa if you want to feel the excitement of an emerging country, this land will blow you away.

Its full of surprises, too. Visitors can find themselves dancing the night away at a Nigerian wedding party, sipping champagne with supermodels, haggling for art in Lagos hipster district, Yabi, and swimming beneath cascading waterfalls in the mountains.

Though Nigeria is a loud and brash destination, it also has a quieter, more reflective side that deserves to be seen. In fact it has so many faces that at times it feels more like a continent than a country.

Things to see and do

Benin City

Modern Benin City is a rapidly developing metropolis, but there are a few reminders of its long Yoruba history. The old city's moat and wall survive in places and the National Museum houses an interesting collection of Benin royal art. The Oba's Palace is worth visiting, although permission needs to be obtained in Lagos.

Calabar

Calabar is a pleasant town in a beautiful setting, high on a hill above the Calabar River. It has a somewhat Mediterranean feel, with its whitewashed houses, cleanish streets and slightly cool climate. Don't miss the giant cast iron hand sculptures in the park outside the slave museum; shacked but cut at the wrist, they represent breaking free from the past.

Cross River National Park

Journey through the Cross River National Park. The best base from which to do so is the town of Ikom, on the road to Cameroon, which has curious carved monoliths set in circles, believed to be ancient monuments assembled in reverence to ancestors. In the Rainforest Conservation area, you'll find majestic mountains and rolling hills, with wildlife including leopards, buffalos, chimpanzees, gorillas, baboons and elephants.

Emir's Palace, Kano

Circumnavigate the walled old town of Kano, formerly the largest of the ancient Hausa cities, and soak up its lingering medieval atmosphere. Despite this atmosphere, reinforced by the wall, Kano was founded at least 1,000 years ago, being of strategic importance on the trans-Saharan trade routes. The Emir's Palace remainsan outstanding example of Hausa architecture.

Gashaka Game Reserve

The title of Nigeria's most scenic national park might go to the Gashaka Game Reserve near Yola, which provides opportunities to view birds and animals and is home to some highly endangered species.

Gidan Makama Museum

Security is sadly an issue in Kano these days, so if you go, keep abreast of new developments and heed travel advice. If you do make it, this museum is worth a stop for its collection of northern arts, crafts and historical artefacts. The building it's housed in was once the city's temporary palace, before the current Emir's seat was built in the 15th century.

Gurara Falls

Niger state's Gurara Falls, at a height of about 20m (66ft) are well off the beaten track, and that's part of what makes them such a special place to visit. Unlike other big waterfalls in Africa, you won't have to compete with hordes of tourists, and can swim in the small pools at the bottom of the wide cascading falls. Go during the rainy season for the best views.

Ibadan

Pleasant Ibadan is worth a visit for its mix of architectural styles; there are colonial buildings, art deco gems and more adventurous styles emblazoned with traditional Nigerian emblems. The city itself - Nigeria's third largest, after Lagos and Kano - has a large university and vibrant student nightlife.

Ile-Ife

Ile-Ife, the ancient name of the town of Ife, is another recess of Yoruba culture, and includes the Ife Museum, which has many fine bronze and terracotta sculptures dating back to the 13th century.

Jos

Picnic without breaking a sweat in Jos, a favourite holiday spot on account of its location 1,200m (3,900ft) above sea level and consequent pleasantly cool climate. The nearby Assob Falls and many streams and dams make this an extremely pretty area.

National Museum in Lagos

The National Museum at Onikan on Lagos Island houses numerous exhibits of Nigeria's ancient civilisations and has a craft centre which sells examples of Nigerian craft at fixed prices. There's a nice collection of Nigerian arts inside the exhibition halls. Cameras are not allowed inside.

Olumirin Falls

Local legend has it that the seven Olumirin Falls descend from a huge pot of water at the top of the cliff. Indeed, these falls close to Akure are supposedly bestowed with all kinds of magical and healing powers. They also represent a feat of strength, for travellers fit and cautious enough to climb their way to the top. Those who do are rewarded with magnificent views. Besides rock climbing, there are good opportunities for bird watching.

Osogbo

Worship the Yoruba goddess of fertility in Osogbo, the founding centre of the internationally renowned school of Osogbo art and home of the shrines and grove of Oshun. The famous Osun Shrine is to be found here. The Osun Festival takes place towards the end of August each year (at the end of the rainy season, during which thousands of childless women seek the help of the Yoruba goddess of fertility).

Palace of the Emir of Zazzau

If security conditions allow access to the north, Zaria's old city is unmissable. Far more enjoyable to stroll around than Kano, there are a number of beautiful old buildings, not least the Palace of the Emir of Zazzau. The gate of the palace is a colourful mosaic of yellow, green, red and white. Nearby, sandstone walls and adobe mud compounds and mosques line the ancient streets.

Shere Hills

About 10km (6 miles) from Jos, the Shere Hills offer some of the best hiking in all of West Africa. Lace up your hiking boots and follow the trails up towards the high peaks. Not all of the routes are marked, and you may want to take a guide with you in case you lose your way and for security reasons. At the highest peak, the hills stretch up to about 1,800m (5,900ft), affording spectacular views out over the region below. A good spot to escape the hustle and bustle of Nigeria's crazy cities.

Yankari National Park

Yankari National Park in the eastern half of the country is particularly good for birdwatching. Animals which can be viewed here include elephants, crocodiles and monkeys. The park has accommodation, restaurants and a swimming pool.