Considered one of West Africa’s most stable countries, Senegal is full of life and color; rich in character, history, and culture. The well-preserved colonial ruins, year-round music and arts festivals and tropical climate draw in visitors every year. This Senegal Travel Guide tells you more about how to plan your trip to the country.
Senegal is located in West Africa, bordering Mauritania to the north, Mali to the east, Guinea to the southeast and Guinea-Bissau to the southwest. It also shares a maritime border with Cape Verde and borders The Gambia which separates the southern region of Casamance from the rest of the country. Officially the Republic of Senegal, it’s a member of the United Nations (UN), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
- Senegal Travel Guide: quick facts
- Regions of Senegal
- How to travel to Senegal
- How to travel around Senegal
- What to pack for Senegal
- The best time to visit Senegal
- What to eat on your Senegal trip
- Famous events in Senegal
- Public holidays in Senegal
- Cultural customs to be aware of in Senegal
- Where to stay in Senegal
- Don’t forget travel insurance
- Basic phrases and their pronunciation
- Is Senegal safe to visit?
- The use of cash and cards in Senegal
- Tipping in Senegal
- A brief history of Senegal
Senegal Travel Guide: quick facts
Size: 196,712 km² or 76,000 sq mi
People living there: more than 13,560,000
Senegal capital city: Dakar
Governmental structure: semi-presidential, democratic republic in which the President of Senegal is the head of state and the Prime Minister is the head of government.
National day: April 4
Senegal time zone: UTC
Currency: West African CFA franc
Power voltage and socket type(s): 230V, plug types C, D, E, and K. If these plug types don’t match your devices, make sure to pack a universal adapter.
Official religion(s)/Freedom of religion: Freedom of religion. 92% of the population is Muslim, followed by Christian and other traditional African religions.
Official language(s) and general knowledge of English: French is the official language but Wolof is most spoken. English is not widely spoken.
Drives on this side: right
International driver’s licence accepted? yes
Phone code: +221
Vaccinations needed? diphtheria, hepatitis A, tetanus and yellow fever are usually advised.
Can you drink the tap water? no. Make sure to bring a Steripen if you want to drink or brush your teeth with tap water.
Regions of Senegal
Senegal is divided into 14 regions, each administered by a regional council. All regions are named after the regional capital.
The smallest and most populated region of Senegal, the region consists of the capital. Head to Dakar’s sandy beaches and soak up the sun on Plage de Yoff or Plage des Mamelles. Northeast of Dakar, you can find Senegal’s own Dead Sea, Lake Retba. Its high salt content gives its a pink hue and bobbing along in the water feels great.
There’s plenty of Senegalese cuisine to dig into with fresh-caught fish and veg to keep you satisfied after a day of exploring. Dakar’s largest and oldest market Marché Sandanga is where you can find everything you could ever need but be prepared for crowds. Other things to do include taking a boat out to Ile Gorée, visiting the Mosque of the Divinity or taking a day trip to Petite Côte.
The region’s capital of the same name lies to the east of Thies. It’s most well known for its mosques and groundnut industry. The area is mainly inhabited by the Serer people but is also home to Wolof and other ethnic groups.
Rich in history, you can find the Cekeen Tumulus, a burial mound for chiefs. The Great Mosque can be located in Touba and is a beautiful piece of architecture. Make sure to dress appropriately to enter the religious building.
In the southwest region of the northern outcrop of Senegal, the region is also known as Jinnak Bolon. Popular with history lovers, many ancient Serer sites can be found within the area. It’s also one of the holiest places in the Serer religion. Visit the Saloum Delta National Park to soak up some nature and wildlife.
150 miles to the east of Dakar, you’ll find the Kaffrine region. The top things to do in the area include shore fishing, bird watching and getting out into nature. Its capital, Kaffrine, lies in Senegal’s peanut basin, a common crop in the country. Popular nature reserves to visit include Foret de Birkelane, Foret de Kassas, and Foret de Sagna.
Bordering the Gambia, the region is a common stopping point for travel between Dakar and Banjul. Visit the stone circles at Wanar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Koalack is also home to one of West Africa’s biggest covered markets where you can find everything you could imagine and a few things you can’t.
The region itself isn’t a huge draw for tourists but it’s a great base to arrange trips in the surrounding area. The rural region is home to some of the country’s best waterfalls, hiking, and UNESCO-protected heritage. Located at the very edge of the country, near the border with Mali and Guinea.
Kolda is located in the Casamance where a ton of local fresh fruit and vegetables are grown so be prepared for some excellent food. Caution is advised in the west of Kolda, avoid traveling on the roads at night and stick to the main roads. The Casamance region has faced decades of tension from separatists but there has been a big improvement in recent years. The Parc National du Niokolo-Koba in Kolda and is well worth a visit.
Located in the northwest part of the country. The region’s capital is a cattle market center and is mainly inhabited by the Fulani and the Wolof. Visit the Lac des Guiers in the Louga region for a day of nature, wildlife and water.
The Matam region is pretty stark and arid. It’s populated by the Pulaar-speaking Toucouleur people who bought Islam in the 11th century and created Baaba Maal music in the 21st century. Local markets overlook the river valley. Learn about traditional cultures and delve into the history. In the nearby village of Boki Diawé, women use traditional methods to dye large fabrics with vibrant colors and patterns.
10. Saint Louis
A popular tourist destination, Saint Louis is the capital of the region, located near the mouth of the Senegal River. Originally the capital of the French colony from 1673 to 1902, you can still see the French colonial buildings dotted throughout the town. Top things to do include eating at La Kora, listening to music at the Meyazz Club and visiting the Parc National de la Langue de Barbarie.
Located in the south-west of the country in the Casamance region. It shares its borders with the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. The main historical culture of the town of Sedhiou came from the Mandinka people but today many ethnic groups live there. The region doesn’t attract many tourists.
The region was formally known as Sénégal Orientale. Its capital is the largest town in eastern Senegal. You can find Senegal’s largest national park about 45 miles southeast, Niokolo Koba National Park. The town is known for its agriculture, with the ability to grow a varied number of crops.
The region’s capital is the third largest city in Senegal. The Serer-Noon, an ethnic sub-group of the Serer people, inhabit the Thiès-Noon neighborhood of the south-west city today. They speak the Noon language. Things to do in the region include visiting the wildlife reserve Foret de Bandia, Somone Lagoon Reserve and the Abbaye de Keur monastery.
Its capital is the chief town of the Casamance region, lying at the mouth of the Casamance River. The city’s post office is one of Central Ziguinchor’s most colorful colonial buildings, definitely worth a visit. If you’re in the region, check of the town of Cap Skirring. Head for some culinary delights at Casa-Resto, Casa Bambou and Le Biarritz for fresh food.
How to travel to Senegal
Senegal visa requirements
Traveling to Senegal, you need a passport valid for at least three months. You may need to show proof of onward travel such as a return flight. EU and US nationals do not need a visa to visit Senegal. If you intend on staying for longer than three months then you’ll need to register with the local authorities.
A current yellow fever vaccination is mandatory to enter Senegal if you’re traveling from a country with risk of yellow fever.
You can’t reach Senegal directly by bus from its neighbouring countries.
The train line between Dakar and Bamako in Mali is no longer in commission. You can’t reach Senegal by train.
Senegal’s major port in Dakar, is one of the largest deep-water seaports along the West African coast. A number of cargo ships from Europe offer passenger services and cruise ships run services from all over the world to Senegal.
Flights to Senegal
The easiest and most direct way to travel to Senegal is to fly to Senegal. The Blaise Diagne International Airport (AIBD) serves as the new airport for Dakar, replacing the older and smaller Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport. The airport has taken over a decade to build and is now one of the highest capacity airports in Africa.
Dakar has links with Africa, Europe, and America. Depending on where you plan on visiting, there are a number of smaller domestic airports that serve different regions throughout the country.
How to travel around Senegal
Independent travel around Senegal
The quickest way to travel around the country is by sept-place taxi although not the comfiest. The cars look a bit battered and will travel across even the most ragged of routes. Cheaper but definitely less reliable are the minibusses. Vehicles pick up around 40 people from the gare routière and leave when they are full.
You can hire cars in Senegal and the best place to do this is at the airport. Driving in Senegal is not for the faint-hearted, though. Between chaotic roads and reckless motorists, you’ll be faced with a number of obstacles as well as the occasional roaming goat or cow in the countryside. A less stressful option is to hire a car with a driver which most guesthouses can help you arrange.
If you do want to get your own car for the duration of your trip, this is a good place to look for it.
There is a regular ferry service between Dakar and Ziguinchor, all operated by COSAMA. You can also reach several of Senegal’s other islands by ferry. The Bou El Mogdad cruise travels in the north of the country for six days from Saint Louis to Podor on the Senegal River.
An express railway line has recently been built connecting the capital city of Dakar with Diamniadio. Additional lines are looking to be added which will only improve transport around Senegal in the future.
What to pack for Senegal
Senegal has a tropical climate which sees high temperatures all year round. The country has two seasons, the dry season runs from December to April and the rainy season between May and November. The average daily maximum temperature in the cool season in Dakar is 26°C. During the hot season, monthly temperatures are about 30°C on average. So pack light for your Senegal vacation!
The coast sees the coolest temperatures with the hottest weather found in the east on the Malian border. In the rainy season, a hot monsoon wind blows from the south bringing hot and humid weather. The annual rainfall is heavier in the south seeing between 600 and 1,500 millimeters a year.
You’ll want to pack the following items for your trip to Senegal, including a light rain jacket or umbrella for the wet season.
- light, cotton clothing
- a reusable water bottle
- good walking sandals
- mosquito repellent lotion
The best time to visit Senegal
The dry season is the best time to travel to Senegal, so between December and April. The weather is mild but not too hot and you should avoid the rain. The average temperature tends to hold out at a warm 25°C. In terms of crowds, January and December are usually much busier, meaning hotel and flight prices will be the most expensive during these months. Travel outside of these months for less expensive options and fewer crowds.
In terms of weather, it is possible to visit Senegal all year round. Although the weather is hotter from April to June, some of the country’s coolest events take place during this time. The Saint-Louis Jazz Festival and Dak’art Biennial are extremely popular with visitors. If you plan on going off the beaten track, roads can be an issue during the wet season, so be sure to keep this in mind.
What to eat on your Senegal trip
- Thieboudienne – a national dish of Senegal consisting of fresh fish, dried fish and rice served with vegetables
- Bassi Salte – meatballs made of mutton, potatoes, sweet potatoes, white beans, cabbage, carrots, raisins, dates, and a tomato sauce
- Lakhou Bissap – a dish made from semolina and meat with dried fish, sorrel and tamarind
- Firire – fried fish and onion sauce, served with fries, bread, and salad
- Domoda – a rice-based dish served with meat, fish or meatballs
- Pastels – small deep-fried pastry stuffed with fish and spices
- Chicken Yassa – chicken pieces marinated with onions, lime juice, vinegar, and peanut oil
- Mafe Senegalese Beef Stew – meats or fish with a sauce made from groundnut paste served with rice, potatoes vegetables or beans
- Thiou – a meat or fish dish with a tomato sauce
- Kaldou – fish and vegetables typically served with lime sauce and rice
Famous events in Senegal
- Saint-Louis Jazz Festival, Saint-Louis (May) – the internationally renowned festival attracts jazz performers from around the world. The main event usually takes place at either Quai des Arts or Place Faidherbe.
- Fête du Roi, Oussouye (September) – experience a night of wrestling matches in the village of Oussouye.
- Dak’Art Biennale, Dakar (May) – held only on even-numbered years, the art festival covers the town in color for the whole month with exhibitions throughout Dakar.
- Les Fanals, Saint Louis (December) – celebrated during the last week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the historic lantern procession shows off the town’s unique cultural identity.
- Abéné Festivalo, Abéné (December) – the 10-day drumming festival celebrates Casamance culture. Enjoy music, dancing, and traditional Senegalese wrestling matches.
- Festival International du Film de Quartier, Dakar (December) – Senegal’s largest film festival started in 1999. Today, filmmakers from the across the country come to showcase their work throughout Dakar.
- Senegazelle, Sine Saloum region (February and April), a women-only running event in Senegal. All the funds and awareness raised go towards the women of Senegal.
- Magal de Touba – the Mouride and M’baye Fall brotherhood followers congregate in Touba to pray and visit shrines of the religious figures.
- Pilgrimage to Popenguine (May) – thousands of Catholics make a pilgrimage to a small cave close to the village of Popenguine.
- Kaay Fecc, Dakar (June) – a celebration of traditional and contemporary dance with the main focus being on African choreography, entertainment, and expression.
Public holidays in Senegal
- New Year’s Day
- Easter Monday
- Independence Day (April 4)
- Labour Day (May 1)
- Ascension Day
- Whit Monday
- Assumption Day
- Grand Magal of Touba
- All Saints’ Day
- Prophet Mohammad’s Birthday
- Christmas Day
Cultural customs to be aware of in Senegal
A lot of Senegalese are very understanding of western cultures, with some even adopting western-style dress but it’s still important to be mindful of local customs and beliefs. Keep public displays of affection to a minimum as they won’t be that well received. Although alcohol is available in bars, restaurants and liquor stores as the population is predominately Muslim, be considerate, particularly during religious holidays.
Dress appropriately when entering religious buildings and take extra caution during religious festivals. For example, during Ramadan try to avoid eating and drinking on the street during daylight hours to be mindful to those abstaining. If you’re eating with your hands, be sure to eat with your right hand only and keep the left off the plate.
Where to stay in Senegal
I always use Booking.com to book hotels for my travels. It has a bunch of filtering options so I can easily get a list of only those hotels that meet my criteria – like offering free WiFi and breakfast. If you’re looking for accommodation in Senegal, I highly recommend you check there.
On the occasions that I want to book an apartment rather than a hotel, I use airbnb. If you don’t have an airbnb account yet, you can sign up using my link to get a discount on your first stay.
Don’t forget travel insurance
No matter how well you plan and research a trip, there are always things that happen beyond your control. Something might get canceled, you can get ill or hurt while traveling or one of your electronics might break or get stolen. When misfortune strikes, travel insurance has got you covered. I’ve had ongoing travel insurance ever since I started traveling to make sure I’m covered for every trip I go on. Don’t have insurance yet? You can get a free quote here:
Basic phrases and their pronunciation
How are you?
I’m fine, thanks
Do you speak English?
I don’t understand
Please speak more slowly
Where is the toilet?
How much is it?
Reduce your price!
What is your name?
My name is…
Mangi dem (man-gee-dem)
Bu la neexee (boo la ney·khey)
Na nga def (nan-ga-def)
Maa ngi fi (man-gi-fi)
Ndax dégg nga angale? (ndakh deg nguh an·ga·ley)
Ndax men nga wax ndank su la neexee
Baal ma (baal-ma)
Ana wanaag wi (ana-wan-aag-wee)
Ñaata lay jar (ni-ata-lay-jar)
Seer na lóol!
Tahawal fee (ta-ha-wal-fee)
Nanga tudd (nan-ga-tud)
Maa ngi tudd (man-gee-tud)
Is Senegal safe to visit?
So, is it safe to travel to Senegal, Yes! Actually, Senegal is known as one of the safest countries to travel in West Africa. The country has a relatively low rate of crime and disease, especially compared to most other countries in the region. Most visitors tend to have a hassle-free and safe journey but there are still a few things to be on the lookout for.
Although the rate of Malaria has dropped over recent years, you should still take precautions especially if you’re heading inland particularly during rainy season. The majority of tourist areas such as Dakar and Saint-Louis are low-risk areas.
There is a risk of ongoing Zika virus transmission in Senegal so use mosquito spray during the day as well. The country can be vulnerable to flooding so always check ahead before traveling.
Don’t leave your bags unattended and be careful in crowds. Pickpocketing and bag snatching isn’t uncommon, especially in high-tourist areas.
One of the biggest threats to safety in Senegal is the roads. Poor rides combined with chaotic drivers mean it can be a little hair-raising, so it’s best to travel by road during the day only. Tourists are targets for scams and Senegal is no different, be aware and use common sense.
Due to the current presidential elections, there is a higher chance of demonstrations or protests. Try and avoid these where possible as even peaceful demonstration can become violent. In the past, the Casamance region has suffered from violence but the situation has improved significantly but best to be vigilant and avoid traveling at night and stick to the main tourist paths and cities.
The use of cash and cards in Senegal
American Express is the most widely accepted credit card but is limited to only major establishments that cater specifically to tourists. It’s better to always carry enough cash on you to cover all your needs.
Exercise caution when using ATM’s as credit card fraud isn’t uncommon. ATM’s tend to only be found in the major cities, and at times can run out of cash. So, it’s best to bring enough money with you from home. Traveler’s cheques are another option, they can be cashed in Dakar.
Tipping in Senegal
Tipping isn’t very common nor is it generally expected in Senegal though it may be expected when visiting tourist hotspots. Read this for more detailed information on tipping in Senegal.
A brief history of Senegal
Senegal’s earliest civilizations settled around the Senegal River over 350,000 years ago. In the 8th century, Senegal was part of the Ghana Empire and the Djolof Kingdom. It became part of the Mal Empire in 1235 and the smaller Wolof Empire gained full independence in 1360.
The Wolof Empire was at the height of its power when the Portuguese arrived in 1444. The first Europeans to visit present-day Senegal, the first slaves to be exported from Senegal were war captives the Wolof bought to the Portuguese. The Dutch went on to establish a slave port on the island of Goree and the French founded Saint-Louis which later became a key slave-trading port.
In 1677, the French took over the island of Goree from the Dutch. After the Seven Years’ War and Napoleonic Wars, France extended its influence and gained control of all the territory of Senegal. In 1895, Senegal became part of French West Africa and then joined the French Union in 1946.
In June 1960, Senegal became independent. The early 80s saw the beginning of an ongoing separatist rebellion in the southern region of Casamance.
After 25 years as opposition leader, Abdoulaye Wade, was finally given a chance in a fair election in 2000. He came into power and Senegalese democracy was strengthened.
The country was hit by tragedy in 2002 when the ferry MS Joola capsized leaving almost 2000 dead. Battles with southern Casamance separatists were ended in 2004 with a peace treaty, There have been several political protests over the past years but the country has become one of Africa’s most stable and peaceful nations.
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