Welcome to another Wednesday edition of I Heart My City! Today Rachael Cullins of the Girl, Guy, Globe blog writes to us from Dakar, Senegal where she’s living the expat life with her husband and their two dogs. Get Rachael’s insider tips to this West African capital, then tell us about your own insider spots.
Dakar, Senegal is My City
The first place I take a visitor from out of town is for a drive along the Corniche. It’s a long boulevard that runs parallel to the Atlantic on the west side of the city. I feel like the route embodies Dakar and Senegalese life in one short drive: the huge African renaissance statue, the sweeping views of the ocean, the crazy driving, and some of the best restaurants.
When I crave a respite from the constant horn-honking I always go to N’Gor Island via a careening pirogue ferry. It’s quiet, the views are gorgeous, and I can get a big, inexpensive glass of wine at this great little pasta place on the water. And fearing the pirogue might just tip over into the Atlantic is an added cheap thrill.
If I want to get my sweat on, I go to the Olympique Club, a huge fitness complex with an open-air group class studio on the third floor. The classes are taught in French by three of the most enthusiastic guys I’ve met in my life. It’s sweet, sweaty fun for about $10 USD per class.
If you come to my city, get your picture taken with the African Renaissance Monument, a towering, copper monument will an interesting and controversial history.
If you have to order one thing off the menu from the fantastic Le Lodge restaurant, it has to be the seafood puff pastry soup. Fish is an abundant, local commodity in Senegal, and the French Le Lodge eatery makes the most of it with this can’t-miss appetizer. I could eat this creamy seafood soup with a buttery puff pastry baked right on top every day!
Soxnassy is my one-stop shop for great African clothes. They have ready-made pieces or you can pick a fabric and have something custom-made. It’s quality stuff that will last long after you’ve left Dakar.
Locals know to skip Yoff Beach and check out Saly instead. Yoff has pretty waves, but the crowds can be overwhelming. Saly is a quaint little town about two hours outside of Dakar. It’s a relaxing, unpopulated beach with affordable places to eat and drink. If you’re lucky and are confident in your French skills, you can venture out in the morning hours to find a fisherman who will catch your dinner, then cook it for you on the beach.
When I’m feeling cash-strapped, I go to a surf shack on the beach. Despite the plastic lawn chairs, you’ll find great views and cheap drinks. Pick one with a brightly painted sign and an inviting entrance, and you can’t go wrong.
For a huge splurge, I go to the Terrou Bi hotel at the southern tip of the city. The food and drinks aren’t cheap, but their private beach is a haven. You can spend an entire day at the hotel, moving from the beach to the restaurant to the casino to the thumping nightclub. But if you want a true Dakar experience, be prepared to party until dawn. The bar scene in this city doesn’t truly get started until the yawn-inducing hour of 1 a.m.
If my city were a celebrity, it’d be Gerard Depardieu. French-speaking, a little crass, charming in a head-shaking way, always unpredictable, and just slightly smarmy– but not enough to be intolerable. And I mean that in the best possible way, Gerard.
The most random thing about my city is the honking. Oh, the honking! Visitors to Dakar should be prepared for eager taxi drivers to honk at them day and night, declaring their availability for service. After you give a friendly “Non, merci!” to one taxi, the driver immediately behind him will proposition you, hoping you’ll have changed your mind in the span of three seconds. Plaster a friendly smile on your face, keep repeating your nons, and forge ahead.
My city has the most fit men. Staying in shape is a priority for the Senegalese and most men are tall, lean, and muscular. None of my fellow expatriate women are complaining.
My city has the most gorgeously dressed women. They wrap themselves in beautiful, blindingly bright fabrics, often in the form of a dress they’ve constructed themselves.
In my city, an active day outdoors involves swinging between baobab trees. An excursion an hour or two (depending on unpredictable Senegalese traffic) outside Dakar leads to Baobab Forest, where you can zipline from tree to tree or teeter along on a huge monkey bridge.
My city’s best museum is the Slave House on Goree Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The original slave house built in the 1700s was used as a holding place for slaves before they were transported to Western countries. The house is now a museum and memorial to Africans who lost their freedom. It brings slavery’s haunting history to life.
For a night of dancing, go to a raving discotheque, such as Club Nirvana in the Almadies. You might pay $20 to get in and you might have to wait until 1 a.m. for the action to really get started, but for a wild, unique experience, it’s worth it if you like to live bold and loud.
You can tell if someone is from my city if they’re wearing a shirt with “Senegal” emblazoned across the chest. Patriotism is alive and well here.
In the summer, you should prepare for a sweat-tastic adventure. Temperatures are in the eighties and the humidity is high. But if you’re here to surf or you can stand the heat, the city will be yours for the taking. Be forewarned, though: some restaurants are closed during August, a nod to the French tradition of taking a long vacation for the entire month.
In the winter, you should know that it’s the perfect time to visit Dakar. The weather from December to February has been described as San Diego-esque, the humidity is blessedly at bay, and the cool ocean breezes feel fantastic.
A hidden gem in my city is the randomly placed trampoline along the Corniche Ouest. No matter your age, pay a few CFA to bounce around on a huge trampoline next to the Atlantic.
Just outside my city, you can visit Senegal’s little corner of the safari market. The country may not be home to elephants and tigers, but you can see zebras, monkeys, gazelle, buffalo, and a host of other creatures at nearby Bandia Park for about $70 USD a person. It’s a small price to pay for a fun experience and to be able to say “yes” to the most common question asked of travelers to Africa, “But did you go on a safari?”
The best way to see my city is on foot. Driving here is somewhat of a death wish, as rules of the road are either nonexistent or largely ignored.
If my city were a pet, it couldn’t be anything but what the expats call an “ABD,” African Brown Dog. These nondescript mutts are everywhere in Dakar. They’re mostly friendly and they’ll melt your heart, but if you want to avoid ticks or having a new friend follow you wherever you go, don’t feed or pet them (however badly you may want to).
When I think about my city, the song that comes to mind is anything by Akon, who is one of the only Senegalese entertainers famous in Western nations. It’s not uncommon to hear his music blasting throughout Casino, the local grocery store chain.
Dakar should be featured on your cover or website because it’s a great mix of little luxuries and in-the-weeds culture. One can experience pulsing dance floors, dirty unpaved streets, fantastic Argentinian steak, complete French-language immersion, and oceanside dining all in one place. It’s stimulating, at times jarring, and completely memorable.
Tell us about your favorite spots in Dakar. Leave us the details in the comments section below.
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