Mali's capital city (pop. 1,379,000), which lies astride the Niger River, is a great place to just people-watch and walk around. Although the original colonial-style Grand Marche burned down in 1993, the merchants continue to set up their stalls inside the market grounds in the city center, which lies on the river's north bank. The market has bargains on masks, food, rugs and pottery. Nearby is the Artisanat (carvings and leather handicrafts), where we enjoyed watching Malian artwork being made as well as sold. The market is a great place to find recordings of the ebullient local music. Just opposite the cassette sellers are the traditional medicine vendors, who sell an assortment of porcupine quills, dried birds, monkey heads, tusks and other curiosities that are said to cure any ailment. Other markets whose wares include masks and musical instruments line the Niger River. Wherever you shop, be prepared to bargain.

The city has plenty of colonial buildings. The Musee National, between the Presidential Palace and Omnisport Stadium, is worth a visit (textiles, masks and statuary). If you find yourself in the smart quartiere, or suburb, of Niarela, northeast of the city center, stop in the Campagnard restaurant and hotel, an air-conditioned expat hangout where you can exchange currency and traveler's checks. Bamako's best supermarket, Le Metro, is just underneath the Campagnard, and nearby is one of our favorite restaurants, Cafe Bozo. North of Bamako is Point G, a hill of ancient abandoned houses, rock paintings and a wonderful view of the city. Plan to spend two days in Bamako.

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