If you are truly an adventurous type of traveler looking for a rugged trip to a less visited destination, then Sierra Leone in West Africa may be the perfect spot. With its idyllic islands, wildlife sanctuaries and unique villages, this trip will be something not easily forgotten.
There are plenty of things to do in Sierra Leone, but here are some not to be missed.
1. Explore the Capital City of Freetown
The capital of Sierra Leone, Freetown is known for its historical role in the transatlantic slave trades during the 16th century. Now, it is a tourist hotspot offering some must-see destinations, like the ones below.
- National Railway Museum: The National Railway Museum houses several locomotives that survived the war and civil strife in Sierra Leone, as well as old photographs, maps, tickets, and time tables. You can also experience riding a Wickham pump trolley here!
- Fourah Bay College First University: The first and oldest university in West Africa, the original Fourah Bay College was a seat of higher education back in 1827, earning it the name “Athens of West Africa.” It’s also on the tentative UNESCO World Heritage Site list! Today, with different plants claiming it as their home, the original building is a must-see site for the curious explorer!
- Old Wharf Steps: Sometimes erroneously called “Portuguese Steps,” the Old Wharf Steps is one of the oldest brick structures in Freetown, set in 1818. The scenic view of the stairs is so captivating, it was said that it resembled water cascading down towards the wharf.
- St Georges Cathedral: St George’s Cathedral church of the Anglican Diocese of Freetown is one of Sierra Leone’s grandest and oldest churches, which was built from 1817 to 1828.
- Big Market: Big Market is the biggest artisans market in Sierra Leone, located at Wallace Johnson Street. The market boasts a wide variety of handmade items, including baskets, clothing, bracelets (I bought two for $8!), bags, and so much more.
- Big Cotton Tree in the Middle of Town: The Cotton Tree is a historical symbol in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Legends say that in 1792, a group of African American slaves who gained their freedom from the British prayed under the Cotton Tree (which they still do today) to start a new life as free people, and gave the place its name: Freetown.
- National Museum: The National Museum is located in central Freetown, near the Cotton Tree, and houses many interesting artifacts and artworks from Sierra Leone’s history like stone tools, indigenous clothing, and much more. Having a guide will help you tremendously if you want to learn more.
- Peace And Cultural Museum: This is a museum dedicated to preserving the truth of the country’s history and promoting peace. Inside you’ll find a memorial for the victims of war and conflict, audio and visual exhibits, and a vast archive and law library rich in resources relating to Sierra Leone’s conflict.
Useful Link: Peace Museum
2. Climb Mount Bintumani (Sierra Leone’s Tallest Mountain)
If you want to experience the great outdoors of Sierra Leone, then going on a hike on its tallest mountain is a great way to do so. Towering at 1945 meters, Mount Bintumani will prove to be a welcome challenge for both novice and experienced hikers!
To get there, you need to take a bus going to Kabala. If there is no bus in your area, you can go to Makeni first and then take a bus to Kabala. Once in Kabala, you’ll find motorcycle guys you can ask to take you to Sinekoro village (which would take 3 hours to reach). Just tell them that you wanted to climb Mount Bintumani. After reaching Sinekoro village, you will need to meet with the chief to ask for permission to climb the mountain (and to negotiate about the price). If you have a guide with you, it will be much easier as most people in the village do not speak English.
The hike itself will take 2-4 days to complete, so make sure to get ready. Below are some of the things that you will need:
- Tent (and a mosquito net, if possible)
- Water purification pills or filter
- Warm clothes (it becomes chilly in the mountain at night)
- Snacks and dry foods
3. Take in the History of Bonthe
Bonthe is a lively island where playing school children will always stop to give you a wave, goats wander the dirt roads and the local stands are busy with local customers.
But, the historical aspect of Bonthe is what makes it even more interesting. Bonthe was home to the Sherbro people before the arrival of freed African slaves in the late 18th century. During the 19th century, it became a British control post that enforced a ban on slavery. At its heyday, it was a bustling trading and shipping port for agricultural products like ginger and coffee until the 1970s, when businesses gradually migrated to the mainland.
Accommodations on the island were at the Bonthe Holiday Village, which is under renovation, but is comfortable. It has simple individual rooms with in-suite baths and air conditioning. Bonthe is about a 4-hour drive from Bo, plus a 45 minute boat ride.
4. Visit Outamba-Kilimi National Park
Sierra Leone has its fair share of marvelous places to visit, one being Outamba-Kilimi National Park. It is home to many chimpanzees and other wildlife such as hippos, elephants, and the rare bongo antelopes (to name a few).
The park is well-preserved with few human influences, save for a few villages of the Susu tribes who live and take care of the area. Though the place is off-grid (no phone signals), what it offers instead are its magnificent views, the sounds of animals around you, and plenty of outdoor opportunities!
You can take a hike on its Karangia Trail, which offers a spectacular view of the sunrise at its peak. Get up close with the hippos by going on a guided canoe trip down the rivers. You can also look for elephants, chimpanzees, birds, and other wildlife in the forests.
5. Visit the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary
Tacugama is a haven for Chimpanzees who were rescued from cruelly being kept as pets or in danger of being hunted by bushmen for their meat. On a tour of the sanctuary you will be able to see some of the over 100 primates that call it home. If one—or more!—touches your heart there is even an adoption program where you’ll be an intricate part of the chosen chimps survival (see their website for more information).
If you want an even more bucket list worthy experience then book a stay in the lodge at the sanctuary where you’ll be staying amongst the chimpanzees and dozens of bird species that have been found there!
6. Have Lunch in Bo
The city of Bo is a well-visited pit stop on the way to some of the Sierra Leone islands, and it’s the perfect spot to grab a little lunch. I can vouch for Haness Restaurant & Bar where the food is good (and cheap!) and the restrooms are clean.
I got a huge mound of plain white rice, spicy beans, fried plantains, and a bottle of water for under $4.
7. Explore the Gola Rainforest National Park
Gola Rainforest National Park is Sierra Leone’s second national park and has the largest tract of rainforest in the country (covering over 71,070 hectares), perfect for exploring! There are three main areas available for entry to visitors in Gola: Belebu, Lalehun, and Sileti, each offering unique experiences.
Belebu is notable for its panoramic views and mountain climbs. You can also spot various wildlife, which includes a Picathartes nesting site. There is also a cultural dance from the villagers for those staying here.
Lalehun offers a network of trails, perfect for trekking and camping trips. You should also watch out for the ‘Gola’ masked devil dance performance by the Lalehun villagers (arranged upon request).
Sileti allows you to see Diana Monkeys on the nature trails and the elusive pygmy hippo along the Mahoi River. You can also go on a 3-day trek through the Gola South to Tiwali Wildlife Sanctuary.
8. Step Foot on the Banana Islands
Banana Islands is a group of islands located southwest of the Freetown Peninsula. It comprises three islands: Dublin (known for its beaches), Ricketts (known for its lush forests), and Mes-Meheux (a conservation eco-adventure destination).
Surrounded by water, Banana Islands offer a variety of watersports activities like sport fishing, whale watching, and scuba diving. You can also go on a guided trek to its forests where you can view wildlife. Historical sites can be seen around the islands as well, giving you a glimpse of its past.
With its well-preserved forests, historical sites, and exciting holiday activities, you will definitely go bananas in Banana Islands!
9. Take a Jungle Walk At the Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary
Exploring the tropical rain-forests of Sierra Leone is a must, and the Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary is the perfect place to do it—especially while on a jungle walk.
Whether you do your jungle trek in the light of day or in the darkness of night where glowing animal eyes are gazing upon you, you’ll surely see (and hear) lots of different wildlife. It could be a monkey jumping from the branches of a tree, a bird flying overhead or white pigs rustling in the bushes. If you are lucky you may even spot the elusive Pygmy hippo!
If you’d rather, you can view the dense jungle from the water on an engine-powered boat trip up the Mao River.
If you choose to spend the night, you will be staying in a basic cabin (think simple hostel) with individual rooms, but a shared bathroom. There is no air conditioning and the solar powered electricity may run out if you run too many fans, but there is running water.
10. Do a Rogbonko Village Retreat
It is always a welcome change to take a step back and experience living a simple life, and that is what the Rogbonko Village Retreat is all about. It is a project aimed at generating interest in rural Sierra Leone and instilling traditional values in visitors and locals alike.
With no electricity and running water, you will experience what village life in Sierra Leone is. Traditional huts serve as accommodation for visitors. You will get the chance to meet with the villagers, learning about their customs and the everyday activities in the village. Of course, being in a rural village, you will be able to have a taste of food made from the local’s fresh produce!
11. Walk the Sandbars on Turtle Island
Turtle Island is home to a small fishing village and countless picturesque palm trees near the water’s edge. But, what is even more picturesque is the beautiful sandbars that surround the island at low tide. Hopping from one to the other makes for the most bucket list worthy walk.
For the more adventurous traveler, you may want to spend the night in their very basic guesthouse (just a simple mattress and toilet) or pitch a tent on the beach. Be warned that there is no electricity or running water, so you will definitely be roughing it.
12. Get Enlightened on Bunce Island
Going on a visit to Bunce Island will take you to a vital part of Sierra Leone’s history, given its significance to the dark history of the slave trade that occurred during 1607-1807. The local guides are knowledgeable and will give you a detailed account of Bunce Island’s history.
It was designated as Sierra Leone’s first officially protected historic site in 1948 and is now under the protection of the Sierra Leonean Monuments and Relics Commission. Ruins of the buildings still exist around Bunce Island, with the castle being a national monument.
13. Stay in a Chalet on Tasso Island
The chalets at Tasso Island provide the perfect getaway accommodation, conveniently beside the beach and the restaurant. They have six chalets in total, each costing about $40 per night. The interior is spacious and includes a double bed, mosquito net, en suite shower, and composting toilet.
Once you are settled, you can go about the different activities on the island like going on canoe trips, watching a masquerade dance, island sports, and bird watching. Speaking of bird watching, two Timneh Grey parrots have made the island their home, so be on the lookout for them.
. . .
And that concludes our bucket-list-worthy things to do in Sierra Leone! It truly deserves to be recognized more, with its enchanting beaches lined by palm trees, vast forests abundant with wildlife, rich cultural history, and the hospitality of its people. It is like stumbling upon a chest filled with rare treasures. The experiences you will only find here are what make the memories more meaningful and unforgettable.
Though some things are hard to hear, it is equally important for them to be heard. Just like how it has risen from a dark past and started anew, hopefully, more people will see Sierra Leone for the treasure that it is.
Essential Tips for Visiting Sierra Leone, Africa
Getting There: Lungi International Airport is a major hub and most airlines will fly into it. You can easily check for the best fare deals at Skyscanner, which also has the option to choose ‘cheapest month’ as the departure to find the lowest priced dates to fly to your destination. Once you arrived at Sierra Leone you will be shuffled immediately to get a COVID test. You can also buy a SIM card for $10. From the airport to the city center, a driver can take you from the airport to the boat station where you can take the Sea Coach express ferry. It will take you to the Freetown terminal.
Where to Stay in Sierra Leone: It’s best to stay near the city center, public transportation or the area that you will be spending the most time in. The Country Lodge Hotel is a great choice in the Freetown. For something on the less expensive side, try Ishmajoso Lodge located in Freetown. For a hotel with a little more extravagance, book a room at the Mamba Point Hotel . Or search some great deals on hotels of your choice at Booking.com. If you’re looking for more of a home atmosphere (or are traveling with a group of people), head over to Airbnb that has houses, apartments and even just a room for rent in every price range.
Getting Around: Navigating all of Sierra Leone on your own would be super challenging, so it’s best to hire a tour company. We went with VSL.
Vaccinations: Check with your doctor about other requirements, but a yellow fever vaccination is a must and malaria medication is highly recommended.
Insurance: It’s always a good idea to travel fully insured so you are protected in case of trip cancellations or medical emergencies. You can check out pricing at Travelex Insurance.
Universal Adapter: Your American plugged equipment will need an adapter. I use the Celtic Universal Adapter, which has brought me around the world with no problems.
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