Though it’s one of West Africa’s most stable countries, Senegal is far from dull. Perched on the tip of a peninsula, Dakar, the capital, is a dizzying, street hustler rich introduction to the country: elegance meets chaos, snarling traffic, vibrant markets and glittering nightlife, while nearby Ile de Goree and the beaches of Yoff and N’Gor tap to slow, lazy beats.
In northern Senegal, the enigmatic capital of Saint-Louis, a Unesco World Heritage Site, tempts with colonial architecture and proximity to scenic national parks. Along the Petite Cote and Cap Skirring, wide strips of beaches beckon and the wide deltas of the Casamance invite mesmerizing boat journeys amid astounding biodiversity, including hundreds of bird species.
Whether you want to mingle with the trendsetters of urban Africa or be alone with your thoughts and the sounds of nature, you’ll find your place in Senegal.
The beaches at Cap Skirring are some of the finest in West Africa and better still, they’re usually empty. While there isn’t a lot happening here culturally (aside from weekend nights of live music), Cap Skirring makes a fine base for a few days of unwinding. You can also alternate days on the beach with exploring traditional Diola villages to the east, or opt for some of the many activities on offer, including kayaking and mountain biking.
With its crumbling colonial architecture, horse-drawn carts and peaceful ambience, West Africa’s first French settlement has a unique historical charm so much so that it’s been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 2000. The old town centre sits on an island in the Senegal River, but the city sprawls into Sor on the mainland, and onto the Langue de Barbarie, where you’ll find the lively fishing community of Guet N’Dar.
The island is reached via the 500m long Pont Faidherbe, a feat of 19th-century engineering.
Dakar is a city of extremes, where horse-cart drivers chug over swish highways and gleaming SUVs squeeze through tiny sand roads; where elegant ladies dig skinny heels into dusty walkways and suit-clad businessmen kneel down for prayer in the middle of the street. Once a tiny settlement in the south of the Cap Vert peninsula, Dakar now spreads almost across its entire triangle, and keeps growing.
For the traveller, there’s much to discover, from peaceful islands just off-shore to vertiginous nightlife dancing to mbalax beats. You can spend your days browsing frenetic markets and taking in the sights of bustling downtown, followed by sunset drinks overlooking the crashing waves. At once both intimidating and deeply alluring, Dakar is a fascinating introduction to Senegal.
Petite Côte & Siné-Saloum Delta
The 150km Petite Cote stretches south from Dakar and is one of Senegal’s best beach areas. Where the Sine and Saloum Rivers meet the tidal waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the coast is broken into a stunning area of mangrove swamps, lagoons, forests and sand islands, forming part of the magnificent 180-sq-km Sine-Saloum Delta
Other Places Of Interest
Île de Gorée
Ruled in succession by the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French, the historical, Unesco-designated Ile de Goree is enveloped by an almost eerie calm. There are no sealed roads and no cars on this island, just narrow alleyways with trailing bougainvilleas and colonial brick buildings with wrought-iron balconies it’s a living, visual masterpiece.
But Goree’s calm is not so much romantic as meditative, as the ancient, elegant buildings bear witness to the island’s role in the Atlantic slave trade. The island is also home to an active artist community with small studios sprinkled around the island.
Parc National des Oiseaux du Djoudj
With almost 300 species of bird, this 160-sq-km park is one of the most important bird sanctuaries in the world. Flamingos, pelicans and waders are most plentiful, and large numbers of migrating birds travel here in November. The lush setting is no less impressive: these vast wetlands comprise lakes, streams, ponds, fords and sandbanks.
The park is best explored by pirogue. Boats trips can be arranged at the park entrance or at the hotels.
Also known as Lac Retba, this shallow lagoon surrounded by dunes is a popular day-trip destination for dakarois and tourists alike, all coming to enjoy the calm and catch the lake’s magic trick â€“ the vibrant and otherworldly pink hues that sometimes colour its waters. The spectacle is caused by the lake’s high salt content, which is 10 times that of ocean water. It’s a beautiful sight but can only be enjoyed when the light is right â€“ your best chance is in dry season, when the sun is high.
But even if nature refuses to put on her show, a day out here is still enjoyable. You can swim in the lake, buoyed by the salt, or check out the small-scale salt-collecting industry on its shores. And up until the demise of the Dakar Rally, Lac Rose is where the Sahara drivers would arrive and celebrate their victories (or drown their woes).