Dakar is one of the most aesthetically pleasing cities on the continent. Its colour scheme is rustic pinks and terracotta, white sands and blue ocean. Its allure is less ‘Africa on the move’, like Lagos or Abidjan, and more about honouring its roots, attention to the finer details, and quality of life (for some of course).
Dakar is, for example, one of the only African cities to possess a widespread beach and swimming culture. Dakarois families spend their weekends on the likes of Dakar’s central beaches, or the Ngor Island. As do young people, who can be found in large groups taking a dip after school, or perhaps just frolicking on the water’s edge showing off pretty bikinis. Once a year the strongest, and indeed bravest swimmers take part in a 5.2 km swimming race between mainland Dakar and nearby Goree Island. Dakar is also home to a flourishing trendy surf scene.
Goree Slave Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site just 20 minutes by ferry from Dakar, was once a launch point for slaves who were packed into ships bound West.
Today it is a sleepy island full of rustic charm and beauty, and a few basic guesthouses and restaurants. You can explore the whole island in half a day, or stay longer and soak it all in. Goree attracts many African American tourists tracing their African roots – Barack Obama made time in his busy Africa schedule to make a stop here recently.
While the word Dakar may have been made famous by the cross-country car race, The Dakar Rally, the rally in fact no longer reaches Dakar. The whole rally was relocated South America in 2009 after it was deemed unsafe to pass though Mauritania en route to Senegal.
Dakar does, however, play host, every other year, to one of the most prominent (and only) contemporary art fairs in Africa, Dak’Art. It takes place in the month of May, during which the city is abuzz with fashionable art world types from Across Africa and beyond.
One major contradiction, which becomes evident as you explore Dakar, is that despite the striking French influences that pervade much of society (from street names, to food culture, to language, to the multitude of French people living and visiting), this is also a particularly proudly African city. Locals overwhelmingly proudly sport traditional wear, rather than opting for Western styles, and they celebrate homegrown music with great passion. In 2010 the city unveiled Le Monument de La Renaissance Africaine, an 160ft bronze statue that pays homage (in a Soviet/Socialist-esq manner) to the beauty, strength, and struggle of African people. The statue is over one and a half times the Statue of Liberty, and towers over the Atlantic Ocean.
Senegalese people have been bestowed the reputation of being some of the most beautiful people on the continent. It is also from Senegal that some of the beautiful things originate: from art to artisanal goods, you will want to leave space in your suitcase to bring home some wonderful interior design pieces. The Villages Des Arts is a good place to start.
Landmarks in the ‘Centre Ville’ of Dakar include the Place de L’Indepedence (a little worn out but worth a peek), and the stately Palais Présidentiel. In Centre Ville you will also find many restaurants and shops, Dakar’s Marché Kermel and the illustrious Institut Français. The Medina, the oldest and most popular neighbourhood in Dakar is both lively and charming (in a raw and rustic sense), and is the locale of Dakar’s famous Grand Mosque. On the more upscale side of the spectrum there is Almadies, with its chic nightclubs and restaurants, and a little further down the road you reach the Point des Almadies, which is brimming with rustic fish restaurants.
Together each corner of Dakar make up a city that is a melting pot of glamorous, rustic and kitsch, historical and gritty.
From Dakar, pop over the border to The Gambia and enjoy its fine beaches, or island hop to Cape Verde for a taste of unspoilt paradise.