One of West Africa’s most dynamic cities, Dakar offers a dizzying mix of sun-kissed beaches, colourful markets and mbalax-fueled nightclubs where snappily attired revelers emerge into the early morning light as the first call to prayer drifts over the palm-covered landscape. Senegal’s capital is also the gateway to the Île de Gorée, a sleepy tropical island just 3km from the high-rises of downtown.

With its sandy, car-free lanes and bougainvillea-draped colonial buildings, 28-hectare Gorée provides a dramatic contrast to Dakar’s bustling urbanism, and makes for an ideal day trip. The island’s pastel-hued homes, shimmering beachfront and fine views are undeniably alluring. Its tranquility, however, belies a heart-breaking past built on the trade in enslaved people – the island stands as a memorial to countless victims who passed through during Africa’s most tragic period.

Looking out from the beach on Gorée to the sea, the left side of the image has a couple of traditional piroques on the sand, which are backed by bright red historical buildings (two storeys) and trees © Tuul & Bruno Morandi / Getty Images
The petite beach and colourful colonial buildings of Île de Gorée stand in stark contrast to the urban buzz of Dakar © Tuul & Bruno Morandi / Getty Images

History of Île de Gorée

Owing to its strategic location, the island was coveted by early European colonists, and it changed hands dozens of times over the centuries. In 1444, Portuguese navigator Dinís Dias sited the island, christening it ‘Palma’. Within a few years, the Portuguese set up a trading post and built a church and cemetery. The Dutch arrived in the early 1600s, dislodging the Portuguese, though they would continue to battle for the island – along with the English and the French, the later of whom ultimately won control buy the late 18th century.

Why so many skirmishes over such a tiny island that lacked a reliable source of fresh water? Gorée was at the centre of the European lust for control of the trade in enslaved people. Though there’s no consensus on just how many human captives passed through the island, Gorée remained deeply connected to human enslavement, from 1536 until 1848, when the French abolished the practice.

Following the foundation of Dakar in 1857, Île de Gorée began to decline in importance, and its population plummeted. It remained something of a backwater for the next hundred years, though in 1913 the island saw the opening of a notable teacher’s training college. Many inspired graduates from the school would later help lead the drive toward Senegal’s independence (achieved in 1960). In 1944, the French colonial government declared the island a historic site, forbidding new construction. Then in 1978 the whole island was inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage list.

Taken from La Maison des Esclaves courtyard on Gorée, this image looks up the twin, curving staircases and through a dark passage between the stairs. A small opening appears in the darkness (the doorway to nowhere) © bdinphoenix / Budget Travel
Looking into La Maison des Esclaves and out towards the ‘doorway to nowhere’ © bdinphoenix / Budget Travel

La Maison des Esclaves

Before the abolition of slavery, there were dozens of warehouses where African captives were held before being shipped off to the New World. The Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves) serves as a tragic focal point for more than three centuries of suffering. Dating from the 1780s, the building is the oldest on the island, and easily its most stirring. The split-level house has a curving, twin staircase leading to the upper floor where the landowners resided. Displays of iron shackles, muskets and other artifacts bring the horrors of the past to life. On the lower level are tiny, dimly lit chambers that served as holding cells. A ‘doorway to nowhere’ connected the dungeon-like quarters to the sea as a final embarkation point for innocent men, women and children who were being taken from their homeland forever. Although scholars debate whether captives actually passed through this portal, its symbolism is poignant, and it has deeply affected many visitors to the island — including Nelson Mandela, who was moved to tears on his visit in 1991. Other famous visitors to the island include Barack Obama, George W Bush and Bill Clinton, as well as Pope John Paul II, who asked for forgiveness for Catholic missionaries involved in the trade of enslaved people.

This image looks across the water to Île de Gorée and a circular stone fortress, with its small windows. To the left of the fortress is a pinkish section of the fortress, with palms in the background. A boat floats in the foreground © Antpun / Shutterstock
Built in the 1850s to defend the island's harbour, Fort d’Estrées now houses the IFAN Historical Museum © Antpun / Shutterstock

IFAN Historical Museum

On the northern side of the island stands the Fort d’Estrées, an imposing citadel built in the 1850s to defend the harbor. The fortress was never used in combat, though it did serve as a civil prison prior to 1976. Today, the thick walls form the backdrop to a small history museum. The exhibitions cover a lot of ground, from Paleolithic times to the fight for independence from France in the 20th century. The most evocative exhibitions cover the island’s role in the trade of human cargo. Outside the museum, stairs lead up to the perimeter wall, which take you back to the present-day with hazy views of the modern buildings of Dakar on the horizon.

Within the open-air semi-circular gun bunker are dozens of colourful paintings - either on the dirt ground or balanced against the cement wall. Vegetation grows in the surrounding area © Rhapsode / Getty Images
Some artists on the island have occupied a WWII gun bunker as a studio © Rhapsode / Getty Images

Exploring Île de Gorée

Aside from the island’s memorials, there’s little evidence on its photogenic lanes of its dark past. The present-day Île de Gorée is home to a vibrant arts community, and you won’t have to go far to find unique paintings, carvings and sculptures by many resident artists. Painters and artisans set up their ways in the open air, and you’ll find an assortment of jewellery, masks, baskets, textiles and other treasures on the south side of the island at the marché artisanal. From there, continue up the hill to the ruins of the Fort Saint-Michel, where you’ll find yet more arts and crafts for sale, as well as magnificent views over the island.

After a walk under the hot Senegalese sun, you can cool off with a dip in the sea. A small beach near the ferry dock is the best place to unwind, and a kiosk hires out chairs and umbrellas. When hunger strikes, you can order seafood, grilled items or Senegalese fare from one of the simple eateries overlooking the sands. All goes down nicely with a cold Gazelle, a thirst-quenching Senegalese lager.

This image is looking straight down a sandy lane on Île de Gorée, with a bright red two-story building on the right and a yellow single-storey building on the left - both buildings have colourful shutters. Vegetation grows along the base of the buildlings © Alex ADS / 500px
The colourful, car-free confines of Île de Gorée's lanes are perfect for exploring © Alex ADS / 500px

Visiting Île de Gorée: make it happen

The island is an easy jaunt by ferry from Dakar’s main ferry terminal, aka the Gare Maritime, located just north of the Plateau district. Boats make the 20-minute journey roughly every 90 minutes from 7.30am to 10.30pm, with more frequent departures on Sundays.

While most people visit on day trips from Dakar, there are several appealing places to overnight on the island. The Villa Castel is a charming eco-friendly guesthouse near the centre of Gorée, with doubles from around €70. A short walk south of the Maison des Esclaves, the Maison Augustin Ly offers breezy rooms in a classic bougainvillea-draped house from the 18th century. Doubles start around €55.

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