Senegal might be perceived as off-the-beaten-path, but oh the surprises you’ll find once you arrive.
Senegal occupies a big space in the traveler’s imagination with its colorful maritime culture, dusty red earth, and modernist urban architecture in a seamless jumble of urban topography. Almost everyone who has visited, whether as a tourist or for business, comes home with words of wonder about the place. The people! The attitude! The chaos! The West African nation that is as mesmerizing as it is accessible for foreigners. There’s plenty of soul and with a dash of quirk to be found—whether in the legendary taxis of Dakar, the jazz bars of St. Louis, or the remote nature preserves of Fathala.
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Senegal has the most developed infrastructure in the region for tourism, making large cities like Dakar to remote villages accessible and safe. No one drinks the water, so bottled Kirene is widely available. Need a driver? It’s an easy ask. Seemingly everyone has a friend who dabbles in the professional arts of cabbing (though forget any expectations of an air-conditioned vehicle). Typical traveler needs have well been accommodated for, especially in the northern part of the country and the coast between Dakar and St. Louis.
INSIDER TIPThe waters of Senegal’s northern coast (close to St. Louis) were infamous among the French colonialists. Many ships sank in the sandbank that lines the choppy Atlantic Ocean and the Senegal River near the former colonial capital. Nowadays, luxury eco-resorts have offered tourists an affordable stay on the gentle side of these waters, including the incredibly serene and remote Océan et Savane.
Senegal in known for its chill, laid back people who are curious and excited to have foreigners exploring their country. Everyone will ask you where you are from and make sure you are having a good time in Senegal. If someone invites you over for a home cooked meal, jump at the chance. Since meals are eaten communally, you’ll find yourself in the midst of story time for hours over attaya (strong black sugary tea) and thieboudienne (national fish stew dish).
Stay in a Treehouse
In the Collines de Niassam, you can spend the night in a Baobab tree that would make the Little Prince Jealous. Literally. Fulfill those childhood dreams of having your very own treehouse for a few nights. Shower inside the mighty Baobab’s roots and sleep in its branches. The tree is a symbol of strength, and of the African continent, and it’s an experience to never forget.
The oldest art event in Africa, Dak’art is a biennial that culls artists from across the African continent every other May and brings an energy to Dakar that’s infectious and important. The contemporary African arts scene is getting more attention with Dakar being a site for international engagement—and Dak’art has played a central role in this development. Part stage to showcase the depths of contemporary African creativity, part economic initiative, Dak’art is a must-see for anyone looking to engage with African culture.
St. Louis Jazz Festival
No big deal, just sit meters away from Youssou N’dour or Souleymane Faye (aka the Bob Marley and Bob Dylan of West Africa) either at the official venue or the smaller clubs in this former French colonial capital and port town with a New Orleans feel. The Jazz Festival began in 1993 and has become a must-stop for musicians on the international scene every spring. Why? Senegal is so famous across the globe for its music culture, and the sounds of drums and crooning voices waft over the city when this festival comes to town.
INSIDER TIPSt. Louis is quite historic, both in its character and accommodations. Stay at Siki Hotel for a modern approach to hospitality.
Senegal used to be home to 40,000 lions (making the king of the jungle the country’s national symbol), alas there aren’t too many around anymore but hyenas in the Collines, giraffes in the Bandia Reserve, and rhinos in the Fathala Wildlife Reserve offer the great animals of Africa without the super touristy vibe of a safari.
INSIDER TIPFathala Reserve is also a luxury eco-lodge that offers a safari fantasy of walks with lions and naps under mahogany trees.
The most politically stable country in the region, Senegal has been a stable and functional democracy since its independence in 1960. There have only been three presidents in its independent history, all of whom have a low-index of corruption. If you’ve never encountered the words of president and poet, Leopold Senghor Sandal, change that—by going to his architecturally incredible (and untouched for 40 years) Maison de Senghor in Dakar.
You can get lost for hours in Senegalese markets, discovering artisanal finds while learning more about the lifecycle of discarded Western goods in Sandaga, Kermel, and HLM—all located in Dakar. The best markets typically are on the side of the highways. But when in large cities, be careful of bullying vendors and pickpockets.
INSIDER TIPGorgeous caftans and boubous are often tailor-made from fabrics bought at the market. Don’t expect to find clothes to be prêt-à-porter unless you are shopping at the luxury stores in Dakar’s Sea Plaza.
Confront the horrors of colonialism against the utterly painstakingly beautiful Isle de Gorée, the most western-facing island off the coast of Dakar, which became the point of departure for over two million slaves during the 17th and 18th centuries. Heartbreaking and haunting, UNESCO-heritage site, Gorée is also one of the best preserved colonial outposts in the Atlantic, making the contradiction and learning opportunity one of the most important places for Western history there is.
Bou el Mogdad
Hop aboard a 1950s steam ship on a six-day cruise that departs from St. Louis and goes up the river that divides Senegal from Mauritania with stops at the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary, the untouched colonial-era Walo port of Dagana, and the pioneering town Richard-Toll (Richard’s Garden). The journey ends in the completely preserved colonial port of Podor. The sites on this trip are enriched with history and remarkable sunsets.