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A performer strums the 21-stringed kora at the 2013 Saint-Louis Jazz Festival. (Photograph by Tom Junek)

The Jazz Capital of West Africa

Riverboats, wrought iron balconies, Creole culture, a famous jazz fest, and flamboyance in the face of hardship. Where else could this describe but …Saint-Louis, SenegalSaint-Louis, Senegal?

Founded in 1659 on an island in the River Senegal, this port town was once the capital of French West Africa. Then in 1902, France moved its regional base 350 miles south to Dakar, and St.-Louis eventually slipped into obscurity. Sometimes literally: Many of its colonial homes crumbled into the water.

Recently, the city has begun to reemerge. The annual St.-Louis jazz festival (June 4-9, 2014) is the biggest of its kind in Africa, bringing 500 musicians to play in the central square of the historic quarter. After hours, revelers pack dimly lit cafés and bars off the square for impromptu jam sessions.

In 2000, UNESCO designated the island a World Heritage site, which encouraged Senegalese emigrants to join locals in the restoration and transformation of its pink and ocher row houses into hotels, inns, and galleries.

A native Creole Métis businessman has resurrected the Bou el Mogdad, a river steamer from the 1950s that again offers dinner cruises with live jazz into Africa’s interior.

According to Marie-Caroline Camara, who turned a 19th-century timber warehouse into the chic Au Fil du Fleuve guesthouse: “American visitors say we’re like New Orleans.”

> Travel Tip: Watch Manjak weavers at work and buy contemporary prints and other local crafts at Atelier Tësss.

This piece, written by Douglas Rogers, originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.