why you should visit the historic capital of Sierra Leone

Twenty years after the end of the civil war, Sierra Leone is exploring its tourism potential, and for good reason. Golden sand beaches, cultural and historical landmarks, and ecotourism ventures are transforming the country into an exciting destination filled with off-the-beaten-path experiences.

Freetown, the vibrant capital, is an ideal starting point with established hotels and boutique accommodations, a vibrant food scene, bustling markets and soft-sand beaches where the sunsets are perfect. Located on West Africa’s Atlantic coast, the city was founded in 1792 by British abolitionists as a settlement for freed slaves. It has since grown into a bustling urban center with a diverse population of over one million.

Old Town

Freetown’s most famous landmark is easy to miss, especially from inside a keke (tuk-tuk), navigating the narrow, busy streets in the shadow of the colonial buildings. Cotton Tree, a giant kapok tree, symbolizing resilience and new beginnings, stands in the middle of a busy, all-consuming intersection in its expanse. Ex-slaves arriving in Freetown would come up from the shoreline to touch the tree and give thanks for their freedom.

Freetown Historic Center (Radhika Aligh)

Freetown Historic Center (Radhika Aligh)

Under the branches of the cotton tree is the Sierra Leone National Museum. It was founded in 1957 to preserve and promote cultural heritage. The museum houses artefacts, including traditional masks, musical instruments, textiles and archaeological finds from various parts of the country. Some of the notable exhibits include exhibits on history, the Atlantic slave trade, and the colonial period. The museum also has a significant collection of ethnographic materials such as clothing, jewelry and ceramics from different ethnic groups.

A much newer museum – and home to significantly larger artefacts – is the National Railway Museum. Sierra Leone started its first passenger train service to the provinces in 1898 and made its last journey in 1975. The disused locomotives and carriages languished in the workshops for thirty years until they found their way to the museum in 2005. is a fine collection of historic 2’6” gauge railway locomotives, carriages and wagons designed and built in the United Kingdom. Among the large carriages there is also a working pump trolley (handcar), used in the past for the transport of maintenance workers.

Fourah Bay College was West Africa's first Western-style university (Radhika Aligh)

Fourah Bay College was West Africa’s first Western-style university (Radhika Aligh)

Two streets away from the museum is one of the most striking architectural structures: Old Fourah Bay College. It was founded in 1827 as the first Western-style university in West Africa and is considered one of the oldest institutions of higher learning. The college was initially a Christian mission school before transforming into a full-fledged university. The old abandoned campus, which still looks opulent, is set to undergo a reconstruction facilitated by the World Monuments Fund.

Spectacular beaches

When Sierra Leoneans want to relax, they head to the beach. And with an entire coastline filled with spectacular golden sand hideaways, there’s plenty to choose from. The most popular is river No. 2, which is especially lively on Sundays when hundreds of locals descend stocked with food and booze until the wee hours of the morning. The free-for-all beach party ends with singing and dancing around a huge bonfire lit at midnight. The No 2 River and nearby Tokeh Beach are also ideal for surfers wanting to ride the waves of the Atlantic. Look back from the water to find rolling wooded hills, the sand belt’s most idyllic backdrop.

river no.  2 (Radhika Aligh)

river no. 2 (Radhika Aligh)

The coastline stretches approximately 360 miles and is home to many fishing communities that use traditional fishing methods such as canoes, fishing nets and line to fish. Fishing is a primary economic activity for the local Kent community, an hour away from Freetown, who typically catch tuna, mackerel and barracuda for sale in local markets or for export.

Most people travel through Kent to head to Banana Island, a popular destination for weary city dwellers ready to escape the hustle and bustle of modern life. The archipelago comprises three islands: Dublin, Ricketts and Mes-Meheux, where visitors can indulge in snorkelling, scuba diving and kayaking. With no more than 600 residents on the largest island, it’s an intimate experience that allows travelers to slow down and explore the culture and traditions of this small community. Ecotourism options are plentiful, with guesthouses and locally-led initiatives.

Wildlife and Conservation

Thirty minutes from historic downtown, Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary is a rescue center and conservation program that seeks to protect wild chimpanzees and their habitat. The center began in 1995 when accountant turned conservationist Bala Amarasekaran and his wife Sharmila witnessed the sale of a weak and sickly child on the outskirts of Freetown. Thirty years later, the couple and their team of vets and rangers have created a safe space for hundreds of chimpanzees by rehabilitating them in pens in semi-wild woodland.

Chimpanzees in their enclosure at Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary (Radhika Aligh)

Chimpanzees in their enclosure at Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary (Radhika Aligh)

“We do a lot of research in terms of where the distribution is, where the chimpanzees are, what the threats are in those areas,” Bala tells me. The nationwide survey and census found between 5500 and 6000 chimpanzees, the second or third largest western chimpanzee population worldwide. In 2019, after relentless campaign work, the Sierra Leone government announced chimpanzees as its national animal, to shift attention away from an image associated with civil war and blood diamonds.

For Bala, the title carries a greater responsibility to educate people, build a harmonious relationship between apes and humans, and preserve their habitat. “We are currently working with 93 communities to try to protect the community forest and with the National Protected Areas Authority to restore two of the national parks that were in bad shape. We raise awareness in many schools through an environmental education curriculum, so even an elementary school child will learn about chimpanzees and the need to protect the environment.

Lively nightlife

Lumley Beach is where the party never stops. Along both sides of the coast road are bars, restaurants and clubs keeping visitors and locals entertained until the early hours of the morning. It’s also the best place to watch the most beautiful sunsets with your favorite beverage. Grab a seat on the upper deck and immerse yourself in the golden hour as you watch a game of beach football, a sport taken very seriously at Salone.

The Sierre Leone peninsula has several hidden and unspoilt beaches (Radhika Aligh)

The Sierre Leone peninsula has several hidden and unspoilt beaches (Radhika Aligh)

Snack on an Italian gelato at Gigibontà Ice Cream and Pizzeria, or head two doors down to China Town restaurant – Lumley Beach is where diversity is most on display. Huge numbers of Indian and Lebanese immigrants have brought cuisines and flavors with them from thousands of miles away. You can sample some at dozens of restaurants throughout Freetown. Just off Lumley Beach, Bliss serves a range of curries alongside a tempting European and fusion menu in a tranquil garden setting.

Traditional dishes like okra, spicy krain-krain, plasas (leafy green stews), binch (black cowpea) and locally caught seafood are must-try dishes in Sierra Leone. They grace most hotel menus, but the best places to delve into them are local restaurants or street vendors. At busy junctions and junctions like Waterloo, you’ll find women approaching cars trying to whip up fried cassava bread with fish sauce – the flavors are unique to this part of Africa. Other street food dishes include sweet cakes and foofoo (or fufu) made from fermented cassava.

Cole Street Guesthouse opened its doors to the public in 2021 with the first gourmet restaurant entirely dedicated to traditional cuisine. Her chef and co-owner Miatta Marke has left her legal job in London to return home to honor her and her grandmother’s roots Lati Hyde-Forster MBE, the first woman in Sierra Leone to graduate from university. Through her home-cooked dishes such as Fourah (sweet rice flour dumplings) and Huntu (steamed cornmeal, spring onion and prawn dumplings), she pays homage to the flavors of her homeland.

Where stay

A short walk from bustling Lumley Beach, the Radisson Blu Mammy Yoko Hotel is a safe and comfortable boarding option for those who want to be right in the thick of it. Take a dip in the ocean or relax in the outdoor pool. An indoor gym and two tennis courts cover your training regime while your nutrition is taken care of by The Deck, their in-house restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.

All 171 rooms, from Standard to Business and Diplomatic to Presidential Suite, have balconies with sea or garden views and are decorated in modern neutral tones. The hotel is also home to a café and the Baw Baw Bar, where cold beers and cocktails offer respite from the scorching heat.

Getting there

Air France operates flights from London Heathrow to Lungi International Airport via Paris. The city of Freetown is a 30-minute boat ride from the airport.

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