When most people think of West Africa, Ghana or Nigeria come to mind. But Dakar, the capital of Senegal and the rest of the country have been the thriving pulse of Francophone West Africa long before Accra was a tourist hotspot. Dakar has always had a vibrant nightlife, tasty bakeries and cafes (thanks, France), and culture to spare. It’s safe, inexpensive, easy to reach from Europe or the US, and did we mention it has miles of beaches? You could definitely spend a week or more here as it does not lack for activities. Here are 15 things you have to experience when visiting Dakar.
1) House of Slaves
Just off the coast of Dakar is the famed Ile de Goree. The UNESCO World Heritage Site was held by the Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French and harkens to Senegal’s dark past. In this spacious old home now transformed into a museum, there are excellent and sobering exhibits on the slave trade of which Dakar played a vital role. The island was often the final departure point for thousands headed to the New World.
2) Theodore Monod Museum
One of the best museums in the entirety of West Africa, the Theodore Monod Museum has a collection of close to 10,000 objects from all over the continent. With an incredible collection of masks, traditional costumes, artifacts, and historical objects, the museum is definitely a place where you’ll want to spend a few hours traveling back a few centuries. You’ll feel like you’re discovering the wonders of Africa for the first time.
Situated in the southwest of the city, the Dakar Medina is one of, if not the, liveliest neighborhoods in town. Originally built by the French, the Medina is teeming with life, with hundreds of little restaurants, tailor shops, small markets, and the impressive Grande Mosquee. It’s also the birthplace of Youssouu N’Dour, Senegal’s most popular music star and was briefly the country’s Minister of Tourism and Culture.
4) N’Gor Beach
Just north of the peninsula, you’ll find N’Gor island and beach, one of the most popular in the Dakar area. Sandy beaches with large rocks make great places for picnics, people-watching, and sundowners with friends. Take a pirogue (traditional canoe) here to escape the hustle and bustle of the city proper and relax for a few hours (or days).
5) African Renaissance Monument
The African Renaissance Monument has inspired many different emotions depending on who you ask. In Socialist Realist style, the monument depicts a man, woman, and child looking west to sea. Constructed by North Korea at the cost of 30 million USD and taller than both the Statue of Liberty and Christ the Redeemer in Rio, whatever your feelings may be, this statue to commemorate Senegal’s 50th year of independence is impressive in scope.
6) Surf the African Atlantic
With consistent winds off of the Atlantic, Dakar and the Senegalese coast offer some of the best surfing this side of the Sahara. Whether you’re a seasoned shredder or beginner, there are an increasing number of outfitters that can hook you up with a board or lessons. Tribal Surf Shop in Yoff village and Pantcho Surf Trip in N’Gor are two of the longer-established places to check out if you’re ready to hang 10.
7) Village des Arts
No proper tour of Dakar would be complete without a visit to the Village des Arts, a bonafide cultural epicenter of the city. In this green and sprawling artist’s haven, you’ll find pieces and exhibits from Senegal’s most popular and up and coming photographers, painters, and artists. You can even mingle with them over a drink or snack in the lush gardens.
8) Leopold Sedar Senghor French Institute
While we’re on the subject of arts and culture, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the Leopold Sedar Senghor French Institute. Taking up almost an entire city block, the French Institute is another one of Senegal’s cultural centers featuring a large stage with frequent musical performances, dance and cultural exhibits, a café, exhibition and cinema rooms, artist workshops, and pleasant gardens.
9) Petite Cote
Stretching for nearly 100 miles (160 kilometers) south from Dakar is the Petite Cote or Little Coast in English. Dotted with fishing villages, luxury resorts, nature preserves, and endless stretches of pristine beaches, you can certainly find a spot to call your own should you rent a car or take a bus somewhere and escape the big noisy city of Dakar.
10) Place de l’Independence
Standing in the Place de l’Independence, you’ll feel like you’re at the center of West Africa. The beating heart of the capital city, the square has everything you’d expect – park, fountain, buses and taxis zooming by, towering blocks, and colonial buildings, all a stone’s throw from the sea. It’s a great place to people watch and take in the pulse of Dakar.
11) Marche Sandaga
The main market in Dakar, you’ll need all your senses switched on for this one. Like many central markets in African cities, shops and stalls are crammed together, with people (and occasionally animals) all vying for space. You’ll find everything here from produce to textiles to houseware. If possible, go with a friend or guide and keep a close eye on your bags and pockets as pickpocketing gets reported frequently.
12) Sine-Saloum Delta
One of the best parks in all of Senegal, the Sine Saloum Delta is a UNESCO World Heritage site located a few hours south of Dakar. Covering 180,000 hectares, the delta contains hundreds of tributaries, islands, mangrove forests, and dry forest. Dozens of bird species inhabit these wetlands and close to 30 burial grounds have been excavated showing the rich history of human habitation of this area.
13) Layen Mausoleum
The Layen Mausoleum is an interesting shrine to the founder of the Layen Muslim brotherhood. Located in the nearby village of Yoff, the inhabitants are noted for being particularly devout adherents to Islam. Smoking and drinking are haram or forbidden and long sleeves and dresses are required. The mausoleum is located right on the beach and the floors are even made of sand.
For 30 years, Oceanium has been the leading environmental protection advocate in Senegal. What makes Oceanium great besides their excellent work is that they also run recreational eco-tourism activities ranging from kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving, and wildlife excursions to nearby mangrove forests and islands. A wealth of knowledge, they’re a really great way to get out in nature and experience the beauty and diversity of Senegal.
15) Presidential Palace
This stately and impressive estate was constructed in 1907, originally built for the governors of Senegal. While you can’t go inside, many opt for photos in front of the palatial house, much like the White House in DC. There are regal guards in colonial uniforms guarding the palace and surrounding gardens that make for great photo-ops.
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This article was originally published on March 5, 2015.