Freetown in Sierra Leone West Africa is a colourful and vibrant city that sometimes can be misunderstood. It is a country that is full of hope, new beginnings and an abundance of resources. From cultural experiences and historical sites to wildlife sanctuaries and pristine beaches, you have no shortage of things to do in Sierra Leone.
By day, see the Chimpanzees at Tacugama Sanctuary, have a go on the handcar at the Railway museum, or take a boat ride through Tagrin bay to Bunce Island and learn about the sombre history. In the evening, head to the many bars and restaurants in Freetown that line Lumely beach in Aberdeen. If you’re looking for fun things to do outside of Freetown, then head to River No. 2, Banana Islands, Tiwai island or Kilimi national park.
The Best Things to Do in Freetown Sierra Leone
Set on a peninsula in a natural harbour, Freetown is the beating heart of this country. It is one of only a few English speaking West African nations. It was not just the beautiful places that I visited but the warmth and hospitality of the people that made me really love Sierra Leone as a destination. While some may be concerned about travelling there, I am already looking forward to returning on my next adventure.
This coastal capital and its islands should be a must on your West Africa itinerary. Here are some of the best things to do and see while in Freetown and the western area of Sierra Leone.
1. Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary
One of the top Sierra Leone attractions and at the top of my list was seeing the Chimpanzees at the Tacugama Sanctuary. It is located just outside of the capital Freetown about a 30 minute drive up into the forest. The wildlife sanctuary rescue and rehabilitates these lovable monkeys from people who poach them, keep them as pets and treat them cruelly. The Sanctuary helps Chimpanzees reintegrate into family groups and into the wild.
It was interesting, to learn about the work Tacugama does at the Sanctuary and who the main Chimpanzees were. I could have stood there for ages watching the babies playing with their mothers, teenagers eating and seeing the adults swinging high up in the forest trees. Undoubtedly, this was one of my favourite experiences in Sierra Leone
Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary also offers lodges and weekend yoga retreats for guests wanting to enhance their experience. The lodges allow you to stay amongst the chimpanzees and the array of bird species in the rainforest. Face masks must be worn when visiting the Sanctuary.
2. Leicester Peak (Viewpoint)
Take in the stunning 360 panoramic views of the city and ocean from Leicester Peak (Viewpoint). At a height of 599m/1 965ft Leicester peak is one of the highest points in Freetown.
On any given day, you may find some of the locals admiring the view while having a picnic or sitting on the bench with friends. The best way to get there is via car but if you have the energy and the time then you can also hike up. This is a great spot to take your camera for pictures of the landscape. I use Sony mirrorless camera that picks up all the details.
3. Sierra Leone National Museum
Visit the National Museum to learn about the rich history and culture of the Sierra Leone people. It is located at the junction of Pademba Road and Siaka Stevens Street close to the Cotton Tree. The Sierra Leone National Museum has a vast collection and exhibits that include artifacts, musical instruments and pictures. It also has a very interesting collection of traditional costumes worn by tribal leaders.
There is a small fee and the museum is open Monday to Friday: 8:30 am- 4:30 pm and Saturday: 9:00 am- 3:30 pm. The fee includes a guide inside the museum who is very knowledgeable and was happy to answer any questions about anything on display. This is a great addition to a trip to Freetown, especially if you want to learn about Sierra Leone’s customs and traditions. You could easily spend an hour here walking around and taking in the history.
4. Cotton Tree
The Cotton Tree is not just a national symbol for Freetown but for Sierra Leone as well. This huge tree has been here for over 500 years and is an important landmark in the city. The first settlement of freed slaves would gather under the tree to meet, pray and find refuge.
Even today, you will see the Sierra Leonean people gathering around the tree and chatting. You will find this enormous historical tree in the heart of the city near the Peace and Cultural Museum, which you can visit at the same time.
5. Sierra Leone National Railway Museum
Sierra Leone National Railway Museum is one of the main places in Freetown to visit. The railway closed in Sierra Leone in 1975 and trains were hidden away. The collection survived the civil war and Ebola before being restored and put on display. It has an impressive collection of rolling stock and locomotives including a Governor’s coach specially prepared for the visit of Queen Elizabeth II.
As well as exhibits of old pictures, timetables and maps. Aside from the exhibits, there is also a handcar railroad that is a lot of fun to try. The railway museum is open 10 am-4 pm Monday to Saturday. While it is free to visit, the railway museum appreciates donations to help with the upkeep and to support its mission.
6. See the Sierra Leone State House
The State house is the home of the President of Sierra Leone. Built-in 1895 the building was formerly known as Fort Thornton. Named after Henry Thornton, a leading abolitionist of the slave trade in the country.
It is located along State Avenue up on Tower Hill in central Freetown, just up from the cotton tree. While it is closed to the general public, you can still get a great view from inside the Peace and Cultural Museum.
7. Sierra Leone Peace Museum
Visit the Sierra Leone Peace Museum and learn about the brutal history of the civil war and how the country wants to promote peace. The Peace Museum opened in 2013 and is located on the grounds of the Special Court of Sierra Leone. The exhibition is mainly outdoors and has several monuments highlighting the country’s history.
As well as exhibits on the most important figures and how they contributed to the creation of modern Sierra Leone, one of the prominent monuments is the central statue with soldiers that’s dedicated to the victim of the civil war. Entry is only $1 USD and includes a guide who will explain the exhibits in great detail. It gets really hot at the Peace museum, so please remember to wear sunscreen.
8. Visit St John’s Maroon Church
Take a short visit to St John’s Maroon Church, located in Freetown’s district, Maroon Town. Established by the Jamaican Maroons in 1822, it is one of the oldest places of worship in Sierra Leone.
St John’s Maroon Church was built by the slaves returning back from Jamaica,who had converted to Christianity and wanted to hold onto their new faith. Maroon families still continue to worship in this little white church. The church became a national heritage site In 1956.
9. Old Fourah Bay College
Stop past the historical Fourah Bay College landmark building to take pictures. Established in 1827 this historical building is the oldest university in West Africa. It earned the name “Athens of West Africa”, as people came from all over Africa to get a higher education.
After WWII, the building was used as the headquarters of the Sierra Leone Government Railway, then as a Magistrate court before being abandoned in the 1990s. In 1955, the building became a National Monument and in 1999 it caught fire, during the civil war. Today, nature has reclaimed most of the abandoned building back.
Fourah Bay College is missing most of the roof and plants grow over its stone walls. While it is not near the other historical places in Sierra Leone, it is still well worth a visit. It is a beautiful building to see and a great backdrop for pictures.
10. Visit St George’s Cathedral
St. George’s Cathedral is one of the oldest and grandest churches in the whole of Sierra Leone. Many wealthy people would worship here and different faiths would marry here because of its beauty. It is located in the center of Freetown, 5 minute walk from the Big Market.
It was also the venue for major State functions and visits from important people, like Queen Elizabeth II who visited here in 1961, as a part of her royal tour. Go inside and admire the interior and see the Queen and Prince Phillips’s signatures in the visitor’s book. You only need 15 minutes here at the most.
11. Buy your Sierra Leone souvenirs at the big market
One of my favourite things to do when in a new city is to go to the market and wander around. Big Market (Makit) in Freetown is the place to go to purchase all your Sierra Leone souvenirs. It is located on Wallace Johnson Street, just over the road from St Georges Cathedral
Big Market is one of the oldest markets in Sierra Leone, dating from the 18th century. Today, it hosts a vast collection of local arts and crafts from wooden carvings to hand-woven baskets known as the Shukublai. It also stocks colourful clothing like dresses and scarf and beautiful beaded shoes. Its handicrafts reminded me of the ones made by locals in Tabarka Tunisia.
Remember though to barter like crazy and to make sure to take cash if you are planning on buying anything. There are no ATMs or cash machines and most transactions are done in Leone cash.
12. See the King’s Yard Gate
Kings Yard Gate or also known as the Gateway was the entrance point where freed slaves would pass through to begin their new lives and receive medical care. Today, the gate entrance leads into a compound converted into a government hospital.
The white gateway still stands today and has a sign at the top with an inscription of what the building once was. The Kings Yard Gate was declared a national monument in May 1949.
13. Explore Sierra Leone’s past on Bunce Island
A must when in Sierra Leone is taking a boat trip from Freetown across Tagrin bay to Bunce Island. Step back in time and learn about one of the most lucrative slave trading operations in West Africa. While it is a place of dark history, it is a very important historic site in Sierra Leon for the Krop people to come and visit.
The remnants of an 18th-century slave fort stand as a testament to the island’s horrific slave trading past. Walk around the island visiting the open-air slave yard, the ruins of watchtowers and seeing the iron cannons, some of which still bear the royal mark of King George III.
While it is raw and authentic, the island has a special charm about it with its quietness and greenery, this Sierra Leone destination is worth a visit. The easiest way to get to the island is by going on a guided tour. However, the other way is via boat from the Kissy Terminal in the eastern part of Freetown.
14. Old Wharf Steps
The Old Wharf Steps or sometimes wrongly referred to as the Portuguese Steps is one of Freetown’s oldest brick structures. The steps were built in 1818 to connect the wharf to the city. At the top of the steps is the Guard House built in 1819.
Many of the freed slaves that went through Kings Yard Gate climbed the Old Wharf Steps first to start their new life. If you want to walk on these steps you still can but be careful as they are not in good condition.
15. Lumley Beach Freetown
One of the fun things to do in Sierra Leone is head to Lumley Beach and party like a local. It is a vibrant stretch of beach in Freetown that is full of restaurants, lively bars and clubs. The road that runs parallel to the beach is lined with lovely hotels. You will find a mix of Sierra Leonean people, ex-pats and tourists hanging out here.
After a day of exploring it’s a great place to go for drinks and dinner, do a bit of people-watching and see the sunset. One of the best restaurants in Freetown along the beach is Roy’s, which is also a popular spot for drinks. We would go here every night after a day sightseeing in Sierra Leone.
16. Sierra Leone Beaches near Freetown
Sierra Leone has some of the best beaches in West Africa scattered along its Peninsula and most of them are near Freetown. Their pristine sand keeps are one of the reasons why tourists kept coming back. Spending a day or two at the beach enjoying water sports is the perfect addition to a trip to Sierra Leone.
The best bit is that most of these white sandy beaches are not too far from the capital. We were lucky enough to visit a few of the beaches and go swimming in the Atlantic Ocean before we left. Here are some of the best beaches in Sierra Leone worth visiting and are easily reached by car from Freetown. Don’t forget to take your beach towel with you.
Just a short drive from Freetown is Lakka, a lovely stretch of beach. It is a nice place to take pictures with the little island in the background. There is a good selection of restaurants along the foreshore that are great if you are looking for fresh seafood. This beach reminded me of the one in Zanzibar with its own little island offshore.
Tokeh Beach is located about an hour’s drive from Freetown on the Atlantic coast. This pristine white sandy beach is a popular spot with foreigners. It offers the best resorts in Sierra Leone which are located right on the beach. We were lucky enough to stay here for a night at Tokeh beach resort and there is no denying that this place was a piece of paradise.
River No. 2 Beach
River No. 2 Beach, yes that’s its name, is a stunning beach run by community tourism. The beach is on a lagoon, with the adjoining River No. 2 on one side and Tokeh Beach on the other. It is a very popular beach with Sierra Leonean people and offers a number of restaurants, bars and a small market for visitors.
Bureh Beach is only an hour and a half drive from Freetown. It is a laid-back beach that attracts backpackers, surfers and fitness people. It is the number one spot to go surfing in Sierra Leone and offers a surf school and club. Additionally, this is a great beach to stay at if you are on a budget.
Essential tips for visiting Sierra Leone
Getting around Freetown
It can be challenging to get around Freetown and the Sierra Leone tourist attractions on your own. It is best to hire a private guide or tour company, who can deal with all the necessary travel arrangements. We went with VSL and our guide Abdulai was amazing. He was informative and would go out of his way to answer questions we had.
Vaccine required for entry into Sierra Leone
Yellow fever and Covid vaccine certificates are required upon entry into Sierra Leone. Check with the official website and your doctor about any other requirements you might need like malaria tablets.
⇒ Check all required documents for Sierra Leone here for free and apply for your visa.
Sierra Leone language
English is the official language of the Sierra Leone population and wildly spoken in schools and government administration. However, a large portion speaks the Krio language as a lingua franca either natively, or as a second or third language.
The currency of Sierra Leone is the ‘Leone’
The currency of Sierra Leone is the Sierra Leonian Leone (SLL) and it is a closed currency meaning that you can only get it once you’re in the country. You have two main options; you can get Leones from the ATMs at Freetown international airport or take US, Euro or GBP with you and exchange it when you get there.
⇒ Check all required documents for Sierra Leone here for free and apply for your visa.
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Disclaimer: Even though I was a guest of the Sierra Leone Tourism. All views are my own and based on my own experience.