Discover West Africa's most spectacular city

Perched at Africa’s westernmost point, cosmopolitan Dakar is a friendly, frenetic, and unforgettable introduction to West Africa, with some of the region’s best food and most hard-hitting history

6 mins

Set at the very western tip of the African continent and surrounded by water on three sides, Dakar is quite simply West Africa’s most spectacular city. In centuries past, the Mali Empire (of which Senegal was a part) was known as the Bright Country for its wide-open skies and savannahs – and while wide-open spaces are a rarity in metropolitan Dakar today, the city still shimmers in a crisp oceanic light, bathing all corners of the Lego-block cityscape in a dazzling glare.

Thanks to the independent-minded Lébou fishers and farmers who inhabited the peninsula for centuries (and continue to retain great influence), the first European presence in what would become Dakar didn’t arrive until 1857 – more than four centuries after the Portuguese set up their first trading post just across the water on the island of Gorée. At the time, Ndakaaru was a village of barely 300 souls; within 50 years it officially became capital of France’s vast West African holdings, and shortly after, the terminus for the famed Dakar-Bamako railway.

Today, Dakar’s four million-or-so inhabitants are the inheritors of a city that wears its heritage with pride, and takes comfort in its diverse history and identity. The Plateau district is dotted with French colonial relics such as the 1936 cathedral and 1912 railway station, and even in a country where less than 5% of the population is Catholic, and with no currently operating train service, these buildings are lovingly tended and considered proud parts of the Senegalese patrimony.

Colourfully painted fishing boats line the beach at Dakar’s fish market (Alamy)

Colourfully painted fishing boats line the beach at Dakar’s fish market (Alamy)

Statue celebrating the liberation of slaves (Alamy)

Statue celebrating the liberation of slaves (Alamy)

Further up the four-lane Corniche road, towards Africa’s westernmost point, is a somewhat more controversial edifice: the unmissable Monument de la Renaissance Africaine. Brainchild of former president Abdoulaye Wade, this 52-metre-high, North Korean-built statue of an über-heroic man, woman and child looms on a prime oceanfront hilltop and was inaugurated in 2010. It’s the tallest statue in Africa and visible for miles around, but despite its grand pretensions, most Senegalese seem to just think it’s a bit naff (and a waste of money to boot).

Given its location, life in Dakar is often oriented towards the sea, and in a city with precious few public parks or green spaces, the many beaches provide a well-loved respite from the perpetual din of commerce and traffic in some of the city’s more crowded districts. As such, the whole population seems to decamp to the beaches at weekends to picnic and swim with family and friends, to work out or wrestle on the sands (traditional wrestling is huge here), or even to bring their sheep to the water for a full scrub-down in the surf. The city’s army of fishermen also haul their multi-coloured wooden pirogues ashore every evening, their catch quickly bound for plates and bowls around the city – eat fish grilled on the spot at Soumbédioune market.

And no trip to Senegal would be complete without sampling the national dish, thieboudienne – literally ‘rice and fish’. Consisting of rice cooked in a tomato-vegetable broth and topped with stewed carrots, cabbage, aubergine, a great hunk of fish and a tamarind chutney, thieboudienne is to the Senegalese as coffee is to an Italian – an absolute essential and a source of national pride. It’s available everywhere, served from big heaping bowls on the roadside or at the finest restaurants in the city.

Goree island (Shutterstock)

Goree island (Shutterstock)

A 20-minute ferry ride across the water lies Dakar’s smaller, older sibling: the time-warped island of Gorée, where the malls and motorways of Dakar seem like a long-forgotten dream. This 36-hectare scrap of land – today with a population (1,700) no higher than it was 250 years ago and not a single car or tarred road – was fought over by European navies and traders for centuries, changing hands at least half a dozen times between the Dutch, Portuguese, British and French.

All this blood and treasure was expended primarily to control what had become one of the most important ports in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, long lines of captives were abducted from the interior and marched to the coast to be imprisoned at Gorée until they were sold on to traders bound for the Americas.

There is an intense academic debate over just how significant Gorée’s role in the slave trade was, and estimates of how many people left Africa for the final time from here vary wildly, but when standing in the damp of the slave dungeons those debates seem to fall away, and the sheer terror of the whole affair comes home with dizzying force. Though much of it is now crumbling, the island’s grand old architecture – done up in beautiful pastel reds, oranges and ochres – tells you all you need to know about just how important and profitable this detestable trade once was.

With the departure of the last ferry back to the city, a (deeper) hush falls over sleepy Gorée, but Dakar’s famous nightlife is just getting warmed up. Dakarois typically follow a French-inspired eating schedule, and restaurants don’t open for dinner service until 7pm at the earliest. And don’t hurry to finish – musicians, many playing the country’s frenetic mbalax beats, typically don’t even get on stage before midnight. If you manage to stay out long enough, you’ll get to hear the evening’s drums start to fall away as the muezzin calls the sunrise fajr prayer. Parties, piety, pride – the Dakarois have room for it all, and they’ll be happy to invite you along to join them. 

Four things to do in Dakar, Senegal

Built in 1997, the Mosque of the Divinity boasts 45m-tall minaret (Alamy)

Built in 1997, the Mosque of the Divinity boasts 45m-tall minaret (Alamy)


Dakar is a shopper’s dream, but steer clear of the newer malls. Instead, head to Plateau for the Victorian-era Marché Kermel, where you’ll find everything from steaks to statuary.


Some beaches are cleaner than others – head to those in the north (Yoff, Ngor) or west (Mamelles). Private Marina Bay is fastidiously clean, sheltered from the waves and is emphatically worth the fiver it costs to get in.


There are dozens of galleries and workshops scattered throughout the city. The new Museum of Black Civilizations is one of the biggest facilities of its kind, while the IFAN Museum holds a fine collection of traditional African art and sculpture.


The Senegalese love to eat, and love to share their food – don’t be surprised if someone offers to split their own lunch with you. Chez Loutcha is an old standby for Senegalese classics.

Places to stay in Dakar, Senegal 

Beach in Dakar, Senegal (Shutterstock)

Beach in Dakar, Senegal (Shutterstock)

Maam Samba

Decorated in hand-woven textiles from a Fairtrade-affiliated cooperative, this artistic hideout in the Ngor neighbourhood offers comfortable, budget-friendly rooms with canopy beds and AC, plus tasty Senegalese meals. The beach is a short walk away.

Where: Lot 633 Ngor Extension/Les Almadies, Route de Ngor Village.

Le Djoloff

With a rooftop restaurant, a cellar jazz club and 33 lovingly kept rooms in between, this historically minded oceanfront auberge is a good choice in Dakar for lovers of culture and comfort. Its curated boutique stocks Rama Diaw and other
fine local designers.

Where: 7 Rue Nani, Fann Hock.

Radisson Blu

Opened in 2010, the Radisson is every bit as sleek as you’d expect, with cool, minimalist interiors, fine food and top-notch service. There’s no better place for a poolside afternoon and a sundown cocktail – the infinity pool here drops off directly into the Atlantic waves.

Where: Route de la Corniche Ouest.

Essential travel information for Dakar, Senegal

On a bus in Dakar (Alamy)

On a bus in Dakar (Alamy)

International dialling code: +221

Currency: CFA franc (XOF), which is pegged to the euro and currently 764 XOF the UK£. ATMs are widespread in Dakar. Euros are best for cash exchanges – US$ and UK£ attract unfavourable rates.

Getting there: There are no direct flights between the UK and Senegal’s new Blaise Diagne Airport (DSS); connections are available via several European cities. The airport is 50km from the centre – take the shuttlebus (£8) or taxi (around £30).

Getting around: Dakar sprawls over the Cap Vert Peninsula. Taxis ply the streets 24/7 – always haggle. There’s no Uber; try the local Allo Taxi.

Festivals: The Dak’Art Biennale sees the city’s many galleries, museums and theatres light up with concerts, exhibitions and plays; it takes place every two years (next event: 19 May-21 June 2022). Dakar is also known for its style, and designers flaunt their wares every June during Dakar Fashion Week.

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