Port Louis is sandwiched between the Indian Ocean on one side and the Moka mountain range on the other. It is a chaotic but charming city, where pretty colonial buildings and sleek modern office blocks stand shoulder to shoulder, and the streets are invariably clogged with traffic and pedestrians.
Mauritius’s colourful history and diverse cultures are displayed in concentrated form here. A walk around the city takes you from imposing colonial buildings to bustling Chinatown, past the island’s largest mosque, through the lively market and onwards to the smart modern waterfront, with its upmarket shops and cruise-ship terminal.
What to see and do in Port Louis
The waterfront makes for pleasant wandering. With a wide esplanade and modern architecture, it is quite a contrast to the crowded narrow streets and wonky old buildings of the city centre. The very smart Caudan Waterfront sits on a peninsula jutting into the harbour. This modern complex includes apartments, offices, a cinema, bank, museum, casino, craft market, shops, restaurants, and a commercial art gallery.
While the waterfront all seems rather modern, elements of the city’s history remain tucked away here. The building known as the Observatory, located near the Caudan Waterfront Shopping Centre, was built in 1832 on the site of an old French powder magazine, and was the first meteorological observatory in the Indian Ocean. Near the Astrolabe Centre is a restored 18th-century windmill. It was built in 1736 to grind wheat but was converted to a signal tower after the British took possession of the island in 1810. Restored in 1998, it now contains a small museum displaying historic photographs of the harbour and the history of wheat. From upstairs in the windmill you get a good view of the working harbour and the attractive, restored Creole building, with wooden shingle roof, which houses the National Coast Guard.
Blue Penny Museum
This small, well-laid-out museum is fascinating for anyone interested in philately, but equally worthwhile for anyone seeking an insight into the history of the island.
The stamp collection here centres around the famous Mauritian ‘Post Office’ stamps issued in 1847, which are some of the rarest in the world. A wonderful collection of paintings, photos, documents and nautical charts from the island’s colonial days is also on display. The shop sells books on the Mascarene Islands and souvenirs.
An interesting, neatly laid-out museum within a stern Victorian granite-block building on the waterfront. It tells the story of the postal history of Mauritius from the issuing of the first stamp on the island in 1847 and the establishment of a coach service. On display is some of the equipment used in post offices over the years, as well as cancelling machines, letter boxes and vending machines.
The collection of stamps is impressive, and includes an original penny black. It arrived in Mauritius because when the engraver began work on Mauritius’s first stamp, he copied from the penny black.
At the northern end of Port Louis’s waterfront, beyond the postal museum, is Aapravasi Ghat. This glum-looking immigration depot was built in 1849 to process labourers as they arrived and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Between 1834 and 1923 almost 500,000 indentured labourers arrived in Mauritius to replace the labour lost following the abolition of slavery in 1835. While many worked in the island’s sugar plantations, others were transported from Mauritius to other British colonies.
A well-laid-out modern visitor centre explains the history of indentured labour in Mauritius and provides an insight into the origins of the island’s population. The depot originally consisted of a gatekeeper’s office, hospital block, kitchens, immigration office, other staff offices, sheds, stables and privies. Today only parts of it remain, including the gatekeeper’s office, hospital block, wharf steps and immigrants’ sheds.
On the other side of the main road from the harbour is the city. Tall royal palms form an avenue of greenery leading from the waterfront up the centre of Place S Bissoondoyal (formerly Place d’Armes) to Government House. The name was officially changed from Place d’Armes to honour a Mauritian politician and independence leader but many locals still refer to it by its old name.
A handsome white colonial building, Government House dates back to 1738 when Governor Labourdonnais built the ground floor and the wings that form the forecourt’s sides from stone. Nearby is a statue of Sir John Pope Hennessy, the most outstanding governor of the latter part of the 19th century (1883–89), sympathetic to calls of Mauritius for Mauritians.
From the Company Gardens (home to just under a hectare of narrow paths, flower beds, shrubs and ponds), head to the Municipal Theatre. It was opened in 1822 by Sir Robert Farquhar, the island’s first British governor, and is said to be the oldest theatre in the Indian Ocean. The interior is decorated in the style of a classic London theatre, with a domed ceiling painted with cherubs. The theatre’s first production was La Partie de Chasse de Henri IV performed by a Creole amateur troupe.
In the east of the city centre, the Jummah Mosque, with its ‘wedding cake’ architecture, is, unsurprisingly, on Jummah Mosque Street. The mosque extends an entire block, its white towers and friezes imposing grace on the clutter of lock-up shops beneath its balconies. Its huge teak doors are priceless, ornately carved and inlaid with ivory. The muezzin’s call from the minaret before dawn is the signal not only for prayer but also for the cacophony of the city to erupt. In the courtyard is an old badamier tree, older than the mosque itself.
The best viewpoint from which to appreciate the city is the Citadel, also known as Fort Adelaide. Viewed from here, the layout of the city is uncomplicated: rectangular street blocks as far as the eye can see, with the Indian Ocean stretching out beyond. Aside from the view and the shops, however, there isn’t a lot to make you linger, so a short visit (less than 30 minutes) should suffice. On the plus side, entry is free.
The Champ de Mars racecourse is clearly visible from the fort and on race days you will find crowds of Mauritians watching the action here. The large green shed you can see by the harbour stores the island’s sugar before it is transferred to ships for export.
Transport in Port Louis
The Immigration Square bus station is at the end of Pasteur Street, off the main road into the city which runs along the waterfront. It is difficult to know which bus queue to join since there are limited signs but other passengers are helpful. Buses from here serve the north and east of the island and include an express service to Grand Baie, which takes around 30 minutes.
Taxis are more expensive in Port Louis than elsewhere and the attitude of the drivers is predatory. Be sure to negotiate a reasonable fare. There is a taxi stand at Place S Bissoondoyal (Place d’Armes) and one at the Victoria Square bus station.
The first phase of the new light-rail system opened in October 2019, designed to relieve traffic congestion around Port Louis. It currently operates between Rose Hill and Port Louis, but will extend to 4 Curepipe in late 2021 and have 19 stations along the route. The Port Louis station is at Victoria Station, but the line will eventually continue to Aapravasi Ghat and Immigration Square. Tickets can be bought at vending machines at the stations.