Mainland Africa’s westernmost country occupies a colossal cut out of the Sahel. It ranges from the fringes of the Guinean woods to the bottom of the Sahara, and throws up fascinating destinations aplenty.
Take the capital, Dakar: a town of pandemonius markets and endless energy. Or, look to the ports of Saint-Louis, which bustle with ships and Parisian-style arcades. Out in the wildernesses and Senegal has more treats for the traveler, ranging from the winding channels of the Gambia River to the shimmering beaches of the coast. Animals like hippos and hyenas all mingle here, while rustic communities continue to tick over.
And the cherry on the top? Despite a dangerous Ebola outbreak, Senegal has been one of Africa’s most stable places for decades. Fair elections and peaceful power transfers all add up to make this one accessible and fun place for the worldly explorer.
Lets explore the best places to visit in Senegal:
Dakar has seriously outgrown its perch on the Cap-Vert Peninsula.
It now sprawls eastwards into the arid dust plains to the east, and bursts out over the dockside jetties in a medley of lively trader ships and fish-scented marketplaces.
The port is what has driven the boom in both population and size, not to mention imbued the city with an enticing multiculturalism and energy.
So, be sure to drop by the curious Soviet-esque rises of the African Renaissance Monument, the acclaimed Museum of African Arts, and the old Dutch slave trade ruins on Goree Island, before delving into the curious medley of Lebanese eateries African embroidery bazaars, roasted peanut stalls and raucous beer bars around wild Sandaga Market.
There’s actually not as much separating the Saint-Louis of northern Senegal and its namesake across the great Atlantic pond in the Deep South of America as you might think.
Check out the arched steel construction of the Faidherbe Bridge, straddling the Senegal River like something on the Mississippi.
Or, delve into the heart of the old city of Saint-Louis to discover the French-style colonial builds, whitewashed frontispieces in the plantation style, and shady arcades.
There are even famous jazz fests held here every May! Still, the similarities do end eventually, especially as you dip into the salt-washed fishing hamlets of Guet N’Dar, or begin wonder at the craggy cliffs and exotic creatures of the Barbarie Peninsula.
A patchwork of pastel-painted colonial builds and age-stained frontispieces dressed in European filigrees and Parisian designs, there’s no denying the immersive colonial character of Ziguinchor.
And while the major sights here are few and far between – the bustling Marche Saint Maur des Fosses, the curious roundabouts of the Place Jean-Paul II – the real draw is the earthy African character of the place.
What’s more, Ziguinchor also happens to be the gateway of choice to the Casamance region: a place where pirogue canoes weave along the river ways, and the plains of the Sahel begin to transform into verdant Guinean woods.
Located south of the capital, on the panhandle of the Cap-Vert Peninsula, the small town of Popenguine is the gateway to one truly beautiful medley of natural attractions.
The main draw has to be the protected Natural Reserve of Popenguine, which boasts a clean and pretty boulder-peppered beach, nestled between two arid headlands of dramatic cliffs.
The area also boasts the rugged rock walls of the Cap de Naz, jutting out into the Atlantic, and a particularly famous lagoon, where nesting birds of all shapes and sizes draw crowds of spotters throughout the year.
The epicenter of the mystical Mouride order of the Sufis, Touba emerges from the rolling Sahel of central Senegal with its colossal Great Mosque, looming minarets, and countless other pilgrimage shrines and attractions (not least of all the tomb of the Mouride founder himself: Shaikh Aamadu Bamba Mbakke). The town booms with visitors during the yearly Grand Magal, when thousands come to honor the social and Islamic programs of the Sufi scholar and teacher.
The focal point is the majestic mosque, which is strictly run and has some gorgeous arabesque interiors and one soaring 87-meter-high minaret known as the Lamp Fall.
The fascinating fishing town of Joal-Fadiouth is one that time forgot.
Alive with salt-stained timber pirogues and oodles of bobbing jetties, the town’s locals still utilize the age-old hand catching techniques of centuries gone by.
They can be seen haggling over prices of huge swordfish all along the coast by morning, while the eateries – unsurprisingly – serve up some of the best seafood in the country.
Meanwhile, the island of Fadiouth across the bay is another one to write home about – it’s almost totally formed from accumulations of sea shells!
Laid-back little Kafountine is the place to come and sample the undeniable beauties of the Casamance coast.
Great long stretches of golden sand are what draw most of the people here.
They run the gamut from wide bays washed by the rollers of the Atlantic to bustling strips peppered with the faded fishing pirogues of the locals closer to the town.
And then there’s the croc-spotted riparian habitats of the Foret des Narangs nearby, where rare birds flit through the canopies, macaques swing overhead, and wild West African creatures roam the undergrowth.
Sat on a far-flung crossroads, the town of Tambacounda is often visited by travelers starting a West African odyssey through the countries of Gambia, Guinea-Bissau or Guinea to the south.
However, those who can suffer the scorching Sahelian climate just a little longer will discover an interesting spot; a place where a couple of French colonial remnants still mark the streets and earthy farming communities dominate the backcountry.
Tambacounda is also one of the best jump off points for explorations in the legendary Niokolo-Koba National Park – the upland reaches of the mighty Gambia River.
Situated on a small headland that bubbles out into the meanders of the Saloum River, the town of Kaolack is known as a center of Islamic teaching, and as an industrial hub of Senegalese salt production.
Its attractions start with the vast central square of Medina Baye – look up to see the turquoise-domed tops of the great minarets.
Kaolack Market then comes with a heady fray of lean-to shops and ramshackle sellers, while the rustic reaches of Coofog are dotted with bulbous baobab trees and tell stories of the historic Serer Kingdom that once ruled in these parts.
Nestled in the far south-eastern corner of the country, where the Guinean forests spill out and down to the Sahelian plains, the city of Kedougou has a character all of its own.
For starters, its geography and topography are unlike any other area in the nation – expect lush rainforests and verdant, mist-topped hills.
Kedougou also gets quite a lot of rain, giving rise to oodles of agricultural land in the surrounding region (for those who don’t mine gold, that is). And then there’s the wonderful reaches of the Niokolo-Koba National Park: a huge swathe of greenery where the Gambia River erupts in the company of hippos, lions, elephants and leopards.
Mboro is an interesting little place that can be reached in just over an hour from the capital city at Dakar.
It’s the hub of one of the most fertile regions in the nation, and produces oodles of vegetables to fill the bustling markets of the city to the south.
Mboro has an immersive market of its own too, and visitors love flitting between the food stalls and colorful farmer emporiums here, haggling for the curious local tie-dye costumes and tasty preserves.
The beach is another must, and although swimming can be risky, simply settling on the sands and watching the fishermen and luminescent plankton in the rollers is a real treat!
Encompassed by great swathes of verdant mangroves, brackish lagoons and salt flats to the east, and stretches of chart-topping Atlantic beachfronts to the north, the town of Palmarin might be hard to get to (there are hardly any real roads connecting this one with the greater infrastructure of Senegal), but it’s certainly got its fair share of attractions.
There are dense groves of palm trees to wander, palm tree wine to taste, and some excellent sands close to the center, not to mention packs of wild hyenas around town, folksy wrestling competitions, and even ancient burial mounds attributed to the Sereer folk.
While Fatick itself is hardly a chart-topper, and will likely never make the headlines of travel brochures with its humble boulevards and dusty cottages, its surrounding region is certainly something to write home about.
Peppered with the relics of ancient Serer prehistory, the hinterlands on the edge of the town are home to curious carved megaliths and totems dating as far back as the 9th century.
You’ll find thousands of old tumulus houses between the xeric woods of the old Baol, countless religious shrines, and places holy to the Serer religion.
Cheaper than the capital and a cheerful place all round, Thies is often used as an alternative overnight stop for expats and visitors who don’t like the frantic energy of Dakar.
It fulfils the role perfectly, and the dusty streets here are laden with smiling and welcoming locals, a few charming (if ramshackle beer bars) and some decent shops.
Thies is primarily a market town too, which means you can get a taste of the haggling and hawking that defines Senegal’s mercantile side.
There are also some good spots to sample local menus of benachin rice and fish – just look for the joints in the center.
15. Richard Toll
Curiously-named Richard Toll, a town just a stone’s throw from the border with Mauritania in the extreme north of the country, still finds a way to honor its one-time park planner, the botanist Jean Michel Claude Richard.
An interesting place that fuses cultures, it comes to life with the bustle of Xhouma Market, awash with sugar traders and craft stalls aplenty.
There are also some relics of the French colonial age to see, like the muddied face of the grand Chateau de Baron Roger.
Richard Toll also has an industrial edge, with refineries and fishing depots lining the river.