In this destination guide we visit Dakar, Senegal’s vibrant and dynamic capital city.
A visit to Dakar
Dakar, the capital and largest city of Senegal, is one of Africa’s most vibrant and dynamic cities.
Located on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, Dakar is known for its rich cultural heritage, music scene and interesting history.
In this short Dakar guide to Dakar we’ll explore everything that Senegal’s capital has to offer.
Dakar has a long and fascinating history dating back to the 11th century when it was first settled by the Lebou people, a group of fishermen and traders.
The city’s location was certainly strategically chosen, as the Cap-Vert peninsula on which Dakar is located is the most westerly point of Africa.
In the 14th and 15th century, Dakar developed into an important trading port for gold, ivory, and slaves.
The Portuguese were the first European power to arrive on the Senegalese coast and used it as one of their main hubs for the Atlantic slave trade.
They were followed in turns by the Dutch, English and finally the French, who all took part in the slave trade as well.
In the late 19th century, Senegal was officially colonised by France and became the capital of French West Africa.
During this time, the city saw significant development, including the construction of railroads, modern port facilities and government buildings.
When Senegal gained its independence from France in 1960, Dakar continued to grow and modernise.
Today, the city a bustling metropolis with a population of almost 4 million people in the wider metro area.
Île de Gorée
Although the fun-loving city of Dakar is the modern economic hub of not just Senegal but entire West Africa, the city’s main attraction has to do with a much darker chapter of history.
There is no better place to learn more about Dakar’s history than Île de Gorée (Gorée Island).
Île de Gorée – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is (in)famous for being one of the main hubs for the Atlantic slave trade, which was only discontinued here in 1848.
Although the Portuguese were the first European settlers to arrive here, it was actually named by the Dutch after the island of Goeree-Overflakkee in the Netherlands.
It’s a highly pleasant 30-minute boat ride from downtown Dakar to Île de Gorée.
During the crossing you can enjoy some fine views over Dakar and the island of Gorée.
At first sight, Île de Gorée looks like a highly picturesque island with its turquoise waters, palm trees and bright-coloured houses.
Indeed, if you are just after a swim and some time to relax, you’ll find a beautiful secluded beach at Gorée Island as well as some bars and restaurants.
However, most people visit this island off the coast of Dakar to learn more about the slave trade.
Visitors to the island can explore its historic buildings, including the Maison des Esclaves (Slave House), which served as a holding place for slaves before they were shipped to the Caribbean and the Americas.
On the northern tip of the island you can visit the Fort d’Estrées, a formidable coastal battery which now houses the Historical Museum of Senegal.
It’s also well-worth to explore the backstreets towards the south of the island as here you’ll find a beautiful old mosque and a slavery monument (Mémorial Gorée-Almadies).
Sights in Dakar
There are certainly some interesting sights to visit in downtown Dakar when you return to the African mainland from Gorée Island.
At a roundabout next to the railway station and passenger harbour of Dakar you can find the Monument Demba et Dupont.
This statue depicts a Senegalese tirailleur called Demba and a French colonial soldier called Dupont.
The monument honours African soldiers who fought and died for France in the First and Second World War – although it is considered by some as a symbol of colonialism due to Dupont’s paternal hand on Demba’s shoulder.
Just to the north of the monument is the Museum of Black Civilisations, which together with the IFAN Museum of African Arts (also known as the Musée Théodore Monod) is
Downtown Dakar is also home to several important historical and architectural landmarks, such as the colonial-era Presidential Palace and the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall).
The Great Mosque of Dakar, completed in 1964, is a stunning example of modern Islamic design.
Although it’s located a bit far outside the city centre, the bizarre North Korean-built African Renaissance Monument makes for an interesting visit.
One of the most famous landmarks in Dakar is the Sandaga Market, a bustling market located in the heart of the city.
The Sandaga Market is centred around a three-story-high windowless building full of small market stands and stores, although the surrounding streets are alive as well with all kinds of stands and shops.
You can find everything from fresh produce and spices to traditional crafts and clothing.
The market is a great place to experience the local culture and get a sense of the city’s vibrant energy, although you should watch out for pickpockets.
Modern Dakar is a multicultural city with strong French and Arabic cultural influences.
If you speak a few words of French it will certainly make your visit to Dakar a lot easier.
The diverse array of cultural influences is reflected in the city’s art, music, and cuisine.
Dakar is famous across the entire African continent for its vibrant music scene, which is influenced by a variety of genres including mbalax, a popular form of dance music that originated in Senegal.
Senegalese music is also well-known for the sabar, a traditional drum which was made famous internationally by Youssou N’Dour.
Dakar is home to a wide range of delicious cuisines, with influences from French, African, and Arabic cultures.
You can try traditional Senegalese dishes such as thieboudienne (a fish and rice dish) and maffe (a peanut-based stew), kebabs, or enjoy French haute cuisine at one of the city’s top restaurants.
As Senegal is a Muslim country, most of the restaurants in Dakar don’t serve alcohol, although you can easily get a beer or glass or wine at more high-end places or the tourist-friendly bars and restaurants on Gorée Island.
Although Dakar is a safe city to visit, you need to be vigilant when walking the streets.
There is an almost constant stream of street hassle and hustling when you walk around downtown Dakar.
If you are approached by street hustler, it’s best to politely yet firmly decline any attempt to start a conversation and not to show any interest.
However, this doesn’t always work as in one case we were followed across Dakar for three full hours by a con-artist trying to get into a conversation in order to pull of a trick to get some money.
Fortunately, there is almost no hassle whatsoever on Gorée Island, making this an peaceful retreat if you get tired of all the unwanted attention in Dakar.
Dakar is a dynamic, vibrant and culturally rich city that offers something for everyone.
Whether you’re interested in history, music, or simply soaking up the local culture of Senegal, there is plenty to see and do in this vibrant African metropolis.
Make sure you do make a boat trip to Gorée Island when visiting Dakar in order to learn more about the history of slavery.
If the hustle and bustle of Dakar gets too much, Gorée Island is also the perfect place to wind down with its beaches and seaside bars and restaurants.
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