After more than a decade of civil war – one of the most brutal and destructive that West Africa has ever seen – and an unexpected outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus, Sierra Leone is working hard to get back on track. The efforts are going well, too. Gone are the days of rebel and government divisions. Supporters of the onetime coups and counter-coups are now re-integrated back into society; hardly anyone even mentions the troubles of the 90s.
The country is open for business again! But where to go? Will you choose the salt-sprayed beaches of the Western Region, where palm trees bow to the Atlantic Ocean and old colonial fortresses crumble on the clifftops? Or will you head inland, to where chimps roam the Guinean forests, and colobus monkeys tread the undergrowth of the savannah woods.
Lets explore the best places to visit in Sierra Leone:
Cascading down the green hills of the Western Area, right to the edge of its own horseshoe bay, the capital of Freetown is a fine place to begin your travels in the country.
A cocktail of frantic port activity (the city is home to one of the largest natural deep-water harbors on the globe) and laid-back beachside living, it’s something of Sierra Leone writ small.
You’ll see what we mean as you move between the powdery sands of Lakka Beach and Lumley, into the party strip of Aberdeen district, and out to the industrial sprawl of the suburbs.
Oh, and don’t miss the amazing Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, where mind-boggling primates will swing above your 4X4!
2. Bunce Island
Deep in the recesses of Tagrin Bay, just a short ferry ride from the jetties of the capital at Freetown, the rock that is Bunce Island offers a glimpse into the darker days of West African history.
Just one of 40 individual citadels that were raised by the Europeans along the shoreline of the region during the heyday of the slave trade, the spot is known to have been one of the primary points where British vessels laden with captured people departed for the colonies of South Carolina and Georgia across the Atlantic.
Today, visitors can come and see the preserved castile, and learn all about this sobering episode of Sierra Leone’s past.
3. Banana Island
Languishing off the coast of the Western Area, south from the capital at Freetown, the finger of land that forms Banana Island has all the shimmering, alabaster-hued beaches and lush rainforest you’d expect of a place so deep in the tropics.
In fact, that cocktail of beautiful natural draws has made this one arguably the most popular weekend getaway from the big city, and there are now some good guesthouses in hotels in the fishing settlements of Dublin and Ricketts as a result.
You can also head inland, and seek out the vine-clambered ruins of old colonial depots and slave processing centers.
4. Tiwai Island
Engulfed by the weaving, winding capillaries of the Moa River as the main channel splits in two in the heart of Sierra Leon’s Southern Province, Tiwai Island remains one of the most famous conservation spots in the country.
A rare draw away from the coast, the riparian land is home to some of the last remaining virgin rainforest in Sierra Leone.
And the wildlife is equally as totemic, with Diana monkeys and pygmy hippos, tool-using chimpanzees (a truly awesome feat) and curious pangolins all making the reserve their home.
5. Turtle Islands
The Turtle Islands might just be the most picture-perfect tropical paradise you’ve never heard of.
Set out in the lapping swells of the Atlantic Ocean, this archipelago of eight is made from a patchwork of swaying palm blooms and mangrove, carved out by gorgeous white-sand beaches and empty bays of water so blue you’ll need to pinch yourself to believe it.
Add to that a truly rustic set of locals and ramshackle bamboo-built villages, bobbing fishing skiffs and campsites right on the shore, and it’s easy to see why the Turtle isles deserve a visit.
Just be sure to steer the boat away from Hoong, which is barred to visitors and used for coming-of-age religious rituals.
Bamboo parasols rustle in the Atlantic breezes; sands shimmer in gleaming yellow-golden hues; the salty whitecaps of the ocean buffet the palm-peppered shore: Welcome to Tokeh Beach – arguably the single most accomplished seaside resort in the entire of Sierra Leone.
Thanks to its gorgeous coastal stretches, this little town east of Freetown and in the heart of the Western Area Rural District has grown up with countless luxury hotels and guesthouses.
In fact, it’s been noted for its touristic potential since at least the 1960s, when one Shakib Basma built the first accommodations.
The civil war ravaged all that, but things are now in full swing again, and sunbathing on the sand is back on the menu!
7. Gola Forest Reserve
As Sierra Leone’s last remaining swathe of Upper Guinean Tropical Rainforest, the Gola Reserve commands the attention of nature lovers and conservationists the world over.
It’s been on the international map since the 1920s, and has risen to particular fame thanks to its booming population of resident chimpanzees (the number stands at over 300 individuals in total!). However, the park also displays the rare biodiversity of old-growth woodland, with layer upon layer of organisms residing from the undergrowth to the canopy: colorful butterflies; galumphing forest elephants; pygmy hippos – the list goes on!
8. Bo Town
Officially just Bo, though affectionately and colloquially known as Bo Town, Sierra Leone’s second city sits deep in the Southern Province.
Down-to-earth and industrial by nature, the place is driven by diamond prospecting and mining.
However, there are some lively (thanks largely to the student crowds of the Njala University) spots to settle for a drink and a bite to eat, along with some great natural attractions on the edge of the city – not least of all the Kangari Hills Forest Reserve to the north.
Bo Town is connected with the capital by a long, paved road, and journeys here from the city on the coast take around four hours from start to finish.
9. Outamba Kilimi National Park
If you’re eager to keep company with chimpanzees and swinging mangabeys, then there can really be no substitute for the vast reaches of the Outamba Kilimi National Park.
They sit in the extreme north of Sierra Leone, unfolding close to the border with the Republic of Guinea in a mosaic of savannah and woodland, groves of goomar teaks and hills that poke just above the canopies.
Ecotourism is the main draw, and today thousands of safari comers head here to see hippos in the muddy waters of the Kilimi River, elephants in the forests, bongo antelopes on the ridges, and even chimpanzees overhead!
Away from the coast and deep in the middle of the Eastern Province, the country’s third-largest city can be found cascading down the ridges of the Kambui Hills to meet the winding courses of the Moa River.
Like many provincial hubs, Kenema has a colourful clock tower and lively medley of locals, who can often be seen purring on scooters over the dusty downtown streets, or roaring on the city’s duo of Sierra Leone National Premier League soccer sides: the Kamboi Eagles and Gem Stars.
The city is also the best gateway to the chimp and colobus monkey-spotted wilds of the South Kambui Hills Forest Reserve.
Close to the geographical heart of Sierra Leone, the bustling, mercantile and industrial city of Makeni ticks over to the sounds of Krio chatter and cheers for the local Wusum Stars football team.
A lived-in place that’s not really got any standout attractions for the visitor, this provincial hub is a great town for getting a feel of what day to day life is like in this West African nation.
And there is an all-new clock tower in the works, lots of infrastructure investment in play, and easy access to the greater region of Bombali – the home of the aforementioned Outamba Kilimi National Park!
Although best-known for the bustling international airport (the Freetown International Airport) that it hosts, Lungi is actually a magnet for travelers who are eager to be in the action, but don’t want to bed down right in the midst of frenetic Freetown.
Just a short drive north from the capital, the coastal stretch that runs to the south here is actually home to oodles of luxurious resort hotels.
And there are sun-kissed beaches too, offering a seemingly endless stretch of golden sand that’s ripe for beachcombing and people watching.
At the very heart of one of Sierra Leone’s fertile breadbasket regions, and set high amidst the breezy tops of the north-eastern hills, the town of Kabala is a welcome break from the sun-scorched, dust-caked places of the country’s lowlands.
It’s also a pretty spot, peppered with low-rise bungalows and tin-roofed builds, imbued with lively local farmers’ markets and surrounded by bucolic swathes.
The main draws lie in the hinterland nearby though, where endless walking trails will take travelers through rural farming communities and up into the forest-dressed peaks of the Northern Province.
14. Sherbro Island
A large shard of land that fragments from Sierra Leone and points straight out into the Atlantic Ocean, Sherbro Island is cut-through by countless river channels and formed from sweeping vistas of wetland and swamp.
It’s a sleepy and rustic place, with just a smattering of small towns like Bonthe and pint-sized San, mainly inhabited by the indigenous Sherbro people – contented, bucolic and curiously westernized fishing types.
There’s a fascinating history to unravel here too – Sherbro Island went from British bastion of anti-slave trade enforcement to resettlement community for repatriated American slaves.
15. Kambui Hills Forest Reserve
Located just on the edge of the aforementioned backwater town of Kenema, the Kambui Hills Forest Reserve might not be Sierra Leone’s most famous natural area, but it’s certainly got charms all of its own.
For starters, there’s the rare birdlife, which ranges from the white-necked rockfowl to the green-tailed bristlebill.
That avian biodiversity is mirrored on the ground too, where duikers and forest elephants tread their own paths through the forest.
And thanks to the proximity close to a regional city, trips here are relatively easy to organize!