- The capital of Senegal and its largest city, Dakar has a metro population of ~2.5 million.
- As the westernmost port on the continent, Dakar has a history of trade and commerce.
- Known worldwide for the Dakar Rally, an off-road auto race from Paris to Dakar that stretches over 8,000 km (in recent years, the race has been held in South America due to security threats in North Africa).
- Nickname: The Paris of Africa.
- Currency: West African CFA Franc (XOF), common in francophone West Africa.
- Spoken languages: Wolof is the mother tongue of the ethnic group of the same name, who comprise about 40% of the population. Wolof has become the country’s lingua franca, with many other Senegalese speaking it as a second language. Other local languages include Serer, Pulaar, Mandinka, and Diola. French is the official language and is used almost exclusively in government and education. It is widely spoken in cities and towns, especially among educated Senegalese. Many Senegalese study English in school, though few people speak it proficiently.
- Best time to visit: The cool, dry season generally lasts from December to April and is the best time to visit. Temperatures and humidity skyrocket between May and October, and the rains during that time can wash away roads and seriously hamper travel plans.
- Arrival via airport: The airport is located in the neighborhood of Yoff, toward the tip of the Cap-Vert peninsula. It’s about a 30-minute drive to the city center, and taxis from the airport should run around 3,000 CFA.
- Note: Wireless Internet (wi-fi) is available at many hotels and cafés, though it is unreliable and often very slow.
WHERE TO STAY
Most of Dakar’s Western-style hotels are located either in the downtown area or in the beachfront neighborhoods of Les Almadies and Ngor.
- Dakar’s infamous car rapides make up one system of transportation in the city. Car rapides are oversized blue and yellow vans with swinging doors in the back. An appranti hangs out the back, collecting money, calling out the destination, and yelling to the driver when to stop. Car rapides run all over the city, although not usually on very direct routes, and trips run 50CFA-150CFA depending on the distance. They leave when they’re full, so you may have to wait a bit if it’s a slow time of day. There are no set stops, so tap on the roof when you want to get off.
- Dakar’s public buses, Dakar Demm Dikk (“Dakar Coming and Going”) are much more organized and safer than car rapides, if less interesting. Each bus has a number and a set route, though it can be difficult to find information on which bus goes where. If you’re not sure which bus you need, just ask. They run throughout the city, and fares are 150 CFA.
- Taxis are ubiquitous throughout Dakar, though their quality varies tremendously and many are quite decrepit. In many neighborhoods, taxis pass frequently at most any time of the day or night. You always have to bargain for a taxi, and trips can cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand CFA, depending on the distance, neighborhood, and time of day.
- Drinking age: no minimum, last call is never (many bars/clubs are open until sunrise).
- Dakar has excellent nightlife, with dozens of bars and clubs that cater to both locals and foreigners. It is common for young Senegalese to go out around midnight and dance until 6 or 7 in the morning.
- Top nightlife areas: near the waterfront in Les Almadies and Ngor, or in the downtown area. There are a few other places sprinkled along Rue Cheikh Anta Diop.
UNIQUE LANDMARKS TO VISIT
- Dakar’s most important sight is Gorée Island, which lies just off the coast. In the 1700s, the island was used to hold slaves before they were put on ships heading across the Atlantic. Though Gorée’s relative importance in the trans-Atlantic slave trade is disputed, the island houses educational and moving exhibits. Ferries make the 20-minute trip between Dakar and Gorée several times per day, leaving from Place de l’Indépendence.
- Dakar’s numerous markets are great places to immerse oneself in the sights and sounds of the city. The biggest, Marché Sandaga, covers a large part of the downtown area and houses hundreds of street vendors and stalls selling fish, produce, clothes (traditional and Western), shoes, prayer mats and beads, household supplies, electronics, and everything in between.
- Located on a peninsula, Dakar is ringed with beaches. The most popular among foreigners are in the neighborhoods of Les Almadies and Ngor.
- Africa’s tallest statue, the African Renaissance Monument, is hard to miss. Former President Abdoulaye Wade commissioned a North Korean company to build the bronze statue, which is 160 feet tall and towers over the neighborhood of Ouakam. The statue has sparked controversy because of the tremendous expense it incurred and the belief among many Senegalese that it does not represent them or their country.
- One interesting route is to walk part of Rue Cheikh Anta Diop, which runs from the bustling neighborhood of Ouakam, through the hip area of Médina, and toward downtown.
- Another good choice is to take the Corniche Ouest, which runs near Rue Cheikh Anta Diop but hugs the coast and offers nice views of the water. It goes past a few beaches and the Grande Mosque, before ending up downtown.
- Pickpocketing is a risk in most of Dakar’s crowded areas, especially downtown and in the markets, so keep a tight grip on your belongings.
- There are many child beggars all over Dakar, and encountering them is both uncomfortable and heartbreaking. The best response is usually to smile and firmly say “ba baneen yoon” (bah BEN-in yohn), meaning “next time.”
- Dangerous areas to avoid: White and Asian foreigners will get hassled quite a bit in Dakar, mostly by vendors trying to sell their wares. Though it can be extremely annoying and fairly intimidating, there is usually little cause for serious concern. Foreigners, especially women, should leave beaches by sunset and avoid walking on the Corniche after dark.
RECOMMENDED DAKAR GUIDE BOOKS
Recommended trip duration: 3-4 days