Beyond its famously beautiful beaches, The Gambia offers plenty of opportunities for exploration. The rich culture, colorful traditions, and natural beauty of “the smiling coast of West Africa” are worth a visit for any curious traveler. Here are our 5 favorite opportunities to travel like a local in The Gambia.

While The Gambia is rightfully known for its swoon-worthy coastline, this West African country - the smallest nation on the continent - has even more to explore. From adventurous excursions on the Gambia River to cooking lessons from local guides, this little slice of Africa truly has something for everyone. 

1. Secluded Southern Beaches

Beach Walk in The Gambia

The Gambia is surrounded by Senegal on three sides, but on the fourth, it is blessed with a seemingly endless swath of sandy Atlantic coastline. Visit the bustling North Bank beaches, but then be sure to make your way south toward Banjul and beyond.  You can spend a few days in one place or take a week to walk the whole 80 km stretch, finding more and more solitude as you go. Stop by one of the many shack-style beachside bars for some freshly squeezed orange juice, and watch passing cyclists carry fresh fish to the market. 

2. Go Local with a Guide

Malang - local craftsman in The Gambia

No one knows the country better than the locals themselves. Traveling with a guide will give you unique insight, not only into the places you visit, but also the way people live. Take a tour of a local market, where you can experience culture through what is for sale: merchants selling traditional food items, stands covered in vibrant cloth, handmade soap, and more. Most guides are very open and happy to share their culture, and are willing to create tailored tours and experiences based on the specific interests of travelers. 

3. Cook Traditional Gambian Cuisine

Homecooking in The Gambia

Food is culture, and one of the best ways to experience The Gambia is by taking a cooking class. Join a local chef in her home to cook traditional Gambian dishes like benechin, a one-pot rice dish, or peanut-based domada. The day will start with you getting dressed up like a local before heading to the market to buy the ingredients. Visit Tanjeh, a fishing village where you'll purchase the catch of the day, along with fresh, locally sourced vegetables. After heading back to the house, you'll take part in cooking (and eating!) a lovely homemade lunch.

4. Bird Watching & Nature Walks

Bird Watching in The Gambia

The Gambia, home to around 540 different aviary species, is a birder's paradise. Even beginning birdwatchers will enjoy a day out with a guide to be very interesting and well worth the time. Why not combine the bird watching with a nature walk led by a local flora and fauna expert? Get to know the wide variety of native trees and plants, and learn how they have been traditionally used by the Gambian people.  

5. Paddle the Gambia River

The Gambia River travels the east-west length of the country, and should be a priority for any visitor. Visit the river's namesake national park or take a boat tour to marvel at the sight of hundreds of hippos. Though this large waterway is 100 km wide at some points, a few of its estuaries are manageable for paddling, like the Alahin River on the country's southern border. Get up early for a sunrise expedition, passing Pelican Island and enjoying views of different countries on each shore. You'll be glad you had the early wake-up call once you're enjoying a post-paddle breakfast to the sounds of birdsongs.