Banjul

Sunseekers with a taste for adventure are increasingly heading for the colourful Republic of Gambia, one of the smaller African nations and one that is steeped in fascinating local culture and history, dotted with spectacular palm-lined beaches and populated by magnificent wildlife as well as friendly and welcoming locals. Whilst the country's rise in popularity as a tourist destination has seen a number of hotel resorts spring up along the beautiful Gambian coastline, it happily lacks the over-development of many European beach destinations and still abounds with opportunities for getting off the beaten track and back to nature.

Most international visitors to the Gambia will arrive at the capital, Banjul, whose international airport serves charter flights from the UK and other European destinations. Whilst many of the established tourist resorts lie a few kilometres up the coast from Banjul, the capital itself offers plenty of attractions for visitors. Whilst perhaps not the best base for pampered visitors looking for Western-style resort hotels, there are some good accommodation options to be found here, from the scattering of hotels aimed at business travellers to some charming smaller bed and breakfasts and guest houses.

The capital is located at the mouth of the mighty River Gambia, on the area known as Saint Mary's Island. A small city by international standards, it is a curious combination of modern high rise office buildings, shanty towns and historic buildings. Not a city for the faint hearted traveller, Banjul's streets are a noisy mix of honking vehicles, rushing pedestrians and lively street markets, all of which contribute to a colourful, if somewhat chaotic, atmosphere.

Originally known as Bathurst, Banjul was founded at the beginning of the 19th Century by the British Army, with the aim of providing a military base to prevent the trafficking of slaves along the River Gambia. When the country was declared independent of Britiain in the 1960s, the capital's name was changed to Banjul.

The city itself is home to a population of just 35,000, although the wider Greater Banjul region takes in some 400,000 permanent residents. Navigating the city centre is reasonably simple, despite the noisy and chaotic street scene, as the streeets are designed around the simple-to-use grid simple, making it difficult to ever get seriously lost whilst taking a sightseeing tour of the Gambian capital. The city boasts plenty of traditional restaurants serving spicy Gambian dishes, as well as international cuisine. There are also a good number of late night bars and a handful of nightclubs catering to party-loving visitors to the area.

The heart of the city centre is concentrated around the lively 22 July Square, where vendors and shoppers crush around the fascinating Albert Market. Here, visitors can shop for everything from herbal medicines and fiery spices to local handicrafts and clothing - don't be at all surprised to see knock-off versions of international brand names here. Bargaining is part of the shopping experience at the Albert Market, although international visitors should be aware that they will inevitably be charged a higher price than the locals. Tourists are considered to be very wealthy by local standards and therefore vendors will quite naturally try to make as much money from the transaction as possible. Whilst shopping at the Albert Market is relatively safe, take care to keep valuables hidden and follow the usual big city precautions such as keeping money in a front pocket (never the back pockets) and using rucksacks on the front of the body rather than the back.

Whilst Banjul is well worth a few days stopover to soak up the colourful culture and energetic atmosphere, most visitors will also want to explore further afield. The capital is connected to the mainland by bridges and by passenger ferries and lies within easy reach of more luxurious hotel complexes at the many tourist resorts that dot the nearby coastline. From Banjul, visitors can arrange trips up the glorious sunny coast, as well as land and river excursions, taking in the magnificent flora and fauna of this wildlife-rich part of the world.

Trips up the River Gambia are hugely popular with tourists and range from back-to-basics excursions for seasoned travellers to luxurious river cruises for those who wish to take things a little easier. Keep an eye out for hippos and crocodiles, as well as the hundreds of varities of colourful birdlife that are native to the country. Overland jungle tours, safaris and nature treks can also be arranged, with visitors using Banjul as a base for expeditions into the rich inland.

Banjul International Airport is served by charter flights from several UK airports, including Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, London Gatwick and London Stansted. Local transport is an interesting if somewhat bone-rattling experience aboard the local buses, whilst tour operators' coaches offer rather more comfortable transfers from the capital to nearby beach resorts.


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