Dakar is a city of extremes, where horse-cart drivers chug over swish highways and gleaming SUVs squeeze through tiny sand roads; where elegant ladies dig skinny heels into dusty walkways and suit-clad businessmen kneel down for prayer in the middle of the street. Once a tiny settlement in the south of the Cap Vert peninsula, Dakar now spreads almost across its entire triangle, and keeps growing.
For the traveler, there's much to discover, from peaceful islands just off-shore to vertiginous nightlife dancing to mbalax beats. You can spend your days browsing frenetic markets and taking in the sights of bustling downtown, followed by sunset drinks overlooking the crashing waves. At once both intimidating and deeply alluring, Dakar is a fascinating introduction to Senegal.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Dakar.
For a quick escape from the frenetic streets of Dakar, head to peaceful Île de N'Gor, a tiny island just off Dakar's north shore. It has a few calm beaches on the bay side, and some legendary surf on the northern coastline. Most visitors just come for the day, to relax on the beaches, stroll the sandy lanes of the village and have lunch in one of the waterside eateries, but there are several appealing guesthouses here as well.
The is one of Senegal's best museums. Exhibitions delve into African art and culture with over 9000 objects on display. Lively displays of masks and traditional dress from across the region (including Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Benin and Nigeria) give an excellent overview of styles without bombarding you with more than you can take in.
Allegedly Africa's highest statue, the African Renaissance Monument was unveiled in 2010 to commemorate Senegal's 50 years of independence from France. At 49m in height, it is taller than New York City's Statue of Liberty and Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer.
A photogenic 1864 lighthouse graces the top of one of Dakar's few hills. It's worth making leisurely 20-minute walk, with sweeping views across the city and the water waiting at the top. Once there, you can visit the exterior of the lighthouse (CFA1000) or pay a little extra (CFA2000) for a short guided tour through the lighthouse and up to the top.
Plage de N'gor is a small beach popular with families and football-playing youths, and there are a few snack spots with tables on the sands. It's not a bad beach, but there better options on Île de N'gor, which you can reach by pirogue (CFA500, 10 minutes) from here.
Plage de Virage is a popular spot with surfers. This small beach gets packed on weekends with a mostly local crowd, though a few foreigners pass by, sometimes before or after a flight as it's fairly close to the airport (located 1.5km south).
An arts tour around Dakar is simply not complete without a visit to this famous art complex, where some of Senegal's most promising and established painters, sculptors and multimedia artists create, shape and display their works in individual studios scattered around a large garden space. There's also an on-site gallery, which exhibits works by artists both home-grown and from abroad.
Like all of Dakar's beaches, Yoff's stretch of sand isn't very clean. That doesn't stop beach-goers and surfers who come for the consistent waves. Aside from a few beach shacks selling food and drink, there's also a surf camp here.
Dakar's central square is the beating heart of the city. Symmetrically laid out and home to countless cars, crooks and 1960s concrete blocks, it also contains majestic colonial buildings, including the Gouvernance (the French governor's office) and the Chambre de Commerce (chamber of commerce).