Whether you’re arriving from the neighboring Mauritania or coming in via the four hour drive from Dakar, Saint Louis is a city that will surely charm you. I first became curious about visiting after seeing photos on Instagram (of course); its vibrant colors and beach town allure were hard not to be impressed with. But after digging a little deeper, I discovered N’dar (as it is locally know in Wolof), had far more to offer than just beautiful aesthetics. Rich in history and culture, the city carries strong remnants of past colonial times and once served as the French colonial capital of West Africa and city capital of Senegal. And while it is now cloaked in a slightly dilapidated grandeur - its narrow, provincial streets, brightly colored colonial-era buildings, and elaborately dressed people was enough to leave me utterly fascinated.
3-4 days is more than enough time to explore and absorb what the city has to offer.
If you're coming from Dakar, it's relatively easy to take various kinds of taxis into Saint Louis. If you want to take public transport, you'll need to go to the gare routière, where there are cars leaving for Saint Louis relatively frequently. A few transport options to consider:
Private Car: You can make arrangements with local taxi drivers or private car service providers to take you directly to Saint Louis. I recommend this if you want to take your time to get there and stop along the way, or just have complete privacy while en route. Sept Places Taxis (seven seat taxis): These are private cars that have now been converted for public transport. Seven people can fit in them, thus its name. Unlike other public transport, these do not stop until they reach their final destination . And while they are pretty comfortable, I recommend you get in early enough to take the front seat (the back seats can get a bit squished). You also have the option to buy out multiple seats or the whole car for comfort. Minicars: These are a lot less spacious than the sept places, but also slightly cheaper. Before leaving for Saint Louis, they wait for all fifteen passengers to get on and make several stops along the way.
Where to Stay
If you’re a fan of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown”, you may have already been introduced to two of the people behind my favorite places to stay.
Au fil du Flueve: Hands down one of the most beautiful guesthouses I have ever seen, and the loveliest place to stay on the island. It’s owned and run by a wonderfully inspiring woman, Marie-Caroline Camara, who is just such a delight and a wealth of knowledge. The combination of modernity and tradition throughout the property is masterful – the courtyard’s ground is sandy, in line with local tradition, while the rooms are sharply modern. What I found to be most charming, however, was her love for books and supporting local artists, which are both obviously displayed through the guesthouse. If all of that isn’t enough to peek your interest, her breakfasts are legendary, where she serves homemade jams and feasts steeped in local tradition.
Les Comptoire du Flueve: Another beautiful property that is more of an art gallery than a guesthouse and owned by city ambassador, Amadou Diaw (aka Doudou). What I loved most about the property (more than the sleek and gorgeous architecture), was the amount of local history he preserves through photography he has on display.
In the event these are both booked up (which is very likely), a few other great options are:
Where to Eat
La Linguere: While you can easily have great meals at hotels, I strongly recommend that you stop by here for a taste of amazing local food. Particularly for the local meals like Yassa Poisson or Yassa Poulet, which is a flavorful mix of onions, garlic and lemon served with chicken or fish, or the national dish Thieboudienne (pronounced cheb-oo-jen), which is a disarmingly simple looking but rather complex dish of fish, tomato, rice and vegetables. Thieboudienne is also said to have been created in Saint Louis, so this obviously where you want to have it. Be sure to try Thioff a la Saint Louisienne here as well.
La Crepe Saint Louisienne: This little restaurant was one of my favorites for a quick bite while wandering Saint Louis’ narrow streets. They had several amazing options (both savory and sweet), and served them with some equally amazing juices.
Ndar Ndar Music Cafe: A unique and delightful coffee shop in town that serves everything from actual brewed coffee (not instant coffee), cool art, speciality drinks (camel milk…?!), and Senegalese juices. It’s another great place to take a break from exploring the city and absorb nice vibes and enjoy their cool decor. Make sure to have a peak in the back at the nice variety of CD’s they also have on sale in the back - they have everything from Jazz to Afro beats.
Le Ponton: This one is part of Hotel Sindoné, this was a great place to have dinner. Their food is great (though it takes a while), cocktails are nice, and they have a really lovely view of the river.
Things to Do
Visit Mupho Saint Louis, a newly opened museum and photography gallery celebrating and showcasing various Senegalese photographers.
Faidherbe Bridge, which you will have to cross to even reach the island. This is the city’s most recognizable landmark, which is a 100 year old structure designed by Gustave Eiffel.
Discover the Architecture. There’s a plethora of vibrant and beautifully decaying buildings, so get lost and wander the city’s provincial streets. The city is easily walkable, but you can also rent bikes or a horseback carriage if you’d like.
Attend the Saint Louis Jazz festival. This of course will depend on the timing of your visit, but if you’re in town in May you definitely should not miss it.
View the art of sculptor Meissa Fall. He’s located just next to Au fil du Flueve and transforms iron scraps and bicycle parts into art.
Visit Langue de Barberie, which is actually part of the National park and about 45 minutes outside of Saint Louis. I particularly enjoyed staying at Ocean et Savane where you can relax on the beach or take a pirogue (canoe) out to see dolphins or bird watch. If you’re interested in seeing its more local and gritty side, stop by the fishing village Guet N'Dar where you can watch the docked pirogues go out in the morning.
Shops to Visit
Keur Dabakk Malick Beudeu - My friends and I stumbled on this shop accidentally when walking through town and left completely in awe. While this is primarily a family owned clothing store, the owner is somewhat of a historian who has preserved at least 4 generations of Senegalese culture through photographs and hung them throughout the shop. It was fascinating listening to him tell the stories both his family and Saint Louis and be reminded that Saint Louis’ history did not start with colonialism.
L’agneau Carnivore Bookstore - has a great collection of African books and photography.
Tësss - A local textile and accessories shop (which means “beautiful” in Wolof ) that specializes in preserving the traditional weaving techniques from the southern Senegalese region of Casamance. There is also an artist residency, so depending on what time you go, you may have the chance to see the artisans at work. Definitely worth a visit.
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