Senegal has it all: it is one the most beautiful countries of the West African coast. Most tourists come for the region’s exceptional weather—more than three thousand hours of sunlight per year—and dazzling, sparsely populated beaches. But Senegal also offers a broad variety of crafts and textiles, and the country’s six major game parks and reserves have great opportunities for hunting, bird watching, and ecotourism.
The Senegalese capital, Dakar, is known for its nightlife, and the country boasts one of Africa’s most varied music scenes. French jazz, American funk and hip-hop, and percussion-based genres all thrive in the country, and Senegal’s many musical exports include Youssou N’Dour, Daara J, and Akon.
1. Dakar: Despite everything Senegal has to offer, you could easily schedule your entire trip within Dakar, the country’s capital, which has a population of more than 1.5 million. Open-air markets sell art, Senegalese food, jewelry, and many other items, whose prices can often be bargained down to very reasonable levels. The museums, especially the Musée Théodore Monod (for African art) and the Institut Français Léopold Sédar Senghor (for African art of French influence), are on a par with the best museums in European and American cities.
2. Lac Rose: Also known as the Pink Lake, this shallow, salty lake is one of Senegal’s most popular tourist destinations. On sunny days, the water appears bright pink, owing to the water’s high salt content. Tourists are welcome to swim in the lake’s warm waters or watch the local salt traders scrape salt from the lake’s bottom by hand. Some inns offer horseback riding in the area.
3. Île de Gorée: An important stop on the slave transport route from the 16th to the mid-19th century, the island is a short ferry ride from Dakar. It has a number of historic forts, houses, and museums, including La Maison des Esclaves, where visitors can see where slaves and their traders lived while waiting to be transported to the New World. Despite its unpleasant history, the island is known for its beautiful Mediterranean architecture, and many travelers find in the Île de Gorée a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of Dakar.
4. Beaches: Senegal’s beaches are among the most photographed in the world and are not to be missed. Some of the best (and most popular) beaches near Dakar are the ones on the Île N’Gor and Toubab Dialao, a site famous for its stunning red cliffs. Beaches farther south of Dakar are generally larger and less crowded, the Petite Côte spanning over 94 miles (151 kilometers.) The Casamance region is known for its beaches as well, and the region is welcoming to tourists. Resorts in the city of Saly, near M’bour, offer a variety of water sports, including jet skiing and scuba diving.
5. Fathala Reserve: One of the most accessible ways to experience Senegal’s natural beauty is to visit the Fathala Reserve, part of the Parc Nationale du Delta du Saloum. The park is known for its forest and wetlands, with hundreds of species of wildlife. Excursions on pirogues (small boats), fishing trips, and hiking tours can be purchased in the charming village of Missirah.
6. Saint Louis: A namesake of the American city, Saint Louis retains much of its colonial-era architecture. It offers excellent shopping and walking tours, as well as easy day trips to the Djoudj and Langue de la Barbarie national parks.
7. Stone Circles: Spread throughout central Senegal and Gambia, stone circles make up the largest group of megalithic complexes in the world, and they are protected World Heritage Sites. The stones weigh up to ten tons apiece. Smaller than the ones in Stonehenge, their carvings are nonetheless quite sophisticated, and although they are found near burial grounds, their exact purpose is unknown. The two main locations in Senegal, Sine Ngayène Kaolack and Wanar Kaolack, have visitor centers that offer guided tours.
8. Keur Moussa: A large Benedictine complex, Keur Moussa is secluded in the hills outside of Dakar. Tourists are welcome to observe mass, which incorporates indigenous musical instruments into the liturgy. Locals and visitors alike praise the goat cheese sold by the monks after services.
9. Sine Saloum Delta: Although the Delta offers easy access to the Petite Côte, its highlights are the gorgeous rivers and forest groves, which have many opportunities for hiking, bird watching, and boat tours.
10. Bassari Country: This remote area in Eastern Senegal is worth the trip. It has good accommodations, especially in the city of Kédougou, and provides a rare opportunity to observe life in tiny, rural villages that adhere to traditional lifestyles. This region is best explored by means of hiking, and guides can be found in most of Kédougou’s hotels.
We recommend visiting Senegal during its dry season, between December and April. Heavy rains during other times of the year mean that some national parks may close and overland travel can be difficult.
When planning your trip, you will want to take Ramadan into consideration. While the evening festivities are among the most exciting and memorable experiences available to visitors, most restaurants are closed during the day, and the country’s nightlife goes dormant for the monthlong fast. The dates of Ramadan are based on the lunar cycle and vary from year to year.
Visas: If you are a citizen of the United States, the European Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Canada, South Africa, Japan, or Israel, you do not need a visa. Tourist visas are modestly priced but cannot be purchased at the airport.
Your passport must be valid for three months after your intended stay. If you are coming from an infected area, you will need certification that you have been vaccinated against yellow fever.
Transportation: Senegal’s only internal airline went out of business in 2010, but plenty of other options exist for travel within the country. Ferries and large passenger boats run from Dakar to Casamance, the Île de Gorée, and other islands and towns and are convenient and cost-effective. Long-distance buses and bush taxis provide transport to smaller cities and rural destinations, and Dakar has a number of minibus and taxi services.
Be careful with money, particularly in the open-air markets of Dakar and other cities. Pickpockets occasionally attack in teams, so be alert and make sure that your purse or pockets have a snap or zipper. Highway robberies are sometimes committed in rural areas at night, so daytime travel is preferable.
The U.S. Department of State’s consular website has a great deal of information about safety in Senegal. Additionally, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation has created a security ratings system called the Ibrahim Index, wherein scores are based on each country’s quality of government. Before traveling to Senegal or anywhere on the continent, check the index and do your research.
There is evidence that Senegal has been inhabited since prehistoric times, but little is known about its history before the Middle Ages, when several important elements of the country’s modern culture, including Islam and the Wolof ethnic group, planted roots in the area.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to explore Senegal, in the 15th century, although the area quickly came under the control of France and was its colony officially from 1815 to 1960. It received independence as part of the Mali Federation in 1960, although the union was short-lived and the two countries split up after four months. Gambia was merged with Senegal between 1982 and 1989. A separatist movement in the southern region of Casamance hopes to receive independence as well, although it has moved toward resolving its disagreements with the government. A democracy, Senegal has historically had a strong, stable executive branch, with only two presidents, both of the Socialist Party, between 1960 and 2000. A new constitution was adopted under the rule of the current president, Abdoulaye Wade, of the Senegalese Democratic Party.
1. Senegal’s five official languages are French, Wolof, Pulaar, Jola, and Mandinka. Most business is done in French and Wolof, and it will be helpful to learn a few phrases in both languages.
2. Ninety-four percent of Senegal’s population is Muslim (the remaining 6 percent consists of either Christians or followers of indigenous religions). Although locals in Dakar and other tourist centers are accustomed to seeing visitors in Western garb, it is best to dress conservatively, especially in rural areas. Leave the low-cut tops and short shorts at home; instead, consider loose-fitting shirts, pants, and long skirts, which will also protect your skin from the region’s harsh sunlight.
3. Since Senegal’s short-lived 1982 union with Gambia, a violent separatist movement called the MFDC (Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance) in the southern region of Casamance has occasionally clashed with authorities. Peace talks with the group started in 2005. The MFDC does not target tourists, and Casamance’s beaches remain a popular destination. Locals are often happy to explain Senegalese politics to foreigners, but be careful not to start an argument.
4. Senegal’s currency is the West African CFA franc, which is fixed to the value of the euro and is used in seven other West African countries. It should not be confused with the Central African CFA franc, which looks similar but is not accepted in Senegal. ATMs are common, especially in Dakar and other major cities, although service can be unreliable in rural areas.
5. The most popular newspapers in Senegal are L’Observateur, Le Populaire, and the government-owned Le Soleil, all in French. Wi-Fi access is available in many hotels and restaurants and is usually cheap or free.