The capital of Sierra Leone, Freetown, is usually the first stop during a trip to this West Africa country. Founded in 1792 as a settlement for freed slaves coming from North America (hence its name), the port city, which now counts around 1.2 million people, is perched on the hills overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
Today, Freetown is a lively, culturally thriving city. Most of its inhabitants are Creole – the descendants of the freed slaves; but there is also a large percentage of indigenous Temne and Lokos, the original inhabitants of the area where Freetown was founded; and a large community of Lebanese people, who first settled in Sierra Leone in the late 19th century.As the capital of the country, Freetown offers a great range of attractions – from museums to wildlife sanctuaries; from fabulous beaches to a lively restaurant and bar scene, the city really has it all. To discover the best attractions in Freetown, continue reading!
The Best Things To Do In Freetown
Visit the National Railway Museum
One of the most interesting attractions in Freetown, this museum first opened in 2005 and is entirely dedicated to the history and works of the Sierra Leone Government Railway, which ceased to function in 1975 (that’s when the last train ran). The exhibit is made of a number of locos (including diesel locos), a Hunslet tank and several coaches, including the one used by Queen Elizabeth II on her official visit in 1961, before Sierra Leone’s independence.
The museum is located in a railway workshop, where the locos and carriages were miraculously spared from the destruction caused by the civil war, thanks to the efforts of the late Mohamed Bangura, the last general manager of the national workshops, and the support of railway enthusiast Colonel Steve Davies.
The museum is open for visits Monday to Friday from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm, and on Saturday by prior appointment.
Pop into St. Georges Cathedral
About 78% of the population in Sierra Leone is currently Muslim, and 20% Christian, and the country is known for its religious tolerance and inclusion. It comes as no surprise that one of the must-sees in Freetown is St. George’s Cathedral. The church was built between 1817 and 1828, and is one of the most beautiful in the country.
Check out the Cotton Tree
A two minutes walk from the Cathedral, is the famous 500 year old cotton tree in the country. There is no certainty as to when the tree was planted, but documents show it has been in the same place at least since 1787. Its importance grew as this was the place where former slaves who returned to Sierra Leone from Nova Scotia, prayed and expressed their gratitude for their renewed freedom. Even today, locals go there to pray and express their homage to their ancestors, asking for peace and prosperity.
Go to Sierra Leone National Museum
A short distance from the Cotton Tree is the most interesting museum in Freetown and the perfect place to learn a bit more about the country’s cultural traditions. The museum first opened in 1957 and since then it’s been located in the former Cotton Tree Railway Station. A guide will take you around the exhibits, explaining the role of various prominent Sierra Leoneans in the development of the country. Admission is $5 USD, including the guide’s fee.
Wander around the Peace Museum and Memorial
Literally in front of the Cotton Tree, the Sierra Leone Peace and Cultural Monument first opened in 2013, on the grounds of the Special Court of Sierra Leone (SCSL). Admission is just $1 USD and includes a guided walk through the exhibits, providing a good, concise retelling of the history of the country and its most important figures and how they contributed to the creation of modern Sierra Leone. The central statue is dedicated to the victim of the civil war
Take a million photos at Fourah Bay College
Fourah Bay College is actually quite far from the main historical landmarks in town, but is definitely worth the effort of getting there – consider hopping on a taxi or mototaxi to make your commute faster.
This now abandoned building dates back to 1845, when it was an eminent educational institution. After WWII, it was used as the headquarters of Sierra Leone Government Railway, and it subsequently became a Magistrate court.
Proclaimed a national monument in 1955, the building stopped being used in 1990 and caught fire in 1999, during the civil war. Vegetation claimed much of it back, but it still is a fascinating place to visit and provides an incredible backdrop for many photos.
Take in the view from Leicester Peak
This is the highest peak in Freetown, at around 500 meters above sea level. Locals and tourists alike love going there around sunset to appreciate uninterrupted vistas of the city.
Hang out in one (or all) of the gorgeous beaches
Right on the Atlantic Ocean, it goes without saying that Freetown is home to many gorgeous beaches. Sussex, Hamilton, Lakka and Levuma are all good places to go for a walk or to grab some fresh fish or seafood lunch in a local restaurant, but if you fancy a more serviced place, head to Tokeh or River Number 2.
In fact, Tokeh and River Number 2 are located on opposite sides of a lagoon and you can easily walk from one to the other. The first one is home to a couple of excellent luxury resorts and has a nice, clean beach; the second is a pristine white sand beach with transparent azure waters and is actually managed by the local community.They keep the beach clean and run a guesthouse, a restaurant and a small tourist market. There is a small $0.50 USD fee to access River Number 2 Beach.
Visit Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary
Founded in 1995 in Tacugama Forest Reserve, just outside of Freetown, the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary strives to protect the endangered population of chimpanzees, often hunted for meat or kept as pets by local families. Part of the mission is to educate the local community to respect the environment and to care and respect wildlife.
There are around 100 chimpanzees of all ages (and as young as 2 months!) living at the sanctuary at the moment, divided in various enclosures based on their age, and separated in enlarged families to recreate the social structure they follow in nature.
The sanctuary regularly organizes events and fundraisers, and offers lodging in bungalows for people who would like to appreciate being completely surrounded by nature while still at a stone’s throw from the capital.
Go to the Banana Islands for a day
The Banana Islands are made of three islands: Dublin and Ricketts are inhabited (around 800 people currently live in Dublin Island) and connected by a causeway; Mes-Meheux is the smallest of the three and nobody lives there.
These islands were used by the English slave traders and once slavery was abolished, they were settled by freed slaves coming back from North America. Nowadays, they are a favorite destination for a day or even a weekend trip out of Freetown. You can enjoy a village walk (the church is probably the most notable building) and then hang out at Big Sand Beach to swim, snorkel and relax in the sun.
Daltons Banana Guesthouse is a good place to spend the night: they have accommodation in large tents and great seafood meals available too.
To get to Dublin Island, you will need to make your way (best by car) to Kent Village, which is about one hour drive from Freetown, and then hire a boat (about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the sea conditions).
Explore Sierra Leone’s past in Bunce Island
Another good day trip from Freetown is to Bunce Island, located in the Tagrin Bay – you can get there by ferry. This is where the “Gate of No Return” – the gate through which slaves sold to North America and the West Indies – is located. Founded in 1670, Bunce used to be home to the largest British slave castle trade in West Africa.
Once slavery was abolished by the British Parliament in 1808, many buildings on the island were completely abandoned. Some are still in good conditions and can be visited, but to make your visita meaningful experience you are better off hiring a local guide to show you around.
Enjoy Middle Eastern food
The presence of a large Lebanese community in Freetown means that Middle Eastern food is not only readily available, but also really good! Be ready to get stuffed on delicious hummus and pita bread; baba ganouj; falafel; shawarma and much more.