Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius, is a city of contrasts. If you go on a cruise you will arrive at Caudan Waterfront, a promenade with shops designed for tourists.
But this is not the real city. It may seem ugly and even dangerous for those who let themselves be carried away by appearances. The buildings are neglected but the historical charm is evident to the naked eye. Without a doubt, it’s worth spending at least one full day touring this city or even staying overnight in a hotel in Port Louis.
Originally it was a port, since 1638. In 1735, during the French government it became the administrative center of Mauritius. It served as a place to supply the ships that went between Asia and Europe. Its name was in honor of King Louis XV. In those days, the island was called the Isle of France and was governed by Mahé de Labourdonnais who developed the city, as well as its botanical garden which is now known as Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden.
When you visit Mauritius, you will notice they are obsessed with the dodo. The Natural History Museum in Port Louis is the oldest in the country. Entering has no cost, but at the time of my visit it was closed. It reopened in August of 2019. Besides the dodo, they also have relics of other extinct species such as giant tortoises, Sumeires turtle and the giant Mauritanian lizard.
The port city continued to grow due to its strategic location that protected it from cyclones by the Moka mountain range. When the Suez Canal opened, the city lost its importance but in the 1970s they invested in the modernization of the port. Walk through its streets to appreciate the forgotten colonial architecture, as well as the diversity of religions and ethnic groups that coexist in it. Buildings worth seeing are the Jummah Mosque and the St. Louis Cathedral.
What to do in Port Louis?
Caudan is located on a historical site, a peninsula called Le Caudan that was created on a coral island. Its name comes from Jean Dominique Michel de Caudan who was a renowned character of the island. What you see today was opened in 1996 but the site has been a location for trade for more than 250 years. Cruise travelers can walk to the sea front to find a shopping center with 170 boutiques, a casino, a luxury hotel called Labourdonnais Waterfront Hotel and many restaurants.
At the waterfront of Port Louis you will also find the Blue Penny Museum that shows the culture and art of Mauritius. It has a collection of blue and red penny stamps of 1847 that were bought in 1993 by Banco Comercia de Mauricio for 2 million. Another museum worth checking out is the Postal Museum, which is located in one of the oldest buildings, dating back to 1868. There is also a windmill (yes, like in the Netherlands!) built in in 1736, to provide flour to dockworkers in the harbour. Now it is a small museum.
The best thing about the waterfront is the craft market. You’ll find everything from coffee, sugar and rum, to paintings, carved coconuts, earrings and clothes. The main street is decorated with colorful umbrellas with the colors of the flag that hang above the visitors. They also have an arts center where they do events.
Aapravasi Ghat means the immigration deposit in Hindi. Mauritius was the first British colony to receive indentured workers from India after slavery was abolished in 1834. They needed to find a replacement for African slaves. India’s economy was depressed causing the perfect source of workers, as they worked hard in agriculture for little pay. Between 1849 and 1923, half a million Indians passed through Mauritius. Many went later to other British colonies. In 1923 the migration ended after moving more than 2 million people worldwide.
The historical buildings were not taken care of and at the moment only parts of three stone buildings of the 1860s remain. It consists of the entrance door and a hospital block, remains of immigration sheds and vestiges of the service rooms. Visiting this site has no cost despite being a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2006. Now the buildings are protected as national monuments under the legislation of Mauritius.
This migration changed the population of the island. Currently 68% of the population is of Indian descent. The following generations stopped working in agriculture and contributed to the development of the country. You’ll see Hindu temples in Port Louis and across the island.
Fort Adelaide (La Citadelle)
The best view of all of Port Louis can be seen from Fort Adelaide, commonly called La Citadelle.
Its architecture is typical of the British military buildings of the era. It had quarters for officers and soldiers, a main courtyard and powder keg. The huge stones are blocks of basalt. 200 soldiers could be accomodated in the fort that had enough supplies and ammunition to maintain a three-month siege, which never happened. The guns could reach a range of about two kilometers with a formidable precision for that era.
The fort was built on a mountain of 74 meters that the French call ‘Little Mountain’. Hundreds of indentured Indians took six years (1834 to 1840) to build Fort Adelaide. It is the only one of the four British forts that survived the French invasion. In 2005 it was renovated by a French museologist named Claude Faulque.
Champ de Mars Racecourse
Founded in 1812, the Champ de Mars Hippodrome is the oldest in the Southern Hemisphere and the second in the world. Before 1810, it was a space for French troops to train. The new British governor, Sir Robert Farquhar, wanted to please the French population that had economic power on the island. He decided to build the racecourse around the tomb of the Count of Malartic, former French governor who had abolished slavery.
Races first took place in June 1812, two years after the British troops took control of the island that used to be French territory. The independence of the island was also celebrated in this place on March 12, 1968, when the four-color flag was raised for the first time. Its track has a circumference of 4,258 feet (1,298 meters). It is still used from March to December and it is common to see society people elegantly dressed. It is also visited by the locals and street vendors.
Port Louis Central Market
The best way to get to know a city is to visit its market. Residents of Port Louis go to the central market to buy their fruits and vegetables. It is indoors in a huge building that is more than two centuries old. Sellers have their stalls displaying what they sell. Most are probably known foods but they do have different fruits and tubers. The prices are very accessible and the people very friendly. As it is a busy place, it is advisable to take care of your belongings.
Right outside there is a craft market, totally different from the Caudan Waterfront. In closed stores and on the street you can find clothes, baskets, souvenirs, spices and others. Very little is made in Mauritius, it comes from other parts of the Indian Ocean, even art from Africa. I bought some dresses made in Thailand and took the opportunity to have my hand painted with henna.
This restaurant is a gastro pub with a beer shop. It is located in the center of Port Louis in an old colonial house that has been renovated. The food is somewhat exotic with dishes like venison cooked with Belgian St. Ernardus beer or roasted boar with red fruit beer. If you are not so adventurous they also have options like burgers and pastas. In addition, they have the first craft brewery in Mauritius called Flying Dodo Brewing Co.
I think my favorite place in Port Louis was Chinatown and that’s why I took so many pictures. Chinese have played an important role in the life of the city. The first Chinese immigrants came in the 1780s and now make up 3% of the population of Mauritius. Chinatown is made up of four blocks between the two “doors of friendship” on Royal Street. This area is full of life. For 160 years it has been a center of commerce and a tourist destination.
They sell spices for cooking and medicinal herbs in what looks like ancient apothecaries. If you are hungry, there are many places to eat, in restaurants or street food. The neighborhood was neglected but the young people are now trying to renew it. There is art everywhere, from a dragon made of plastic to murals of samurai, karate and others. We found a lady who read your fortune and we went to visit her. It was difficult because she spoke little English but we understood something in French.