Senegal With Kids: What To See, Eat & Do
We visited Senegal, on the West coast of Africa, over Winter break and were lucky enough to be hosted by a friend who has been traveling there for his entire life. All we had to do was show up when we were told to and guides, boats and four-wheel-drive trucks appeared for us.
This makes Senegal challenging to write about. If you are traveling on your own in a country like this, things are not often that easy. But Senegal offers families in the U.S. and Europe a safe, affordable and accessible first taste of sub-Saharan Africa. It’s worth visiting, so I’m going to give my best shot at telling you how to see it with kids.
We were there for a week and it can take a while to get anywhere. So we focused our time on the strip of coast between Dakar and the Gambian border. Luckily, this part of the country has a lot to offer.
Ten things to know about Senegal
1. Senegal has lovely beaches
French people go to Senegal for affordable beach getaways on the long stretches of sand around Saly, Nianing and Mbodiene. We stayed in Saly, which was central to everything we wanted to do. Since every excursion we did left us covered in dust it was nice jump in the ocean before dinner. I would recommend this over basing yourself in Dakar.
2. Senegal is stable and safe
Senegal has been a democracy since the 1960s. People are predominantly Muslim but not overly conservative. Beer is easy to come by. Women’s ankle-length dresses were stylish and colorful. Boys and girls are educated equally. Intermarriage with the country’s small Catholic population is accepted. The pretty island town of Fadiout, with its scenic mixed-faith cemetery is the most interesting example of this tolerance.
It does border Mali and Mauritania, but there’s nothing that would bring tourists close to those borders and (so far) their troubles haven’t spilled over.
During the summer rainy season it pours for three months and roads can be impassable. I would recommend visiting during the long dry season.
For more advice you can read our post on preparing for this trip.
3. Senegal has wildlife
Senegal does not have safaris, but there is wildlife.
One of the highlights of the trip was hiring a canoe-like pirogue for a ride around the Sine-Saloum Delta. We saw enormous flocks of pelicans, egrets, herons and other birds and even a mongoose lurking in the mangroves (top). Tiny Traveler was impressed enough to take out her notebook and write down all the different kinds of birds we saw. Boats leave from Ndangane for bird watching and fishing.
Tip: If you eat out in Ndangane, Palmarin or Joal-Fadiot, look on the menus for the oysters that grow wild on the mangrove stalks.
We also spent a day at Bandia Reserve, a large game park 45 minutes from Dakar with animals from across Africa. It was wilder and more sprawling than a zoo, more contained than a real safari. We saw giraffes, zebras, wart hogs, élans, gazelles, monkeys and even two elusive black rhinos from as little as 15 feet away, which was pretty amazing. We also saw a huge baobab trees that was several hundred years old. You need a 4WD truck in the park and a guide they provide. You can either bring your own truck or catch a ride on one of theirs (theirs carry about a dozen people).
Break time: Bandia has a lovely outdoor restaurant overlooking a watering hole full of crocodiles. The food is expensive by local standards. Even if you don’t eat there it’s worth cooling off with a Coke or a beer (maybe an ice cream) after your dusty trip around the park.
There are larger reserves and national parks further inland, but we didn’t have time to explore them.
4. Senegal has a pink lake
Lac Rose was 8YO Tiny Traveler’s favorite sight by far. It’s an extremely concentrated salt lake with algae that make the water look pink (really pink!) when the sun hits it. Swimming is a must. The water is thick to paddle through, and even sitting cross-legged you bob like a cork. Make sure to rinse the salt off when you’re done, and skip shaving that morning or the salt water might be more bracing than you would prefer.
We took a ride around the lake in a 4WD truck that had seen better days. We got to see the salt harvesting, where they skim salt from the bottom of the lake and pile it on the shore to dry it out. We passed through a traditional village and rode over sand dunes to the nearby coast. We were jostled and bounced plenty—kids need to be able to hold on tight—but it was a worthwhile and fun day. There’s a restaurant and changing area (and souvenir store) where the trucks start and finish.
5. Senegal has relevant history
Senegal and neighboring Gambia were central to the African slave trade. A visit to Ile de Gorée, just off the coast Dakar, to learn about this is essential. The island’s dark history aside, it’s a car-free oasis of bright colonial buildings and alleys bursting with Bougainville. Lunch at one of cafés near the ferry dock is scenic and relaxing.
When you leave the ferry look for an English-speaking guide who should be able to talk about the island’s colonial history and take you to the only still-standing slave house on the island. Tiny Traveler found the guide’s stories about the treatment of the slaves bewildering and a little upsetting, so we skipped the exhibits, which are upstairs. In the U.S. we fudge this part of history more than we should, so I think it was important to witness this. If you read the first third of Roots before you go it will help to inform what you see.
St. Louis is a northern colonial port city with an interesting history that’s tangential to the slave trade, but unfortunately it was out of our reach in the time we had.
Tip: You don’t need to stay overnight on Gorée, but it does have some small inns and might be worth a stay. We imagine it’s one of those places that fills with tourists during the day and is lovely in an entirely different way when everyone leaves and you and the locals have it to yourselves.
6. Senegal has interesting art
Artwork, such as ebony statues and dishware, hand-carved jewelry and wall art, are the best things to bring back. You’ll find small markets on the beach and elsewhere.
The giant hill that winds up from docks in Gorée is a sloping outdoor gallery, with genuinely interesting things. Look for the studio that gathers different shades of sand from across Africa and creates beautiful pictures with them. It’s a unique and affordable souvenir.
7. Senegal has a lot of fish
One of the advantages of staying along the coast is that you can eat locally caught fresh every day. Grilled giant shrimp, curried small shrimp, stewed calamari and grilled and fried filets are easy to come by. The national dish is Thiéboudienne, a meaty fish stuffed with spices and cooked in a big pot with root vegetables.
We visited the outdoor fish market in Mbour late one afternoon when the giant wooden pirogues were returning with their catch. You can’t walk around the commercial market on your own, but if you can arrange for a guide to take you, do it. It’s colorful, crowded, hectic, smelly, and not something you see every day. There’s a similar market in St. Louis.
Tip: If your kids aren’t fish eaters, every restaurant we visited had tasty grilled chicken legs. Rice comes with every meal and most restaurants have French fries.
8. Senegal is closer than you expect
Our direct flight on Delta from New York to Dakar was about eight hours, half as far as the Safari destinations in Southern Africa.
9. Senegal is affordable.
You can find comfortable, quality hotels for $80 to $150 a night. Cheaper inns exist, of course, but are very bare bones, often with shared bathrooms. Main dishes in restaurants were never more than $10.
Bandia was by far our most expensive outing. We hired our own 4WD and driver for $50, and then paid $15 vehicle fee, $20 adult admission ($10 for kids) and $10 for a required guide.
10. Senegal is a not a fun place to drive
The roads we traveled were mostly paved and in reasonable condition, but there was not a stop sign or traffic light to be seen. Cars, trucks and buses are in dubious condition, so breakdowns and accidents routinely stall traffic. Long distance buses and vans don’t leave until they’re full (or until all seats have been paid for). Traffic is worst into and out of Dakar. Unless you are adventurous, with a lot of time and patience I would not rely on public transportation, especially with kids younger than 10 or so. If your child needs a car seat, bring one. Hire a driver, hope his car has seatbelts, and avoid traveling at night when accidents are more common.
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