Niger's capital, located in the far western region of the country, is a lively, fairly modern city of 748,600. Niamey offers unique open-air markets that are great for people-watching—they're patronized by members of the Tuareg, Sonuri and Fulani tribes. The grande marche, or main market, in the center of town is a fascinating maze of stalls and counters selling virtually everything, from cloth and meat to fancy new stereo equipment. Close by is the petite marche, a smaller version of the grande marche, and Score, a large Lebanese-owned grocery store selling good French foods (at a hefty price). Next to the petite marche is a line of stalls known in the expat community as "rip-off row," where you'll find a great selection of woodwork, clothing, arts and crafts, presided over by zealous salespeople who love the sight of foreigners. If you bargain hard, you can get a lot of good stuff.

The town's other main attractions are the Grand Mosque (ask permission before entering) and the outdoor National Museum, one of the finest museums in Africa (it displays local artifacts, cultural exhibits and even animals—although the bare cages and neurotic animals are heart-wrenching to see). The museum also houses an artisans cooperative, where the quality is first-rate (the jewelry is particularly fine) and the prices are a little high, yet reasonable (and surprisingly nonnegotiable).

The city's stadium, the Stade du 29 Juillet, sometimes has sporting events, soccer being far and away the most popular. The Franco-Nigerien cultural center is a well-managed facility with state-of-the-art information systems, a well-endowed library, a nice bar and cafe and an amphitheater used for French and African film screenings, performance art and dramatic productions. Just across town, on the Rue des Ambassades, the U.S. recreation center has a softball field, a pool, a basketball court and a diner.

There are numerous bars and restaurants in Niamey, and even the odd nightclub. Three open-air cinemas can be found in the city.

For more adventurous outings, it's possible to take a ride in a pirogue (dugout canoe) on the Niger to see hippos in pools.

For an interesting day trip, go to the market town of Baleyara, about 60 mi/100 km northeast of Niamey on a good paved road. Though some areas have a seamy, road-stop appearance, most of the town and surrounding bush is framed majestically by towering acacia trees. Although Baleyara is primarily a Djerma-speaking area, there are many villages of Bella Tuaregs to be found, and it is located near the transition zone to the Hausa-speaking areas to the north.

Another interesting side trip is to Koure, a small town about 30 mi/50 km southeast of Niamey. Although it's not found on many maps, it is important as the center of an area roamed by a herd of giraffes—the last remaining free-range herd in West Africa. The area is not controlled in any way, but there are trained guides in Koure who know the trails, the movement patterns of the giraffes and the local ecology (beware of false guides on the road to Koure). They command a flat fee and willingly accept tips but do not have their own vehicles. The best way to see the giraffes is by four-wheel-drive vehicle, and the dry season (November-February) is the best time to see them. Koure is located just south of the paved road heading east out of Niamey toward Dosso. 450 mi/725 km west of Zinder.

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