Senegal doesn’t quite have the amazing wildlife of East Africa, but that is more than made up for by the hip music scene, good French African fusion food and miles of stunning beaches. Senegal’s capital Dakar is often thought of as one of Africa’s premier capitals, and with the best that Senegalese music has to offer (Youssou N’Dour and more), lots of tasty food (literally; local restaurants tend to serve food by the bucket) and a lively atmosphere, it’s not hard to see why. Most countries seem to claim the world’s best beaches, and while that might not be true here either, you’ll certainly get some serious relaxation done in a beautiful chilled setting. Bird watchers will be happy in the national parks, and there’s plenty here in the way of art and culture. Keep an eye open for angry mosquitoes, listen to health and safety advice and you’ll have a great time, just don’t drink the water.
Why You Should Go
What’s Cool: Thriving music scene, the hustle and bustle of Dakar, stunning beaches, lazy fishing villages, bird and other wildlife watching, peanuts, chic French movies and the breeze in Dakar, huge platefuls of couscous and meat.
What’s Not: Mosquitoes and other nasty insects, heat and humidity in the rainy season, occasional rough seas, irregular driving, traffic and road works in Dakar and the risk of political unrest in Casamance.
When to Go
The most popular time to visit Senegal is during the dry season from December to April, when the breeze helps to balance the heat, especially in coastal areas.
Senegal has a warm, tropical climate which is generally relatively pleasant, with temperatures normally in the 70s (°F).
Outside of the dry season, the weather can be hot and quite humid, and the rainy season here lasts from July to September. There is much more rain in the south of the country than in the north.
Getting There & Away
Transport here is pretty reasonable; Dakar International Airport is the main gateway to the country, with plenty of flights to Europe in particular. There are a good number of options for arriving by boat from the Canary Islands, Morocco, Spain, France and some South American and other West African ports. Roads are a bit hit and miss, with the ones to Mauritania being pretty good, but others to Guinea-Bissau not so good. The train is a great way to get to or from Mali, with one service from Dakar to Bamako. Getting around is fairly easy, the roads are generally good and there are lots of bush taxis (think big shared cars) and buses, and a good domestic ferry service. It’s safe to say that when Sengal’s Youssou N’Dour sang Seven Seconds, he wasn’t talking about the time it takes to speed around Dakar; traffic here can be horrendous.
Health & Safety
If you thought Senegal’s French roots would mean traveling here is just like traveling in France, then think again. Malaria-spreading mosquitoes buzz around looking for their next victim and typhoid vaccinations are recommended. All water should be considered potentially dodgy, so stick to the bottled stuff, even for brushing teeth and washing vegetables. Strong waves are possible on some of the beaches so take particularly care and take note of safety advice when at the coast. Use common sense in Dakar late at night; dark and mysterious side streets are best explored in the busy daytime. A peace agreement in the Casamance region was reached in 2004, but outbreaks of violence are still a potential problem here, so if the sight of rebels with guns doesn’t sound like your idea of a holiday, then you might want to consider staying away.
Food & Hospitality
With its historical connections to France, there is some pretty good food here, a sort of combination of French and West African cuisine. If you have a peanut allergy, this may not be the best place, as peanuts are Senegal’s primary crop and used in lots of dishes. Couscous and sweet potatoes are also common. Yassa is a popular dish, chicken or fish cooked with onion and lemon sauce, and maafe, meat or vegetables in peanut sauce. Be careful not to over order as some restaurants here seem to serve food by the bucketful. There is a full range of accommodation here and in general, Senegal’s hotels are of a better standard then others in the region. But fear not budget travelers! You can still find those cheapo and distinctly ordinary places.
Two weeks is a good length of time to explore Senegal’s attractions, allowing you some time in hip Dakar, but also adequate beach chilling and national park adventures.
Three to four days to explore Dakar, one of Africa’s coolest cities, and its surrounding areas.
One day to go back to the 19th century on Gorée Island.
Three days to chill out on the beach.
Two to three days exploring some of Senegal’s national parks.
Tucked away in the Casamance region (that’s the bit under The Gambia), Ziguinchor is an interesting place, with loads of peanuts too.
Cruise the Senegal River. There are numerous cruises for up to a week, though that might be a little too long stuck on a boat.
Dakar: ‘west Africa’s hippest city’ might seem an arrogant claim, but there is little competition, and you won’t deny that Dakar with its bustling atmosphere, music and arts scene, and good food is cool. If you go to the right places late enough, you’ll meet plenty of Dakar’s most interesting characters too.
Gorée Island: just off the Dakar coast, and with its role in the slave trade, a visit to Gorée is certainly not one of those dull historical places that you feel you have to visit but don’t really want to.
Cap Skiring: ‘best beaches in Africa’, ‘paradise’ … blah, blah, blah. True or not, you’ll have no problem doing some serious relaxation and coming to the conclusion that they probably aren’t the best beaches in Africa.
National parks: Senegal doesn’t have many of the big animals that you associate with east Africa, but it’s great for bird watching and pleasant relaxation.
The Pink Lake: a big saltwater lake that looks pink may not sound like something to get too excited about, but it’s a natural oddity that’s worth a visit.
Ziguinchor: cheap and delicious food, arts and crafts and a nice atmosphere.
Cruising the Senegal River: a popular activity here, cruises can last up to a week and are a good way to relax and see more of the country.
Seeing some live music: Youssou N’Dour is Senegal’s most famous international musician to have come from the Dakar music scene, and there are loads of good venues here. Don’t expect things to be too lively before midnight though.
Water sports: if being dragged around the sea by a speed boat while strapped to a couple of bits of wood is your idea of fun, then you’ll be happy at Senegal’s beaches.
Going to the theater: Daniel Sorano National Theater in Dakar is a great place for a bit of cultural entertainment.
Festivals & Events
With French routes and a reputation for music, it’s no surprise to find a decent festival calendar in Senegal. Some things might be bizarre and different from what you’ve seen before, but at least you won’t be bored.
January: the famous Paris-Dakar rally (the one that now starts in Lisbon), roars into the Senegalese capital, and with plenty of amateurs taking part, you may well meet some real ‘characters’.
May: Dak’Art Biennial promotes African and Senegalese art with a mix of the impressive, mysterious and bizarre, but certainly interesting.
June: Dakar-Goree Jazz festival showcases some of the best jazz that Senegal has to offer.
June: Kay Fecc dance festival is great fun, noisy and colorful.