x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Get past the rough reception to the soul of Dakar

My Kind of Place Resident Nils Elzenga is captivated by the seaside charm and exceptionally warm people of the Senegalese capital.

Fishermen in a traditional pirogue, or canoe, leave the harbour at Île de Gorée, off the coast of Dakar, for a night at sea.
Fishermen in a traditional pirogue, or canoe, leave the harbour at Île de Gorée, off the coast of Dakar, for a night at sea.

Why Dakar?

Truth be told, Dakar is probably not a city that you will fall in love with immediately. In fact, before I went to live in Dakar, friends told me how they had fled from the place hours after arriving, feeling harassed and overheated and unable to find an affordable hotel.

Indeed, my reception in Dakar was somewhat rough, too, with airport taxi drivers tugging at my clothes. And, yes, the city looked dry and dusty. But as I went about exploring, these first impressions quickly faded away. A year and a half later, I've come to love Dakar with a passion.

To begin with, Dakar boasts fantastic beaches - all white sands, warm blue waters, cosy bars and restaurants, and colourful fish markets. Then there's the city's famed cultural life. Every night there's live music in bars, restaurants and night clubs. The city is littered with art galleries, and cultural hubs such as Institut Français de Dakar offer movies, debates and more. The city centre is full of colonial architecture.

But Dakar's biggest asset is its people. Senegal is deservedly called the country of teranga, or hospitality. Senegalese are warm people who take pride in showing strangers their way of life. Don't be surprised if you are invited into the family house straight after you've met somebody.

A comfortable bed

Dakar offers nice places to stay, but many are overpriced. A notable exception is Hotel Cap Ouest (www.au-senegal.com; 00 221 33 8202 469), a lovely little hotel facing the sea in the sleepy neighbourhood of Virage, a stone's throw from the airport. Double rooms cost from US$51 (Dh186) per night.

The beautifully decorated Maison Abaka (www.maison-abaka.com; 00 221 33 8206 486), also on the seafront, is found in the nearby fishing community of Ngor. With double rooms costing from $73 (Dh268) per night, Maison Abaka is slightly more expensive than Cap Ouest, but it has nicer rooms and better food, plus a swimming pool and an in-house diving school.

In central Dakar, Hotel Sokhamon (www.hotelsokhamon.com; 00 221 33 8897 100) is housed in a gigantic, Gaudí-esque building with round corners, stairways modelled after sea shells and, again, splendid ocean views. Double rooms cost from US$109 (Dh400) per night.

Budget travellers head for Malika Surf Camp (www.malikasurfcamp.com; 00 221 77 1132 791) in the secluded Yoff area. It's run by a friendly Italian-Senegalese couple and offers lots of activities. Double rooms cost from $27 (Dh99) per night.

Find your feet

Dakar is blessed with a vast taxi fleet. Haggling over fares with stubborn drivers can be tiring, but always stay friendly. An aggressive attitude gets you nowhere in Senegal. The maximum you should pay for a ride anywhere in town is about $7 (Dh26).

Dakar sits on a triangular peninsula in the Atlantic Ocean. Three major roads (VDN, Route de Ouakam and Corniche Ouest) connect the breezy, beachy northern suburbs of Yoff, Ngor and Almadies with downtown in the south. Heading there, you'll pass Dakar's two most visible landmarks: Phare des Mamelles, a lighthouse built on the city's highest hill, and the gigantic Monument de la Renaissance Africaine (Monument of African Rebirth), a bronze statue standing 49m high and overlooking the Atlantic.

Meet the locals

The easiness of making contact with local people is my favourite aspect of Senegal. Just exchanging a glance on any given street is often enough for a spontaneous conversation. Dakarois adore going out, and the city's many nightclubs are good meeting places. Penc Mi (00 221 77 5239 727) and Thiossane (00 221 33 8246 046) offer mbalax, Senegal's most popular music style. If you're into huge mirrors and watching yourself dance, then go for Le Patio (00 221 33 8205823) or Madison (00 221 77 7387 308).

Book a table

The local cuisine features popular dishes such as poulet yassa (chicken with onion sauce), mafé (meat in peanut sauce), couscous mboum (couscous with vegetables) and, especially, thiébou dienne or thiébou yapp (spicy rice with vegetables and fish or meat). Prices per dish range between $2 (Dh7) and $5 (Dh18). Attaya (tea resembling the Arab variety) and fresh juices such as bissap (hibiscus flower juice), jus de baobab (juice of the fruit of the famous baobab trees) and jus de gingembre (ginger juice) are widely consumed drinks, and shouldn't cost more than $2 (Dh7) per glass.

But restaurants in Dakar don't limit themselves to Senegalese food alone. Possibly the best place in town, La Fourchette (4 rue Parent; 00 221 33 8218 887), serves mouth-watering dishes from around the globe. Almost equally classy is Art & Afrique (Corniche Ouest, below Mamelles Lighthouse; 00 221 33 8606 947), an art gallery, music venue and restaurant combined. Cabane des Pêcheurs (Plage de Ngor; 00 221 33 8207675) is renowned for its seafood, while Sao Brasil (behind Ngor Shell Station; 00 221 33 8200 941), a pizzeria despite its name, has Dakar's best wood-oven pizzas. For affordable lunches, head to Chez Fatou Kim (Route des Almadies; 00 221 33 8209 208) or any of the beach restaurants on Point des Almadies, the most western tip on the continent.

Shopper's paradise

Dakar attracts artistic talent from throughout West Africa and is thus a great place to buy inexpensive, quality art, particularly sculptures and paintings. Visit the art markets on the islands of Ngor and Gorée, off the coast of Dakar, and Village des Arts, near Dakar's main football stadium. It has lots of workshops, including a gallery and a restaurant where you can meet the artists.

What to avoid

Dakar is generally safe, but do be aware of pickpockets in crowded areas such as markets and in nightclubs. Be firm in refuting hawkers, wannabe "guides" and so on.

Don't miss

Île de Gorée, right outside Dakar's harbour. The island was settled by Portuguese sailors around 1450 and became French in 1677, remaining so until Senegalese independence in 1960. The island gained notoriety as a slave-trading centre, and today tourists come to see the Maison des Esclaves (house of slaves). The entire island, dotted with beautifully preserved colonial buildings and completely car-free, is a Unesco World Heritage Site. There are regular ferries to Gorée from the harbour (a taxi will drop you off at the right spot), which is also the place to book guided tours.

Direct flights to Dakar from Dubai with Emirates (www.emirates.com) cost from Dh6,870 return, including taxes.