From the beaches of Serekunda to the Senegambian stone circles, here are the best places to visit in The Gambia.

The Gambia might be mainland Africa’s smallest country, but it’s also one of the best introductions to the continent. Wrapped around the Gambia River like a coiled Adder, this petite nation of 2.6 million people is almost entirely swallowed by its much larger neighbour, Senegal.

Lined by Atlantic beaches, and home to wildlife reserves and ancient stone circles alike, The Gambia offers safaris, history, culture and some excellent cuisine (try the Domoda, a type of peanut stew which I couldn’t get enough of during my trip!). You can visit Chimpanzee sanctuaries along the Gambia River, delve into the darker history of the slave trade at Kunta Kinteh Island or do absolutely nothing at all in the Bakau beach resorts.

If you’re planning a trip to West Africa, then keep reading, as I explore the best places to visit in The Gambia.

Best places to visit in The Gambia

“Do you need to bribe people to get around in England?” I was asked by Omar Jabang, who runs Omi Tours, a small, local tour company I can’t recommend enough when you’re getting around The Gambia. “Here, I always have to bribe people to get anywhere!”

We were taking the infamously slow Banjul-Barra Ferry, which crosses the mouth of The River Gambia in record slow time. It connects the North and South Bank highways, and unfortunately, you’ll need to take it at some point if you’re staying in Bakau or Serekunda (where the beach resorts are) and want to explore places like Kunta Kinteh Island or the River Gambia National Park.

Omar’s question was quite the culture shock, but it’s a telling story. Although The Gambia is a small country, you still need time to get around. Omar had to grease a few palms to get us on the ferry – something I’d rather he didn’t need to do – and when we were driving along the North Bank, constant checkpoints slowed us down as more police and military asked for bribes. I’m not saying this to put you off visiting The Gambia, but just so you understand that it’s slow going!

Endemic corruption aside, ‘The Smiling Coast of Africa’, as you’ll hear The Gambia called, really is a beautiful country. With a week to explore (you can fly in and out on budget flights from places like the UK, using package companies like TUI), you can see the best places to visit in The Gambia and have time to chill on the beach or around the swimming pool.

I spent a few days at a resort and another two days driving around The Gambia with Omar on his overnight trip upriver to Janjanbureh (highly recommended!). Throw in a few days trips, and the ubiquitous cross border visit to Senegal’s Fatalha Wildlife Reserve, and you’ve got a great week of travelling!

One of The Gambia’s many white sand beaches.

Read more: How to Travel From Senegal to The Gambia (Including Overland Border Crossings)

1. Banjul

I’ll be honest, there’s not a huge amount to see in Banjul, but as the ‘capital’, you’re going to need to pass through at some point on your trip if you want to visit the North Bank. I ended up in Banjul more times than I’d ever imagined I would, after travelling overland from Senegal to The Gambia, and then taking at least two more trips over to the other side of the river during my stay.

Banjul does offer a unique window into the nation’s past and present. Established in 1816 by the British as a trading post and a base for suppressing the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Banjul, initially named Bathurst after Henry Bathurst, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, has grown into a dusty hub of urban activity and historical significance.

Situated on St. Mary’s Island at the mouth of the Gambia River, the city is accessible from the South Bank via the Denton Bridge, and from the North Bank via the ferry. Its streets are lined with colonial-era architecture, while The Gambia National Museum is packed with historical artifacts and cultural exhibits.

The infamous Banjul to Barra Ferry.

Read more: Where is The Gambia? Everything You Need to Know.

2. Barra and Fort Bullen

Barra is the town on the North Bank of the river that’s directly opposite Banjul. You’ll alight here when you’re taking the Banjul Ferry, and while most people just pass through, it’s well worth visiting Fort Bullen.

The fort guards the mouth of the river, and it was built by the British in the early 19th century as a defensive structure in the battle against the Transatlantic Slave Trade, following its abolition.

Fort Bullen is one of the rare fortifications directly linked to the anti-slavery patrols (The West Africa Squadron) that sought to enforce the ban on the Transatlantic Slave Trade, making it a site of substantial historical significance that’s been recognised by UNESCO under the same listing as Kunta Kinteh Island.

Fort Bullen.

3. Kunta Kinteh Island

“The voyage of no return,” said Lamin Trawally, a local community guide from Juffureh on the North Bank of the Gambia River. “Once you had been shipped to the middle passage you never saw African soil ever again. Many were lost on board the ships, due to rebellion, and so the Africans were shackled so they couldn’t fight back.”

It’s a harrowing tale, but it’s also essential that visitors understand the suffering caused by the Transatlantic Slave Trade in places like The Gambia. You won’t ever understand it fully, of course, but you can visit Kunta Kinteh Island, upstream from Banjul, to learn more about the history. The island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it serves as a poignant reminder of the harrowing experiences faced by enslaved Africans.

Formerly known as James Island, it was a strategic holding point used by myriad colonial powers, including the Portuguese, the British, and the Dutch, from the 15th to the 19th century. The remnants of the fort on the island, though eroded by time and the river’s tides, still stand as a somber testament to its past.

The ruins of the fort symbolise the endurance of human suffering and the resilience of the human spirit. The island’s history is particularly resonant due to its connection to Kunta Kinteh, an enslaved Gambian man whose story was popularised in Alex Haley’s novel ‘Roots’ and the subsequent television series.

The best way to visit is on a community based tour – the local villages train guides in order to provide economic opportunities – and many companies, including Omi Tours, offer the classic Roots Tour to Kunta Kinteh Island.

Kunta Kinteh Island.

4. Fajara War Cemetery

The Fajara War Cemetery holds a poignant place in the annals of Gambian history, serving as a solemn reminder of the sacrifices made by the West African Frontier Force in both world wars. Situated in Fajara, close to the capital city of Banjul, this cemetery is meticulously maintained by the British Commonwealth War Graves Comission, reflecting the enduring respect for those who laid down their lives.

Within its peaceful and well-kept grounds, the cemetery contains the graves of over 200 soldiers. These include servicemen from the British Commonwealth and other Allied forces who fought in the West African region during the conflicts. Each headstone, standing in quiet dignity, tells a story of bravery and sacrifice, representing a diverse range of nationalities and backgrounds.

Read more: How Many Countries are in West Africa? Everything You Need to Know.

5. Bakau

Bakau is a coastal town in The Gambia, and it’s where I spent a few nights relaxing on the beach at the Ocean Bay Hotel & Resort after my trip upriver to Janjanbureh with Omar. Located near the capital, Banjul, and adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean, Bakau has several beach bars and resturants, one of which – Calypso Bar and Restaurant – even has its own crocodile pond.

Crocodiles are a popular attraction in Bakau, and one of the most visited attractions is the Kachikally Crocodile Pool. This sacred pool is home to (so my guide claimed) hundreds of crocodiles, and the pools is considered to hold mystical powers by the local community.

There’s a small ethnographic museum at the entrance, which is fascinating, however, I’d recommend skipping the ‘sacred’ crocodile pool itself. When I visited, the crocodiles were fed so much fish each day they simply languished around, kept in cramped quarters with nowhere to go. For the sake of the crocodiles, look elsewhere for things to do in Bakau!

Crocodiles at the ‘Sacred Pool’.

6. Serekunda

Serekunda is the largest urban centre in The Gambia, and one of the most popular destinations for package tourists. Situated close to the Atlantic coast and adjacent to the capital city of Banjul, this lively town is the beating heart of the country’s tourism industry.

It’s not for everyone, but if you’re looking for resorts, bars, resturants, and tour companies, then Serekunda has everything you need in one easy place. Escape the tourist traps by visiting the local Serekunda Market, where you’ll find bargains amongst the shops and stalls.

One of The Gambia’s many beaches. Yes, you’ll be sharing white sands with wildlife!

7. Farafenni

Farafenni is a chaotic market town in the North Bank that I visited during my two day odyssey around the Gambia River with Omar. Located near the northern border with Senegal, it’s known for its strategic position along the Trans-Gambia Highway, which is a crucial transport artery linking different parts of the country and facilitating cross-border trade with Senegal.

This location on the Senegambian crossroads ensures that Farafenni is a metling pot of West African influences. It’s also an incredibly local place, far from the beach resorts of the Atlantic Ocean, and a quick walk around the market – where I had the best Domoda in The Gambia at a humble street stall – will offer a unique insight into local life in The Gambia.

Read more: How Many Countries Are in Africa? Everything You Need to Know.

8. Wassu Stone Circles

The Wassu Stone Circles, located in the Central River Region of The Gambia, are an intriguing and mysterious historical site. One of the best places I visited in The Gambia, these megalithic circles, believed to be burial sites, date back to between the 3rd century BC and the 16th century AD. They form part of the Senegambian stone circles, which span over 30,000 square kilometers across Gambia and Senegal, and have been collectively designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In Wassu, visitors encounter 11 circles, comprising around 200 stones. Each stone, some towering at up to 2.5 metres tall, is a witness to the region’s ancient past. The site is believed to have been a ritual burial ground, and recent archaeological investigations have unearthed human remains along with pottery and iron tools, offering insights into the burial practices and social structures of the communities that built them.

No one’s quite sure if all the theories surrounding the stones are correct though, as they predate the Gambian culture you find in the country today. I visited as part of my two day tour to Janjanbureh, and seriously, the Wassu Stone Circles are a highlight for anyone with even a passing interest in history!

Wassu Stone Circles.

9. River Gambia National Park

River Gambia National Park is a unique conservation area located in the central region of The Gambia. This national park, established in 1978, spans approximately 585 hectares and consists of five main islands in the Gambia River. It is renowned for its efforts in wildlife rehabilitation, particularly the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project, which has gained international acclaim.

The park provides a sanctuary for a variety of wildlife, with its primary focus being the protection and rehabilitation of chimpanzees, once held in captivity and now reintroduced into a natural but protected environment. Besides chimpanzees, the park is home to other wildlife species like the Red Colobus Monkey, a rare species of priamte which is also protected under a unique community conservation programme named C4RC.

I stayed overnight on the river banks of the national park, at a hotel named Kairoh Garden in the village of Kuntaur (again, as part of my two tour with Omar). You can also stay in the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project’s guestrooms, but these are on the South Bank of the river. Kairoh Garden oragnised boat trips along the river to Baboon Island, with an excellent local guide named Captain Smiley (yes, that’s what he called himself!).

A chimpanzee on Baboon Island, River Gambia National Park.

10. Janjanbureh

Janjanbureh (also known, confusingly, as Georgetown), is an island town located on the Gambia River in the Central River Region, just along from River Gambia National Park. Rich in history (some of it dark), Janjanbureh was established by the British in the early 19th century, making it one of the oldest settlements in The Gambia.

After crossing the Gambia River from the North Bank on the local car ferry, you can visit the Slave House, a poignant reminder of the town’s role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. I was met by Abdoulie Sidibeh, a stern man whose father helped found the museum and curate many of the archives, both in Janjanbureh and in Banjul.

Abdoulie explained how the Slave House, which is in various states of disrepair due to a lack of funds, would hold up to fifty people at a time in the cramped cells. They were awaiting transportation downriver, to Kunta Kinteh Island, where they were then sent over the Atlantic Ocean. It was a harrowing tale, again, told with grace and solemnity by Abdoulie. Give Mr Abdoulie a call (+220 3388826) if you want to visit, or organise a trip with Omi Tours like I did.

The Slave House.

11. Kiang West National Park

I didn’t make it here, as after crossing the Gambia River at Janjanbureh, we ran into too many checkpoints and were running out of time to get back to Bakau. We did drive alongside its boundaries, and if I’m back, I’ll stop off for sure next time.

Kiang West National Park, though, is one of the largest and most significant wildlife reserves in The Gambia. Spanning over 11,000 hectares, it is located in the Lower River Region on the southern bank of the Gambia River. Established in 1987, the park is known for its varied ecosystems, which include mangrove swamps, savannahs, and tidal creeks, offering a rich habitat for wildlife.

The park is a paradise for bird enthusiasts, boasting a diverse array of bird species, including some rare and migratory birds. In addition to its avian population, Kiang West is home to a variety of mammals such as warthogs, hyenas, and several monkey species. The elusive African wild dog has also been reportedly sighted here, although I’m not sure this is true, as it supposedly went extinct in The Gambia.

The river is your constant companion in The Gambia.

Read more: How Many Countries Are in Central Africa? Everything You Need to Know.

12. Tanji Bird Reserve and Tanji Fish Market

Tanji Bird Reserve is situated along the Atlantic coast, and it’s a paradise for birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts. Covering approximately 612 hectares, it encompasses a diverse range of habitats, including mangroves, lagoons, and dunes, which attract an impressive variety of bird species, both resident and migratory. This reserve is renowned for its avian diversity, with over 300 recorded bird species, including pelicans, ospreys, and kingfishers, making it an ideal spot for birding.

Adjacent to the reserve is the Tanji Fish Market, where fishing boats from all along the West African coast call in to do business. Here, you can witness the daily life of Gambian and Senegalese fishermen and the lively trade that follows their return from the sea. This is very much a working market, so don’t go around taking photographs without permission.

Tanjin is located along the Atlantic Coast.

13. Lamin Lodge

Lamin Lodge presents a serene contrast to the bustling urban centers of The Gambia, and it’s a great (and easy) day trip from the beach resorts. This lodge is part of a small island within a larger archipelago, and it’s the gateway to lush mangrove forests and still waters.

A key feature of Lamin Lodge is its ecotourism potential. The island’s dense mangrove ecosystems are not only crucial for maintaining the ecological balance but also provide a habitat for a diverse range of bird species and aquatic life, making it a haven for nature enthusiasts and bird watchers.

The meandering waterways through the mangroves offer an ideal setting for canoeing or boat tours, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the tranquility and natural beauty of the area.

Dense mangroves surround Lamin Lodge.

14. Makasutu cultural forest

Makasutu Cultural Forest is a sprawling eco-tourism destination, encompassing a diverse array of ecosystems including mangrove forests, savannah, and palm woodlands. Spanning approximately 1000 acres, this private reserve offers an immersive experience of Gambian ecology and traditions.

The forest is home to a rich variety of wildlife, including monkeys, baboons, and numerous bird species, making it a hotspot for wildlife enthusiasts. Guided walking tours and canoe trips along the meandering tributaries offer a unique perspective of the forest’s flora and fauna.

Makasutu is also a cultural hub, showcasing local craftsmanship and art. The forest hosts cultural performances, traditional storytelling, and dance, providing insights into the rich heritage of The Gambia.

Read more: Where is Senegal? Everything You Need to Know.

Bonus: Day trip to Fathala Wildlife Reserve

One of the most popular places to visit in The Gambia isn’t actually in The Gambia. If you’re looking for a more traditional African safari experience (not along the river, or in the forest) then you’ll need to hop over the border to Senegak, where you can visit Fathala Wildlife Reserve.

A day trip from The Gambia to Fathala Wildlife Reserve offers an extraordinary opportunity to experience the diverse fauna of West Africa in a protected natural environment. Fathala, situated just across the Gambian border, spans 6,000 hectares of original Sahel forest, making it a unique wildlife haven.

The journey begins with the ferry from Banjul to Barra, but if you’re on a tour bus, you’ll be given priority (thanks to bribes!). You’ll then cross the border into Senegal, which again, is a smooth process for day-trippers. Upon arrival at Fathala, visitors are greeted with the sight of various African wildlife species – including giraffe, warthogs and even a rhino – in their natural habitat, as you join a jeep safari through the park.

I visited the park when I was in Senegel, as I stayed at the excellent safari lodges in Fatalha Wildlife Reserve. If you can spend a night or two here, rather than day-tripping, I’d recommend it, as the journey from The Gambia is smooth, but long!

Fathala Wildlife Reserve, a day trip away from The Gambia.

Read more: 15 Best Places to Visit in Senegal

Map of the best places to visit in The Gambia:

Here’s a map of the best places to visit in The Gambia:

FAQ: Best places to visit in The Gambia

Here’s an FAQ on the best places to visit in The Gambia:

Q1. What are some of the top attractions in The Gambia?

Banjul, the capital city, for its markets and historical sites, Kunta Kinteh Island for its historical significance in the Atlantic Slave Trade, Abuko Nature Reserve for wildlife and birdwatching, Serekunda for its vibrant markets and cultural experiences and River Gambia National Park for its wildlife, especially chimpanzees.

Q2. Is The Gambia suitable for beach holidays?

Absolutely. The Gambia boasts beautiful beaches, such as those near Kotu and Bakau, offering sun, sea, and relaxation.

Q3. Are there any UNESCO World Heritage Sites in The Gambia?

Yes, Kunta Kinteh Island and its ‘related sites’ are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, significant for their historical role in the slave trade.

Q4. Can I see wildlife in The Gambia?

Definitely. Visit Abuko Nature Reserve and River Gambia National Park for diverse wildlife, including monkeys, birds, and chimpanzees.

Q5. What cultural experiences does The Gambia offer?

Experience local markets like those in Serekunda, cultural festivals, and historical tours in places like Banjul and Janjanbureh.

Q6. Is The Gambia a good destination for birdwatching?

Yes, with places like Tanji Bird Reserve and Abuko Nature Reserve, The Gambia is a haven for birdwatchers.

Q7. What historical sites should I visit in The Gambia?

Kunta Kinteh Island for slave trade history, Fort Bullen for its role in anti-slavery patrols, and the Slave House in Janjanbureh.

Q8. Are there any natural reserves in The Gambia?

Yes, notable ones include Kiang West National Park and Makasutu Cultural Forest.

Q9. What is unique about River Gambia National Park?

It’s known for the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project and the diverse wildlife along the riverbanks.

Q10. Can I take day trips to nearby countries from The Gambia?

Yes, day trips to Senegal, like visiting Fathala Wildlife Reserve, are popular among tourists.

There you have it! The best places to visit in The Gambia? What’s going to be on your Gambian bucket list?