Best things to do in The Gambia

written by Lynn Houghton

updated 3.08.2023

Think of The Gambia and sun, sea and sand package holidays might spring to mind. However, many visitors are starting to explore beyond the beaches. This is Africa's smallest country and one of the best budget travel destinations. Our travel expert, Lynn Houghton, gives us the ultimate list of the best things to do in The Gambia.

The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guides guidebooks — your essential guides for visiting the world.

1. Discover the UNESCO-listed Wassu stone circles

About a five-hour drive from Banjul on the north bank of the River Gambia is the pre-historic sacred UNESCO site of the Wassu stone circles. The laterite stones, a rich deep mahogany colour, compare in age with Stonehenge in England and are thought to have had a religious purpose, marking burials here for 1500 years.

The museum has some interesting information but folklore is much more exciting: talk to the Stone Man, the site’s erstwhile caretaker. He says you can see lights shining from behind the stones at night – a common occurrence according to the superstitious locals.


Wassu stone circles © Shutterstock

2. See foraging chimps at the Chimp Rehabilitation Centre

Swinging from the treetops and squabbling with the baboons, West African Chimps are relishing their environment at the Chimp Rehabilitation Centre in the River Gambia National Park. They roam free on the Baboon Islands in the middle of the river, while rare red colobus monkeys congregate on the mainland.

The centre was started by Leslie Brewer-Marsden in 1979, The first chimps brought here were rescuées and mistreated pets, and there are now 107 completely wild chimpanzees that thrive on these three islands. From Thursday through Sunday, visitors can follow behind a feeding boat to see the chimps in their natural habitat as they come to the riverside to grab a meal.

Chimp on Island, River Gambia National Park, The Gambia, Africa

Gambia, National Park. Image by Lynn Houghton

3. Explore lush mangroves in the Matasuku Forest

Centuries of legend surround the ancient Matasuku Forest, a nearly pristine area of mangrove covering 17.5 square kilometres along a tributary named Mandinka Bolong. From time immemorial, the forest was a no-go area and was thought to be inhabited by demons and dragons.

A Mali King, along with his troops, once managed to make the forest his stronghold but he was ousted by a local tribe. According to folklore, the king’s head, throne and crown are buried somewhere on the land.

Today, things are more peaceful. The area has been developed into a sustainable tourism project, the Matasuku Cultural Forest, in partnership with the Gambian government and now includes lodges and a base camp with an arts and crafts market run by local Kembujeh villagers.

Baboon in Makasutu forest in Gambia © Shutterstock

Baboon in Matasuku forest in Gambia © Shutterstock

4. Spot rare birds at Bao Bolong Wetland Reserve

As the pre-dawn fog clears and the morning sun begins to rise, a visit to the Bao Bolong Nature Reserve is one of the best things to do in The Gambia for birdwatching. Over 500 species of birds are attracted to the River Gambia in all their feathered glory. Take a traditional boat from Tendaba Lodge, a mere seven kilometres away on the south side of the river, to spot rare African Finfoot or Fish Eagles.

Mandina Bolong Creek (Tributary), The Gambia, Africa

A visit to Bao Bolog Wetland Reserve is one of the best things to do in The Gambia @ Image by Lynn Houghton

5. Float down the River Gambia

Going canoeing along one of the River Gambia's creeks in a traditional fishing boat or dugout, called a pirogue, is one of the best things to do in The Gambia to cool off when temperatures soar. Rentals are available from Lamin Lodge, a wooden structure built on stilts over the water, or you can take a full-day trip in a larger motorised boat to explore Kunta Kinteh Island and enjoy a spot of fishing.

River Gambia near Makasutu forest in Gambia © Shutterstock

Canoeing in Gambia © Shutterstock

6. Visit traditional fishing villages

One of the best things to do in The Gambia to experience local life on the coast is to visit the vibrant, colourful coastal fishing market of Tanji in the Kombo region. Or, travel further south to the more authentic fishing village of Gunjur. The market is at its most frenetic at the crack of dawn, when the traditional fishing boats come to shore with their catch.

Though fishermen work at a feverish pace, women are equally busy hauling the fish from the boats into large baskets balanced on their heads. Take a wander along the shore and see other workers taking gutting and scaling the fish ready for sale; anyone can purchase a fresh seafood breakfast for a just few Dalasi.

Fishermen, Gunjur Village, Atlantic Coast, The Gambia

Gunjur Village, Atlantic Coast. Image by Lynn Houghton

7. Check out the street art scene

The art project Wide Open Walls has brought street artists from all over the world to adorn the walls of Galloya village with sophisticated graffiti art. Some of the work is representational, while some are wholly avant-garde, but all the murals are distinctive. The project is the brainchild of Lawrence Williams and has even inspired the village children to take up making art.

Lawrence and Gambian artist, Njogu, work as a pair and have named themselves the ‘Bush Dwellers’. Many street artists are publicity shy and prefer to be known by a name they choose for themselves that reflects their work.

8. Explore Bijilo Forest Park - one of the best things to do in The Gambia

Bijilo Forest Park, otherwise known as Bijilo Monkey Park, is a popular park in The Gambia, primarily known for its monkey population and diverse flora and fauna. Monkeys are accustomed to human presence so they can often be seen at close range, making a visit to the park one of the best things to do in The Gambia for experiencing wildlife.

Visitors to the park can also enjoy walking the well-maintained trails in the park, while bird lovers can choose to walk the so-called ornithological trail, with 133 bird species provided in the park.

Discover more African parks with our guide to the best little-visited African national parks.

 Bijilo Forest Park, Gambia © Shutterstock

Bijilo Forest Park, Gambia © Shutterstock

9. Get closer to nature at the Abuko Nature Reserve

Abuko Nature Reserve is one of the first nature reserves in The Gambia known for its biodiversity and ecological importance. The park covers a variety of environments including forest, savannah, wetlands and a tropical lagoon to support a wide range of plants and animal species.

The park's gallery of evergreen forests, runs along the Lamin Creek, occupying about one-third of its total area. There are several small pools at the lower end of the reserve, the largest of which is called the Bamboo Pool, which is a great vantage point for crocodiles and bird watching. Trained guides can help you find birds and animals along the trail, and although it is not obligatory, it is common to express gratitude in the form of a tip.

10. Head to the Albert Market

Albert Market, formerly known as the Royal Albert Market, is located in the Gambian capital Banjul. It was named after Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert, who controlled The Gambia in colonial times.

Albert Market is the capital's main market and is great for both shopping and immersing yourself in the local culture. Technically, there are three markets here. A wholesale and retail market sells everything locals could possibly need. The produce market has a wide range of fruit, vegetables, fish and meat. Finally. a tourist market houses craft stalls and is where you can buy souvenirs and local art.

Find more accommodation options to stay in Banjul.

11. Get some rest at Kotu Beach

One of the best things to do in The Gambia is to have a beach break at Kotu Beach. The beach is located in the village of Kotu and is well-developed for the needs of tourists. There are a number of hotels, resorts and restaurants along the beach serving both Gambian and international cuisine.

There are also a number of recreational activities in the area ranging from hiring bicycles from the hotels and horse riding to simply lying on the beach and sunbathing. Kotu Beach is also known for its rich birdlife, with the surrounding mangroves creating an ideal habitat for a variety of bird species. Bird-watching enthusiasts can see many migratory and resident birds here.

For more beach break destinations read our list of the best beaches in Africa.

Lovely long sandy beach in The Gambia, Kotu near Serrekunda © Shutterstock

Kotu beach near Serrekunda © Shutterstock

12. Discover the history of the sacred Kachikally Crocodile pool

The Kachikally Crocodile Pool is located in Bakau, 12 kilometres from the capital Banjul. This sacred site and the natural pool are worshipped by the locals as it is believed to have healing properties, including fertility blessings.

Before reaching the pool itself, you pass through an entrance with a wall painted with wildlife scenes. Next is a descent down a path surrounded by trees with monkeys and birds. There are about 80 crocodiles in and around the pool and you may see some of them napping on the shore.

The local crocodiles are known to be docile and you will often see visitors stroking or touching them. However, it is important to note that although crocodiles here are used to human presence and interaction, caution should always be exercised. Guides ensure visitor safety and provide instructions on approaching and interacting with the crocodiles.

A nile crocodile in the Gambia River in the Gambia, West Africa © Shutterstock

A nile crocodile in the Gambia River in the Gambia © Shutterstock

13. …finally, for the adventurous

Fancy a quicker way of getting across the River Gambia than the vehicle and pedestrian ferry from Banjul, where a three-hour wait is common? Simply wander over to Terminal Road. Once there, young men carry patrons at full pelt on their shoulders down to the beach and into the water to then toss them into an enormous fishing boat.

This crossing takes about half an hour and the process is repeated, in reverse, on the other side. The experience probably isn't at the top of anyone’s health and safety list but should be on the list of the best things to do in The Gambia.

Feel inspired? Check out our Rough Guides books and start planning your perfect trip.

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Top image: Concentric Senegambian Stone Circle at Sine Ngayene © DorSteffen/Shutterstock

Lynn Houghton

written by Lynn Houghton

updated 3.08.2023

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