Although Freetown isn’t likely to show up on too many lists of cities most likely to sweep you off your feet, there is something about the capital of Sierra Leone that is both intriguing and exciting. There is a certain bit of beautiful chaos to Freetown. Along the streets downtown, women call out their products to passer-byers as men shake wads of currency they are hoping to exchange. Pots of rice and sauce are served under tarps protecting from the elements as classics like MC Hammer are played loudly from the booths of boys selling CDs. But despite the mayhem of downtown, escaping the noise of the city isn’t all too difficult either. Within a thirty-minute drive you could find yourself in the cool confines of the hills or all alone on a tranquil beach. It seems like long gone are the days of conflict here, despite the chaos there is also a peace to Freetown. The combination of chaos and peace is what make Freetown such a great city, and might even leave you wanting to stay longer than you had expected.
Time Needed: 3-4 Days
Backpacker’s Budget: $50USD a day
Information and Communications
- City Layout: There are basically 3 sides to Freetown. Downtown is chaotic until about midnight and then dies almost completely. All the banks and business goes on down here. You’ll also find the majority of sights here. The East Side is rough, and not exactly a tourist destination. And finally there are the suburbs. Murray Town and Aberdeen and wealthier and quieter than the rest. There are plenty of hotels in this area and most tourists stay out here. However, despite the short ride to downtown, it really is worlds away from true Freetown life.
- Telephone: There aren’t many of the traditional phone shops in Freetown. Instead you’re going to have to use the cell phone of someone at one of the stalls on the street. In my opinion, if you’re going to using the phone a lot, just buy a cheap unlocked phone (about $15). Otherwise, if you already have an unlocked phone, getting top ups and SIM cards are not difficult at all and the value is quite good.
- Internet: Welcome to the worst internet I’ve ever used. It was faster in Haiti. In fact, it was so bad that I basically just went without it. Some hotels have decent internet, but you’ll be paying a premium for a room at places like that. Wifi is not widespread in Freetown yet. However, the people keep talking about how it will be there soon.
- Getting around: The fastest way is on an okada (moto-taxi) they are cheap and can cut through the stuffy traffic. Taxis go on a shared basis otherwise you have to bargain a taxi for a charter.
Things to do and see in Freetown
Downtown Freetown has some decent historical sights and museums, but the best things to do require minor excursions from downtown.
- National Museum: The museum is basically right downtown and the fact that it’s free make it basically a required visit. It doesn’t touch on much of the recent history that visitors might be interested in, but it has a decent collection of things like masks and traditional clothing.
- Railroad Museum: It’s a bit of a relic, as is the rail system in Sierra Leone, but for train enthusiasts it makes for a decent stop.
- St. George’s Cathedral: After all the mosques in west Africa, the Cathedral in Freetown seems so odd (although maybe not as odd as the church of the Seventh Day Adventist that is also nearby). Even though I’m not religious, it was fun to go to a Sunday mass.
- Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary: Maybe my favourite day trip in Freetown, the chimp sanctuary runs tours every day at 10:30am. You usually need to call to reseve a space. The number is 076 611 211. To get here, catch a tro-tro to Regent then hire an okada to take you to the sanctuary. You can walk there if it’s dry enough.
- Waterfalls: Near Regent, there are a couple waterfalls that make for a decent afternoon expedition. Bathurst Falls and Charlotte Falls are both attainable from Tacugama. The best way to do this, in my opinion, is to go to Tacugama for the 10:30am tour, have lunch, then ask for a map from them and vist the falls after lunch. Or make a picnic out of it.
- Beaches: Although there are a number of beaches that you could visit in a day trip from Freetown, the closest is Lumley Beach. I’ll be writing guides about the other beaches I overnighted at later on.
Where to Eat in Freetown
A healthy expat/aid worker/embassy community in Sierra Leone gives the food scene a bit more diversity than other cities in west Africa. Since you can get local grub almost anywhere in town (I recommend the middle of the PZ turntable) this list is mostly foreign foods.
- Crown Bakery: This was my daily lunch spot and it’s fantastic. The food is very European, as is the clientel. It’s a peaceful spot, and the food in incredible
- Cafe de la Rose: A nice spot for local flavours. Try the pepper soup!
- The Senegalese Restaurant: I’m not sure it has another name, but any okada driver in town will know what you’re talking about when asking for this place. The food is amazing. Get the mafe!
- China Town: Although a bit over priced, the Chinese food here is very good. It’s location right next to Lumely Beach makes it a nice place to eat after an evening walk along the beach.
Where to Stay in Freetown
I ended up staying two different places in Freetown, but was really happy with where I ended up. I’m sure my idea of a good space is different than most, so I’ll lay out the two I stayed at as well as a third I checked out briefly.
- YMCA: I stayed here the first night. My appraisal is that it’s way over-priced. I spent about $30 for a room without a bathroom and with only a fan. There is no wifi, but there is an internet cafe downstairs. I’m told that there are cheaper rooms (about $20 a night) but they were all booked when I was there. The one bonus it that this place has a great balcony view over the city. It’s were I took the photo at the start of this article.
- Andy’s Guesthouse: Basically right on top of the PZ Turntable this place is pretty sweet. It’s definitely more rough around the edges, and the street below can be a bit noisy, but it was perfect for me. I bargained them down to $18 a night for a room with an area to look down on the street below, a private bathroom, a nice bed, a fridge, and a fan. It is easily the best value in town. There is, however, no internet in the building.
- Raza’s Guesthouse: I met some friends staying here. The place is good but well out of my budget at $50 a night. However, I’m sure this would be perfect for a couple. There are nice views and wifi available.
Getting out of Town
There isn’t one main bus terminal in town. Most have their own station and if you’re taking a tro-tro it might be a bit out of the way. The best bet for big buses to major destinations is the SLRTC bus station right downtown, but I’d book a day ahead to avoid the lines in the morning.
- Bo: Buses leave for Bo generally between 6am and 730am. The trip is about 4 hours and you can carry on from there to Potoru if you’re trying to get to Tiwai Island.
- Makeni: You can catch Bush Taxis to Makeni allday, but the SLRTC bus leaves at 6-7am. It takes about 3-4 hours. If you’re continuing on to Kamakwie it’s another 8-10 hours if you can find transport.
- Conakry: It’s actually possible to get all the way to Conakry and quite a few bush taxis make the trip each day. The road is actually fairly good all the way from Freetown to Conakry.
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