Its long history as a trading outpost that linked black Africa below the Sahara Desert with Berber and Islamic traders throughout north Africa, and thereby indirectly with traders from Europe, has given it a fabled status. Combined with its relative inaccessibility, "Timbuktu" has come to be used as a metaphor for exotic, distant lands.
Today, Timbuktu is an impoverished town, although its reputation makes it a tourist attraction, and it has an airport. It is one of the eight regions of Mali, home to the local governor. It is the sister city to Djenne (also in Mali).
Timbuktu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988. In 1990, it was added to the list of world heritage sites in danger, due to the threat of desert sands. A program was set up to preserve the site and in 2005, it was taken off the list of endangered sites but re-added in 2012 after the Islamists Rebels took up arms.
It was one of the major stops during Henry Louis Gates' PBS special "Wonders of the African World". Gates visited with Abdel Kadir Haidara, curator of the Mamma Haidara Library together with Ali Ould Sidi from the Cultural Mission of Mali. It is thanks to Gates that an Andrew Mellon Foundation Grant was obtained to finance the construction of the library's facilities, later inspiring the work of the Timbuktu Libraries Project. Unfortunately, no practicing book artists exist in Timbuktu although cultural memory of book artisans is still alive, catering to the tourist trade. It is also home to an institute dedicated to preserving historic documents from the region.
The city itself is in stark contrast to the rest of the country's cities, because it has more of an Arabic flair than of an African. The streets are made of sand (except one), and one has often to go down to get into the houses, because of the sand which has leveled the streets higher than the entrances of the houses.
You can catch one of the many tourist pinasses from Mopti (or slightly further downstream if the water level is low) they take 3 days to get there and are comfortable (at least mine was). During tourist season there will be plenty of people waiting to go so you can club together to hire one of the pinasses. At night you will be camping on the shore and there will likely be a cook on the boat, they even have 'toilets' at the back. There are also local boats running up and down stream regularly but they are a little more cramped, but probably a lot cheaper.
You can fly into Timbuktu Airport (IATA: TOM) from Bamako or Mopti (yes, the organization is very rural) and come by plane, although its schedule is extremely unreliable and unpredictable and flights are difficult to book from outside the country.
There are Taxis, camels and donkeys - and not much more... That said you can easily walk from one end of the city to the other in under an hour. All the mosques are located in the old town which can be walked across in just a few minutes.
The Western explorers who were the 'first' to find Timbuktu all have their houses preserved and commemorative plaques are visible on each of them. The explorers are Alexander Gordan Laing, first Westerner to make it there, René Caillié, first Westerner to make it there and back, Heinrich Barth, Oscar Lenz and Berky. Only the Heinrich Barth house has a museum, a few old photos, the rest of the houses are all lived in.
The orginal well of Bouctou, now dry, is in someone's back garden along with the Timbuktu Museum which has an interesting mix of artifacts and contemporary folk art, albeit very dusty.
The Grand Marché is a two-story market with stalls and shops selling all kinds of things, it is well worth going just for the incredible view from the roof, across the whole of Timbuktu to the desert.
You can also hire a Tuareg and camels, however the "sunset tours" are too short to really appreciate the surroundings as the Tuareg camps are only a few hundred metres away from the edge of town. However it is interesting to visit one of the camps (usually just a small family group) and see the sun set over the desert. Even if you don't visit the camps it is worth walking to the dunes on the edge of the town just to see them. A tour over several days will however be fascinating. You may even go to do the 40 day trip to the salt fields. Negotiate with the Tuaregs themselves and not so-called "guides".
The flame of peace is a monument to the ceasefire of the Tuareg rebellion. It's just to the northeast of the Petite marché. Although it is pretty new it is clearly falling apart already.
It is not a bad idea to take a child as guide, it prevents you from being hassled as much.
Don't forget to visit the tourist office so you can get your passport stamped with a Timbuktu stamp.
Look out for the dead cats hanging on the telephone cables in the city. It is because you have to dry the fur of the cat before you eat it.
Take some salt along as well as the Tuareg sabres or knifes. You'll be pretty hard pressed to get away from vendors selling all the same "unique" necklaces, earrings, knives and other handicrafts, so make sure to drive them down to a good price. A fair rule is to offer about a third of the price they originally quote, then haggle so you pay half their first price. They are used to this and so always start at too high a price. However, the things they sell are generally of good quality and great for souvenirs.
There is a shop (called 'objets artes boutique' or something similar) that sells the souvenirs to the sellers you see around town. If you head north from the hotel colom the road forks, take the left fork and about 100-200m down the road,on the left hand side, is this shop. Prices are 6-10 times cheaper here, you cannot barter but you may get a small (5-10%) discount for buying several items.
Another good idea is to get a postcard and post it, it will have the Timbuktu postal stamp on it. The Post office is down the main street south of the roundabout. The staff in there will give you the right stamps, you can sometimes buy postcards from there or from the many street vendors. Just don't expect to receive the postcard too soon; it can take over a month to get through to many Western countries!
There are a number of bar/restaurants around, including one on top of the Grand Marche. There is also a patisserie opposite the post office.
You'd better avoid drinks as they are prepared from local tap water and are hazardous to your belly.....