Banjul, officially the City of Banjul (former name Bathurst until 1973), is the capital of the Republic of The Gambia, in West Africa, as well as the administrative centre of the country and the seat of government.
The port city has a population of about 31,000 and is divided into 3 districts. Its land area is 12 sq km (4.6 sq. mi), and it is located on Saint Mary’s Island, at the southern part of the Gambia River ria estuary.
The Banjul capital is not usually the first stop for most visitors on flights to The Gambia; after landing at Yundum Airport, most tourists go straight to the beach resort hotels along the Atlantic coast, which are mostly in Bijilo, Brufut, Kololi, Kotu and Kerr Sering. There is however the beach based, 4 star, Atlantic Hotel.
There are three routes into the capital. If you are travelling by road from southern Gambia, the coastal resorts or from the airport past Serrekunda, you take the Banjul-Serrekunda Highway, driving past thick banks of mangroves in the Tanbi Wetland Complex to your right, on the way to Oyster Creek, which separates the mainland from the island, and is traversed by Denton Bridge.
After the bridge, the road traces the west coastline of St. Mary’s Island, until forking at Independence Drive, with Arch 22 in front of you, Wallace Cole Road to your right, Marina Parade to your left.
The second route is to detour just before the city by turning right into Bund Road; this takes you to the ports area.
The third route is from the north bank of the Gambia River or northern Senegal, through the Amdalai / Karang border crossing; you go by road to the ferry terminal at Barra (Niumi District) on the north bank of the Gambia River, from which a scheduled ferry service takes you across the river to the terminal on Liberation Avenue in city’s southern commercial district.
Outside the terminal turn right to go towards the Royal Albert Market and the Atlantic Hotel; turn left and follow the Kankujereh Road north west to connect with the highway heading back towards Serrekunda. Lots of attractions in this city you cannot afford to miss.
- Arch 22
As you approach the end of the main highway leading into Banjul you will see to your right the rather futuristic looking parliament building. Then straight ahead is a roundabout with a statue of a soldier in the centre holding a small child, and above and behind is the Arch 22, which stands astride at the entrance to Independence Drive.
Standing high at 35m it is a huge, cream-coloured, free-standing monument, built to commemorate the 22 July, 1994 bloodless coup when a young army officer, Yahya Jammeh, took control of the country by ousting President Jawara.
It offers great views over the city, coastal areas, the river and the mangroves of the Tanbi Wetland Complex. The skyline of Banjul is also graced by the twin minarets of the King Fahad Mosque and the State House, built by the Portuguese.
On the top floor is a small museum housing ethnographic Gambian artifacts such a traditional textiles, agricultural tools and weapons such as bamboo bows and arrows and wooden swords.
- Albert Market
One of the biggest tourists’ attractions in Banjul is the Royal Albert Market; it is a relaxed and oddly organised version of the everything-under-the-Sun style of market ubiquitous throughout West Africa.
It is a maze of stalls and shops adequately spaced by paved walkways. Behind the main front façade, arcade, is two floors of numbered and roller-shuttered shops. On the top floor tailors work in both side by side.
In the first entrance alley you walk past the gauntlet of hawkers and ghetto blasters on both sides, giving you stereo music from different tracks.
The food stalls offer typical West African cooking ingredients such as yellow, orange and deep red chilli peppers, tamarind, Okra (ladies fingers), bitter tomatoes, smoked catfish, very pungent, chopped and dried sea snails, dark palm oil, peanut past, a salted and dried pungent fish called ‘gaija’.
There are also seasonal fruits on display such as oranges, lemons, mangos, papaya and watermelons as well as imported apples and grapes. Groceries are sold in variable quantities, from rice by the cup full to cooking oil in 20 litre plastic bottle containers.
There are also stalls offering beauty products like shea butter, lipstick, hair-extensions, hand-made and imported soap, and household items of every kind such as buckets, cups, fans, flip-flops, sunglasses, perfumes, incense, fulano powder, traditional medicines, clocks, key-holders etc.
There are some good bargains to be had in clothing from the Far East, and fabrics such as wax prints, cottons and designed damask in vibrant colours. There is also a brisk trade in second-hand garments which arrive in Gambia mostly from Europe.
You can find a number of fetish stalls, selling goat horns, loose cowrie shells, African trade beads, kola nuts and the aptly named bitter kola and much more.
As you go deeper into the market you will find the Banjul Tourist Craft Market (bengdula). There is a varied selection of batiks, leather goods, cheap and valuable jewellery such as bangles, silver necklaces and bracelets, djembe drums, etc. There are also a few stalls selling antiques such as wooden masks from the West Africa region.
- Commercial Area
Albert Market spills out into the neighbouring road called Liberation Avenue and adjacent roads, where stores and stalls sell mostly cheaper, low quality clothing and footwear, plus a potpourri of household items and counterfeit CDs.
There are also fabric importers who also distribute to the public on a retail basis, and offer an excellent range of imported fabrics in African and overseas designs. You can find many goods often sold at higher prices in Europe a lot cheaper in and around the market – as for quality the old doctrine of caveat emptor applies.
Remember that as a general rule you need to try to haggle prices down by 30% to 40% lower than the initial asking price – 1/3 reductions is a good, general rule to remember. If you can’t agree on a price then walk away, many will call you back, and that is a sign they are prepared to go lower, even if they don’t say so immediately.
A worthwhile place to visit is the shop at the St. Joseph’s Adult Education and Skills Centre. Based inside a colonial Portuguese building, the centre has provided skills training to disadvantaged women aged between 16 – 26 for over two decades.
Here you can buy handmade clothes, knitted items, embroidered purses or take a tour of the sewing, crafts and tie-dye classes. It is open weekdays in the mornings to early afternoons except for Friday when they close at mid-day.
- Gambia National Museum
The museum is in Banjul’s northern sector on Independence Drive and was officially opened on 18th February, 1985. Within the pleasant front garden of tamarisk and palm there is a drinks stand and shaded seating area as well as toilets, administrative buildings and stores. The building used to house the Bathurst Club house consisting of European members only.
Even though it is quite small, cramped, and dimly lit, it contains some interesting, though sometimes not easy to find, artifacts – some a bit dog-eared, yearning for restoration. As you are about to enter the main hall you will see a Kankurang mask ‘guarding’ the door.
Inside the display hall you will find numbered exhibits in a semblance of a circuit, from the late 19th and 20th centuries.
You can find colonial era written and printed ephemera, including a passenger ticket from Bathurst to Liverpool on board the Elder Dempster Line’s ‘MV Apapa’ – a so called a banana boat, bananas being one of the chief exports of the Gold Coast at the time.
There is also a gathering of Oku marabout (Yoruba) pieces such as a bridal basket, waist beads called ‘bin bin’, an engagement calabash gourd, which would hold the bride’s kola nuts, dowry and other oddments.
The museum also collects books, colonial maps, traditional music string instruments, cooking utensils such as large wooden mortars and pestles, large calabash gourds, Neolithic pottery, masks, the bau / worro (holed board game), handicrafts, large paper model boats called fanals, prehistoric tools, historical documents and photographs relating to the material culture of The Gambia.
In some of the dimly lit corners, you’ll see, among the crumbling ethnographic pieces, revealing old maps, papers and information about local migrations and conflicts in the Senegambia region, a few captivating pictures of kora players called jali, as well as masked dance ceremonies from an earlier era.
Don’t miss the life-sized Kankurang – a potent spirit incarnate, covered in baobab bark (from whom women, children and the uncircumcised must hide).
- Bird Watching
If you are keen on bird watching then head toward the most southerly road in the Banjul capital called the Kankujereh Road (Bund Rd.) which passes through bird rich saltwater wetland habitats with numerous bird species.
It goes past the Gambia River estuary mudflats to your left with its rusting, mud sunken ships which are home to cormorants and pelicans roosts. At low tide, the mudflats are used as feeding grounds by striated herons, African spoonbills, gulls, waders and terns.
To your right is some re-claimed land followed by the Tanbi Wetland Complex of mangroves to your right and left. Here you might spot black headed plover, yellow billed storks, little grebe, or the Senegal thick-knee.
The best time to go is when there is light traffic such as after 11 am up to 5pm, but Fridays after 3pm and weekends are the best times to visit. Note: much of the area is strewn with scarp metal so sturdy boots and a stick might be useful.
- Sports Fishing
You could also go back towards the Denton Bridge and hire a local pirogue (long canoes – some with an outboard motor) which can take you out on the quiet waterways of Oyster Creek, which are rich fishing grounds for keen anglers.
The dense mangroves are particularly interesting and home to around 70 species of fish and other wildlife such as tilapia, mullets, Atlantic mudskippers, shrimps, crabs and mangrove oysters.
The fish fauna are of pelagic or demersal species in the fry, juvenile or sub-adult stages. You can also pick up a larger, more professional boat to take you up river or for some blue ocean sports fishing.
- Restaurants & Nightlife
Banjul has an acute dearth of restaurants, especially in the evenings, but there is still some good quality basic food served from local diners and fast food establishments during the day. The Ali Baba Snack Bar serves European and Lebanese snacks, dishes, cold drinks, and freshly squeezed fruit juices.
It’s ideally located in the commercial district and close to the market and shops. On the same road is the King of Shawarma Cafe which has similar Middle Eastern cuisine plus dishes like fish & chips.
If you feel the need to sit at a beach bar and restaurant facing the Atlantic Ocean then try Nefertiti Beach Bar, just off the entrance of Marina Parade, near the Arch 22.
It is at the end of the road leading past the registrar of companies and near the Atlantic Hotel; it is Lonely Planet’s top choice among the places to eat.
There is virtually nothing in the capital city by way of night clubs as most people have left the town by 7pm, not to return until the next working day. The only night spot worth visiting for tourists is at the Atlantic Hotel, which is elegant, air conditioned, and opens till late.
The people who do hang out in the evening are usually Gambians and foreigners, in front of their accommodation, drinking Attaya or visiting friends nearby, otherwise the streets are virtually empty.
The only sounds you’ll hear in the early evening are the various, distant calls of the muezzin, from minaret loudspeakers.
- War Memorial & Fountain, near MacCarthy Square, erected to commemorate the coronation of Britain’s King George VI in 1937. You can also visit MacCarthy Square which is surrounded by a colonial atmosphere, with eye-catching 19th-century architecture. It is used for public events such as Independence Day ceremonies, open concerts and cricket. There is also a children’s playground with a modern play area which has colourful slides, swings, rocking horses and a small course.