Birds, beaches and a warm, Senegalese welcome
Senegal has an energy which sweeps you up and keeps you afloat in the maelstrom of African beats, colourful markets and smiling people. French colonial influence lingers in the language and architecture, yet there is a distinctly African flavour to discover in the communities and landscapes. The capital, Dakar, is a lively metropolis spoiled with seafood and rich with cultures and traditions, including a world renowned music scene. Elsewhere, a multitude of adventures awaits. Surf the Atlantic coast, explore the waterways in search of bird life, or visit the Ile de Gorée, a scenic island steeped in history.
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Top things to do in Senegal
There are many wonderful experiences to be had in this West African nation. For further inspiration take a look at the trip ideas put together by our trusted local experts, but in the meantime here are our top things to do in Senegal.
Get out your binoculars for the wetland wildlife
Birds are big news in Senegal, which lies south of the Sahara and provides a much needed rest stop for migratory birds after they have crossed the desert. Several wetland regions are favoured by Palaearctic and Afrotropical birds, while Sahelian species and West African specialities are widespread. Major areas for birdwatching are the Senegal River and the Sine Saloum river delta, but the most important site is the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary, host to around 1.5 million birds.
Despite being known as ‘the Paris of Africa,’ you’d have to search hard to find much Parisian froideur in Dakar, instead you are more likely to find a beguiling Senegalese exuberance in its place. This is what makes the city such a fun place to be; it feels like good things happen here and the positivity is infectious. Music is the other addiction in Dakar, where the legendary Mbalax rhythms are forever associated with Youssou N’Dour, Senegal’s most famous artist.
Beach life beckons
Senegal’s ample coastline - some 330 miles of it - has its fair share of golden sands. For Dakar residents, heading to the coast is the perfect antidote to fast-paced city life, and you’ll find reggae beats and cold beers at the nearby beaches of Yoff and Goree Island. The Petit Cote stretches along the coast towards Gambia and is one long stretch of sand punctuated by small towns and fishing villages. As well as beaches the coastline provides plentiful seafood, so find your perfect stretch of sand and settle in for a feast.
Explore the Delta
A web of waterways, mangroves, islands and swamps characterises the Siné Saloum delta, a region which is protected as a National Park and recognised by UNESCO. Seawater penetrates into many of the watercourses, and a unique ecosystem has developed as a result, supporting several species of shellfish which are the staple food of the local villages, Centuries worth of shells have been discarded and some islands in the delta are entirely formed of shells.
Find your rhythm
Music isn’t merely a hobby or an interest in Senegal, it is woven into every aspect of life. It is said that Senegalese music has its roots in traditional Yela drumming, which evolved from the rhythmic beat of women pounding grain. The Serer people designed the sabar drum as a tool for communication - the music of Youssou N’Dour is based on these rhythms. If you haven’t heard the modern Senegalese phenomenon of Mbalax, chances are you’ll have heard the influence of sabar beats in reggae, calypso or rap. Music fans should time a visit to coincide with one of Senegal’s many music festivals.
Lesser-known things to do in Senegal
While there are many well-known things to do in Senegal, what about the lesser-known highlights? Our local experts have shared some of their top tips for where to go and what to do if you fancy a bit of an alternative Senegalese adventure.
Go with the flow in Senegal’s jazz capital
The colonial gem of Saint-Louis in northern Senegal is a lovely, laid-back city in which to spend some unstructured time. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was the first French settlement in East Africa and the island-bound old town can be reached via an impressive 19th Century bridge spanning the River Senegal. The city hosts an annual jazz festival and there’s always something going on.
Catch a wave
Although not a well known surfing destination, Senegal is gradually earning a great reputation among the global surf savvy community. The most well established surf outfits are on the coasts around Dakar, where the peninsular location serves up reliable breaks from both north and south. One of the most famous surfing movies, Endless Summer, was partly filmed on location in Senegal, and this is still one of the best adverts for surfing its Atlantic coast.
Set foot on a shell island
The island of Fadiouth is essentially reclaimed land created by millennia of discarded shells. Locals have utilised this abundance of shells as a building material, so the streets and even some of the buildings are made of shells. There is a distinctive crunch underfoot as you walk!
When is the best time to visit Senegal?
Senegal is a truly year-round destination. Temperatures hover in the high twenties most of the year, and if you stay near the coast the heat is unlikely to become unbearable even at the hottest times of year. The only seriously wet months are July, August and September, and even during these months you can expect pleasantly warm temperatures and lush greenery. November to May is the country’s cooler and drier season: tourism peaks between November and February so try March or April for a more tranquil visit with lovely weather.
Insider tips from our trusted local experts
Being local, our experts have an extensive knowledge of the secrets to experiencing the 'real' Senegal. Here are a few of their cultural top tips to ensure that you never feel out of depth when it comes to the manners and customs of Senegal.
Be modest in your appearance
Senegal is a majority Muslim country and although tolerant, clothing should be modest in terms of skin coverage. This means that outside beaches and resorts women should avoid short skirts and men would be wise to stick to long trousers too.
Many dishes are traditionally served on large communal platters, and the etiquette is to eat only the section in front of you. The Senegalese consider this a good training ground for young children to learn restraint, turn taking, and table manners.
Interesting facts about Senegal
Senegal is a fascinating country, full of colour, music and vibrant birdlife. But did you know any of our top three facts about it?
- It is said that when the Portuguese visited in the 16th Century, the local fishermen said “sunnu gaal”, which translates as “these are our boats”. The Portuguese went ahead and named the land Senegal!
- Around 95% of the Senegalese population is Muslim. The remaining 5% are mainly Christian, with small minorities of other animist faiths.
- Senegal is a very stable and successful democracy. Presidential elections take place every five years, and there are so many political parties it is hard to put an accurate figure on it - but definitely more than 50.
What to read before you go to Senegal
If you're looking for something to get you in the mood before you set off on your travels to Senegal, we've gathered a list of our favourite books to inspire you.
'So Long a Letter' by Mariama Bâ
This classic of Senegalese literature explores the circumstance of women in post-colonial West Africa. Written as one long letter from a recently widowed woman to her friend, it is beautifully poetic and moving.
'God's Bits of Wood' by Ousmane Sembène
Written by a leading Senegalese writer and filmmaker, this novel is centered on a railroad strike in the 1940s and deals with the West African response to colonialism.
'Travels in the Interior of Africa' by Mungo Park
First published in 1799, explorer Mungo Park set off aged just 24 from Gambia to Timbuktu charting his journey through West Africa pre-widespread European settlement. It was a hard road to travel, and his writings have been a great inspiration for many.
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