Nestled on the western most tip of Africa’s mainland is Dakar; the cosmopolitan seat of government of Senegal and one of my favorite African cities. With it’s vibrant culture and art, unparalleled sunsets, sensory appreciation for life, and unique positioning as the hub of West Africa’s second fastest growing economy, Dakar is growing into itself and quickly becoming a go-to travel destination in Africa.
The expanse of colonial style buildings, modern architecture, beaches, and modest communes in Dakar make for interesting imagery and complex stories that fuse past, present and future. Its skyline is dotted with minarets and steeples that emphasize an aura of co-existence embodied by both Dakar and its people; both are as rooted in the traditional, as in novelty. Many regard Dakar as the cultural and commercial nexus of French-speaking West Africa; the Senegalese capital has an active and sizable French expatriate community and the European influences are apparent. Most city folk speak French and each neighborhood has a bakery or shop that serves baguettes, croissants, pain au chocolat and other delectable pastries.
But that’s not all. The colorful basin and wax outfits; musty fragrance of local incense wafting through homes; melodious hum of Wolof; and inviting tchiep djen tell another tale. Interwoven into the fabric of this sprawling city on the Cape Verde Peninsula is a culture and lifestyle founded on one simple but powerful principle: Teranga, the Wolof word for hospitality. Avid travelers will soon be able to indulge in the capital’s many gifts with Senegal’s recently introduced visa-free entry policy and the availability of high end and budget Airbnb accommodation. The completion of the Blaise Diagne International Airport in Thiès and Air Senegal – the new national airline – means more flight routes and cheaper tickets. A roundtrip Accra-Dakar ticket with Air Senegal is about US $400; practically slicing in half the cost of traveling between Ghana and Senegal with other sub-regional airlines. In no particular order, here are eight musts on a visit to Dakar.
About a half hour off the coast of Dakar is the idyllic Gorée. Reminiscent of a small fishing village, the car-free Gorée Island, or Ile de Gorée, has a complex history: it was one of many slave trading points along the West African coastline during the colonial era. Designated by UNESCO as a world heritage site, the tiny island harbors cobblestone pathways, lush bushes of bougainvillea flowers lining orange, red and yellow-hued buildings, a police station, girls school in honor of Senegalese author Mariama Ba (Une Si Longue Lettre), and the Gorée Institute. A notable fixture of the island is La Maison des Esclaves, which translates as ‘House of Slaves’; a museum and memorial to what some say was the largest slave post on the African post from the 15th to 19th centuries. A guided tour of the museum and island will give a great backgrounder on the island’s design, history and evolution.
Gorée’s architecture may portray the aesthetic of its previous rulers, but it’s the quirks of its inhabitants “Les Goréens” that bring it to life. From the persistent merchants who take great joy in showing off and pitching their goods to the young men who don flippers for scuba diving expeditions and the children frolicking in the blue waters of the Atlantic, the simple pleasures of Goreen life are on full display. More prone to self discovery? Plan for a three hour stroll around the island; the pathway to its summit is lined with beautiful art and interesting artisans and the view of the mainland is breathtaking to say the least. A dip in the island’s generally calm waters might be refreshing; albeit a bit cold during Dakar’s “winter” from mid-December to February when temperatures go as low as 18 degrees celsius (60 F).
Not surprisingly, fish and sea food is a big part of the Goréen diet and commonplace at all the small restaurants which line the beach. The “thiof” or white grouper comes highly recommended as do any of the country’s drinks and staple dishes. All it takes is purchasing a 2,500 – 5,000 CFA ($4 -8) ferry ticket at the Dakar Port and half a day to immerse oneself; ferries leave every hour on average. Fancy a longer visit? Consider this AirBnB option.
Shopping in any city in West Africa is an experience worthy of its own mention and Dakar’s local markets are no exception. From personal experience, Dakar’s merchants are some of the most persistent – they will literally chase you down to buy their wares – and bargaining is the rule of the game. There are markets in practically every district of Dakar, however different markets are known for different goods. For instance, the HLM market offers a wide array of beautiful fabrics and clothing for those looking to indulge in some Senegalese fashion, while Marche Kermel is great for souvenirs, artifacts, jewelry and fresh produce. Lucky to be in town on the first Saturday of the month? The Dakar Farmers Market is not to be missed. For a one-stop shopping experience consider the sprawling Sandaga; Dakar’s largest market which offers everything from imported goods to unique, local lingerie, brand knockoffs and electronics. As is characteristic of other regional markets, Sandaga moves at a fast pace; expect all your senses to be fully engaged and be extra vigilant as pick-pocketing is far from uncommon. Make sure you bargain; literally everything is game. Not one for crowds? Consider a more tempered shopping spree at Layu Cafe; a modern coffee shop and souvenir shop with a penchant for the uniquely African. For unforgettable fashion items, pair up a unique luxury piece from homegrown label Sophie Zinga with a head-turning Mburu bag from Tongoro.
Being at Africa’s extreme west means prime real estate that cannot be found anywhere else: jaw-dropping sunsets. Whether its deep gold, subtle pink, or a burning red, Dakar’s sunsets do not disappoint. With a beach practically 15 minutes away, there are multiple spots for water sports like swimming, fishing and surfing. Nature-enthusiasts will be happy to discover picturesque nooks and crannies for unhindered views of dawn and sunset; the Ngor beach in the Almadies area or private beach Marina Bay are ideal for sunset chasing or a quick city escape. The easiest and cheapest way to fully immerse oneself in its natural beauty? Watching the sun disappear over the horizon while walking along the Corniche or coast. For a drink while sunset watching, grab a seat under a hut at the popular Terrou Bi Hotel or go for the infinity pool sunset experience at Radisson Blu or Hotel Sokhamon. Have a camera on hand? Don’t forget to capture the incomparable beauty of Dakar sunsets.
Dakar does not disappoint when it comes to cuisine. It is after all, the home of highly contested West Africa delicacy jollof which is known locally as “tchiep”. The people of Senegal have a thing for citrusy and somewhat acrid flavors, and vegetables, fish and meat form an essential part of the diet in Senegal, as do rice and the traditional staple millet. More popular dishes include yassa (rice and onion sauce), mafe (rice and peanut sauce), and dibi (grilled meat) and no meal is complete without a healthy serving of tropical fruit and local tea ataya. For the full flavor of dynamic Senegalese food culture in Dakar, consider brunch at Chez Fatou, sushi at Daky Sushi; grilled fish at Bazoff, and white hibiscus tea and pastries at Layu.
The abundance of homegrown juices will be welcome news for juice lovers; bissap (hibiscus), buoye (baobab fruit), corosol (soursop juice), tamarind, ginger, and ditakh juices are fixtures on most menus. Thanks to Senegal’s fruit processing company Zena, many of these juices are beautifully packaged, travel ready and available at local convenience stores like Cité Dia and Casino. The company also has an array of delicious jams, syrups and other confectionary that will allow you to offer a taste of Senegal to loved ones back home. Inspired enough to try your hands at some delicacies from Senegal? Check out food blogs Aistou Cuisine and Les Gourmandises de Karelle for recipes (in French).
Fitness in Senegal: Le Bien Être
Dakar’s annual marathon may be scheduled for April 15-16, but Senegal’s capital is already miles ahead of its counterparts when it comes to fitness. Despite, or perhaps because of, the sheer magnitude of food offerings, Dakar boasts of a vibrant sports and fitness scene which includes athletics, weight training, swimming, surfing, traditional wrestling and of course, football. From men to women, the young and the aged, the conservative and the liberal, the streets, gyms, and beaches are filled with fitness conscious people seeking “le bien être”: well being. Many will tell you frankly what their motivation is: “I want to look and feel good”, not entirely surprising, considering the country’s reputation as having some of the most good looking people on the continent. The most interesting aspect of the budding personal fitness culture is how quickly it has transformed and caught on.
While living and working in Senegal in 2010, I noticed metal apparatus jutting out from the sandy beaches and streets of Dakar. These fixtures were makeshift training equipment used largely by young men and boys aspiring to be the next big thing in traditional Senegalese wrestling – a Senegalese sport more popular than football. Fast forward to 2014 and 2015, some metal fixtures had been replaced with proper gym equipment, painted and designated as community gyms and largely along the Corniche. It was also not uncommon to see an elderly woman wearing a full boubou or hijab with trainers on, going for a brisk walk in the morning or early evening. Now, in addition to standard gym classes and subscriptions, there are many designated ‘community gyms’ along the beach road where many prefer to workout and entire families or groups of people can be seen working out. Fitness also seems to be spiritual for many Dakarois; many partake in yoga sessions with Jarama Yoga on the beach while others meditate with prayer beads while getting a workout in. It goes without saying that Dakar is where you should go if you would like the motivation to start or stay consistent with an exercise regime. Fitness tourism, anyone?
When a country can claim the likes of Ousmane Sembene, Africa’s father of cinema, as one of its own, you know you’re in for a creative time. Art literally runs through Senegal. Whether it’s the rustic colors and African aesthetic of Dakar’s architecture, colorful car rapides or minibuse; graceful movements of people dancing mbalax to drums at a sabar; the grunge defiance of graffiti on walls across town or the beautiful flair of a paint brush against canvas, Dakar is artsy to the core. From world acclaimed musician Youssou N’Dour to local sensations Didier Awadi, Viviane N’Dour and Coumba Gawlo, culture and creativity is at the very core of Senegal’s cosmopolitan capital.
Thankfully, there is ample opportunity to indulge in the various arts with dancing and nightlife in Almadies, art exhibitions at Alliance Française and other establishments, and widely popular events like the annual Dakart Festival and Dakar Fashion Week. Wolof terms or Senegalese attitudes got you confused or just want more insight into “La Vie Sénégalaise”? Blogger Ndambaw Kama has the code to help you decipher all that makes Dakar and Senegal unique, and Dakar Lives shows off every day Dakar living through the lives of Dakarois netizens. One for live music? Check out restaurant bar l’Endroit and others to find out who is playing. Better yet, make sure you bookmark AgenDakar, a digital calendar of cultural events and happenings in town.
No trip to Dakar is complete without venturing to the outskirts. In close proximity are Lake Reba and AcroBaobab. Known locally as Lac Rose, the Pink Lake is a colorful sight to behold. On an average day and depending on the angle of the sun’s rays, the lake literally turns pink; a phenomenon that occurs due to the algae in the water. Besides being a great backdrop for photography, the pink lake is an important commercial site for salt production; mountains of freshly harvested off-whitish salt can be seen lining its banks as both men and women work. Feeling a little adventurous? Take a dip in the pink depths of the lake or a canoe ride to the center to find out just how deep the lake is. Make sure to wash off right afterwards though, remember high saline content.
Imagine climbing up a ladder perched against one of these giant trees. You don’t realize just how high up you are until you look down, but by then, it’s too late. You’re on a wooden panel about to step out into thin air with little more than ropes and metal keeping you secure. Do you step out in faith or scramble back to the surety of land? That’s a decision many have had to take at AcroBaobab, an ‘obstacle course’ of sorts designed several meters above the ground in the midst of the branches of a collection of baobab trees. Found across the Sahel belt, the great baobab is an integral part of national identity in Senegal; its fruit and leaves are used for food, drink and even cosmetics. Now, the baobab is serving another purpose: at your beck and call to satisfy every adventurous bone in your body. Piece of advice: don’t try to resist. The great baobab always wins.
The first and last thing most travelers see as the airplane dips into Dakar’s Sahel landscape is a towering bronze statue of a man, woman, and child pointing West: Le Monument de la Renaissance Africaine. Envisioned by former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade as a testament to the ‘new Africa’, the 50-meter structure designed by Senegal’s Pierre Goudiaby was completed in 2010 by a North Korean company to the tune of about $27 million.
Besides its glaring expense, many Senegalese consider the monument to be a symbol of government corruption in a low-income nation which relies largely on agriculture, tourism and more recently, extractives. Prior to and after its unveiling, there were complaints as varied as the missed opportunity for job creation and the monument’s style; specifically, the level of undress of the female statute. Nevertheless, the controversial edifice – now Africa’s tallest – sits atop twin hills Collines des Mamelles and offers amazing views of the city and Atlantic ocean. It has 204 steps representing the number of countries in existence at its time of construction; a real workout many Senegalese take advantage of. Schedule a visit in time for the sunset and drop by Melo Patisserie for some fresh pastries when you’re done.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.