I had been longing to visit Dakar, Senegal, for many years. I have often felt that it is important to visit African countries as much as any other popular travel destinations. Being based in Europe it is obviously cheaper and much easier to visit European countries but I have become more and more intentional about visiting countries outside of those parameters. This means having to save and plan but for me it is worth it. I also have to be honest I wanted to go somewhere where I did not have to double check that it would be safe for me to visit on the grounds of race and racism. I am one of the first people to say that we should be allowed to visit any country in the world but even as an advocate of this I have to be pragmatic and also to be quite frank it can be exhausting having to deal with holiday micro aggressions e.g. being stared at for long periods of time, asked to have pictures taken with because I’m mistaken for a Black celebrity (because apparently only Black celebs can afford to travel) etc. It doesn’t always happen of course and sometimes it is genuine inquisitiveness but since I’m not a walking National Geographic documentary I don’t have the energy to teach people why I deserve to exist. So anyway Senegal was top of my list and I could not wait to visit particularly around my birthday. In this post I want to provide a brief guide to how you can spend a week in Dakar. It doesn’t cover everything but at least it will give you some insight and some ideas which I hope you will find useful.
HOW TO GET THERE
I used a travel site called TravelUP which had the best flight deals after checking on SkyScanner (even better than booking directly with the airlines). We flew with Royal Air Maroc, return tickets for the end of July were around £700 and the flight time in total was roughly 7 and a half hours, with a very brief transit connection in Casablanca. The stopover was literally an hour. This is very tight so as you can imagine it was a little touch and go, going to Dakar was fine, we were slightly delayed but our transfer waited for us. However coming back there was another delay and the airline placed us on another flight, 6 hours after our initial connection due to no fault of our own. The flying experience is fine, the smaller planes to Casablanca are old and slightly cramped; the larger planes used on the continent are sleek and modern. Don’t forget to take your own headphones to use the inflight entertainment. The food was OK and the service was fine. There’s a great baggage allowance of 23kg per person which is great particularly when you’re returning with gifts. Overall it was a decent flying experience.
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed in an absolutely delightful boutique hotel villa called Nyéléni maison sahel, which I cannot recommend enough, I found it on Booking.com. I absolutely loved it, it is one of those times when honest online reviews are really invaluable for travellers/tourists looking for unique experiences. It is situated in the Yoff district which is about a 20 minute drive (without traffic) from Central/Downtown Dakar. Being away from the major hub that is downtown Dakar meant that we were able to explore and immerse ourselves in Dakar in a way that I am not sure we would have done if we had stayed in a more central location. The hotel is perfectly situated near the Ngor district, Les Almadies and obviously Grand Yoff itself. The closest beach to the hotel is mainly used by locals and although tourists aren’t encouraged to go because it’s not been primed for them we still went and dipped our toes in and enjoyed it.
It is around a 40/50 minute drive from the airport and the hotel can arrange transfers for you. The interior design of Nyéléni maison sahel was gorgeous, I loved just sitting in the lounge area or in the garden or by the pool, basically it was a home away from home. The cost was around £510 for a large room for one week including breakfast and all the little extras like wifi, games room and a friendly dog! The service was warm, professional and so friendly. Great attention to detail with a really dedicate host and team.
WHERE TO EAT
Food in Dakar is quite honestly exceptional. I don’t think there was a single place we went to, even the cheapest places, that we didn’t enjoy. We pretty much ate Senegalese food everywhere we went so seafood, rice, meat based dishes were consistently on our plates from Thiébou yapp to dibi. Whatever your tastes are you will find something to satisfy them in Dakar. The prices even in the high end locations were always very good value, with generous portions.
There are also plenty of places to go for a cocktail or a beer, Senegal is a primarily Muslim country but it is very relaxed. Our hotel recommended a number of restaurants but we also found our own and when we were out on our day trips we would try local spots. Some of the places we visited included:
Le Ngor – great seafront location.
Ubuntu (where I tasted some of the best pigeon I have ever eaten in my life)
Kabylie – an informal relaxed eatery you can also find pizzas here (there are quite a few pizzerias in Dakar)
Restaurant Le Calebasse – which is also an art gallery/shop and is perfect for special occasions.
La Brioche Doree – an affordable family friendly restaurant
Marina Bay – great seafront location and atmosphere.
L’Ocean Hotel – It is very close to where we stayed and the food is good and reasonably priced and there are great views.
For drinks you will be spoilt for choice, everywhere we ate at also had a bar. The Pullman Hotel has a great bar with lovely interior design and we discovered the Sao Brasil bar which also serves pizza in Ngor.
WHAT TO VISIT
There is so much to see and do all over Dakar. To be honest you don’t need me to tell you where to go because if you’re visiting Dakar it is unlikely that you will decide to stay in your hotel but here are a few places that you must visit:
Ngor Island and its Fishmermen’s village – get the boat from Ngor to Ngor Island, it is a popular tourist spot so you will find restaurants and bars. Make sure you wander around the island as you will discover some art shops and great views of the ocean.
Yoff Beach and its own Fishermen’s village – this isn’t really a tourist spot but that is what makes it charming. If you walk for long enough you will end up at the surfing spots where more tourists tend to navigate but much like many parts of Senegal you feel free and safe wherever you are. Respect that this is where some people make their living so don’t expect any special tourist treatment and also do not be intrusive in their spaces.
The African Renaissance Monument and the surrounding beaches – one of the most breathtaking monuments you will ever see and it is definitely worth paying for the full tour to go to the top of the monument.
Downtown Dakar – just wander around the main hub of Dakar, you can see the President’s palace and parks as well as immerse yourself in the city.
Gorée Island and museums, the door of return and the door of no return and the markets – Simply an amazing experience and everyone should visit this island at least once in their lives for a rich cultural and historical experience. The impact of the transatlantic slave trade is still felt across the world and the honest historical facts shared on the Island were so important, I learnt so many new things about the West African region pre-slavery and during slavery.
Make sure you check which times the ferry leaves Dakar, you can spend all day on the island so dress appropriately for walking and the hot weather.
The Museum of Black Civilisations – the museum is superb with lots of interesting exhibition and it has an excellent art gallery. The grand theatre is just opposite and Dakar railway station is around the corner from it.
The Market in Central Dakar – if you love to haggle like I do then this is the place for you, if you don’t like to haggle then you might want to ask your hotel for an indoor market/boutique where the prices are set.
Lac Rose – the famous “pink lake” and surrounding salt cultivating village. If you want to see it when it is really pink you have to travel in December/January but it is still worth visiting any time of the year.
Tortoise village – a really important conservation park where you are able to wander around the park either alone or with a park and get up close and personal with the tortoises.
Le Parc forestier de Hann and Zoo – a lovely parkland in the heart of Dakar with a zoo which includes wild animals. The park is lovely although the zoo is quite tired. The animals are well looked after but it could definitely do with a face lift. You will find a lot of keep fit enthusiasts using the park which is great and it is family friendly as you would expect.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
Dakar is a vibrant and busy city, you will find a lot of street traders whether you are simply walking along the road or in traffic. Even taxis will honk their horns when they see you walking past, particularly if they think you are a tourist, some might even slow down. Don’t worry the city is safe and like any major city you just need to be savvy. You’ll exhaust yourself if you try to respond to everyone so just ignore people if you are feeling overwhelmed and they will go away. There are hustlers like in any part of the world but just have a different style. You do not need to speak Wolof or French in Senegal, of course it would help, you will still be able to get around if you don’t speak those languages. Never accept the first price a taxi driver gives you; our hotel provided a useful price point list which helped us work out that most drivers will overcharge unless you haggle. We took the public buses a couple of times which are far cheaper than taxis but obviously that limits your flexibility. Respect the people, their country and the places that you visit. Dakar is a great place for tourists but when you travel remember that real people live there, so respect their city – they are not props. You will see wealth, middle class daily living and poverty all in the same area sometimes. Depending on where in the world you are coming from you might not be able to change your money into CFAs, I would recommend changing your money in Ngor as you will get better rates than if you change it in Central Dakar. Senegal is also a visa free country, just make sure you check before you travel to ensure there are no changes to this. Make sure you check with your family doctor if you need shots and take sunscreen and insect repellent. I hope that if after reading this you get the chance to visit Senegal you love it as much as I did.