“The gracefulness of the slender fishing boats that glided into the harbour in Dakar was equaled only by the elegance of the Senegalese women who sailed through the city in flowing robes and turbaned heads.”Nelson Mandela, Long Walk To Freedom.
From the controversial African Renaissance Monument to the white sand beaches of N’Gor, here are the best things to do in Dakar, Senegal!
The streets of Dakar are dusty and chaotic. Beaten yellow taxis crawl along sunbaked streets, while vendors flog football shirts to tourists and roadside cooks stir huge bowls of Thieboudienne and Yassa. Located on the westernmost point of mainland Africa, Dakar, with its white sand beaches, surf camps and monumental African statues is a strangely transfixing place to visit.
Established as a French colonial settlement in the mid-19th century, Dakar swiftly evolved into a major city in the French West African empire. The city’s strategic position on the Cap-Vert Peninsula made it an important port and naval base, and post World War II, Dakar became a key centre for the African decolonisation movement.
Since Senegal’s independence in 1960, Dakar has grown into a colourful political, economic, and cultural hub in West Africa. Explore African history at the Museum of Black Civilizations, enjoy a cold beer at Pointe des Almadies and learn the harrowing truth of the transatlantic slave trade on Goree Island. If you’re planning a trip to Senegal, then keep reading, as I explain the best things to do in Dakar.
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Things to do in Dakar
Like any African capital, Dakar is big, sprawling, and largely unplanned. The city’s location on the Cap-Vert Peninsula means that Dakar has spread north, east and south along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. In many ways, the capital feels more like a collection of fishing villages and beach towns that are loosely connected to the central Dakar-Plateau area around the old French colonial station and the new Museum of Black Civilizations.
I’d recommend staying in a beachside location, like Pointe de Almadies or N’Gor, where you’ll find the best hotels and restaurants, set away from the industrious city centre (I stayed in La Cabane du Pecheur, right on the beach). You’re only ever a taxi ride away from the main sights, including the ferry terminal in the south that departs for Goree Island, and you can download the Yango app to get around easily. You’ll need a few days to see all the major sights, but why not take a few more to enjoy the beaches?
1. Visit the House of Slaves on Gorée Island
Situated off the coast of Dakar, Gorée Island is a site of profound historical significance, particularly in the context of the transatlantic slave trade. Though small, this island played a monumental role as a major slave trading centre from the 15th to the 19th century. Its most notable landmark is the Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves), with its haunting ‘Door of No Return’, a door through which countless Africans passed before being shipped to the Americas.
Today, Gorée Island stands as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s now recognised for its contribution to the fight against racial intolerance and slavery. The island’s colourful colonial architecture and narrow, cobbled streets offer a stark contrast to its dark history. It has become a place of pilgrimage for people from the African Diaspora and others committed to acknowledging and learning from the past. A visit to Gorée Island is truly eye-opening, and if you do one thing in Dakar, make sure you come here.
2. See Pointe des Almadies, the westernmost place in mainland Africa
Pointe des Almadies is located at the westernmost tip of the African continent in Dakar, and it’s a must-visit destination when you’re in the Senegalese capital. Renowned for its geographical importance and glorious coastal scenery, this picturesque locale offers a serene escape from the city.
Its unique geographical position provides stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean, making it an ideal location for a sunset beer. There are numerous restaurants dotting the coastline, including ‘La Pointe des Almadies’, which stands out for its seafood, offering dishes like grilled fish and lobster, often caught fresh from the ocean. Kraken Pub serves cold pints with a view, Casa Teranga offers vegetarian and vegan pizzas, and countless local chefs fire up barbecues along the beach.
3. Dig into history at the Museum of Black Civilizations
The Museum of Black Civilizations is a monumental institution dedicated to celebrating and preserving the diverse histories and cultures of Black civilizations around the world. Inaugurated in December 2018, the museum spans 14,000 square meters, making it one of the largest of its kind. It stands as a significant symbol of Senegal’s reclamation and representation of its own narrative and heritage and is one of the best places to visit in Dakar.
The museum’s architecture, inspired by traditional African circular dwellings, is striking and symbolic. Inside, its exhibitions cover a broad range of themes, from prehistoric African art to contemporary African diaspora contributions. The museum actively participates in the debate on the restitution of African artefacts, housing impressive pieces that span centuries. It showcases sculptures, paintings, and manuscripts that trace the journey and influence of African culture globally.
4. Get cultural at the IFAN Museum of African Arts
The IFAN Museum of African Arts, also known as the Théodore Monod African Art Museum, is a cornerstone of West African cultural heritage. Part of the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire (IFAN), it was established in 1936, making it one of the oldest art museums in West Africa.
The museum houses an extensive collection of traditional African art from across the continent, with a significant focus on Senegalese and other Francophone West African countries. Its exhibits include masks, statues, musical instruments, and textiles, showcasing the rich and diverse artistic traditions of the region.
The museum is not only a repository of art but also a research centre, contributing significantly to the study and preservation of African cultures. Visitors are treated to a deep insight into the continent’s artistic legacy, making IFAN Museum a must-visit for art enthusiasts in Dakar.
5. Lose your way in Dakar’s markets
Dakar’s markets are incredible hubs of activity, offering a vivid snapshot of Senegalese life and culture in the capital. The most famous among them is Marché Sandaga, known for its lively atmosphere and diverse range of goods, from traditional African textiles and handicrafts to modern apparel and electronics.
Marché Kermel, housed in a restored colonial building, specialises in fresh produce and seafood, alongside local crafts. HLM Market is renowned for its array of colourful fabrics, and is perfect for those travellers interested in tailor-made clothing.
6. Be awed by the scale of the African Renaissance Monument
Towering over Dakar, the African Renaissance Monument stands as an emblem of Africa’s aspirations and controversies. Built in 2010 to commemorate Senegal’s 50 years of independence, this colossal bronze statue is the tallest in Africa, reaching 49 meters in height. It’s situated on one of the twin hills known as Collines des Mamelles, and it was designed by Senegalese architect Pierre Goudiaby Atepa and – strangely – constructed by North Korean company Mansudae Overseas Projects.
The statue depicts a man, woman, and child pointing towards the Atlantic Ocean, symbolising Africa’s emergence from oppression and looking forward to a hopeful future. The construction of the monument, which cost an estimated $27 million, sparked considerable controversy.
Critics questioned the prioritisation of such an expensive project in a country grappling with economic challenges. Additionally, the monument faced criticism from religious groups for its perceived un-Islamic representation and from those who viewed the North Korean involvement as inconsistent with the monument’s message of African renaissance.
7. Take the train from Gare de Dakar
Dakar’s train station, Gare de Dakar, is a significant landmark that’s steeped in history. Established during the colonial era, it stands as a testament to the city’s development and its role as a major transport hub in West Africa.
The station exhibits classic colonial architecture, with its distinctive yellow and white façade, making it a visually striking feature in the cityscape. While its role has evolved over the years, the station remains a key point for both domestic rail services, and it’s hoped that one day, the old Dakar-Bamako railway link could be reinstated internationally. Gare de Dakar is not just a transit point but a symbol of Dakar’s rich history and continuing evolution as a dynamic African metropolis.
8. Hop on the boat to N’Gor Island
N’Gor Island, located just off the coast of Dakar, is a delightful contrast to the city’s hectic urban sprawl. First, head to N’Gor, a beachside district on the northern shores of Dakar that’s the gateway to N’Gor Island, which is accessible after a quick ride on the boat. I stayed at Cabane du Pecheurs, on N’Gor Beach, which is right next to the boat departure point that takes you to N’Gor Island.
N’Gor Island is a haven of tranquillity, renowned for its beautiful beaches, clear waters, and excellent surf spots. The island’s main beach, with its golden sand and inviting waves, is particularly popular among surfers for its consistent breaks. The island is devoid of cars, enhancing its peaceful atmosphere. Small paths wind through the village, leading to various guesthouses, quaint restaurants, and art studios, where local artists showcase their work.
9. Learn to surf
Dakar has gained a reputation as one of the best surf destinations in Africa. Attracting enthusiasts from around the world, the city’s unique peninsula location ensures consistent swells throughout the year, making it an ideal spot for surfers of all levels. The warm waters of the Atlantic and the diverse range of breaks contribute to its growing popularity in the international surfing community.
The most famous surf spot in Dakar is the N’Gor right-hand break, located off the coast of N’Gor Island. This legendary break, known for its clear, tubular waves, gained international fame after being featured in the classic surf movie ‘The Endless Summer‘.
Other notable surf spots around Dakar include Yoff, Secret Spot and Vivier. Each spot has its unique characteristics, from gentle longboard waves to more challenging barrels. The surfing culture in Dakar is welcoming, with several surf schools and camps catering to different abilities, including N’Gor Island Surf Camp.
10. Gorge on Thieboudienne and Yassa
Experiencing local cuisine is an essential part of any visit to Dakar, where the food is as diverse as the city itself. The culinary scene in Dakar offers an enticing blend of traditional West African flavours, French culinary influences, and fresh, locally sourced seafood.
Two iconic dishes that are a must-try for any visitor are Thieboudienne and Yassa. Thieboudienne, often considered Senegal’s national dish, is a flavorful combination of fish, rice, and vegetables. It’s typically cooked with various spices and ingredients like tomatoes, onions, and carrots, infusing the rice with a rich, hearty flavour. The dish showcases the country’s affinity for fresh seafood and its skilful use of seasoning.
Yassa, another popular dish, is a testament to the simplicity and richness of Senegalese cuisine. It consists of marinated chicken or fish that’s been grilled or braised, then served with a tangy sauce made from caramelised onions, lemon, and mustard. Yassa is known for its distinctive citrusy and slightly spicy flavour.
Read more: 15 Best Places to Visit in Senegal
11. Enjoy spiritual views at The Mosque of Divinity
The Mosque of Divinity is an architectural marvel and a symbol of Islamic spirituality in Dakar. Completed in 1997, it sits proudly on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, creating a stunning picture where Islamic artistry meets the natural beauty of the sea.
The mosque is known for its splendid design, featuring a blend of traditional Islamic architecture with local Senegalese elements. The minaret, overlooking the ocean, provides breathtaking views, and the mosque stands as a testament to Senegal’s Islamic heritage.
12. Day trip to the Pink Lake
Better known as the Pink Lake, Lake Retba is located about an hour’s drive northeast of Dakar. Famous for its vivid pink hues, the lake’s unique colour is due to the presence of Dunaliella salina algae, which thrives in its high-salinity environment. The Lake used to be the finishing point of the Dakar Rally until the overland race moved due to safety concerns in other parts of Africa.
The lake is also known for its salt harvesting; local workers can often be seen collecting salt from its shallow waters, a testament to the lake’s economic significance. Surrounded by dunes, the lake offers a picturesque and surreal landscape, making it a popular day trip from Dakar.
13. Go Scuba diving
Dakar, with its clear waters and abundant marine life, offers a fascinating scuba diving experience. The city’s coastal location provides access to a variety of dive sites suitable for all levels, from shallow reefs to deeper wrecks.
I went Scuba diving with the Nautilus Diving Centre, which is located in N’Gor. They provide a professional service and offer everything from beginner courses to guided dives for more experienced divers. The centre ensures safety while providing divers with the opportunity to explore the unusual underwater landscapes near Dakar.
14. Take a day off at the beach
Dakar is home to stunning beaches. Plage de N’Gor, accessible via a short boat ride from N’Gor village, is famous for its surfing spots and tranquil setting, perfect for a day of relaxation. Yoff Beach, with its expansive stretch of sand, appeals to both locals and tourists for leisurely walks and sunset views.
The Plage des Mamelles, located near the iconic African Renaissance Monument, is known for its picturesque scenery and quieter atmosphere. For those seeking vibrant beachside activities, Virage Beach is the go-to spot, bustling with cafes and water sports. Pick a beach, then take a day off to enjoy the white sands, cold beer and Jollof rice!
Map of the best things to do in Dakar
Here’s a map of the best things to do in Dakar:
FAQ: Best things to do in Dakar
Here’s an FAQ on the best things to do in Dakar, Senegal:
Q1. What are the top historical sites to visit in Dakar?
Visit the Île de Gorée, known for its poignant history in the transatlantic slave trade. Explore the African Renaissance Monument, symbolising Africa’s post-colonial resurgence.
Q2. Are there any notable museums in Dakar?
The Musée Théodore Monod displays an extensive collection of West African art. The Museum of Black Civilizations offers insights into the history and culture of Black civilizations globally.
Q3. What are the best beaches in Dakar?
Plage de N’Gor is popular for its surfing and relaxed atmosphere. Yoff Beach offers expansive sands ideal for walks and leisure.
Q4. Can I experience local cuisine in Dakar?
Absolutely! Try local dishes like Thieboudienne and Yassa at traditional Senegalese restaurants.
Q5. What shopping experiences does Dakar offer?
Visit Marché Sandaga for textiles and handicrafts, and Marché Kermel for fresh produce and local crafts.
Q6. Is there a place for art lovers in Dakar?
Le Village des Arts is a hub for contemporary art, hosting studios and galleries of local artists.
Q7. Are there any unique natural landmarks near Dakar?
Lake Retba, or the Pink Lake, is famous for its unique pink waters and salt harvesting.
Q8. What are some activities for adventure seekers?
Try surfing at the N’Gor break, or explore various dive sites with centers like Nautilus Diving Centre in N’Gor.
Q9. Can I find any cultural performances in Dakar?
The city’s music scene, especially venues featuring Mbalax, offers a glimpse into Senegal’s vibrant culture.
Q10. Is Dakar suitable for family trips?
Yes, with beaches, cultural sites, and family-friendly restaurants, Dakar offers activities for all ages.
There we have it, the best things to do in Dakar! What’s your favourite thing to do in Dakar?