Founded in 1659, Saint Louis, Senegal, is the oldest French settlement in Africa. It started out on N'Dar Island, a few miles/kilometers upstream of the Senegal River mouth and 115 mi/185 km north of Dakar.
Today, Saint Louis spills over from the island to the Langue de Barbarie peninsula (the narrow sliver of sandy land that divides the river from the Atlantic) and the eastern mainland, but most of the hotels and historic buildings are still located on N'Dar.
The island and the mainland are connected by the Pont Faidherbe—a 1,640-ft/500-m bridge originally built by Gustav Eiffel to span the Danube.
Saint Louis' centuries-old buildings date from French colonial times and evoke a lost era, but they are complemented by a great selection of contemporary restaurants, bars and cafes. (For some, the faded grandeur of the island is tainted by a cadre of hustlers and con artists that prey upon tourists, but most are easily rebuffed and there is little to fear from them if you are vigilant.)
Just before dusk, go down to the harbor and watch as more than 400 fishing boats return home. It's a stirring sight. If you get up early the next morning, you can watch them all go back out. During the day, visit the market, the local museum and the fishermen's cemetery, which has fishing nets on all of the tombstones.
In modern times, Saint Louis is best known for hosting an internationally acclaimed jazz festival. Held every spring, the festival is a great time to be there, but hotels book far in advance, so plan ahead.
About 40 mi/65 km north of Saint Louis is Djoudj National Park and only 12 mi/20 km south of town is Parc National de la Langue de Barbarie. Barbarie is home to thousands of birds during the dry season, and the nearby Guembeul Faunal Reserve is home to introduced populations of Sahelian antelope such as Dama gazelle and scimitar-horned oryx.
If you have some extra time in the area, you might also consider an excursion to the villages of Podor and Matam. Although they're not usually included on Senegalese travel itineraries, their slower pace, Fulani culture and surrounding desert make them worth a side trip if you have the time. (The road connecting St. Louis with Podor and Matam is well-maintained.) Podor is also the birthplace of the internationally known musician Baaba Maal.
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