Before we extoll its beauties, let’s get the gritty side of Niger out of the way. Beset by military juntas and tribal uprisings and other terrorist groups now marauding through the states of Central Africa, Niger has never been and still isn’t the safest of places to explore. Travelers under its spell should bide their time, check FCO warnings and wait; with luck, one day, this great cut-out of the Sahel and Sahara will once more open its doors and borders.
Until then we can only pine. So, pine we shall. Pine for the undulating dunes and the shifting sea of sands that is the Ténéré Desert. Pine for the mud-brick mosques of towns like Agadez. Pine for the winding alleyways of Zinder; the energetic markets of Balleyara, and for the old regal homes of onetime monarchic Dosso.
Lets explore the best places to visit in Niger:
A maze of tight-knit lanes and hidden streets weaves and winds to form the hard-to-navigate heart of Zinder.
Meanwhile, the Sultan’s Palace towers over the town with its great adobe architectural achievements.
And that’s not even mentioning the bustling bazaar, which stretches as far as the eye can see – it’s easy to believe it was once one of the busiest camel caravan stops on the trans-Saharan route! Yep, Zinder comes top for many reasons: its rich history of French rule, tribal culture and trading; its mercantile energy; its sheer, raw African beauty.
In short: not to be missed.
More than 1.3 million people live, work and play in the capital city of Niamey, making it the veritable human heart of Niger.
The city straddles the courses of the Niger River in the south-west, and bustles with fantastic open air markets, and a surprisingly heady nightlife scene after dark (check out the beer joints around Yantala Ancien – and remember the strict drinking laws as you do!). International eateries touting pizzas and pastas mix with the spicy creations of the African kitchen too, while the bulbous blue domes of the Grand Mosque are simply not to be missed!
Boasting nearly 1,000 years of history and steeped in tales of Sahelian camel caravans, the Ottomans (believe it or not!), and the old Songhai imperialists, enthralling Agadez certainly has a story to tell.
The town is found smack bang in the heart of the country as a whole, surrounded by the sun-scorched dunes of the Sahara Desert and the endless yellow of the sand sea.
It’s formed from a grid of narrow streets and adobe, mud-brick homes.
The centerpiece has to be the earthen minaret of the central mosque, which mimics the great landmarks of the desert towns of Mali to the west.
4. W National Park
Unquestionably the most famous national park in all of Niger, the W National Park has also attained that coveted UNESCO World Heritage Site tag, which it was awarded on account of its unique display of transition habitats between the savannah and the West African woods.
Just one fragment of the huge W Transborder Park that crosses into Burkina Faso and Benin, it’s made up primarily of dusty bushland.
And the animals? Well, suffice to say you should get the camera ready for a medley of baboons and African buffalo, giraffes, leopards, lions and more!
After just three hours on the rumbling dust roads from the capital you could find yourself alighting in the charming river town of Ayorou, one of the top draws of Southwestern Niger.
Known for the surrounding riparian habitats that encompass the settlement, Ayorou itself sits on its very own island, where the mosque and marketplaces both make their home too.
In fact, the bazaar is a great place to start your travels here, searching through the curious folk remedies and sampling simple Sahel street food, all before breaking out to see the hippos splashing and lazing in the muddy waters nearby.
6. Abaaba National Park
Established back in 1987 for the sole purpose of protecting the endangered animals that make this territory their home, the Abaaba National Park has remained firmly off the radar for nature-loving travelers making their way through this land on the join of the Sahel and Sahara.
That doesn’t mean it’s not worth the trip though.
There are forests of low-lying acacia trees and semi-savannah plains aplenty, all crisscrossed by herds of bucks and elephants.
The territory is also important on the conservation front, as one of the last remaining habitats of the uber-rare black rhino.
The gateway to the aforementioned Abaaba National Park and the easternmost settlement in the whole of Niger, the town of Nguigmi buts up the banks of cross-border Lake Chad with its humble air strip and pretty city mosque.
The whole place oozes the character you’d expect of a far-flung desert town, with camel caravans coming and going every day of the year.
The small settlement is also home to the tribal groups of the Kanuri people, the Daza and the Wodaabe-Fulani – many of whom are some of the few remaining examples of Niger’s fascinating pastoral communities.
For most travelers, Maradi – the third-largest city in the whole country – will be just an administrative stop; to switch transports or stock up before heading out to the historic richness of Zinder, or to the Nigerian border to the south.
However, those who linger will discover a town that hardly feels like any other urban destination in the nation; a place of (relative) economic prosperity and buzzing markets, oozing confidence and panache.
Head down to the Grand Marché to haggle your way through shamanic jewelry and magic charms like lizard tails and the like.
There’s also the awesome palatial home of the tribal leader: the Maradi palace, rising in grand styles on one of the central squares.
Traditionally the place where the Tuareg tribes of the northern desert lands fused with the Fulani folk of the southern reaches of the country, the town of Tahoua is where two of the major cultural identities in Niger can be seen mingling, mixing, and – most importantly of all – trading their wares.
The market here really does take center stage, so be sure to head down and see its buzzing stalls and the endless wealth of carved totems and witch doctor’s trinkets there.
The place is also known as one of the country’s phosphate mining hubs – so don’t be surprised if there’s a clutch of unattractive industry too.
Bulbous pink pomegranates, blood-red and orange citrus fruits, and bountiful clusters of watermelons are might not what you’d expect to see this deep in the heart of the Sahara Desert, but the far-flung town of Timia tells a different story.
Fed by an oasis for the entire year, the little clusters of low-rise cottages is surrounded by verdant fields of orchards and agricultural ground.
They stretch along the length of the valleys that carve through the heart of the Air Mountains, popping up here and there in a bloom of date palms, or a crash of green grasses.
Travel to Timia is intrepid, and promises fulfilling encounters with the desert nomads and villagers of the region.
Kouré is the place to go giraffe spotting.
Encompassed by hot and sandy Sahelian landscapes, the tiny town has its claim to fame in the long-necked creatures that stalk its backcountry.
They are said to be the last remaining complete giraffe herd in all of West Africa; an honor which continues to draw wide-eyed folk over the rumbling pathways from the capital (more than 60 kilometers to the north-west) by the bucket load.
Local guides can help you spot the rare creatures, but be prepared, because you may need to walk some before they reveal themselves!
Dosso, ancient Dosso, is one of the few palpable remaining relics of the pre-colonial era of Niger.
The onetime epicenter of the Dosso Kingdom, the state that commanded the loyalty of tribes in the south-west corner of the country before the coming of the Europeans, it’s a place alive with heritage and traditions.
Today the town is a fusion of the new and old, with low-rise concrete buildings mixing with ramshackle yurts.
The marketplace still bustles with life too, as groaning camels move in and out of the dusty streets all around.
A trip to the famous animal bazaar of Balleyara Market is a glimpse at the traditional lifestyles of central Africa.
A fusion of tribes and peoples, it draws traders from Mali, Burkina Faso and all over the far-flung reaches of greater Niger.
The result is a crash of folksy stalls and emporiums touting curious pieces of whittled art and good luck charms.
The other side – and by far the largest – of the market is the animal area, which means seeing everything from bull herds to camels changing hands.
And the really good news? Balleyara can be reached in just two hours from the capital at Niamey.
If you can get past the overtly industrial character of Arlit, then you might just appreciate the town for the earthy and folksy place that it is.
Deep in the wild Agadez Region, it’s one of the best gateways to the vast dunes of the Ténéré Desert (although, admittedly, Agadez is better). The homes are crumbling, sunbaked bricks of mud; the people are tired uranium miners with leather-like faces, and you can pretty much be certain that very few – if any – travelers have ever lingered here for very long before you.
Diffa is a difficult place to pin down.
At times it’s been a tenacious hotbed for military uprisings against the Niger government; at others – like today – it’s a receptacle for the thousands of refugees that come flocking across the Nigerian border in fear of militant groups and extremists.
Unfortunately, those more recent developments have made the place pretty unsafe for modern travelers (even by Niger’s standards), so it looks like we’ll have to wait to explore the peaks and troughs of the dust-caked Diffa Region – the home of wandering waterbucks and rare leopards and more.