Bamako is a town of 2 million inhabitants, built on six hills and stretching for miles along the wide River Niger that runs through it. Two main features stand out on the hillside, namely the Hill of Power, where the Presidential Palace is located, and the old colonial houses, whilst the other side is known as the Hill of Knowledge, for it is here that students come to attend the three universities, where revolts are fomented from time to time. Bungalows are built alongside the wide, straight and well-tarmaced roads, while the little perpendicular streets, which offer nothing more than dry orange earth underfoot, are used by the locals, some with hand-carts, and the few animals in the city. The city centre and the new business district, ACI 2000, are characterised by towers of several storeys in height, which may not be the most attractive of buildings, but they are certainly very modern in Africa. The unmissable highlight of the Malian capital is without doubt its Grand Marché (central market), a hive of activity where everyone mills about his or her business, selling goods, meeting people and so on. Colours are an ever-present aspect of life here, in spite of the dusty haze thrown up in the heat by the cars, mopeds and hundreds of pedestrians, although of course, when it rains, the dry ground turns to mud. If and when you do visit the Grand Marché, make sure you see the Marché Rose, which is housed in old colonial buildings that were taken over by merchants after the country's independence, and form a maze of narrow alleys that fill up every day with various stalls and have a real local flavour.
Climb the Hill of Power or Point G Hill, because they are closer to the centre and offer fine views of Bamako and the surrounding landscapes. Whilst you're up there, why not visit the Presidential Palace and explore the wealthy districts of the city.
Of Bamako's three museums, the best exhibits are definitely found at the Musée National, which consists of three sections: one set aside for archaeology, another for the superb ritual objects used by Mali's ethnic groups, and a third for the country's wide variety of textiles. Meanwhile, in the 7-acre grounds outside, you can admire scale models of Mali's symbolic monuments. The Musée de Bamako has a collection of archives detailing the construction of the city, whilst the Musée de la Femme, the brainchild of the wife of Mali's ex-President, honours the country's women.
If you wish to enjoy a quiet moment, take a ride up the river in a pinasse (a traditional dugout canoe)!
Bamako's lively spirit can best be experienced by exploring the markets.. Although the Grand Marché and Marché Rose are compulsory aspects of any visit to this city, the Marchés des Féticheurs, including Ngolonina market, are also fascinating. In order to get well or protect themselves from evil spirits, people come here to pick up whatever their witchdoctor has prescribed, with various powders, dried crocodile heads, dead baby birds, etc. set out on the stalls.
The Neo-Sudanese architecture of some of the buildings hints at Mali's past, and whatever you do, don't miss the remarkable town hall.
Wherever you are likely to spend money, change is usually very hard to come by, so remember to always have plenty of small change on you, even just to pay for a drink in a bar or a souvenir in your hotel!
Mali's infrastructure is not very developed, except in the capital city where there are a few hotels catering mainly to business travellers. These establishments offer a high level of comfort, but remember that time is a different concept altogether in this country! There is no point getting impatient while you wait for such-and-such to be done: just talk and view the experience philosophically!
Traffic jams are a common occurrence in the centre of the capital.
Taking photos of the local people is asking for trouble, especially in the markets. If you really want to take a picture, ask permission before you click away. Be on your guard, and if someone agrees to have their photo taken, don't be surprised if they expect payment in return - this is pretty much standard practise here!
Be very cautious with regards to those you meet, and don't believe the various stories that will be concocted to win your sympathy! Some will do their utmost to make you believe an intricate story about so-and-so being at death's door and unable to afford the necessary treatment (used syringes and medication are common props!), and probably also needing to leave the country but unable to afford the bus fare, etc. Take care not to give away the name of your hotel, or the chances are you will be woken up in the early hours with yet more ludicrous stories! Likewise, don't let anyone go and get change on your behalf, as this is guaranteed to be another scam! If you wish to share, head out to a village and give your presents to its chief, who will then share them out amongst the community!
The best-regarded restaurants in the city include Sukhothai which serves Thai cuisine), Rabelais (Franco-African), Da Guido (Italian), Bla-Bla (African), Kora (Franco-African), Café du Fleuve, Savana (various styles of cuisine) and the Olympien. Make the most of your stay to try the dolo (millet beer), and tamarind, baobab or hibiscus flower juices! If nightlife is what you are after, Ibiza is Bamako's most popular nightclub, although the No Stress and smaller Byblos clubs also get very busy.
Don't forget to stock up on presents before leaving Mali! A good place to visit is the Maison de l'Artisanat, where you can meet craftsmen making wood sculptures, Dogon doors with their characteristic relief, Touareg silver jewellery, bogolan fabrics, masks, and so on. Many souvenirs are also to be found at the Ngolonina antiques market, or anywhere else, for that matter.