Sierra Leone is on the West Coast of Africa. The potential for tourism is vast, but largely unrealised. Tourists are starting to return after the end of the Civil War in 2002, and tour operators are looking closely at what the country has to offer. Sierra Leone is rich in natural resources. It has some of the best beaches in the world, a rich heritage, and some stunning scenery, but its greatest asset is its welcoming, friendly populace, most of whom will go out of their way to make a foreigner comfortable.
- 1 Freetown — capital city in the western part of the country
- 2 Bo — second largest city and capital of the southern region
- 3 Bonthe — An old administrative town on Sherbro Island, now quiet and charmingly decayed
- 4 Kenema — Major town in the eastern part of the country
- 5 Koidu — Another town in the east, capital of the diamond mining Kono district
- 6 Makeni — Fast developing town in the north
- 7 Magburaka — Former capital of the northern region and end of the defunct railway branch line
- 1 Banana Islands — prime tourist spot in Sierra Leone with the idyllic environment of pristine tropical islands
- 2 Mount Bintumani — Highest peak between Morocco and Cameroon
Sierra Leone was founded as a colony for freed slaves originating in the British Empire.
Sierra Leone achieved its independence from Britain in 1961. Since the end of its civil war in 2002, the government, with considerable international assistance, has made noticeable improvements in the country's infrastructure which should help the tourism sector: most major trunk roads are tarred to a high standard and Bumbuna hydroelectric dam supplies electricity when water levels are high enough (completed in 2009). While the government sector still suffers from chronic shortage of resources, the private sector is booming.
In 2014, the outbreak of Ebola virus, which crossed the border from Guinea threatened to set back the improvements in the countries economy and development. More than a year of development was lost whilst the country focused on the fight against the disease. Visits by tourists and foreign businesspeople are only just starting again. The country is now considered to be completely clear of the virus.
Sierra Leone has a tropical climate, typified by warm temperatures and high humidity. Night time temperatures rarely drop below 24 °C and daytime temperatures reach 30 °C throughout the year. From October to March the weather is generally dry with many fine, hot, sunny days. From April to September is the rainy season. The rainfall increases to a peak in July and August and then decreases until rain has almost ceased by November.
|Population||7.5 million (2017)|
|Electricity||230 volt / 50 hertz (AC power plugs and sockets: British and related types, BS 1363)|
|Time zone||UTC±00:00, Africa/Freetown|
|Emergencies||999 (fire department, emergency medical services), 019 (police)|
|edit on Wikidata|
The country has a coastal belt of mangrove swamps with wooded hill country, upland plateau and mountains in east. The highest point is Loma Mansa (Bintimani) at 1,948 m. It has 402 km (250 mi) of coastline.
From an approximate coastal belt 100 km (62 mi) long of low-lying land, the country rises to a mountain plateau near the eastern frontier rising 1,200 m (3,900 ft) to 2,000 m (6,600 ft) with an important timber forest region.
The peninsula, on which the capital and main commercial centre of Freetown stands, is 40 km (25 mi) long and 17 km (11 mi) wide with a mountainous interior.
Electricity is 220 V/50 Hz. Sockets are British standard. Supplies are unreliable, but parts of Freetown do now get a reasonable supply. The Bumbuna Dam hydro-electric project was commissioned on 6 November 2009, which in theory provides up to 50 MW of electricity to the capital, however, this even with additional thermal power does not meet rapidly increasing demand. Away from Freetown, mains electricity is only available in Lungi (airport), Bo, Makeni and Kenema and comes and goes unpredictably. Koidu has a new power station under construction.
In 1462, Pedro de Cintra mapped the hills surrounding what is now called Sierra Leone, naming the oddly shaped mountain, Lion Mountains. It came under British rule from 1808 until independence was declared on 27 April 1961. The country then became the scene of civil war from 1991 until 2002. Since 1971, Sierra Leone has governed under a constitutional republic.
Sierra Leone is home to 16 different ethnic groups, each with their own language.
There are no accurate figures for the religious make up of Sierra Leone. Most visitors will see that there is a near equal balance between Muslims and Christians. Like other west African countries, there is a long history of religious tolerance and cooperation between the faiths. Indigenous beliefs are also common, particularly in more rural areas. A significant part of the population believes in witchcraft and this has certainly hampered improvements in healthcare and disease control. The 2014 Ebola outbreak was reported to have made far worse by people believing it was caused by witchcraft rather than seeking proper medical treatment.
English is the official language, but Krio is the lingua franca: a creole with vocabulary derived from English, Yoruba, Igbo, and to a lesser extent Portuguese and French. The minority Krios, who mostly live in the Freetown Peninsula take English as a second language, while the Temnes, Mendes, and other groups have their tongues occupied with Krio as their second language. This makes getting around the peninsula pretty easy for English speakers, but the entire rest of the country is more or less Krio-only land. While Krio vocabulary is predominantly from English, it is not intelligible to your average English speaker—although you might be able to follow a little bit if you know some basic vocabulary.
Yellow Fever vaccination certificates are required for most nationalities. Proof of vaccination might be required to get a visa and is checked at the airport on arrival.
Passport and visa
Everyone entering Sierra Leone must have a valid passport or travel document. Citizens of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) do not require a visa to enter the country. All other nationalities will require a visa, which are issued at Sierra Leone's overseas missions and at the land borders. Visas are not too hard to get, it is unlikely that anyone will be refused unless there is a very good reason for the government not to want them in the country. Visa prices vary considerably based on your citizenship: US citizens need to fork out around US$160 for one, a 3-month visa for UK citizens got in London cost £109, German citizens pay €100, while most others can get away with as little as $40. Contact the local embassy for current prices (UK, USA). Getting the visa in Conakry takes 72 hours and even after waiting that long the consul might ask you for extra money so it is better to arrange it in Monrovia or elsewhere.
- The Sierra Leone embassy in Gambia is a good place to get a visa, which costs US$100.
The international airport is at Lungi, the other side of the estuary from Freetown. Most people choose to use the water taxi services. There are now 2 main companies - Sea Coach Express (Pelican) which goes to Aberdeen Bridge and Sea Bird Express going to Murray Town. Both charge around US$40 for a single adult journey. The larger boats now have air conditioning and WiFi. The hovercraft and helicopter services no longer operate. Sea Coach Express now have a mobile app which gives schedules and discounted online tickets.
Three often-overloaded car ferries run to the east end of Freetown from Tagrin at the southern tip of Lungi, docking at Kissy Ferry Terminal, which cross the water in 45-70 minutes, but can take several hours including waiting/loading times. For those with a light load, local speedboats (US$1.25) and larger, slower "pampa" boats (US$0.50) are by far the most affordable, if not safest, option. They run fairly frequently, when full, on the same route as the car ferries. The landing in Lungi is wet, but porters wait to carry you in or out of the boats for a small fee (US$0.25).
By road it is 5 hours or more to the city, via Port Loko using some poor roads. This would probably be the most miserable route, and it's not clear that anyone uses it.
Safety concerns have been expressed over all of the different transport options from the airport to Freetown.
Flights to Amsterdam (KLM), Nairobi (Kenya Airways), Casablanca (Royal Air Maroc), Accra (ASKY Airlines, Kenya Airways), Lagos (Arik Air), Banjul (Arik Air, ASKY Airlines), Conakry (ASKY Airlines), Nouakchott (Mauritania Airlines International), Monrovia (Royal Air Maroc) and Bamako (ASKY Airlines) Istanbul with Turkish Airlines are all available.
It can be very difficult finding seats in December because of local people returning for the Christmas holidays. Booking early is essential.
Thefts from hold baggage used to be common at the airport, especially on the way out of the country. Security has been improved, but still carry anything of value in your cabin luggage.
Sierra Leone can be accessed by road from Guinea (Conakry) and Liberia. Special permits are required if transiting the border with a private vehicle. Private taxis, buses and trucks commute daily to and from Conakry/Freetown.
The Guinea (Kopoto)/Sierra Leone (Kambia) was open as of January 2013, as was the border with Liberia at Bo (Waterside).
Crossing with a car or motorcycle is made possible with the 'Laissez-Passer Pour Vehicule', available at the Guinea Embassy (US$40) and with the 'Vehicle Clearance Permit', available at the Sierra Leone Embassy (US$40). And additional 'Ecowas International Circulation Permit' will be required for Sierra Leone, available at the border for Le100,000.
An Ecowas 'Brown Card' may also be needed for proof of insurance for the vehicle.
The Sierra Leone Road Transport Authority has some buses which link the major cities. There are minibuses which can be used in Sierra Leone called poda poda. They are run by private individuals with some of the worst driving skills in the country and can cost Le2500-5000 (£0.50-1). There are no designated bus stops and so one can stand on a street and wave to get it to stop. However, be careful with personal belongings as petty theft is common on these buses. They are also usually dangerously overloaded.
Sierra Leone has the 3rd largest natural harbour in the world and is looking forward to the arrival of cruise ships. Cargo and Passenger ships berth at the Queen Elizabeth II quay, while some passenger/Cargo and private crafts can land at the Government Wharf in central Freetown, arriving most times from Conakry and Banjul. Enquiries should be made to Cargo Shipping Agencies.
The road network fell into disrepair during the civil war. However, there has been a substantial reconstruction programme which means the main roads to regional cities such as Bo, Kenema and Makeni are in excellent condition. The road to Kabala mostly smooth tar, with a few terribly potholed patches. The road to Kono/Koidu is for three quarters tar, but the remaining quarter is in mostly terrible condition. It means it takes as much time to cover 3/4 of the distance as it takes for the balance 1/4. Government has planned to upgrade the last stretch.
The peninsular road is good from Eastern Freetown clockwise around the peninsular to Tokeh. Work has started on the remaining section to Lumley, but at the beginning of 2016 is complete only from Lumley to Sussex, with the section between No. 2 Beach and Tokeh being nearly impassable to all but high-clearance 4WD and motorbikes.
The roads in Freetown are difficult to characterize. In central Freetown, the main roads are mostly smooth and pothole-free, having been constructed from high-quality asphalt a long time ago. Side streets are often a mixture of dirt and gravel, sometimes with large protruding stones, deep crevasses, and other potential dangers. Some main feeder roads are in atrocious condition. Wilkinson Road and Spur Road have been reconstructed as dual carriage ways. The Hillside bypass road is also being constructed, which will make the transit from east to west much easier. Work has also been completed on Regent Road through the mountains, Main Motor Road, Wilberforce, Signal Hill Road, Aberdeen/Sir Samuel Lewis Road and Lumley Beach Road. The ongoing reconstruction works mean that roads can be closed and alternative routes have to be used.
Street parking on major routes such as Wilkinson Road is not permitted. This also applies to the layby's, where stopping is only permitted for a short time. The local police are using wheel clamps which can very quickly be applied. These will require a visit to the local police with Le300,000 to get released.
Driving under the influence of alcohol was often not taken seriously in the past. The police do now have breathalysers and will test and act against anyone suspected of being drunk whilst driving. Traffic lights have started to appear in Freetown and are usually observed by drivers.
When walking, always keep your eyes in front of you: most of the sidewalks in Freetown have "death traps" - missing blocks of cement that could lead to a nasty fall into an open gutter. For this reason, most Freetown residents choose to walk in the street and avoid sidewalks, a major contributing factor to the city's congestion.
Poda-poda is the Sierra Leonean term for the West African bush taxi. Poda-podas are a lot less fun than your average bush taxi, though, reflecting the country's relative poverty compared to the rest of the region. The vehicles seem to be stitched together with thread, always nearly at the breaking point, six people for each row of three seats, blaring hip hop turning off and on with application of the accelerator, never sure whose sweat that is, never sure whether it will make it up the next hill. They are really cheap, though. Intercity trips often cost Le1,500-2,500 (in 2017, less than US$0.50), and any trip within Freetown just Le1,000. Shared taxis are marginally more comfortable, but still packed to the gills, and usually about the same price.
The Sea Coach Express boathouse under the bridge between Aberdeen and Murray Town in Freetown is happy to charter the same nice speedboats they use for airport transfers to take you up and down the coast and up the Sierra Leone River. If you have a larger group of people, dropping US$300-400 for a daytrip down to the Banana Islands, Bonthe Island, Turtle Islands, or even just some random stretch of long-lost beach could be absolutely worth the cost.
Moto-taxi is a very efficient way of getting around, with low prices, decent mobility on bad roads, and the ability to skirt past traffic. But they are dangerous. And when traveling on dirt roads, you will wind up covered in dust, often choking on the stuff kicked up by larger vehicles. The driver is required to wear a helmet and to have one to offer to the passenger. Yeah, right. It's also against the law nowadays to have more than two people on one motorcycle. So if you have three people on one bike, and you are approaching a vehicle check, one person will have to get off and walk through the checkpoint.
Buying your own motorcycle is probably the ideal mode of independent travel. Even the worst roads will be passable in dry season, and you won't have to worry about being transported by careless drivers. Be aware that driving your bike inside the major cities is dangerous due to the crazy traffic, but outside the cities you should be OK as long as you wear a helmet with a visor to protect yourself from dust.
The beaches of the Freetown peninsula are spectacular, and on an average day, deserted. There are at least ten that could be described as world-class.
Bonthe Town, on Sherbro Island, is a former British Colonial Town, with several beautiful stone churches, and a rich culture.
Tiwai Island (in the middle of a river in SE Sierra Leone) is teeming with rare wildlife.
Rural West African villages: experience hospitality and the tranquillity of the bush.
Snorkelling and scuba diving around Banana Island.
The Turtle Islands, difficult to get to, but idyllic.
Outamba-Kilimi National Park is a park consisting of savannas and jungles with diverse wildlife.
Mount Bintumani is the highest mountain in Sierra Leone with excellent views from the summit.
Sierra Leone has vast swathes of rainforests.
Exchange rates for Sierra Leonean leones
As of January 2023:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from xe.com
The unit of currency is the Leone, denoted by the symbol "Le" (ISO currency code: SLE). On 1 July 2022 new bank notes were issued. The new notes are similar in design to the old ones but are phsically smaller and revalue the Leone by removing three zeros. The former Le10,000 note is now a Le10 note. The old notes ceased to be legal tender on 1 October 2022. New Leone notes are Le1,2,5,10 and Le20 and coins 1 (10 old Leones),5,10,25 and 50 cents.
Exchanging money is very easy, either through the black market or banks. The small bank at the airport offers reasonable rates. British pounds, euros and US dollars are most popular, although others are possible.
Credit cards are accepted in a few supermarkets, restaurants and hotels (Visa mostly). The airport duty free shop does take major cards. Some of the other hotels are planning to take cards. It is possible to get money from some banks with a credit card, but the process can be long and rather costly.
- There are ATMs in Freetown. Rokel Commercial Bank has visa card ATMs and Ecobank has ATMs that accept international Mastercard or Visa cards for cash withdrawal.
Money and daily life
As much as Sierra Leone is a poor country it will surprise you with the high cost of everything. The lack of a good import system and high import duties plus 15% Goods and Services Tax (GST) mean that many goods are double the price that one would expect to pay in other countries.
Foreigners usually pay considerably more than the price quoted to locals when it comes to goods you find on the street so make sure to bargain and lower the price as much as you can.
If you are prepared to stay in cheap guest houses (and that means not a safe location with bed bugs in the bed) and travel only by local bus (poda poda) and eat only at street corners (not recommended for your health), you can get by in Freetown on a minimum of around Le220,000 (about US$40 in 2017) per day. If you want to eat a decent restaurant meal every now and then and stay in mid-range accommodation, a more realistic budget is around Le440,000 (about US$80). If you want to eat and sleep well, you can easily chew through Le880,000 (about US$160) per day.
The main staple of Sierra Leonean food is rice, often accompanied by soup, i.e., stews. These stews may include a delicious and often spicy mix of meat, fish, seasonings, greens, etc., often taking hours to prepare. There are plenty of good quality restaurants offering a variety of local and international dishes.
The diet of Sierra Leoneans like many African countries is very healthy. Many tend to eat some fresh fruit picked from trees growing in their homes or freshly picked by market vendors that very day. They also eat seafood particularly in the capital Freetown which is on the Atlantic coast. It is common to go to areas such as Lumley Beach where one can find local fishermen pulling in nets from the Atlantic filled with fish such as crabs, lobsters, oysters, snappers and many, many more.
The locals of Sierra Leone keep healthy by eating many plant-based dishes which are high in fibre, such as cassava leaves, potato leaves, okra, and more.
The national brewer Sierra Leone Breweries Limited produces Star beer and as of October 2013, the premium Mützig beer. Star is now available in small and large bottles. Many European beers are also imported. As in many African countries Guinness is widely popular. Soft drinks such as Coca Cola and Fanta are locally produced. Wine is available from restaurants and supermarkets, but can be expensive. Local brewed palm wine (called "poyo" in Krio), is very popular throughout Sierra Leone. Beware of spirits (whisky, gin, etc.) which are sold in large plastic containers - the quality and safety is not certain.
There are some high standard hotels/guesthouses in Freetown, including the 4 star Radisson Blu Mammy Yoko. Facilities are very limited in other cities, although improvements are being made. Makeni now has at least one good hotel. There are a few nice, very small, resort-style getaways, notably at Banana Island and Bonthe Island.
Overnights in Sierra Leone are quite expensive, and similar to what one might spend in the United States, but with poorer amenities. There are guesthouses to be found in towns of any significant size, usually for US$35-50 for a single room, and will almost always have shared bath/toilet. Average hotels are around US$100-180 for a single room.
The cheapest accommodation in SL is found in the villages—ask for the chief (who should speak some Krio, if not any English), and then request a guest house ("guest house" is the right term in Krio, so you will be understood). There is no formal charge associated with the chief's hospitality, but you should "pay him respects" in the morning to the tune of about US$6-8, and then expect to be handing out 10,000 leone notes to the guesthouse caretaker, the water-fetcher, and at least one other person for some random reason.
Sierra Leone is an excellent place to pursue independent research. Possible areas of study are African music, dance, history, politics, as well as zoology, botany, and traditional medicine. Krio teachers are easy to find. Unfortunately, the idea of advertising private drum and dance lessons hasn't caught on like it has in other West African countries like Ghana and Senegal, but the possibility exists for those willing to search for a qualified instructor. It's unlikely you'd want to come to Sierra Leone to study at Fourah Bay College or Njala University. These institutions are famous for corrupt practices such as awarding of grades in exchange for monetary payment or sexual favors, and the facilities are generally poor. Most Sierra Leoneans with the financial means aspire to attend university abroad.
Many British and American citizens, as well as other Europeans, find short-term volunteer work with international or local NGOs. Finding paid work can be more challenging, but not impossible, especially if you are trained in a field that is lacking qualified locals. You may have to pay for an annual work permit, which costs US$1000.
Despite the horrific violence of the 1990s—or actually, because of it—Sierra Leone is a very safe country to visit. While petty pick-pocketing, bag-snatching, and other non-violent crimes are a problem in parts of Freetown (and the police are non-responsive), violent crime is extremely rare throughout the country by any international standards, even in the capital.
Corruption is less of a problem than it once was. There have been somewhat successful campaigns against corruption, with a series of high-level arrests and initiatives to, say, prevent police from charging bogus fines. Freetown (Lungi) airport has been refurbished and is quite good by African standards.
The usual dangers found in undeveloped sub-Saharan Africa, though, are present: traffic and disease. Traffic accidents are far less common than they have any right to be, but be aware that the overcrowded, barely hanging together poda-podas are physics-defying death-traps. Similarly, moto-taxis love speed, with total disregard to the lurking dangers of broken roads, gaping potholes, charging trucks lurking in the dust. There have been a small number of very serious crashes involving buses in remote areas. Walking around the cities at night is hazardous not so much for fear of crime, but rather because the lack of lighting can cause a fall, or a driver might not see you in the road. Locals carry phones that have flash-lights, if yours does not, always bring a torch.
The dangers associated with tropical disease are basically neither more or less than anywhere else in West Africa, but there are no hospitals anywhere close to Western standards. Malaria is, as usual, the biggest danger, and any foreign visitor travelling without anti-malarials and possibly a mosquito net is risking their life.
The use of drugs, particularly marijuana is not permitted and the police do enforce the laws against drug use.
Water-borne diseases, malaria and other tropical diseases are prevalent. You should consider taking medication to protect against malaria and using insect repellent. Vaccination against yellow fever is now required and against rabies might be recommended. HIV/AIDS is prevalent. Lassa fever can be contracted in Kenema and the east. In 2010, it also spread to the North, resulting in 48 deaths between the start of the year and November. If you have travelled in these regions you should seek urgent medical advice for any fever not positively identified as malaria. As well, 2014-15 saw an outbreak of the often fatal and largely untreatable Ebola viral haemorrhagic fever that had spread from neighbouring Guinea and Liberia.
Medical facilities are very poor. You should carry basic medical supplies. You should take medical advice before travelling and ensure that all appropriate vaccinations are up to date. Drink only bottled water and be aware of what you eat and how well cooked it is.
Ramadan is the 9th and holiest month in the Islamic calendar and lasts 29–30 days. Muslims fast every day for its duration and most restaurants will be closed until the fast breaks at dusk. Nothing (including water and cigarettes) is supposed to pass through the lips from dawn to sunset. Non-Muslims are exempt from this, but should still refrain from eating or drinking in public as this is considered very impolite. Working hours are decreased as well in the corporate world. Exact dates of Ramadan depend on local astronomical observations and may vary somewhat from country to country. Ramadan concludes with the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which may last several days, usually three in most countries.
If you're planning to travel to Sierra Leone during Ramadan, consider reading Travelling during Ramadan.
The country code is 232. Sierra Leone has fixed line phone service in Freetown, Bo and Kenema. The mobile phone networks use GSM/3G/4G technology (as in Europe) and use is widespread. The format for dialling is: +232-##-######, where the first "##" designates the area code. Like other countries, when dialling locally, "00" is used to access an international number (and followed by the country code) and "0" is used to access a national number (followed by the area code). Nearly all towns enjoy good coverage as well as major national roads. International roaming is available. International calling is relatively cheap. Some of the mobile networks charge as little as US$0.35/minute to all countries with some countries costing just US$0.15 per minute.
Airtel was taken over by Orange in 2016 and was re-branded as Orange. It used to be known as Zain and Celtel.
Sierra Leone uses 112 for emergency calls from any phone network. Calls are free and will be directed to the relevant emergency service.
Phone area codes
22 Freetown land lines
25 Sierratel CDMA
77/88/30 Africell GSM/3G
76/78 Orange GSM/3G
33 Comium (now defunct)
44 Smart Mobile (now defunct)
Internet access is generally slow. The major hotels in Freetown usually have wireless networks. FGC Wireless covers parts of Freetown with a pay-as-you-go wireless broadband service, although it is fairly slow. Onlime is rolling out a Wi-Fi network which is free. The situation improved in February 2013 when the country was connected by fibre optic cable to Europe and South Africa.
Orange and Africell offer 3G/4G services which work quite well. USB modem wireless internet is also available from Orange, Africell and Sierratel. 4G connectivity is also provided by Sierratel.
Fixed internet service is available from Afcom, Onlime (Lime Line), Atlas, IPTEL and Sierratel.