Sierra Leone is an up and coming tourist destination. To date, it remains one of the lesser visited countries in Africa, suffering from the reputation of being a dangerous place because of the civil war that raged between 1991 and 2002 (though let me reassure you: this is a safe place to visit, and the locals are very welcoming!); and for the effects of an Ebola epidemic between 2014 and 2016.
While the tourist infrastructure in this West Africa country is still lacking outside of the capital Freetown, its natural beauty is undeniable, its history very interesting, and the beaches out of this world. This is to say: you will find no shortage of things to do in Sierra Leone!
If I have tickled your curiosity, continue reading this post: I have recently been to Sierra Leone and I am ready to share its best kept secrets!
9 Best Things To Do In Sierra Leone
Visit Bunce Island
Your Sierra Leone itinerary would not be complete without a visit to Bunce Island. Typically visited on day trips from Freetown, Bunce is found in the Tagrin Bay and can be reached on an easy ferry ride. Its significance lie in the fact that this was the largest British Slave Castle in West Africa. Founded in 1670, the Brits used it as the final port from where they shipped tens of thousands of African slaves to North America and the West Indies.
When the British Parliament finally abolished the slave trade in 1808, the Brits completely abandoned the island – so most of the buildings there are derelict. Despite its crumbling appearance, it’s still a place you should not miss.
A proper tour of Freetown is definitely one of the best things to do in Sierra Leone. The capital and largest city in the country – around 1.2 million people live there – is a port town on the Atlantic Ocean, and beautifully set on the hills. It’s a great place to learn more about the history and the culture of the country.
Start your visit at the Cotton Tree, the most famous in the city. Close to the building where the Supreme Court sits, it’s one of the most important landmarks in town. There is no documentation as to when the tree was planted, but there is proof that the tree was there in 1787. It was a place where former slaves returning from Nova Scotia would pray; and still is a place of pilgrimage for many Sierra Leoneans.
From the Cotton Tree, it’s a short walk to the National Museum of Sierra Leone, which is actually located in what once was the building of the Cotton Tree Railway Station. The exhibit could certainly do with a bit of a makeover and better organization but a prompt guide will take you around to show you the most relevant pieces and documents that give light into the country’s past.
Literally across the road from the National Museum, the Peace Museum and Memorial was first opened in 2013 in memory of those who died during the war. The interesting exhibit showcases the people who paid a leading role in the history of Sierra Leone.
St. Georges Cathedral is a quick addition to this itinerary as it’s also very close to the museums. It’s the prettiest church in the capital, where it was built between 1817 and 1828.
Other places to visit in Freetown include the National Railway Museum, opened in 2005 to celebrate Sierra Leone Government Railway – which is no longer operational; Fourah Bay College, a former educational institution, then headquarters of the Sierra Leone Government Railway and a Magistrate Court, the building dates back to 1845 and was declared a National Monument in 1955 – it was unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1999; and Leicester Peak, the highest peak in the capital (around 500 meters above sea level) perfect for panoramic views.
For more information make sure to read my post A Short Guide To Freetown.
Pay a visit to Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary
Chimpanzees are at risk in Sierra Leone. The local population often hunts them for food; or keeps them as pets when they are young, only to abandon them when, grown up, they unavoidably start causing problems. The Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, which was first opened in 1995, was created inside Tacugama Forest Reserve at the outskirts of Freetown to provide a safe living environment to rescued chimpanzees.
With time, its scope widened to also provide educational programs to the local community with the aim of teaching them to respect local environment and wildlife.
Spend a day at the beach
There are many beaches around Freetown, and you should plan to see at least a couple of them. The best are by far Tokeh, a long sandy beach home to a couple of excellent resorts; and River Number 2, a 20 minutes walk on the other side of the lagoon.
The latter boasts incredibly white, fine sand and very clear turquoise waters. There is a beach restaurant; a small tourist market and a guesthouse run by the local community, and boat tours to the sand bank and around the lagoon are on offer too.
Other beaches you may want to visit are Sussex, Hamilton, Lakka and Levuma Beach.
Looking for more beaches in Sierra Leone? Read this post.
Get out of town at Banana Islands
Among the best things to do in Sierra Leone there’s definitely a day trip from Freetown to the Banana Islands. To get there, you will have to drive to Kent Village, one hour out of Freetown, and hop on a boat to Dublin Island, the largest of the three and connected to Ricketts by a causeway (Mes-Meheux is the smallest and uninhabited).
Once there, you can go for a walk to discover the small village (about 800 people live there); enjoy a freshly caught fish lunch at the lovely Daltons Banana Guesthouse and Restaurant, and then chill at Big Sand Beach.
Explore the local flavors of Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone isn’t exactly famous for its food, but one of the things to do in Sierra Leone actually is to try local specialties. Most food is quite plain – unless you ask for the cruel local hot sauce, that is. Rice typically accompanies all meals; and fried mature plantains are common too. Cassava or potato leaf stews – usually cooked with fish or chicken – are easy to find staples. Another must try is groundnut stew – a chicken or beef stew in thick peanut sauce. Krin krin is a local favorite, but it generally doesn’t impress travelers.
If you get tired of local specialties – after all, these are flavors you may not be accustomed to! – you can find delicious fish or seafood anywhere on the coast and in the islands.
Finally, the presence of a large Lebanese community that settled in the country at the end of the 19th century means that Middle Eastern fare is always delicious!
Loose yourself in Tiwai Wildlife Sanctuary
Did you know that Sierra Leone is a fantastic wildlife destination? You may not see the elephants, lions and cheetahs of Botswana, but there are some unique wildlife species here and with a bit of patience and a good dose of luck, you may be able to spot the Pygmy Hippo too. The best place for that is definitely Tiwai Wildlife Sanctuary, located in the thick rain-forest of the Moa River.
Plan to go on a boat tour for more chances to spot the hippos and various species of monkeys. An early morning tour and a night walk are perfect to enjoy the sounds of the forests.
Check out colonial Bonthe
Bonthe, in in Sherbro Island on the Sherbro River estuary, definitely deserves to be included in your Sierra Leone itinerary. While getting there is a bit of a trip (from Freetown you need to drive to Yagoi, from where you take the boat), the atmosphere there is truly unique.
Back when the Brits controlled Sierra Leone, in the 19th century, Bonthe was a place where freed slaves settled. The town became a shipping port (it still is today). A village tour will reveal beautiful colonial era buildings. You can also take a boat or kayak tour to explore the estuary.
Rough it up in the Turtle Islands
Only go to the Turtle Islands if you are prepared to rough it up – and I don’t mean a bit! The 8 small idyllic islands are inhabited by tiny fishing communities and have no such things as electricity and running water. If you are ready to put up with the complete lack of modern day comforts, you will find a pristine place with beautiful beaches fringed with palm trees and mangroves; clear warm waters perfect for snorkeling; sand bars and lots of marine life.
Bring your tent – make sure it has a rain cover; food supplies and equipment to prepare a meal.
My post What You Need To Know Before Visiting Sierra Leone will definitely come in handy.
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.