Why Senegal Should Be Your Next Cultural Travel Destination
People gathering on Yoff Beach, Dakar, Senegal. Photograph by Mr Adrian Morris
A week on the Yoff Beach in the north of Dakar, the capital of Senegal, was a fine start to a recent six-month trip that encompassed Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and The Gambia. For those unfamiliar with travel in Africa, Senegal can represent a useful introduction to time spent on the west coast. It is one of the more economically stable sub-Saharan countries. It had a relatively clean transition from French colonial rule and has not seen a post-colonial coup. This predominantly Muslim country is peaceful. It also has those SEO-grabbing qualities that people look for in a travel destination, wherever it may be. There are seven Unesco World Heritage Sites, including the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary and the world’s largest collection of stone circles. Air Senegal has twice-weekly flights between New York and Dakar (it’s roughly the same distance to Paris), and you can fly direct from London, too.
However, it’s the rich arts scene in particular that is grabbing more mainstream attention. Late last year, Chanel staged its annual Metiers d’art in Dakar, becoming the first European luxury brand to host a fashion show in sub-Saharan Africa. It distilled the singular culture of craftsmanship, style and music in Senegal, showing clothes with intricate embroidery, plant motifs and geometric shapes and featuring a performance by local singer Mr Obree Daman and dancers from the École des Sables. Most of all, it shed a global spotlight on a country with no shortage of cultural riches to dive into.
Children playing football, The Island of Gorée, Senegal. Photograph by Mr Andy Grainger
Mr Alioune Badara Fall is a model, content creator and art director who was born in Senegal and splits his time between Dakar and New York. “I tell my friends to come to Senegal because you have everything in one country,” he says. “If you want desert, you have Lompoul. If you need the sea, you have Casamance… And Dakar is a growing city that has potential when it comes to craftsmanship and art, music and fashion.”
Mr Patrick Sylla, a Senegalese-British musician who goes by the name of Xadi, makes regular visits to the country where his father and grandfather grew up. “It’s one of the most strangely unique West African countries,” he says. “It has 80 political parties. It has a surprisingly functional political system. It’s a cultural hub. It’s French-speaking – so there’s more of a barrier to entrance [for English speakers]. It’s a new frontier.
“[Senegal has] had art at the heart of what they’ve done for a long time,” Sylla says. “We’ve had musicians like Youssou N’Dour and Baaba Maal, who are huge. The music is different. It doesn’t sound like Nigerian or Ghanaian music. The syllables, the Arabic infusion makes it sound like a different world.”
The Island of Gorée, Senegal. Photograph by Ms Andrea Marchegiani
Culturally minded visitors come for the Dak’Art biennale, a major contemporary art exhibition which occupies the Palais de Justice every two years. There’s Dakar Fashion Week, too, in December, plus a rich and varied music scene that takes in everything from mbalax – the traditional Senegalese music pioneered by Mr Youssou N’Dour – and jazz. Mr Sean Connolly, an experienced traveller in Africa and the author of the Bradt guide, recommends Le Djoloff, a boutique hotel on the waterfront in Dakar that puts on jazz nights. Alternatively, if hip-hop DJ sets are more your thing, head to Trames, a rooftop bar popular with stylish locals.
More and more, visitors who looking for something a little bit different from a European break are arriving to experience this arts scene. But also, increasingly, travellers come to understand their ancestor’s past or learn about the history of the continent. Dakar’s Museum of Black Civilisations was founded in 2018 with the aim of highlighting Africa’s contribution to the world’s cultural and scientific patrimony. Museum director Mr Hamady Bocoum has noted that “ironworking was discovered in Africa 2,500 years before Christ.”
The Island of Gorée, which lies off the coast of Dakar, gets the most attention and visitors, given its stark history. From the 15th to the 19th century, it was the largest slave-trading centre on the African coast.
Ngor Island Surf Camp, Dakar, Senegal. Photograph by Mr Andy Grainger
Africa does markets like no other continent, and Dakar is no different. I visited Marche Sandaga on my first day, a three-storey building full of meat, spices and fruit that has slowly spilled out onto the streets, where everything from beaded necklaces to printed wax fabrics are hawked and hollered over.
“If you want the real sense of fashion and craftsmanship, you have Colobane [market], where you have women custom-making the pieces in front of you,” Badara Fall says. There’s Marché Soumbedioune, too, which is known for its leather goods. “You also have L’Artisane shop, which is a cool concept store with different designers and artisans,” he says.
The Great Mosque of Touba, Senegal. Photograph by Eyelit Studio/Unsplash
Given its large, relatively well-kept coastline and cosmopolitan flavour, Senegal has become a serious surfing destination. Ngor Island was featured in the famous surf documentary The Endless Summer and is a 10-minute boat ride off the coast of north Dakar. Surfers who are keen to hone their craft book themselves into Ngor Island Surf Camp. Alternatively, you can take things a little easier by wandering the narrow allies of this pretty island and grab some grilled thiof – Senegal’s national fish – at any of the beach front restaurants.
I had a month to explore Senegal and The Gambia, but travellers with a week at their disposal tend to stick to Dakar and its surroundings (Sylla also recommends Lac Rose and Touba). If you have a little bit longer, your next stop might be north to Saint Louis. It is best known for its jazz festival every May, but it is also the old colonial capital, and people enjoy the crumbling, pastel decadence of the architecture.
Île de N'Dar,Saint Louis, Senegal. Photograph by Ms Imani Bahati
Île de N'Dar,Saint Louis, Senegal. Photograph by Ms Imani Bahati
“It still retains a lot of the old 19th-century look,” Connolly says. “In the past decade or so, you’ve had some hotels that have renovated these old colonial-era warehouses. One is called Jamm. Up the river is quite a backwater region called Podor. It’s the hometown of Baaba Maal – the second most famous Senegalese singer. There’s an old, renovated hotel on the quay there called Auberge De Tékrour. Very atmospheric end-of-the-world vibes.”
However, many just come to eat. As tastes fragment and become more adventurous in Western cities, food lovers want to go to the source. In a 2016 episode of Parts Unknown, Mr Anthony Bourdain visited Saint Louis, where he ate grilled fish on a beachside restaurant with the cookbook author Mr Pierre Thiam and sampled the famous Senegalese peanut stew dish maafe with Youssou N’Dour, no doubt enticing more Western foodies to book a trip.
“More and more, visitors who looking for something a little bit different from a European break are arriving to experience this arts scene”
Badara Fall notes that the city is best known for its thieboudienne – Senegal’s most famous dish, and its version of jollof rice (which supposedly predates Ghanaian and Nigerian jollof, but let’s not get into that…). It includes rice simmered in tomatoes, garlic, tamarind and chilli, topped with cabbage, cassava, yams and fish. “You have the best thieboudienne here because they get fish straight from the lake and cook it right away,” Badara Fall says. For this, you might want to head to La Linguere, then follow with a French-style pastry at Patisserie Darou Salam.
Although many holiday-makers head to Saly, popular for its beach resorts and activities, I was looking for something a bit more “off-the-beaten-track” on my visit. “Toubab Dialao, halfway on the coast between Dakar and Saly, has got much smaller and artistic laid-back vibes,” Connolly says. “There’s a cool boutique hotel there called Sobo Bade that has been run by a music and dance instructor for some years. It’s right on the beach. It’s built in this crazy mosaic style. As you carry on down the coast, you have Somone, which is a really cool place for surfing.”
Fish for sale on Yoff Beach, Dakar, Senegal. Photograph by Mr Adrian Morris
Head farther south, and southeast, and you will experience a bit more of real Senegal. Abéné is a Rastafarian-influenced town in the Casamance region, situated below Gambia, where time truly stops and you can experience ancient Diola customs, costume and dance – especially in December during the Abéné Festival, an eight-day music and dance celebration of the melting pot of cultures and communities in this region and Senegal as a whole.
To immerse yourself further in Senegal’s ancient heritage and tradition, you can go further inland, via at least a couple of bush taxis, to Kédagou. Known as Bassari Country, you will find ethnic minorities who have lived here for centuries, such as the Bedik people, who live in tiny, thatched villages in roundhouses made of stone. When I was here, I met Mr Benoît Keita – a local guide based in Bandafassi and a member of the Bedik tribe who represents the mix of cosmopolitan culture and history that is attracting so many people to Senegal. He records electro music – which he has also performed in Dakar and Berlin – to help preserve and celebrate the ways of his people and the Ménik language, classified by Unesco as endangered.
Get a hut at the comfortable Campement Le Bedick Chez Leontine and you will find Keita there or thereabouts. He will be happy to talk about the rich appeal of Senegal past and present. And he might even take you on a spontaneous hunting trip in the bush.