My first thought when I was approached about going to Sierra Leone was is it safe? All I could think of was the movie Blood Diamonds and war. I was delighted to learn that Sierra Leone feels very safe and that its dreadful civil war ended nearly 20 years ago.
Before the Civil War, Sierra Leone had a booming tourism industry, and it is easy to see why. The weather is at its best between November and February, it has stunning beaches and fantastic seafood, and it’s on UK time.
The country has been rebuilding itself for some time, so discover how to travel to Sierra Leone before the rest of the world descends!
How to Get to Sierra Leone and How to Get Around
Table of Contents
- How to Get to Sierra Leone and How to Get Around
- The Basics to Travel to Sierra Leone
- Best time to visit Sierra Leone
- Things to do in Sierra Leone
- 1. Head to the Beach
- 2. Ride the Rails at the National Railway Museum
- 3. Get a photo of the original Fourah Bay College Building
- 4. See the Queen’s signature at St George’s Cathedral
- 5. Go shopping at the Tourist Market
- 6. Learn about the country’s culture at the Sierra Leone National Museum
- 7. Learn about Reconciliation at the Peace and Cultural Monument
- 8. Visit the National Symbol of Freetown
- 9. See the Board Houses of Freetown
- 10. See Freetown from Leicester Peak
- 11. Have lunch at the Crown Bakery
- 12. Have a drink and watch the sunset at Roy’s Beach Bar
- Outside Freetown
- 13. Learn about the past on Bunce Island
- 14. Tasso Island
- 15. Visit Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary
- 16. Visit Banana Island
- 17. Visit a Traditional Fishing Community
- 18. Enjoy some African Music in Whale Bay
- 19. Marvel at the White Sands on Tokeh Beach
- 20. Marvel even more at the River No 2 Beach
- 21. Visit Sierra Leone’s Surf Beach
- Further Exploration in Sierra Leone
- For Hiking:
- Where to Stay in Sierra Leone
- Banana Island
- Tokeh Beach
Sierra Leone is an extremely mountainous country, so finding enough flat land to build an airport wasn’t easy. The airport is located at Lungi. It is a 2 ½ to 3-hour drive from Freetown to Lunghi. As a result, most people use the water taxi or public ferry, which takes about 30 minutes.
However, time is added to the journey as luggage needs to be checked into the water taxi/ferry and then collected, plus you need to get from your hotel to the ferry station, etc. Plan on leaving your hotel in Freetown 5 ½ hours before your flight is due to leave.
Royal Air Maroc flies from London to Freetown via Casablanca. However, check your flight as some of them go from Casablanca to Freetown via Liberia, which adds a couple of hours. Brussels Airlines offers a direct flight from Belgium that takes just under seven hours.
The roads in Sierra Leone aren’t in great shape. I would NOT recommend hiring a car. The best option is to use a local operator and get a guide and a driver. I traveled with VSL and highly recommend them. Our guide was outstanding, as was our driver. I felt completely safe and had no idea how our driver got us to many places!
US dollars, euros and British pounds can all be easily exchanged in Freetown. Most tourism businesses will want payment in local currency. Bring larger denominations of foreign currency eg at least 50s. The black market in currency exchange is booming in Freetown, and the exchange rate offered on larger notes is much better than on small notes.
Let your guide/driver/hotel know you would like to exchange money, and they can take you to one of the busy areas in Freetown, where a man with a backpack will hand you a very large amount of Sierra Leone currency in exchange for your western cash.
The Basics to Travel to Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone is on GMT and the plugs are 3-point UK style (230V/50Hz)
Krio is the major language in Sierra Leone. After repatriation, the country was home to a large number of different dialects, so Krio became the common language. Many people in Freetown and tourist areas also speak English.
A visa is required for most visitors to Sierra Leone.
A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required for entry into Sierra Leone. There is malaria in Sierra Leone but only in certain areas. Do check if you need to take an anti-malarial based on your itinerary.
Arrival and departure taxes must be paid. These are known as the Foreign Travel Tax.
Best time to visit Sierra Leone
The best time to visit Sierra Leone is between November and April. Temperatures are warm and the skies are blue. I visited at the end of January and the weather was ideal for swimming and lying on the beach
Temperatures, when I visited, got up to the mid-30s Celsius at the height of the afternoon. As Sierra Leone isn’t that far from the equator, the temperature is quite consistent across the year. However, between March and May, the temperatures can rise to the high 30s.
Mid-May to the End of October is the rainy season, and many tourism businesses close up over that time.
Things to do in Sierra Leone
1. Head to the Beach
One of the things for which Sierra Leone is best known is its beaches. The country’s coastline is 400 kilometers long plus there are several islands, so there are many beautiful beaches to explore – even in Freetown.
The west of Freetown runs along the coastline and is the home of Lumley Beach. For a city beach, Lumley is in pretty good condition. The sand is relatively clean and the water didn’t look too bad although I didn’t have a chance to go in.
You will see locals playing sports on Lumley Beach, particularly on the weekend as well as swimming. However, in my opinion, the nicest beach in Freetown is Lakka Beach. From the northern tip of Lumley Beach, it is about a 20-minute drive to Lakka Beach and its pure golden sands.
2. Ride the Rails at the National Railway Museum
I was pleasantly surprised by what a lovely experience it was to visit the National Railway Museum in Freetown. This charming museum is located in the depot from which trains ran in Sierra Leone. The last train ran in Sierra Leone in 1975.
The museum officially opened to the public in 2005. However, during the Civil War, it was home to more than 10,000 displaced persons.
As soon as the train network was closed down in 1975 work began on the museum. The large building has high ceilings and is very atmospheric. There are many old railway carts that have been restored and can be visited including the one specially created for the visit of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1960.
3. Get a photo of the original Fourah Bay College Building
One of the most photographed spots in Freetown, Fourah Bay College opened in 1827. It was the first western-style university in modern Africa. This magnificent old building is now an attractive ruin, thus the many photos.
4. See the Queen’s signature at St George’s Cathedral
Built between 1817 and 1828, this Anglican church is perhaps the most well-known church in Sierra Leone. The attractive brown brick building has a clock tower and quite grand interior with red velvet seats, white columns and walls, and a high wooden ceiling.
Don’t leave without checking out the guest book. It will most likely be sitting casually on a back pew. The visitor’s book dates back to 1960. The first page contains the signatures of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.
The visitor’s book has been there since 1960, and it is possible to see the signatures of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.
5. Go shopping at the Tourist Market
Housed in a caramel-colored building, this market for tourists is split over two levels and is a great place to pick up souvenirs. If you have marveled at some of the colorful outfits and handbags women wear in Freetown, this is the place to get your own. I bought a great pair of sandals and a handbag.
6. Learn about the country’s culture at the Sierra Leone National Museum
The Sierra Leone museum is focused on cultural heritage rather than history and is a great place to learn more about this fascinating country. Sierra Leone is made up of 18 different ethnic groups. 60% of the population is Muslim, 35% Christian and the remaining 5% are Juju.
The museum is home to some interesting masks and costumes, as well as some slightly scary-looking tribal mannequins that are all used in different cultural ceremonies.
The Sierra Leone National Museum tells the stories of some of the different tribal chiefs in Sierra Leone. One of the most interesting is the tale of Bai Bureh and the Hut Tax War. I won’t ruin it for you!
Fun Fact: Sierra Leone means lion mountain It was actually named by the Portuguese. They arrived during the rainy season and thought the mountains looked like a lion.
7. Learn about Reconciliation at the Peace and Cultural Monument
First opened in 2013, the Peace and Culture Monument is an outdoor exhibit that provides an overview of the key phases of war and peace in the history of Sierra Leone. For me, the most interesting piece of Sierra Leone history is the most recent.
Our guide explained how at the end of the Civil War, communities would not accept the return of those who had been soldiers. This led the country to undertake a national reconciliation process which is commemorated in this monument.
The Peace and Cultural Monument is located across the road from the office of the President of Sierra Leone.
8. Visit the National Symbol of Freetown
The national symbol of Freetown is a 500-year-old cotton tree located in the middle of the roundabout next to the Peace Monument. It is huge! Repatriated slaves would visit this tree to pray and give thanks for their freedom.
9. See the Board Houses of Freetown
The Board Houses are wooden structures that were built by newly repatriated slaves in Freetown. Some of the houses date back as far as 1792. Head to Pademba Road to see some of the remaining Board Houses.
10. See Freetown from Leicester Peak
This is the highest point in Freetown and the view is absolutely spectacular. Walking up to Leicester Peak is possible, but you would have to be very keen. The roads are rough, so definitely get a driver but don’t miss visiting Leicester Peak.
11. Have lunch at the Crown Bakery
The Crown bakery is an institution in Freetown. This popular restaurant has been running for 32 years. Its Lebanese owners serve up an extensive menu, including an outstanding chargrilled chicken burger. They also have some good-looking cakes on offer and an espresso machine. This was the best coffee I had in Sierra Leone.
12. Have a drink and watch the sunset at Roy’s Beach Bar
One of the most popular restaurants and bars along Freetown’s Lumley Beach Road, head to Roy’s Beach Bar and get a table undercover near the sea and sit and watch the sunset while enjoying a wine or a beer.
The food at Roy’s is also great – loads of fresh seafood grilled. I highly recommend the shrimp. This is a comfortable easy bar that is popular with both locals and tourists. I liked it so much I came here two evenings in a row.
13. Learn about the past on Bunce Island
This UNESCO-listed site was a sacred island before the British arrived in 1670. Under British rule, it became a major slave fort on the west coast of Africa. From about 1756 until the British outlawed slavery in 1808, approx. 30,000 people passed through the island and onto slave ships bound for the Americas. Up to 10,000 people at a time were held on the island.
Today no one lives on the island as it was essentially abandoned in 1835. This gives it a somewhat haunted air. Today visitors can see the fort’s remains, old canons and several other buildings on the island. While there are some helpful signs on the island, it really needs a guide to bring it to life.
Bunce Island is a one-hour boat trip (30 km) from Freetown. It is an interesting ride as the boat travels along the peninsula, giving a good sense of Freetown’s geography.
14. Tasso Island
This 2-kilometre island is where slaves were first held in Sierra Leone. However, it proved to offer too many opportunities for escape, so the slaves were moved to Bunce Island.
Today Tasso Island is a fishing community often visited on a day trip with Bunce Island. Head to Tasso resort and have a seafood lunch on the beach. The resort also has rustic cabins on the beach if you want to stay the night.
15. Visit Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary
A visit to Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary is a must on any visit to Sierra Leone. Tacugama opened in 1995 intending to rehabilitate orphaned chimpanzees. It is not a zoo. Many of the chimpanzees at Tacugama have been traumatized. The chimps are categorized into different groups depending on their circumstances and how long they have been at the sanctuary.
The animals are essentially taught or re-taught the skills they will need to survive in the wild. At any given time, Tacugama is home to around 100 chimpanzees, all of which have been named. The oldest chimp at Tacugama when I visited was 44-year-old Tom.
Visitors can see the chimps from different walkways through the sanctuary on guided tours. There are four tours per day, each with a maximum of ten people, so do book in advance to avoid disappointment. Tacugama also has eco-lodges if you’re interested in spending the night.
Visitors can also become chimp guardians for just USD$60. It costs USD$2500 a year for Tacugama to take care of each chimpanzee.
Fun Fact: The Chimpanzee was declared the national animal of Sierra Leone in 2019.
16. Visit Banana Island
Lovely Banana Island is actually made up of three small islands (Dublin, Ricketts and Mes-Meheux), which are home to just 800 people. Dublin island is the largest and most developed of the three and home to the charming Bafa Resort (more about that in places to stay).
Beaches are dotted around the island’s shores, framed by palm trees. The island is known for great snorkeling and diving. But the cute little golden beaches and with their large blue-black rocks seem most suited to me to a hammock and a good book.
There are banana trees on banana island as well as lots of other fruit trees and tropical flowers. However, the island was named Banana Island for its shape rather than the fruit.
Catch a boat from Kent Beach to Banana Island. It is a 30 minute journey. Or visit on a day trip from Freetown or many spots along the Freetown Peninsula.
17. Visit a Traditional Fishing Community
A ninety-minute drive south of Freetown, Tombo has been a fishing village since pre-colonial times. Today it offers an opportunity to see a real West African fishing village in action. Our guides at VSL were able to organise for us to visit the village with one of its local leaders.
Our “tour” covered the process of putting out the colorful fishing nets, bringing them back in and then smoking the fish. It is a great opportunity to see how a bustling fishing village actually operates.
18. Enjoy some African Music in Whale Bay
When I visited Sierra Leone, I didn’t know anyone who had ever visited the country. So imagine my surprise when a message came up on Facebook messenger from a travel journalist I had visited Normandy with the previous year telling me she was also in Sierra Leone!
Her mother-in-law, Sandra and partner Eamon, built a beautiful house in Whale Bay and they now work with their community to support the local children’s education. This takes many different forms from teaching them dances and songs from the region, the importance of play, support in their studies and much more.
Drop Sandra and Eamon a line and you can visit and possibly watch them teaching the local children traditional Sierra Leonean dances and songs. And if Sandra doesn’t have any family in town you may even be able to stay at Boma Gardens.
19. Marvel at the White Sands on Tokeh Beach
Before the Civil War, Tokeh Beach was the place to go in Sierra Leone. There was even a helicopter pad at Tokeh beach so visitors could fly there straight from the airport. It is easy to see why and I have to say this was the best beach in Sierra Leone.
Why? The sand is so white and squeaky clean. The water is super clean and clear – it almost doesn’t feel like seawater. It feels so clean. There is also an atmospheric old wooden pier and charming beach huts.
Tokeh beach is 18 miles south of central Freetown
20. Marvel even more at the River No 2 Beach
No 2 River Beach is aesthetically the most stunning beach in Sierra Leone. A Bounty Bar ad was once filmed here. The beach is called River No 2 because River no 2 flows into it.
The sand is a perfect white and squeaky clean. The sand swirls in and out of the turquoise sea and river and has the backdrop of Sierra Leone’s green mountains. All of this makes for a visually stunning scene.
River No 2 is also an excellent beach for swimming as there aren’t many rocks and the waves are pretty gentle near the shore.
21. Visit Sierra Leone’s Surf Beach
If you’re looking for a surf beach in Sierra Leone, Bureh Beach is the place to go. A 90-minute drive south of Freetown, this beautiful beach has clean golden sands and clear water.
Bureh beach is busy but it doesn’t feel overly touristy. There is camping, shopping, yoga, massage, canoeing, and many ways to relax. Of all the beaches I visited in Sierra Leone, this one had the strongest community feel. And when the tide is low at Bureh Beach, it is possible to walk out to the Mangrove Forest.
Learn more about the country’s famous beaches in my article on the 11 Best Sierra Leone Beaches.
Further Exploration in Sierra Leone
I didn’t actually get to visit the places in this section. Instead, I quizzed my awesome VSL guide about the other best places to visit in Sierra Leone.
Picket Hills can be visited on a day trip from Freetown, but it will take about 7 hours to get up and back
Bintumani Mountain is the highest mountain in West Africa. It is a two-day hike, and apparently, it is so steep coming down that the only option is to do so on your bottom!
Kangaree Hills is an 8 hour drive from Freetown and has camping options
Head up country to the Warra Warra mountain of Kabele. It is approx. a 90-minute hike up and down and offers amazing views best seen in the morning or evening.
Tiwai island is an animal sanctuary. It is home to 11 species of monkeys and more than 700 different butterfly species.
Outamba-Kilimi National Park on the Kabale River is one of the biggest national parks in Sierra Leone. It is home to 10 species of monkeys, chimpanzees, hippos, and elephants near the border with Guinea.
Turtle island comprises 8 micro islands off the western coast of Sherbro Island. Waters are clear and flat and you may well see sea turtles and/or dolpins. The downside of Turtle Island is that it is located four hours by speedboat from Freetown so it is quite a journey.
One of the biggest rainforests in Sierra Leone is Gola Rain Forest. The forest stretches into Liberia and is protected in both countries. It is home to the rare Picatartis bird.
Finally, if you are interested in Sierra Leone’s diamond mines, head to Kono in the East of the country. It is possible to visit a diamond mine and learn about the process.
Where to Stay in Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone is re-developing its tourism industry so they don’t yet have what I would usually consider being boutique hotels. But there are some charming and comfortable options that will allow you to get the most out of the country’s beautiful beaches.
Home Suites Hotel is probably the closest thing to a proper boutique hotel in Freetown. Located in the popular Aberdeen neighborhood, they offer a range of rooms from deluxe to golden suites. They have a pool and a good-sized cross fit gym and The Swan restaurant.
I visited Home Suites Hotel, but they were fully booked, so I couldn’t see a room. However, based on the lobby area and website, I would recommend this as the best option for boutique hotel lovers in Freetown.
The Atlantic Lumley hotel has a great location on Freetown’s main beach road and most importantly, it is just a short walk from Roy’s. The rooms are large and clean and certainly more luxurious than some other hotels in Sierra Leone.
I wouldn’t call the design aesthetic boutique, but there are wooden floors, white walls, and good air conditioning. The bathrooms are large with a walk-in shower that has good water pressure.
This Freetown hotel has a courtyard-style setup with a restaurant in the middle. They make a pretty good pizza!
Whilst at Tokeh Beach Resort I met a Swedish couple who had stayed at two other hotels in Freetown that they recommended. The first was Mamba Point Hotel and the second was Toma Boutique Hotel, both located in the Aberdeen area.
Finally, the “safest” option for accommodation in Freetown is the Radisson Blu. It has a pool, gym and the quality of room you would expect from the Radisson eg Nespresso machines etc. But it is unlikely that you will feel much like you are actually in Sierra Leone.
Bafa Resort is one of the few places to stay on Banana Island and probably the nicest. This glamping resort is located on the beach. There is access to several small beach spots and a large central area for sitting and lounging or drinking.
The highlight of Bafa Resort is the funky beach bar, where they serve up some fantastic cocktails. The food was also outstanding. I enjoyed a delicious papaya salad as well as some more fantastic grilled fish.
The tents at Bafa Resort have a proper double mattress with sheets etc, inside as well as a fan. Power is only available in the evenings in the tent but let’s face it you’re not going to be in there during the day. Showers and toilets are in a separate block.
Bafa Resort is rustic, so if that is your thing, it is a perfect place to escape the world. Otherwise, stay one night and enjoy waking up to the sea or take a day trip and have a delicious lunch at Bafa Resort.
Perfectly located on the beach, Tokeh Beach Resort has a range of accommodation options from basic wooden huts to standard rooms (Tokeh Sands) and villas (Tokeh Palms). There is a pool at Tokeh Palms that guests at Tokeh Sands can use.
I stayed at Tokeh Sands in a standard room. The rooms are large and clean. Power is only available in the rooms from 730pm to 730am, so you must time your shower (power includes hot water). But importantly you can run the air conditioning all night. To be honest, this didn’t feel like that much of an issue as the hotel’s central area has wifi 24/7.
Wooden loungers are dotted along the beach and as you head to them a friendly staff member will grab you a light mattress and help you with an umbrella if needed. And they will also bring you drinks. I so enjoyed lying on the lounge reading my book and popping in and out of the crystal clear water.
Tokeh Beach Resort is also justifiably known for making outstanding cocktails – don’t miss the ginger mojito. They also put on a great meal. Like everywhere I ate in Sierra Leone, there is fantastic local grilled fish and seafood. But at Tokeh Sands they served up the largest lobster I have ever seen.
Known as the most luxurious accommodation option on the peninsula, The Place at Tokeh Beach also has a great location. It has chalets dotted along the beach and a restaurant just off the beach with a full bar. They also have a very nice large swimming pool sitting just near the beach.
The Sierra Leone National Tourism Board covered the cost of my airfare and all on the ground costs for this trip including the use of VSL’s excellent services. But as always, my opinions are my own. Just so you know, this post may contain some affiliate links. That means if you click through and end up making a purchase I will receive a small commission. I wanted to make sure you were aware of this.