Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, is typically the first place travelers visit in this West Africa Country. A large city on the hills of Sierra Leone Peninsula, a natural harbor facing the Atlantic Ocean, it now counts around 1.2 million peoples and counts with a number of interesting attractions – small but well curated museums; pristine beaches; viewpoints and wildlife sanctuaries. Add to this a selection of good hotels and restaurants, and your stay in Freetown is bound to be memorable.
Before I highlight the best things to do in Freetown, let me provide some background information on how the city was founded and its current status.
Make sure to also read my post What You Need To Know Before Visiting Sierra Leone.
A Brief History Of Freetown, Sierra Leone
Freetown was founded in 1787 south of the mouth of Sierra Leone River by Granville Sharp, an English abolitionist who was looking for a place where freed African slaves (hence the name “Freetown”) could settle. It was only in 1792 that the Sierra Leone company took charge of helping settlers from Nova Scotia make their way to Freetown. They initially arrived in what is now the city’s biggest market – King Jimmy’s Watering Place.
Between 1821 and 1874, Freetown was the seat of the body governing all British possessions in West Africa. It became the capital of the country in 1961, after the country finally became independent from the United Kingdom.
Today, most people living in Freetown are Creoles, descendant of the freed African slaves; but there is also a large number of Temne and Mende people – mostly immigrants that arrived to the capital from the interior. And there also is a large community of Lebanese people, who first arrived in Sierra Leone at the end of the 19th century (which is why good Middle Eastern fare is commonly found in Freetown).
Finally, continue reading to discover the unmissable things to do in Freetown.
The Best Things To Do In Freetown, Sierra Leone
Start your day at St. George’s Cathedral
Built between 1817 and 1828, St. George’s Cathedral is easily the most beautiful church in town. The presence of such a nice church is actually quite notable in a country where 78% of the population is Muslim (around 20% are Christian). However, it’s worth noting that Sierra Leone has been praised for its religious tolerance.
Take a look at the Cotton Tree
A short distance from the Cathedral, the Cotton Tree is among the most famous landmarks in Freetown. While there is no actual proof of the date the tree was planted, documents testify to its presence since 1787. Back then, this was the exact spot where former slaves coming to Sierra Leone all the way from Nova Scotia would kneel in gratitude for their returned freedom. To date, it’s still an important landmark for locals – and a mighty site too. The tree is huge!
Visit one (or all) of Freetown museums
One of the unmissable things to do in Freetown if you care to learn more about the history of the country and its culture is to visit its museums. Most of them are fairly small, and they would certainly benefit from some better curation. Nevertheless, a museum guide that takes you around the museum and highlights the most notable pieces and facts will make your experience an interesting one.
Here is a selection of museums you should not miss:
SIERRA LEONE NATIONAL MUSEUM – One of the city’s most important museums, it’s located a short walk from the Cotton Tree in the former Cotton Tree Railway Station, where it was opened in 1957. The small exhibit will guide you through the various cultures of the country, and its most important figures. Tickets cost $5 USD, including a guide.
PEACE MUSEUM AND MEMORIAL – Opposite of Sierra Leone National Museum, and located on the grounds of the Special Court of Sierra Leone (SCSL), it first opened in 2013. The exhibit is small but significant as it takes you through the most salient moments of the history of Sierra Leone and gets you acquainted with the people who contributed to the creation and development of the country as we know it today. There is a large statue located in the center, which is dedicated to the victims of Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war. Admission is $1 USD.
NATIONAL RAILWAY MUSEUM – Finding a museum dedicated to railway in a country where trains stopped running in 1975 certainly is interesting. Opened in 2005, the museum is dedicated to the history and works of the Sierra Leone Government Railway. It’s located in what used to be a railway workshop, where locos, tanks and several coaches were spared from the destruction of the civil war thanks to the effort of he late Mohamed Bangura, the last general manager of the national workshops. The most notable piece is a Hunslet tank and a coach used by Queen Elizabeth II on her official visit in 1961. It’s open Monday to Friday from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm, and on Saturday by appointment.
Get eerie at Fourah Bay College
When it was first built in 1845, Fourah Bay College was just what the name says – an educational institution. After WWII, it became the headquarters of Sierra Leone Government Railway and then a Magistrate Court. The building was declared a national monument in 1955, and stopped being used in 1990. It unfortunately caught fire in 1999, at the time of the civil war. You can wander around to take photos, but watch your step as it’s really crumbling!
Learn about the conservation work of Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary
Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary was founded in 1995 in Tacugama Forest Reserve, just outside of Freetown, with the aim of rescuing captive chimpanzees. These primates are still hunted for meat or kept as pets by local families in Sierra Leone, and Tacugama strives to teach locals to respect the environment and its wildlife.
The 100 chimpanzees or all ages (some as young as two months) that live in Tacugama are usually grouped in large enclosures where the social structures they’d have in nature are recreated.
Fundraisers and events are regularly organized, and if you feel like it you can even sleep in one of the bungalows and wake up to the sound of the jungle.
Admire the view from Leicester Peak
You can stop at this peak – the highest in Freetown, with an elevation of around 500 meters above sea level – either on your way to or coming back from Tacugama. The views of the city from up there are stunning. It’s a favorite of both locals and tourists.
Spend time at the beach
A day at the beach is easily one of the best things to do in Freetown! There are many beaches you can pick from. Popular choices are Sussex, Hamilton, Lakka and Levuma – they are perfect for a walk, a quick swim and you will also find some good seafood restaurants.
If you are looking for a truly pristine place, however, make sure to go to Tokeh and from there walk to River Number 2 beach. They are located on opposite sides of a lagoon and have powdery white sand and clear turquoise water perfect for swimming. Tokeh is home to the best resorts in town. River Number 2, which has an access fee of $0.50 USD, is managed by the local community and has a more modest (but comfortable) guest house, a restaurant, loungers and umbrellas and even a small tourist market.
Make sure to read my post The Best Beaches In Sierra Leone.
Take a day trip out of town
One of the best things to do in Freetown if you feel like getting away from the chaos of the city is to take a day trip out of town. There are several places within easy distance, but two come highly recommended.
The Banana Islands are definitely a locals’ favorite for a relaxing day trip. Made of three islands – the inhabited Dublin and Ricketts, which are connected by a causeway, and the smaller Mes-Meheux, where nobody lives – these were used by English slave traders and, after the abolition of slavery, they became the home of many former slave returnees from North America.
The village in Dublin Island is nice to explore: there are two beautiful churches and some other landmarks dating back to colonial times. Big Sand Beach is the best on the island: go there to lay in the sun, swim and even snorkel.
To get to Dublin Island, drive to Kent Village, about one hour out of Freetown, and then charter a boat to the island (it’s another 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the sea conditions. If you want to spend a night on the island, you can stay at Daltons Banana Guesthouse – they even serve good fish and seafood dishes.
If you are interested in a more cultural experience, you can take the ferry to Bunce Island, in the Tagrin Bay on the estuary of Rokel River. Bunce was founded in 1670, and for a long time it housed the largest British slave castle trade in West Africa. Known as “The Island of No Return,” hundreds of thousands of slaves were shipped to North America and the West Indies from there.
Many buildings on the island pertain to the time the Brits deals slaves, but these were completely abandoned after 1808 abolition of the slave trade. While buildings are mostly derelict now, a guided tour can be a very rewarding experience and will allow you to better understand a part of Sierra Leone’s difficult past.
Practical Information To Plan Your Trip To Freetown, Sierra Leone
Where to stay and eat in Freetown, Sierra Leone
While accommodation options are extremely basic in most of the country, there are several excellent places to stay in Freetown and its immediate surroundings. I have stayed at each of the following hotels and can testify that they are all good places to stay and each has a very good restaurant on site:
- THE COUNTRY LODGE HOTEL – One of the best hotels in Freetown, it features massive rooms that could do with a bit of refurbishing, but which are otherwise comfortable. There is a large pool and a terrace overlooking the city, and the on-site restaurants offers great dishes (both international cuisine and Middle Eastern). Book it here.
- THE PLACE, TOKEH – Probably the best resort in Freetown, it’s located right on Tokeh Beach. Bungalows are all set around a lush garden and feature very large, nicely furnished rooms with a separate walk in closet and a large bathroom; they all have a porch too. The pool faces the ocean, much like the on-site restaurant which offers delicious international dishes. Check out the reviews here.
- ROY’S HOTEL – A basic hotel by the beach with spacious rooms that could do with some refurbishment work. The area tends to be quite noisy at the weekend, but you will have the benefit of easily accessing one of the best beaches in town. Roy’s Restaurant, on the other side of the street, serves good fish and seafood dishes and Middle Eastern fare. Check out the reviews here.
How to get to Freetown
If Freetown is your first stop during your trip to Sierra Leone, chances are you will be getting there by plane and landing at Lungi International Airport. This is located on the northern side of the Tagrin Bay. Getting from the airport to the city by car will take you no less than 4 hours. Your best option is to take a private charter boat – it takes between 20 and 30 minutes and costs $40 USD per person.
Tickets for the Sea Bird Express and the Sea Coach Express can be obtained via Visit Sierra Leone website. This can also arrange a welcome pick at the airport for a $5 USD fee per person, and an additional car to take you from the dock to your hotel (also for an additional fee).
How to move around Freetown
You will have several options of moving around Freetown. Other than the (often uncomfortable) public buses, you can make use of taxis, okadas (mototaxis), and poda poda (private buses). Okadas are a quick way of getting around town and dodge the hectic traffic of the capital. Poda poda may be fun to take once or twice, but they get packed well beyond the reasonable and safe limit with passengers and luggage, so although they are budget friendly they aren’t always a good option.
Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Tourism Board of Sierra Leone as part of the #explorefreedom campaign. The views expressed in this post remain my own.