The ancient emirate city of Ilorin stands majestically as the capital city of Kwara State, Nigeria. It is not just the pride of Kwara; it’s the pride of the North-Central regions because of how perfectly it accommodates different cultures and traditions under one umbrella. Ilorin uniquely defines why Kwara State has the slogan “State of Harmony” as it harmonises people and makes life in the state peaceful and enjoyable.
When it comes to tourism and adventure, Ilorin has been underrated for so long even though it has a lot to offer. Travellers will find ancient artefacts and a museum, beautiful hills, unique architecture, craft markets, and, of course, delicious local delicacies that will keep them yearning for more. Local expert Halima Abishola Abdullahi is ready to show them around.
After a visitor arrives in my city, I always recommend going straight to Royal Rock Hotel because it’s close to the airport and has great facilities that will make your stay convenient.
The best time to be here is from August to January. That’s when tourism is at its highest as people come from different places for their holidays and adventure. The weather is quite pleasant during that period before the rainy season begins. This period gives travellers enough time to explore the city.
I tell first-time travellers to arrive by public transport and get a tour guide. This is because Ilorin is a pretty big city, so having someone to guide you will enable you to explore and navigate the city seamlessly. People in Ilorin are usually excited to meet tourists or visitors, so you won’t have a problem making new friends in the city. Transportation is cheap in Ilorin, and you’ll always find a taxi to take you around.
I also tell them to avoid travelling at night because finding public transport late at night is difficult. And even if you find one, the price could be outrageous! So if you’re on a budget, you’ll have to be mindful of that.
People from here know better than to make visitors feel uncomfortable. Instead, they are likely to welcome you with open arms, treat you like family, and invite you for a meal if you have the time. Being a city that sits on the boundary between the predominantly Muslim North and the mainly Christian South, it is a unique place to explore as it has a large population of adherents of both faiths who peacefully co-exist. However, Ilorin is mainly inhabited by Muslim Yorubas and other tribes like Nupe, Fulani, and Baruba.
The best museum to start your journey and get a good sense of this city is the National Museum because it is known to be the oldest museum in Nigeria and houses the largest collection of soapstone images in Africa. However, some of the soapstone pieces have been moved to Esie Museum, which is another historical museum you can explore in Kwara State. The National Museum is a perfect destination for archaeologists and researchers who are passionate about learning about the history of the ancient Yoruba Kingdom. There are beautiful artworks and cultural relics that will give you a vivid understanding of Yoruba history and Ilorin heritage. The museum also has recreational centres where you can relax and unwind.
Parents should take their kids to Diamond Park because it’s one of the best family parks to visit in Ilorin. There are fun family games and interesting rides to keep the kids and adults entertained. And if you have more time to spare, you can take them to The Palms Mall in Fate for a more fun-filled experience!
Food from the Heart
Among the food (or dishes) my city is most proud of, tuwo (rice or corn meal swallow) and gbegiri (bean soup) are an absolute must. I like to go to different local restaurants to enjoy it, especially We’wo Restaurant on Stadium Road. This dish is sometimes accompanied by ewedu (jute leaves soup) to intensify the flavour. You can choose assorted meats or proteins you want to have with the meal. Trust me, the taste hits differently, especially when the pepper sauce is added. It’s also a popular delicacy in Northern Nigeria, but with slight variations in the tuwo type and soup. And it’s a dish that’s best enjoyed with your hands. You’ll have to do away with the cutlery to thoroughly savour every flavour!
When we get together to celebrate the Eid festival, people here traditionally drink kunu, which is a local drink made from corn, millet, tigernut, or sorghum. I like to gather my friends and go to the ultra-modern Mandate Market for a bottle of chilled kunu. You’ll always find kunu sellers hawking the popular drink in different parts of the market. It’s the best drink to have on a sunny day. And you can enjoy it with the local puff puff (deep-fried flour batter) when you want to give yourself a treat.
When I eat completely local, I will go to Edibles Restaurant at the magnificent Palms Mall on Fate Road. I know the food here is flavourful and traditionally cooked with the right African ingredients.
Another two iconic restaurants include African Pot Restaurant for its classic aromatic African cuisine and Item 7 takeaway restaurant, where you can get delicious Nigerian jollof rice and fried rice. Since Item 7 is a takeaway restaurant, it’s the perfect place to buy Nigerian rice if want to eat at your lodge or hotel.
The part of town where locals come for traditional food is Oja Oba (King’s Market), which is not far from the Emir of Ilorin’s Palace. There are many local restaurants at the market that sell different traditional dishes and snacks at a very cheap price. The market is also filled with traders who sell local foodstuffs, clothes, and hand-made crafts.
My city is known for making ironworks, especially farming tools that local farmers use for farming and cultivation. Ilorin is also known for agriculture, and there are many acres of land in the city where maize, cassava, and yam are cultivated and exported to neighbouring cities.
The best outdoor food market in Ilorin is the oldest market in Ilorin’s history, Oja Oba. It’s located at the centre of Ilorin and close to the Emir’s Palace and the magnificent Ilorin Central Mosque. These attractions make it one of the busiest markets in Ilorin. Foodstuffs are also cheap in the market when compared to other markets in the city. And the best outdoor market to buy everyday items like groceries, toiletries, beverages, and footwear is Oja Tuntun (New Market), which happens to be the second-largest and oldest market in Ilorin. Items are sold in the market at wholesale and retail prices.
I always take visitors to the ultra-modern Mandate Market on Olorunsogo Road, or Oja Oba to buy real, local souvenirs like hand-woven mats, local pottery items, and woven baskets. The products are often made locally while others (especially in Mandate Market) are imported, and the vibe is always a mixture of loud sellers and hardworking market people who are passionate about their merchandise and always looking out for potential buyers from every angle. And we know to avoid the big shops that sell similar items as the smaller shops because the prices of their products are higher.
Getting Deeper Into Ilorin
A great book to learn more about my city is “Ilorin Ó Poetry of Praise’’ by Abdul-Rasheed Na’Allah, a popular poet, scholar, and critical thinker in Ilorin. The book vividly showcases the cultural and Islamic heritage of Ilorin, including its history and achievements. Even though it’s written in a poetry style, it’s a book that will give readers a clearer and more distinctive insight into the emirate city of Ilorin.
Most people know about the iconic state-of-the-art Ilorin Central Mosque beside the Emir’s Palace, but the Dada Pottery Market should also be visited because it’s reputable for being the largest concentration of potters in Kwara State and one of the largest traditional pottery workshops in Nigeria. You can get different types of clay pots of various colours, shapes, and sizes. Being an industrial pottery area in Ilorin makes it a captivating attraction you should visit.
My city is a place people are attracted to because of the perfect blend of rustic ancient living and modern life. You’ll find people living in ancient clay houses next to modern houses with great facilities in the city as the local people are always proud of what’s left of their ancient heritage.
To really celebrate my city at its best, come during the Ramadan period because it’s always filled with different activities and the atmosphere is endearing. There is usually enough food and drinks to go around when it’s time for Iftar because you’ll always find people giving out fruits and food to the needy and visitors to earn more blessings during the holy month.
Most people think of my city as a gateway to neighbouring states and cities in Nigeria because of its location between the North and the West, but really, this is a destination to enjoy rich and diverse African cultures in a serene environment. My city accommodates different cultures and creates a peaceful ambience for its people to thrive successfully.
This is one of the best places in the world to experience serenity and delicious Nigerian cuisine. Locals are proud of that because Ilorin is blessed with fertile lands to grow its own food and a few industries that produce some of the city’s best exports. It’s also a city that takes education seriously and prides itself on having several universities, polytechnic institutions, and colleges.
Getting Around in Ilorin
One thing you should know about getting around in my city is that taxis are the most popular and cheapest means of transportation in the city. However, they can’t take you everywhere you need to go unless you buy out the whole passenger seat or hire a taxi. But if you’re interested in exploring Ilorin closely, you can board an okada, which is a popular commercial motorcycle in Ilorin. Getting around is also easier with keke maruwa (a commercial tricycle).
The best way to travel in my city to have as little impact as possible is with a personal vehicle. The roads are quite drivable, and you’ll have the liberty to explore my city without hassles.
Luckily, this method of transportation also allows me to explore anywhere I’d love to go and enables me to have enough space to keep items while shopping for things in my city.
Outside the City
To get away and into the outdoors, I like to visit the historic Esie Museum, which houses more than 1,000 soapstone figures and images. Just about 48 kilometres from the southeastern part of Ilorin, it’s the place I like to visit when I want to learn more about the history of the Yoruba Kingdom.
For a day trip just beyond my city, I like to visit the spectacular Owu Waterfall at Owa Kajola in the Ifelodun area of Kwara State. The radiant natural preserve is said to be the highest waterfall in West Africa, and it’s about a two-hour drive from Ilorin. It’s a bit far from my city, but experiencing the beautiful gift of nature makes it all worth it.
Many people will head to my city’s university (Unilorin) Zoological Garden to explore the canopy walkway and see the animals, but locals know to go to Kainji National Park, which is one of the oldest wildlife parks in Nigeria. The park is shared by Kwara State and Niger State. It’s home to about 34 species of animals, including birds and reptiles. The best way to get to the park is by hiring a taxi in Ilorin with a driver who knows the park and the easiest route to get there.
I really enjoy the view of my city from the Sobi Hills, which is the highest hill in Ilorin and about 394 metres above sea level. It’s the perfect place to go hiking. It also gives you a picturesque view of almost every part of Ilorin when you stand at the top. All you need is a bottle of water for hydration and a good camera to capture the beautiful and magical scene you’ll have the opportunity to behold when you hike there. Apart from tourism, it’s also a religious prayer ground for different religions in Ilorin.
Connecting with Locals
When I want to have fun and celebrate being out in my city, I go to wedding ceremonies in different parts of the city with friends. A typical traditional wedding in Ilorin could last for five days, a week, or more, so you’ll always find someone getting married almost every day in the city — and there are always enough local dishes to go around. Most of the time, you don’t need an invitation to attend these weddings; you only need to dress well and watch them welcome you like family.
To hang out with my friends and go to a real insider spot, I go to Patigi Beach, which is located in Pategi area of Kwara State. There is a newly-built pavilion at the beach that allows visitors and tourists to participate in the annual Pategi Regatta Fishing Festival.
The best resource for finding out what’s going on around town is asking your tour guide or locals when you go eating or shopping.
When I want to enjoy my city without spending much (or any) money, I go to Oja Oba to buy local snacks and drinks for less than a dollar. There are tasty cheap snacks like kulikuli, donkwa, and the most popular snacks in my city, masa or waina, and beske to choose from.
The traditional wedding song that is sung by locals during wedding ceremonies is my first choice for music because it captures the unique features of Ilorin’s cultural heritage in an interesting way, especially its choreography. And when I feel like dancing, I go to any wedding in town with my friends to have a great time.
Finding Solitude in Ilorin
When I want to go somewhere to sit and meditate about my incredible city, I go to Sobi Hills as there are many serene spots to relax and find solitude while being surrounded by nature.
If I chose the one place that makes me most proud of my city, it would have to be the Emirs Palace because of the amazing architecture surrounding it. Everything around the palace is pristine but modern. It will give you a peek into what the old Ilorin emirate looks like.
When the Seasons Change, The City Shines
Kwara State, and Nigeria as a whole, do not experience four seasons. The most prominent seasons are the rainy season and the dry/harmattan season.
Travellers who visit during the rainy season (March to October) should know that some pathways will be really steep and muddy, especially the local markets, so you’ll need to bring your rain boots to enable you to move around easily. But visiting during this season is nice because you’ll get to see more greenery and won’t have to worry about the heat.
The dry/harmattan season (November to February) is the best time to visit as the weather is friendly but can be a bit hot sometimes, which means you’ll have to come with some summer clothes to soak up the sweat. This season is also filled with the most activities as locals who live abroad or in other states come to the city to celebrate the holidays.