The capital (and largest) city of Senegal, Dakar is located on the Cap-Vert Peninsula on the Atlantic coast and is the westernmost city on the African mainland. This position means that it is closer to the Americas than it is to many places in Europe, and as a result the city was a major departure point for the slave trade.
Dakar’s Gorée Island was first colonised by the Portuguese in 1444 and became a base for slave export in 1536. Suddenly Dakar was an attractive proposition for other colonising nations and was captured by the Dutch in 1588. It switched hands several times between the Portuguese and Dutch before being taken by the English in 1664 and finally the French in 1677.
During its colonial heyday Dakar was one of the major cities of the French Empire; French trading firms established branch offices and industries were attracted by its port and rail facilities. Dakar replaced Saint-Louis as the capital of French West Africa in 1902 and the ‘commune’ remained under French control until independence in 1960.
Today the city is the capital of one of Africa’s most stable democracies, and Senegal has a long history of international peacekeeping. Dakar is home to over 1.5 million people and is more of a practical connection into the heart of Africa than a popular tourist destination.
Few tourists find their way to Dakar; the conservative, mainly Muslim city doesn't possess the charm or mass attractions required to draw travellers. However, there is still plenty to do and see for visitors.
Beautiful contemporary buildings rub shoulders with historical colonial houses, and the city enjoys an abundance of galleries, art studios and museums. The coastal city has a number of beaches and sports enthusiasts can enjoy a myriad of water sports, play a round of golf or a game of tennis, or take a walk on top of the cliffs.
Visit the African Renaissance Monument, a 49-metre tall bronze statue which sits atop a 100-metre high hill in Ouakam. Visitors can take an elevator to the top for a full view of the city and the Atlantic Ocean.
Finally, take a trip to Gorée Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site and home of the infamous House of Slaves. Built in 1776, it features the ominous ‘Door of No Return’ which slaves passed through on their path to the Americas. It is a heart-wrenching experience to stand in the door and imagine the terror and apprehension felt by the millions of Africans forced to travel to foreign lands.
Dakar has large Lebanese, Moroccan and French communities, ensuring a wide choice of cuisines for visitors. Residents and tourists alike can also take their pick from Thai, Japanese, Italian, Cajun, Creole, Indian and other African restaurants. However, good restaurants can be hard to find, thus it pays to carry a guidebook for direction, otherwise just head to Les Almadies and its numerous seafood restaurants.
Nightlife in Dakar is exuberant and throngs with people of a hundred different dialects. Nightclubs are open until the early hours with live bands pumping out loud music – after all, Dakar is the birthplace of ‘mbalax’, soulful, jazzy music made famous by Senegalese musicians such as Youssou N’Dour. Nothing gets going until well after midnight and for the best suggestions as to where to go, just ask around.
Six hundred kilometres south-east of Dakar is the Niokolo-Koba National Park. The area was declared a Senegalese National Park in 1954, expanded in 1969, and it achieved World Heritage status in 1981 as a UNESCO-MAB Biosphere Reserve.
Today this vast 2.23 million-acre area features all the unique ecosystems of the Sudanese bioclimatic zone such as major waterways (the Gambia, Sereko, Niokolo, Koulountou), gallery forests, herbaceous savanna floodplains, ponds, dry forests, rocky slopes and hills. Its diverse fauna is unique in the sub-region and includes lions (which are reputedly the largest in Africa), Derby Eland (the world’s largest antelope), elephants, leopards, chimpanzees and the critically-endangered African wild dog.