One of West Africa's most enticing and least-known holiday destinations, Sierra Leone is a place ideally suited for people keen on light adventure - or those who've travelled around better-known countries in Eastern and Southern Africa.
With a modest infrastructure alongside delicious Sierra Leonean culinary delights to discover, there's never been a better time to travel.
So, what is the capital of Sierra Leone? Where are the best beaches in Sierra Leone? And which wildlife experiences are possible for a Sierra Leone holiday? Before making the decision to visit this diverse African country, here's everything you need to know.
Facts on Sierra Leone
If you're planning a trip to this tropical part of the world, it's wise to brush up on your local knowledge.
Here are some interesting Sierra Leone facts to broaden your horizon.
English Is Widely Spoken
During your visit, you'll be able to strike up a conversation with most locals in English. The language is spoken in schools, government administration and the media. Not only that, but Freetown is home to streets such as Edinburgh or Waterloo. The main village on the Banana Islands is even called Dublin.
But what language is spoken in Sierra Leone the most?
Throughout the country, you'll soon discover that the most common language spoken is actually Krio. Based on English, this Creole language features elements of French and Portuguese. It's heavily influenced by the Creole people, who are descendants of freed slaves from Britain and the United States.
Sierra Leone Translates As ‘Lion Mountains’
A name that simply rolls off the tongue, Sierra Leone roughly translates to 'Lion Mountains' in English. Courtesy of 15th-century Portuguese explorer Pedro de Sintra, the country gets its title from 'Serra Lyoa' - a Portuguese term for Lion Mountains. This is in reference to the hills and mountains surrounding Freetown Peninsula, which is home to the Sierra Leone capital city of Freetown.
Located in the Western Area Peninsula National Park, the Lion Mountains stretch for over 19 miles and have a peak of 2,913 feet at Picket Hill. The peninsula is also the one of the few places on the West African coast where rainforests meet the sea.
There Are Only Two Distinct Seasons
In Sierra Leone, the two main seasons are the dry season and wet season. The dry season occurs from November to April and is dominated by winds from the northeast. The rainy season takes place between May and October, characterised by its cooler temperatures and heavy rainfall. Late December through to mid-March is the optimum time to visit.
Temperatures throughout these seasons tend to be consistent, with an average in the mid-twenties. In June and late September, there are heavy downpours which cause the roads to become very muddy and difficult to traverse.
Sierra Leone History & Culture
Due to its significance in the transatlantic slave trade, Sierra Leone is a country rich in cultural traditions and features a fascinating history to explore - which you can do on a Sierra Leone cultural holiday.
Here is some much-needed insight into the history and culture.
Originally the largest slave trade site in Sierra Leone, Bunce Island Fortress now serves as a reminder of the area's dark past. The history of slavery in the country can be tied back to this one small island, located approximately 20 miles upriver from Freetown. Presently, most people visit as part of a guided tour.
African slaves were held and processed here before being sent to the Americas. Between the years of 1670 and 1807, it's estimated that over 30,000 people were transported to labour camps. However, in 1809, the slave trade was abolished, and the castle quickly abandoned thereafter.
Every year, Sierra Leone celebrates Lantern Festival. The event has historic, cultural and religious significance as it portrays artifacts and activities of the slave trade, colonialism and the economy. Performances from the National Dance Troupe have seen the group gain international status through their combination of exciting, exotic and exhilarating dance moves. And the Tangains Festival brings the past to life, where locals wear Sierra Leone traditional clothing during music, dance and drama exhibitions.
Masquerades are organised throughout Eid Ul Adha, New Year and Easter. The Ballenta Academy trains youngsters in theatre and music while holding concerts depicting the local arts. Meanwhile, the Freetong Players create comedy, music and theatrical skits reflecting Sierra Leone’s socio-cultural beliefs. Ma Dengn Beach Festival is also celebrated, bringing together the best of Sierra Leonean music, food, fashion, literature and arts & crafts.
In Sierra Leone, local delicacies include the likes of fufu - a gelatinous mixture with pounded vegetables - and cassava leaf stew - featuring beef, chicken, salted fish or prawns. Other popular food and drink in the region are yebeh, groundnut soup, bissap and palm wine.
While in Freetown, visit Cole Street Guesthouse and sample the excellent menu courtesy of chef Miatta Marke. Provenance is at the core of the food philosophy, where West African flavours and ingredients are transformed into delicious dishes with various techniques. Not only that, but the guesthouse, located in chef Miatta’s old family home, has a unique charm which only adds to the experience.
Wildlife in Sierra Leone
From Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary to Gola Rainforest National Park, the animals in Sierra Leone primarily make the lush rainforests their home. Ideal for intrepid travellers, a Sierra Leone wildlife holiday takes you off the beaten track and presents you with rare glimpses of primates, birds, mammals and more.
Here is what you may encounter while exploring.
A big draw for many, the forest-dependent monkeys include several endangered species. Western red colobus can be found in the rainforest canopy while the sought-after king colobus and shy olive colobus forage for leaves and flowers. You may even have the opportunity of witnessing the striking Diana guenon or cautious lesser spot-nosed monkeys during your visit.
Threatened by bushmeat hunting and habitat loss, these curious creatures are mostly quite furtive. As a result, each encounter is a precious and unforgettable experience. At night, you can seek potto and Demidoff’s galago on a nocturnal walk on Tiwai Island. Near the Research Centre, you might also observe Campbell’s mona and sooty mangabey by day.
As an alternative, to see chimps closer up and learn about the work being done to protect them, Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary is 40 minutes outside of Freetown. You can stay overnight at Tacugama Lodge, which has six well-maintained eco-bungalows equipped with mosquito nets. Set in the forest, you’ll awaken to the morning melodies of the chirpy birds.
Adventurous wildlife travellers up for the challenge can seek out a variety of enigmatic mammals, including the tiny royal antelope and utterly bizarre, noisy hammer-headed bat. These animals inhabit dense rainforest in Tiwai Island and Gola Rainforest National Park. But tracking them down in their natural habitat takes a combination of effort, patience, luck and, most importantly, the talent of skilled guides.
Night walks in Tiwai and Gola may reveal the likes of Lord Derby’s and Pel’s anomalures, two large, fascinating scaly-tailed squirrels. Shy red river hogs and diminutive water chevrotain prefer to occupy rivers and streams in the rainforest. Hyperactive common cusimanse live near water while the endangered, white-bellied pangolin is most at home in the trees.
Birding is an incredibly rewarding experience in Sierra Leone. In these Upper Guinea rainforests, the fabled white-necked picathartes, rufous fishing owl and the scarce, localised Gola malimbe can be spotted among many others. Provided you're accompanied by an experienced guide, you'll be able to discover a plethora of exotic and exciting species.
Gola Rainforest National Park is home to approximately 327 bird species. Colourful yellow-billed turacos and green turacos bounce along branches, while Timneh parrots, yellow-casqued and black-casqued hornbills can be seen swooping overhead. The elusive white-breasted guineafowl travel in secretive groups along the ground in lowland rainforest areas.
Best Beaches in Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone has some beautiful beaches, offering a great option for some winter sun. The natural beauty of sparkling white sands, turquoise waves and swaying green palms is a common sight. After exploring the rainforests and learning about the country's compelling history, a Sierra Leone beach holiday experience is a welcome change of pace.
Here is a selection of beaches you may want to add to your bucket list.
River Number Two Beach
Starting off with the famous River Number Two Beach, you’ll discover white powdery sands near the estuary of River Number Two which is fringed by overhanging palms and mangroves. You may recognise this beautiful beach from the 1987 'Taste of Paradise' Bounty advert. Now, over 35 years later, the beach remains a tropical paradise for all its visitors.
For a pleasant experience, you can watch the lovely sunset over the Atlantic Ocean while enjoying freshly caught fish grilled for dinner. During the weekends, the beach tends to be very busy. So, aim for a trip in the week and enjoy the laid-back harmony.
Opposite the shores of River Number Two Beach, you’ll find the spectacular Tokeh Beach in the southern part of the Freetown Peninsula, an ideal location for swimming. There are secluded spots available for spending the day in total peace alongside hammocks where you can rest and forget about life's troubles in the tropical sunshine.
At The Place Resort, you’re surrounded by lush gardens facing the gorgeous Whale Bay - with jungle-clad mountains providing a picturesque backdrop. Located on Sierra Leone’s Western Peninsula, around 20 miles from the bustling capital city, the resort provides an excellent setting for unwinding after adventuring at Western Area Peninsula National Park.
The beaches on the Banana Islands are characterised by their red sands, rocky surfaces and an array of marine life populating the clear waters. Enjoy fresh seafood with a magnificent view of the setting sun over the horizon and visit the ruins of an 1881 Anglican church, which rises up from the undergrowth. By escaping the bustling capital city, you're treated with a slow-paced slice of island life with a rich historical heritage.
The tents of Bafa Resort are all equipped with a mattress and fan should you want to make a stop here overnight. Memorable experiences can be had, including snorkelling around shipwrecks and a stroll around Dublin or Ricketts. Depending on the season, you may see fruit trees in bloom or colourful butterflies fluttering about the island.
Plan Your Sierra Leone Adventure
Sierra Leone is a beautiful country that can provide a wonderful travel experience for those keen to experience rural life off the beaten track in the Afro-tropics. For help with exploring, speak to our Travel Specialists and they'll aid in crafting your entire journey start to finish.