West Africa road trip: Dakar, Senegal

Here is a plane that lands when it was meant to take off!

Air Senegal gets mixed reviews; our experience is positive. This very plane was meant to take off from Banjul at 22.05, and land in Dakar at 22.45. Instead, it landed at 22.05. Very efficient! (Assuming – or hoping, at least – everyone was on board.) And so we arrive at our final stop on this West African road trip.

Dakar was a delight to research. Turns out one of Africa’s most famous cities abounds with fun and interesting experiences. Good thing we decided to fly the last stretch; it means we have 4 whole days to play with. Here are 11 things we enjoyed in the Senegalese capital. (You’ll find them all – and more – in the map further down in the post here.)

1. Le Viking

Le Viking popped up a few times during that research. It’s a pub in Dakar-Plateau (the city centre), an expat type place, the kind that shows football on a big screen. Like Air Senegal, it gets mixed reviews; that always grabs my interest. Some say cosy, some say dodgy. Which will it be? Maybe both? Definitely worth a look.

But perhaps not just after getting into town – close to midnight! Arriving at our lodgings, my first thought is to call it a night, but Andrew has other ideas, and he is persuasive. Allons a Le Viking, then!

And what fun that turns out to be! 😍

Bit smoky inside, so outdoors is the place to be. The pub is located at a fairly busy intersection, but yellow panels provide shelter from the busyness outside. Panels with Viking motifs, natch.

(Well, perceived Viking motifs, at least – they really didn’t wear horned helmets, you know)

At the table next to ours, is a group of people speaking in several languages. We hear French, Spanish, and… something else. I’m forever nosy, so after eavesdropping for a bit, I can’t resist asking where they are from. And just like that…

From left to right: Argentina, landlady Salma, Philippines and Peru. 

All chefs, from different countries, working at restaurants here in Dakar, they invite us to sample a variety of cuisines during our stay. Which we happily accept.

2. Club Texas

Right here and now, we are also invited to join them at Texas, a night club just a few minutes’ walk from the pub.

Instead of an early night then, there’s beer bottles in buckets, hours of dancing, and heaps of fun until the early hours!

Fortunately, we have several days in Dakar

When we finally stumble outside the next, erm… afternoon, it’s time to hit the market.

3. Place de l’Indépendance

But let’s begin at the most logical place, Place de l’Indépendance.

Independence Square isn’t merely in the centre of Dakar, it is the centre. The symmetrical square got its present name in 1958, on the occasion of General de Gaulle’s visit to the then French colony. (I guess they told him, eh?) Full independence for Senegal came two years later, on 4 June 1960.

With the Senegalese flag in the fountain, Place de l’Independance is impossible to miss.

The square is surrounded by a mix of architecture, from colonial to more brutalist 1960s style. The French governor’s office is here, as is the Chamber of Commerce and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as the major banks. It’s a good place to get your bearings before you begin exploring this vibrant city.

4. Marché Soumbédioune

Dakar has plenty of markets all over town, offering everything imaginable. A 15-minute walk from Place de l’Indépendance is Marché Sandaga, the oldest and largest in the city. (I can’t help but think of Marché du Niger in Conakry, and feel overwhelmed at the mere thought.) Then, there are several speciality markets, including (but not limited to) Marché HLM for fabrics, and Marché Kermel for food.

We decide on arts and crafts and jump in a taxi to Marché Soumbédioune.

Soumbédioune is really more of a crafts village, 10 minutes from the centre, with artisans and workshops, and a flea market attached.

It’s an interesting place; large, but not exhaustingly so, and relatively quiet when we are there. My kind of market. It’s absolutely possible to while away an hour or two here. Which we do.

Next to the market is Soumbédioune Plage – beach and fishing port.

Marché Soumbédioune turns into a fish market at night

5. Grand mosque and Dakar Cathedral

An estimated 97% of the Senegalese population identify as muslims. Despite that, the country is known for religious tolerance, and there are plenty of impressive houses of worship: mosques, churches and otherwise. In fact, the constitution designates Senegal as a secular state, and it is illegal for political parties to promote a specific religion.

Grande Mosquée de Dakar (with a green dome and 4 minarets), and Cathédrale Notre-Dame des Victoires.

A bit further out, in the Ouakam district, is a mosque with a view: Mosquée de la Divinité (Mosque of the Divinity), right on the Atlantic Ocean.

6. La Pampa Grill

Back in town, it’s time to check out our new friends’ culinary creations. We begin with Argentina!

When in Dakar, eat … Argentinian. 

I think the photos speak for themselves, no? You won’t be surprised to hear we pushed our bodies to breaking point with this mountain of flavourful, perfectly cooked steak. I’m not much of a carnivore, the last time I had a steak was in 2010, so this will probably cover my meat quota for the next 10 years.

When a random encounter leads to new friendships and exciting experiences, here with chef extraordinaire Felipe Bakos at the fabulous La Pampa Grill in Dakar.

We end the evening with a brief stop at Le Viking. Well… maybe not so brief.

7. Île de Gorée

This most evocative of islands is the #1 must-see place in Dakar – and probably in all of Senegal.

For 400 years, this island was the largest slave trading centre in Africa, run by Portuguese, Dutch, English and French colonial powers through the centuries. When UNESCO began selecting world heritage sites in 1978, Gorée was one of the 12 on that very first list.

House of slaves

On Île de Gorée, visiting Maison des esclaves (House of Slaves) is the most important thing you can do. In the 18th century, this building was used as a holding centre for kidnapped and enslaved Africans about to be sent across the ocean. The original slave quarters are preserved, with iron shackles and tiny cells were they were kept in the dark, so tightly packed there was hardly room to breathe. Humanity’s cruelty in full force.

The House of Slaves – and the Door of No Return

For thousands of people shipped across the Atlantic to a life in slavery, the Door of No Return was the last glimpse of Africa – of home – for the rest of their lives.

Reconciliation is the focus now, and Gorée Island is a place of pilgrimage. Many heads of state have visited over the years, including Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Pope John Paul II and Nelson Mandela.

the one who told you ‘Gorée is an island’

that one lied

this island is not an island

it is a continent of the spirit

Going back outside, the contrast between the slave quarters and the elegant homes of the slave traders, is like a slap in the face. It’s a very uncomfortable reminder of the worst sides of us. As it should be.

Local holiday spot

Leaving the grim history aside, Gorée is a picturesque island and a favourite holiday spot for locals. The narrow streets are lined with brightly coloured houses, galleries and artists’ workshops.

Goats roam the streets, kids ride the waves, and multicoloured boats are all around, on land and at sea.

Next to the pier are several beachside restaurants. We try Chez Ton-Ton, around since 1949.

Gotta love the cheerful decor

Gorée Island is small, just 18 hectares (45 acres), completely pedestrian, and 20 minutes by ferry from Port de Dakar. The ferry runs frequently (crossing times and prices are here.)

Port de Dakar

8. DakyTori

Another evening, another restaurant to try. This time, we’re sampling Peruvian – Japanese cuisine by our new friend Paulo Calderon at DakyTori.

Verdict: the ceviche is out of this world! No photos of the food here, I’m afraid. We were so busy eating all the deliciousness, we plain forgot.

Where we ended the evening? You know it!

With the formidable Salma. 

About 30 minutes from Plateau, out on the Cap-Vert Peninsula, are Ouakam and N’Gor. You’ll want to have a look at both districts, and as they are close to each other, it makes sense to combine them if your time is limited. Make a day of it. We did.

 In Ouakam, you can see the African Renaissance Monument, the mosque with ocean views I mentioned above, and the picturesque 19th century lighthouse, Phare des Mamelles. Also, there are plenty of clubs and restaurants in the area, including one on the top floor of the light house.

N’Gor is basically about living the beach life.

9. African Renaissance Monument

The 52-metre high Monument de la Renaissance Africaine portrays a family looking out to sea, and is Africa’s monument to freedom. And like the Statue of Liberty in the USA, you can take the lift up to the top (in the man’s head).

What do you think? Something Soviet chic about it? A lot could be said about this monument: about the price tag (27 million USD), about not using locals to build it, about portraying a powerful, strong man and a tiny (yet bosomy) woman in need of protection…

But sticking to fact – and it is a quirky one – this towering monument was built by Mansudae Overseas Projects out of Pyongyang. Turns out, North Korea has been building statues and monuments all over Africa since the 1970s.

10. N’Gor Beach and N’Gor Island

Dakar is also surfer heaven, with surf camps, surf bars, surf hostels, surf everything. Needless to say then, Dakar has tons of beaches. So which one to visit? We choose Plage de N’Gor (N’Gor Beach), with world class waves.

View from Plage N’Gor towards Pointe des Almadies, the westernmost point on the African mainland

N’Gor scenes

Curious about the name? N’Gor means ‘honourable’ in Wolof, one of the national languages of Senegal.

Île de N’Gor

Île de N’Gor is a mere 400 metres from Plage de N’Gor; 10 minutes by pirogue. Note: you will get wet, getting both on and off the boat, so roll up your trousers, pull up your dress.

The tiny island has beaches on one side, iconic surf on the other, and a little village in between. We’re not here to surf, but for a bit of lazy time in the sun. Just a couple of hours for us here, but it’s quite possible to stay overnight in cosy guesthouses.

Scam warning: We were approached by a seemingly friendly ‘local guide’ on Plage N’Gor, who suggested he show us around the village before we crossed over to the island. Sure, why not! And it was interesting to see. We were prepared to tip him well, but before we had a chance to do just that, he asked for a fairly substantial amount to buy rice for the village. In fact, he not only asked, he was very persistent and aggressive about it, to the extent he counteracted his own purpose. Intimidation tactics don’t work with us, Monsieur, I suggest a change of strategy.

11. Lagon1

This gorgeous place welcomes you with brass plaques of former dignitaries and other VIP visitors…

Seafood on stilts

…from Barbara Cartland, romancière – to Kofi Annan, who needs no further introduction.

Verdict: the service – so-so. The food, wine, decor, views, sound of the waves, and atmosphere – all top notch. Well worth the splurge.

Afterwards, we stop by, you know, that place – one final time:

Other things to see and do next time in Senegal


This blog is about the world’s curious places, and here is a curious one indeed. Aeropostale was a project in the 1920s, connecting France, Senegal and Argentina – from the Mediterranean to the Pacific – hauling post by air. Pretty hi-tech for its day, and involving Antoine Saint-Exupéry, author of Le Petit Prince, one of the best books ever written. Most of the remnants of the project are on Île St Louis, but the hydrobase and the first control tower are in Dakar.

Île St Louis

French 17th century settlement, capital of Senegal until 1957. Interesting colonial architecture, and the impressive Pont Faidherbe, a rotating bridge across the Senegal River, built by none other than Gustave Eiffel. 4.5 hrs north of Dakar.

Lac Retba

Lac Retba is the arrival point of the famous/infamous Paris – Dakar Rally. Like the Dead Sea, the lake has a high salt content (about 40%) – and is pink, changing from mauve to scarlet daily, due to algae. However, heavy rains and flooding in 2022 diluted the lake with fresh water, making it less pink, and less salty. 35 km northeast of Dakar.

Fathala Wildlife Reserve

You can walk with lions! ‘Nuff said! 4.5 hrs south of Dakar, towards the Gambian border.

And so ends our West African adventures for now! 

Here are the earlier chapters of our West African journey:

– Part 1: Sierra Leone

– Part 2: Guinea

– Part 3: Guinea-Bissau

– Part 4: The Gambia and Casamance


All photos by Andrew Morland, Tom Brothwell and moi, unless otherwise noted. Maps by Morland.


unesco logo

Island of Gorée is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world.

#West #Africa #road #trip #Dakar #Senegal

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