Wondering whether The Gambia is worth visiting? Here are 17 excellent reasons to visit The Gambia, plus a few home truths you need to know before you go.
17 Reasons to Visit The Gambia
Nicknamed the smiling coast of Africa, The Gambia remains a mystery to many in Europe and the US. Yet the smallest country in mainland Africa has plenty to offer different groups of travellers.
Beach lovers can soak up the sun on the shores of the Atlantic – even in winter. Twitchers can peep through the leaves. And anyone interested in a different culture and cuisine, a look at a different way of life, will thrill at the energy of Serrekunda city and chill on the waters near Makasutu Forest.
And me? I loved a little bit of it all. Especially my foray into Gambian cuisine, and the colour and culture that surrounded it.
So if you’re asking me if The Gambia is worth it? I’ll answer with a big fat yes. But let’s not hold back on the detail. Let me share with you all the joyous, joyful and juicy reasons why I would recommend you visit The Gambia. Plus a few things you need to know as well.
Disclosure – I travelled to The Gambia recently as a guest of The Gambia Experience. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Also, if you book or buy through any of the links on this page, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Cheers!
Where Is The Gambia?
The Gambia squeezes into western Africa as a sliver of land around the River Gambia itself. It’s entirely surrounded by Senegal save for the small coast that opens onto the Atlantic Ocean.
What Is so Special about The Gambia?
Besides its unusual borders, The Gambia makes a great travel destination for the following reasons:
Sweet, Sweet Sunshine
When the cold begins to bite in the northern hemisphere, the smallest country in Africa shrugs its shoulders in the sun. The Gambia has a subtropical climate with two seasons: the dry season, which lasts from the end of October to the beginning of June, and the green or rainy season, which runs from around mid-June to mid-October. The average temperatures stay between 29°C and 34°C, and there is always plenty of sunshine, no matter when you plan your holiday.
The best time to visit it is during the winter months in Europe.
A Gentle Introduction to Africa
For first time visitors to sub-Saharan Africa, The Gambia can soften the culture shock. Under British control until independence in 1965, The Gambia’s official language is still English and you’ll find English widely spoken as you travel.
The coastal areas are well used to tourists, with tried and tested routes to and from the airport and British food available in most resorts. Tour operators know the country well and taxi drivers recognise all the main hotels.
Soft Sandy Beaches and No Crowds
Simply put, the beaches in The Gambia are stunning. Long, soft and sandy with some private rocky coves, beaches in The Gambia are for living life to the full.
While some hotels have private or secluded beaches, in most of the country, the beach is where people work and play.
Whether that’s wading out to greet fishermen as they return with their catch of the day, or playing football with friends, or splashing around with the kids, the beach is where the action is.
The most popular beaches in The Gambia are Kololi and Kotu, while Cape Point is a little quieter. Ngala Lodge has a completely secluded beach with walls of natural rock.
No Jet Lag and Quite a Short Flight
Now, obviously, this does depend on where you’re coming from. But if, like me, you’re starting your journey in the UK, then it may come as surprise to learn that The Gambia is in the same time zone.
The flight’s quite short, too. Just a mere six hours between London Gatwick and the airport at Banjul.
Barcelona, Madrid, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Oslo, and Brussels also offer direct flights to The Gambia that last just a few hours.
It’s such a bonus to make the most of your trip without losing a day or two dealing with jet lag. Instead, you can plan activities for the day you arrive and get on with it!
Beautiful Spas and Wellness Facilities
It’s not all about action. You can find calm spaces and quiet spas, like the one at the Coco Ocean Resort. Bliss.
The Gambia has rich wildlife and offers plenty of opportunities to see it where it belongs – in the wild. Although you won’t find big game there, you can have an exciting mini safari. And bring the binoculars because you’re going to see plenty of birds.
Over 560 Bird Species
In The Gambia, cattle egrets, peacocks, hooded vultures, and many other species visit the gardens of hotels to get food. Senegambia Hotel, for example, runs vulture feeding sessions on their lawns and you can see birds circling above as the hour draws nearer.
To see birds in their natural habitat, arrange a hike through the Gambia River Natural Park and check out this guide from my colleague and friend on birdwatching in The Gambia.
Sometimes, it feels as though crocodiles are everywhere in The Gambia. They certainly are at the Kachikally Crocodile Pool. This spine tingling strange spot has a curious story behind it and local people believe that it’s sacred: a visit here will boost your fertility.
The crocodiles are accustomed to people and even let you touch them. Not that I would. But people do.
You can expect to see vervet monkeys and bush babies in The Gambia, even within hotels.
But for some serious primate watching, the best place to visit is apparently the Abuko Nature Reserve. Not only is it worth visiting for the red patas and baboons but you can also see crocodiles, antelopes, cobras, and maybe even a green mamba.
The Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project is home to over 100 chimps, in the heart of the River Gambia National Park. The conservation project began in 1979 and is open to the public for two days each week. It’s definitely going on my Gambia bucket list.
Fishing or Lazy-Day River Cruises
Not surprisingly, the Gambia River is a highlight in the country. Fishing trips head along the water in search of barracuda and tarpon. And pleasure boats drift along on lazy-day river cruises.
Passengers can eat on deck, watching the pelicans slicing through the sky, waiting for the thick red sun to sink into the river.
If you don’t have time to make it on to the Gambia River, you can take to the water on one of the tributaries instead. We did this at Mandina Lodge, with Sana, our guide, directing us through the mangroves of Bolong creek. On just this one trip, we saw cashew trees, pied kingfishers, yellow fronted tinker birds, vultures, and ahinga, the African snake bird.
In the creeks, saltwater and freshwater mix and mingle, so you can find angelfish, frog fish, sting rays beneath the water and up to 144 types of butterfly above.
Women gather oysters between the black and red mangroves here and if you time your visit right (we didn’t!) you can buy a handful to try.
Rich Art, Culture & Tradition
Culture and art covers such a huge topic that it’s hard to know where to begin. Perhaps, I’ll share with you one of my favourite Gambian sayings: you can put a stick in the water but it will never be a crocodile.
And now that we’ve broken the ice, here are even more reasons why The Gambia is worth visiting.
Museums and Notable Buildings
Classic highlights in the capital city of Banjul include the National Museum, St. Mary Cathedral, the Banjul State House, and the King Fahad Mosque.
Another important attraction is the UNESCO World Heritage Site on Kunta Kinteh Island, which played a big part in the slave trade business before abolition.
Those are still on my list for my next visit, but the small museum at the Kachikally crocodile pool is surprisingly revealing. There, you can see traditional costumes, read information about the practise of circumcision, consider changing thoughts about the colonial period and the political landscape since independence.
There’s also a thought-provoking section on how Gambian soldiers fought in the World Wars for the Allies and how they were treated on their return.
Now, granted I’m no expert in this, but juju refers to a range of spiritual practices found across this region in Africa. In The Gambia, the Kachikally Museum tells me, amulets like the cowrie shell can help to win the love of a girl. Or bracelets made from the fibres of the baobab tree can create a bullet proof aura. At the the other end of the scale is the claws of a wild bear, sheathed in red leather and authorised for use only by the elders of a village. It is said to have the power to kill someone simply by rubbing it in their footsteps in the ground.
Traditional Gambian music blends with that from Senegal and the musical instruments make the most of local natural resources. First, there is the balafon, a kind of wooden xylophone, and the krin or African log drum. The bolon is a kind of a harp with a bulbous base that needs to be gripped by the knees.
Mandina Lodge hosts cultural concerts where you can see these instruments in action. On our visit, the band consisted of members from Guinea, Mali and The Gambia itself.
Souvenirs are nothing new but it’s always special to see talented people in action. Expect to find hand woven baskets, brightly coloured clothes and hand carved masks, ornaments and furniture that you can buy to take home.
The tradition of wrestling in The Gambia stretches all the way back to the 13th century. Even today, successful wrestlers are held high in high regard, seen as powerful men with a strong spirit. You can see a wrestling match in Serrekunda and at a few other spots around the country. The best way to arrange this is to book a visit through a local guide or ask a Gambian friend to accompany you.
Plenty of restaurants serve traditional food, especially in the capital. But for the ultimate culinary experience in The Gambia, you need to go to someone’s house.
And that’s possible. Ida Cham runs courses on Gambian cuisine from her home near Yabouy. You start the day by touring the Tanji fish market and then chat, peel, boil, clean and sift your way through a new recipe while learning how to play the game of wurro. It’s an amazing experience and was one of the highlights of my trip – and year. Find out how to arrange this cooking class here.
One of the most common dishes served in a Gambian home is domoda, an African peanut stew that comes with white rice and a slightly sweet sensation. Benachin and chicken yassa are also popular dishes, washed down with palm wine or baobab juice. You’ll find plenty of options when it comes to checking out traditional drinks in The Gambia. And most Gambian cuisine uses a lot of fish, rice, chicken, tomatoes, okra, and other vegetables, as well as lot of fruit.
Read more about Gambian cuisine here.
How to Make it Happen
You can book a stay in The Gambia through the tour operator The Gambia Experience. They are the only UK company with a charter flight to Banjul and they offer a range of luxury and more affordable hotels.
Once you’ve decided that it’s worth visiting The Gambia, book in advance, especially if you’re hoping to travel around Christmas, New Year’s Eve, or Easter. Those are peak booking times and the most popular hotels get fully booked at those times of the year.
Is The Gambia safe?
Overall, The Gambia is a very safe country but there are some things you need to know. To make sure you travel safely, pay attention to the following:
- Keep an eye on your belongings (bag, phone, wallet,) as they may get stolen, especially in crowded areas. Leave particularly valuable items at home.
- Walking alone on the beach at night can be dangerous, so try to get back to your hotel before sunset.
- Don’t leave large amounts of money or valuable objects in your hotel room, and lock the door even when you are inside.
- Young men known as ‘bumsters’ may approach you on the beach to convince you to give them money. Decline their offers firmly but politely. They will eventually leave you alone.
- When taking a taxi, agree on a price in advance.
- The Gambia has an unfortunate reputation for sex tourism. Don’t get involved.
- Remember to be respectful about water and electricity in a country where 50% of the population is not connected to the grid and plenty have trouble accessing clean drinking water.
- Be ready to haggle at the markets.
- Always ask permission before taking photos of people’s faces.
- The Gambia is a Muslim country, so dress conservatively and avoid see through clothes. It’s fine to wear beach wear in the resorts but not a good idea to do so outside.
- Visit your doctor or other healthcare professional at least six weeks before your trip. Most people require some vaccinations and will be advised to take antimalarials.
- Bring insect repellent to avoid being bitten.
- Bring lightweight clothes for any wildlife experiences. Check out this article and video on what to wear in the jungle here.
The Gambian Experience – Is It Worth It?
So, is it worth visiting The Gambia?
A visit to The Gambia is an adventure drenched in sunshine. Most visitors love it and plan to return again. I certainly did. A few people find the culture shock a little too much to handle.
Either way, The Gambia is worth visiting for all the powerful things you can learn about the country – and about yourself.
If you want to get a taste of an African country without straying too far from your comfort zone, then The Gambia is a great place to start.
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