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The Inside Word… on Dakar, Senegal

  • Jérôme Kardos
  • 12 October 2010

With so many destinations in WHL Group’s ever-expanding network, we have an incredible wealth of local travel information at our fingertips. Through the Inside Word, our local partners – all travel experts – share their top tips on what to do, what to eat, where to party and where to shop in their necks of the woods.

Dakar's Sandaga Market is the real deal

Dakar's Sandaga Market is the real deal. A huge melting pot of nationalities, including West Africans, Lebanese and Chinese, come here to sell their wares. Haggling or wahale skills are a must!

Dakar, Senegal

Dakar is proud of being West Africa’s leading city when it comes to cultural events or congresses and seminars. It’s one indication of its vitality – being the capital of a politically stable country helps a lot – and also means that there are plenty of opportunities for experiencing the magic of a local musical performance or enjoying the works of Dakar’s many visual artists.

Dakar promises an interesting mix of architectural styles, from ultramodern structures, large 1980s high-rises and colonial buildings to traditional hay huts and the artistic visions of the Hotel Sokhamon or Yengoulleen. Cutting-edge electronics and clothing stores rub shoulders with street hawkers, and hurrying office workers mingle with elegant, strolling driankes (local Senegalese women) wearing magnificent glittering traditional outfits.

Jérôme Kardos, your whl.travel local connection in Dakar, here lifts the lid on the town he fell in love with, showcasing what he believes is some of the best the city has to offer.

Day Trip

Head for Ile de Gorée (Gorée Island) – a World Heritage Site must-see! As you approach its shores to take in the fabulous views, the uniqueness of the place is visible even before you set foot on the island. What first springs to the fore is the remarkable freshness of the air and tranquil atmosphere (especially between 10 am and 5 pm outside the peak tourist season). There are no cars or motorbikes and only a few paved roads outnumbered by the small, sandy streets lined with very colourful houses. It’s a great place for a slow wander.

Goree Island is one of Dakar's biggest tourist attractions

Goree Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978, is one of Dakar's biggest tourist attractions. Steeped in history, it was once the centre of the West African slave trade and many poignant reminders of its troubled past remain.

Then you need to visit the highlights, including the Church of Saint Charles Borromée (Senegal’s oldest church); Castle Hill, location of the gun on which Victor Schoelcher sat to celebrate the abolition of slavery; the Fort d’Estrées; Université des Mutants; Musée Henriette Bathily (African Women’s Museum); and much more. But none of this will affect you as emotionally as a visit to the 1776 Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves), a sobering memorial to the millions of Africans sold into servitude over about 350 years. Fortunately, the serene atmosphere of the island, with its Catholic and Muslim communities living peacefully together and celebrating each other’s religious festivals, immediately puts you back at ease.

Back on the mainland, the first building you encounter outside the port is one of Dakar’s greatest, a little gem of colonial architecture: the railway station. Then there are the museums (IFAN – Museum of African Arts – is a must), art galleries, shops, bars and restaurants. Melting into the crowd is a real experience, and one that requires a little practice, especially when you find yourself in the bustling marketplaces – the very heart of the town!

You can then leave the downtown Plateau area, which includes Independence Square, the Presidential Palace, Dakar Cathedral and Grand Mosque, and walk along the Corniche, a stunning coastal road. A tour of the Corniche is one of the most complete and well-balanced tours in Dakar. It can be focused on sightseeing (the Millennium Door or Magic Land amusement parks, Memelles lighthouse and Beach) or on local lifestyles (the Soumbedioune fishermen’s port and women’s fish market, the mosque and small fishermen’s port of Ouakam) with longer stops allowing time for interaction with local people in local hangouts.

Of course, there are other visits possible in the Greater Dakar area and penetrating deep into ‘authentic’ Senegal from Medina to Guediawaye, with a focus on arts or on local life. They should be considered a must for people supporting local travel who want to share real experiences.

The Corniche of Dakar is a beautiful coastal road that runs the length of the peninsula

The Corniche of Dakar is a beautiful coastal road that runs the length of the peninsula

Shopping

Dakar can be seen as a giant marketplace. Between the shops, exotic malls (not exactly the same as in Western countries!), street hawkers, arts-and-crafts markets and general markets, visitors are tempted around every corner by a dazzling variety of goods to suit every budget. Try a tour or head out on your own!

Restaurant

To get acquainted with the local cuisine, try some Dakar restaurants.

International risk-free dining and a satisfying local atmosphere can be enjoyed at Chez Loutcha (Senegalese and Cape Verdean cuisine), or the Imperial and Astoria restaurants. Niani, Lagon, Terrou Bi, Pointe des Almadies all combine an awesome location overlooking the sea with sophisticated cuisine, while Fatou Kim and La Marée, for example, are more simple beachside restaurants perfect for lovers of mussels, oysters, lobsters and Gazelle beer. The 63cl bottle of Gazelle is the cheapest beer and what all the locals drink; whether or not a bar or restaurant serves it is a good clue as to whether it’s a local place or not.

For some real local indulgence and homemade cuisine, local meals are very cheap (€2 including a local juice, like one made from the fruit of the baobab tree or a bissap made from the hibiscus flower). Although they are sometimes served in places without proper kitchens or seating areas, others are really quite decent and will not frighten someone used only to western-style food.

It would be a huge pity not to mention Dakar’s excellent street food, like the little, fried, sweet-and-savoury beignets (donuts), boulettes (fish balls), samosas and fataya (pastries filled with either meat or fish), or even sweets sold by women sitting in the streets. The best, however, has to be beef brochettes (kebabs) and dibi, grilled mutton slices so small and cheap (less than € 0,10 each) that you just buy as many as you like.

Just a five-minute boat ride from Dakar, Ngor Island is a hidden gem

Just a five-minute boat ride from Dakar, Ngor Island is a hidden gem popular with surfers thanks to some excellent breaks. It has a range of dining and accommodation options and is a perfect city getaway.

Local Treats

Dakar’s best local treat is Ngor Island. Although not strictly within Dakar itself, this little-known island paradise is located only half a mile offshore and is easily accessible by pirogue (wooden motorboat). The island has some world-class surf breaks and was featured in the cult 1966 surf movie, The Endless Summer. It’s also a popular destination with wakeboarders, scuba divers and snorkellers. Water sports aside, it’s the perfect location to relax and enjoy the breathtaking views, delicious fresh seafood and tranquil surroundings. You might even bump into US R&B artist, Akon, who has a house on the island!

Night Out

Make sure you don’t miss the Dakar nightlife. Try the famous Club Thiossane (owned by the legendary musician Youssou N’dour), Kilimandjaro (Thione Ballago Seck’s place), Sahel (the oldest club in town), Chez Iba (Salsa/Afro-Cuban music) and, of course, Just 4 U, the perfect compromise between hip fashion, authentic atmosphere and high-quality artists (it boasts the very best musicians). There are also plenty of small clubs with excellent musicians playing everything from jazz to traditional music.

Friendly bars can be found in any part of town, from downtown to the districts of Almadies and Ngor. Some can be a bit expensive for local budgets. If you’re not afraid of really checking out the local scene, the tiny drinking dens – sometimes just a room in a family house – will really put you in touch with the locals, who love to shoot the breeze with other customers.

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Africa, architecture & landmarks, cities, food & drink, handicrafts & shopping, inside word, islands, local knowledge, markets, personal experience, Senegal, Western Africa, whl.travel, world heritage,

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