Mali is a land of many cultures and creeds; a dash of life and action and heritage and history that’s sandwiched between the rolling Sahel and the endless dunes of the Sahara Desert.
From the salt-caked outposts of Taoudenni in the north to the throbbing market town of Sikasso in the south, the lion-spotted reaches of Boucle de Baoulé in the west to the protected swathes of Ansongo in the east, there’s everything from time-stood-still tribal villages to groaning camel caravans to experience here.
Meanwhile, the capital at Bamako is surely one of the continent’s most enthralling.
Beer bars and local music dives erupt between the traffic-choked streets; bazaars and brilliant markets pop up on the corners.
Oh, and that’s not even mentioning the mystery of Timbuktu! Unfortunately, recent conflicts have all but placed this fascinating country in the heart of West Africa out of bounds for would-be travelers.
Skirmishes and battles and political upheavals continue, and all the while Mali’s great natural and human beauties remain at risk…
Lets explore the best places to visit in Mali:
For many a Berber trader and Bedouin caravan man Timbuktu marked the end of the arduous trek across the shifting sand dunes of the great Sahara.
Evoking mystery and magic and the feel of far-flung exoticism, even the name conjured up images of dusty bazaars where spices and sabres and strange folk trinkets rattled and scented the air.
Today, Timbuktu is hardly the puzzling, perplexing enigma of place it once was; but there are traces of the old days.
Find them between the criss-crossing grids of sand-caked streets; see them in the muddy walls of the Sankore Mosque; or discover them underneath the spiked rises of the Djingareiber.
Gao’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed over the centuries like the ups and downs of a yoyo.
Once the imperial heart of the great Songhai Empire, the town was later almost entirely abandoned in favour of the new capital at aforementioned Timbuktu.
But Gao clung to life from its place in the very midst of the dusty Sahel.
Its tenacious locals maintained their mud-brick, mat-built yurts and life went on.
Today, that makes Gao a great place to glimpse the earthy, ancient character of Mali, while craft markets, the acclaimed Sahel Museum, and 15th-century sepulchres like the Askia Tomb (yep, it’s supposed to look like Egypt’s pyramids!) add a whole host of cultural draws to the mix.
Get the haggling valves and the shopping glands ready for that trip to Bamako: Mali’s largest and most frenetic city, where bazaars touting everything from carved folklore figurines to stacks of pungent spices cluster around the street corners and the sun-baked squares.
The nation’s capital, there’s something undeniably likable about this sprawling metropolis of more than 1.5 million.
It’s got palpable energy and an indelible lived-in feel.
The nightlife pulses to a medley of West African samba; the jazz bars are packed with beer drinkers on the weekends; fried plantains sizzle on grills from neighbourhood to neighbourhood; tuk-tuks purr, and traffic toots!
There are few sites in all of Mali – nay, all of north-west Africa – as impressive as the historic city of Djenné.
Crowned at the center by the adobe rises of one fascinating Great Mosque, it is known for its distinctive mud-brick architecture and long history as a spot on the old caravan routes across the Sahel and Sahara.
Made rich by the passing of minerals and precious metals (and – of course – slaves), the town boomed during the 15th and 16th centuries.
The great worshipping house in its heart stands as testimony to the revered religious center Djenné became (even though it’s a later reconstruction of an older mosque), while the nearby archaeological excavations at Djenné-Djenno have shown the town to be one of the oldest in the entire Niger basin.
Straddling the courses of the Bani River, just a stone’s throw from where that desert-shrouded tributary meets the mighty Niger, Mopti has positioned itself as one of Mali’s most important riparian ports.
But Mopti is also more than just an up-river trading center – it’s also the gateway to the fascinating tribal territories of Dogon, which come peppered with adobe villages and the semi-nomadic folk of the Bandiagara Escarpment.
There are oodles (and we mean oodles) of tour providers in Mopto, offering trips into this wild hinterland for cultural encounters, while boat trips to Timbuktu and sightseeing outings around the marketplaces and grand central mosques are also on the menu.
Small little Ségou is a town of just over 130,000 people.
It was once the beating epicentre of the Bambara Kingdom – a power that ruled over the lands of central Mali until around the turn of the 19th century.
Today, its prowess and capital title are gone, but the city still has a few relics from that glorious time.
Check out the tomb of Biton Mamary Coulibaly, the onetime monarch of the Bambaras, or the bustling port sides, which were once the trading powerhouse of the town.
Ségou is also famed for its wealth of charming French colonial architecture.
This can be found fringing the inner streets in a medley of Parisian facades and romantic governmental houses.
Rising in a wall of ochre-hued stone from the midst of the Sahelian wilds of south-central Mali, the great escarpment of rock known as Mount Hombori is like West Africa’s answer to Australia’s Uluru.
It hulks above the horizon just a short distance from the town of the same name; a place of creaking wagons, winding alleyways and low-rise rock homes inhabited by the welcoming Dogon peoples.
The biggest pull is certainly the great bluff though, and travelers now flock here to join intrepid 4X4 excursions into the sands, or to unearth the fascinating past currently being uncovered by archaeologists in the cave systems that carve their way deep into the mountain’s subterrane.
Sikasso is, and always has been, a mercantile town at heart.
Nestled close to the multi-state join of Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Guinea, it’s benefited from a location that’s able to connect Africa’s landlocked heart with the ports that pepper the Atlantic seaboard.
That trading history still pops up today, between the throbbing and frenetic fruit and veg markets that erupt ad hoc on virtually every block right throughout the week.
And Sikasso also has one other claim to fame.
In the late 19th century it was raised to the status of imperial capital; an honour decided on by king Tieba Traoré, whose own mother hailed from the spot.
The rises of Mamelon Hill are the place to go to trace that story.
Delineated by the meanders of the Senegal River, Kayes continues to bustle and thrum to the sound of market traders and salesmen.
In fact, the passage of goods was the very raison d’être (notice the language) for the town, which was first built up by the French in the 1880s to facilitate the movement of produce to and fro from neighbouring West African countries.
Travelers can come and wallow in the lively vibes of the place, seek out little trinkets and multi-coloured fruits and vegetables in the market, and sip coffees in the shadow of pretty Parisian-style builds.
And away from the town there are even more points of interest, like the Félou Falls, the roaring cataracts of the Gouina Falls, and the relics of the formidable Medina Fort.
10. Boucle du Baoulé National Park
Sprawling out over nearly one million hectares in the middle of West Africa’s wildlife-rich Sudano-Guinean zone, the Boucle du Baoulé National Park is unquestionably one of the jewels of the Malian hinterland.
The territory can be found close to the town of Kayes, cut through by rising ridges of Sahelian rocks and peppered with the remains of countless pre-historic troglodyte settlements.
And despite recent troubles scaring away most of the eco-tourists, the fauna has hardly changed.
Expect giraffes and rare simians, gazelles and even the occasional lion!
Occupying the western edge of the great nature reserve which shares its name (and the name of the town of Menaka on the far eastern side of the park’s boundaries), Ansongo is perhaps the youngest of all the places on this list.
Far from being one of Mali’s fabled imperial centers, this one was purpose-built back in 1996. The reason? To cultivate the fertile Sahelian plains that roll out to the north, west, east and south.
That means visitors can spot camel herds grazing and sorghum grasses swaying all along the flood plains of the Niger River here.
And when it’s time to hit the aforementioned reserve of Faune D’Ansongo-Menake, you can look forward to gazelles and hippos, crocs and sand cats.
One of the major hot points in the recent factional struggles that have beset Mali, Kidal sits deep in the region of the Azawad – the territory that unilaterally declared independence back in 2012 to trigger some of the bloodiest conflicts the heart of central West Africa has seen in recent years.
However, its lately troubles aside, Kidal remains a place steeped in the traditions of the Tuaregs nomad folk, who still inhabit the vast sand plains of the greater Kidal Region.
And the city showcases their traditions too, in both architecture and craft making.
Oh, and be sure to check out the remnants of the French colonial fortress in the city before departing!
Encompassed by otherworldly landscapes of carved rock bluffs and dust-devil-scarred plains, the region of Douentza is a great place to get to grips with the wildernesses that characterise the Malian Sahel.
Douentza town sits at the heart of it all, ticking over with its sleepy Berber vibes and small marketplaces.
Another point of great contention during Mali’s recent upheavals, this one has flitted between control of the Azawad liberators, the government and various Islamist groups in the past couple of years.
And while the military struggles continue to simmer, the hinterland here continues to host the traipsing Gourma elephants, who pass this way on their annual migration – what a sight!
Like Mopti before it, Bandiagara is the place to go for cultural encounters with the Dogon folk of the Malian plateaux.
Little more than a trading town with a few humble marketplaces and emporiums touting traditional Dogon trinkets and foodstuffs, the real draws actually lie away from the center here – except for that interesting Toucouleur imperial building on the central drag! We’re talking about the UNESCO-attested reaches of the great Bandiagara Escarpment.
This land of verdant plains and rock-ribbed cliffs is steeped in tribal history.
You’ll see the abandoned hamlets of the Tellem folk, mud-caked mosques carved into the mountains, and some of the most beautiful backcountry in the region!
Taoudenni really is like nothing else in Mali.
Languishing out in the sun-scorched heart of the Sahara Desert, it continues to function for one purpose only: salt mining.
The settlement itself is actually constructed on the dried-up bed of an old saline lake.
Workers come to carve great slabs of salt from the earth, which are then loaded onto some of the last remaining camel caravans in the world and trekked south to Mopti and other trading cities.
There’s also the ruins of an old and infamous prison to see here, built in the 1960s by the onetime ruler Moussa Traoré.