Accra, Ghana’s coastal capital city, isn’t your typical tourist destination. This sprawling metropolis isn’t designed to lure tourists and it doesn’t play host to any of Ghana’s most notable attractions. Instead, this hot, humid, town provides a truer insight into what it means to be Ghanaian. It’s noisy, raucous and snarled with traffic; a true riot for the senses that is epitomized by its disorderly markets and high-spirited street hawkers. But it’s friendly, broad-smiled residents, ever-expanding arts scene, pristine sand beaches and international cuisine have a way of forcing a sense of endearment. Whilst Accra may not be a repeat destination, it’s one you won’t soon forget in a hurry!
Accra Top Tips
Accra Kotoka Airport is Ghana’s main airport and is located about 9km from Independence square. With minimal traffic that could take as little as 20-25minutes to drive. Unfortunately, there isn’t any public transport from the airport which leaves you with only two options; regular taxi or shared taxi. Given that shared taxis take pre-determined routes (see below) I think they’re a bit of a hassle after a long international flight. Therefore, regular taxi is your best bet (unless you pre-arrange a transfer through your hotel). Labour Enterprise Trust operates metered taxis to and from the airport. Head to Car Park 5 to find them.
For getting around in the city you have three options:
Tro-Tro and Shared Taxi: This first option is the cheapest and most authentic way to ‘travel like a local’. Tro-tros are minibuses (or, less frequently, pick-ups) that traverse fixed routes across the city between major landmarks (Nkrumah Circle, for example, being the hub of Accra’s transport system). Shared taxis operate similarly to tro-tros and ply pre-determined routes that are displayed on the windscreen of the car. Running pretty much 24/7 these services are reliable, and the price isn’t impacted as much by Accra’s infamous traffic. They can also be flagged down anywhere along their defined routes. However, they are extremely uncomfortable, and the system is difficult to navigate if you aren’t with a local. I’d suggest that planning to solely use tro-tro and shared taxis for touristic purposes is virtually impossible on a limited schedule, but you should try to take one at least once for the experience alone; just make sure that you have plenty of change handy!
Dropping Taxi: Dropping Taxis are more like traditional taxis that will drop you off at your exact end-destination (rather than a shared taxi that’ll drop you off wherever it’s headed). They are obviously more expensive, and prices are determined by bartering. The result is often that you’ll be ripped off if you don’t know what the local rates are, what traffic is like, or exactly how far your destination is. If you can, ask a local what sort of prices you should expect to pay to your destination and make sure you barter hard. I typically counter at 50% of the rate initially offered and start from there. Just remember to keep it friendly! When hailing make sure to point your index finger down to the ground or you may also end up hailing shared taxis.
Uber and Private Car: Uber is available throughout the majority of Accra but the biggest problem I found was that my phone network sucked, making it difficult to hail. I’ve also been told that GPS isn’t fully functional on Accra’s road networks which can occasionally mean you end up having to give your driver directions; not ideal if you don’t know the city! All of that finally leads me to recommend a private car hired through a tour company or hotel. If you have the budget, and your schedule limits the possibility and flexibility of the above options, then a private car is the way to go and will wait for you between sights.
If you’re looking for ideas on events that might be taking place whilst you’re in Accra, or looking for some bargains, then there’s good news: Time Out has you covered. I’ve added the link in the additional resources section below.
Ghana has a code of etiquette when it comes to using your hands and the simplest way to remember it is to use your right hand for everything (sorry lefties). There are areas in the north of Ghana where the use of toilet paper still isn’t prevalent, and the left hand is used to wipe. As such, waving, shaking, eating, and hailing taxis (amongst other things) with your left hand is viewed as impolite (at best) or outright rude (at worst). If you do happen to accidentally use your left hand, then apologize as soon as possible.
It’s worth considering weather patterns when planning a trip to Accra as there are hot and cool seasons (although, in fairness, it’s a stable ‘sweltering’ heat all year round). In general, the climate is tropical, and the main hot season is from the end of November to May. I’d try to avoid June as it’s typically the wettest month of the year. If you’re not a fan of the heat then you’re pretty much SOL. However, August is traditionally the coolest of the typically scorching conditions so if you’re looking for even the mildest of respite then this is the month for you.
Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum: Together with being the final resting place of Ghana’s first President, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum is host to the both a picturesque memorial park and a small museum that’s home to a number of exhibit items depicting Ghana’s struggle for independence. It also happens to be one of the main stops on any organized tour of Accra. The mausoleum structure depicts an upside-down sword; a symbol of peace in Ghanaian culture and is clad with Italian marble. Inside the mausoleum is a skylight which, if you manage to time your visit correctly, reflects off the interior marble and creates a spectacular gleam that illuminates the whole room. A Small entrance fee applies, but the photogenic site is well worth a visit and is handily located close to the Arts Center for some excellent souvenir shopping (see below for more details).
Osu Castle: Constructed in the 17th Century by the Danish, Osu Castle (also known as Christianborg Castle) has been presided over by several nations over the years. Most somberly, it was used by the Danes as a slave storage facility. When, in 1957, Ghana became independent the building became a government facility and home of presidential power. Located directly on the Gulf of Guinea, the fort is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been undergoing rounds of excavations since 2014, ultimately with an objective of transitioning to a Presidential Museum. At the time of writing, there are still government offices on the site and as such the castle only permits limited tours on Fridays (but those tours are well worthwhile). There is also heavy security in the area and so photography, whilst permitted, can garner some strange looks and conversations from guards / military personnel in the area.
Independence Square: Independence square isn’t somewhere you’re going to spend a lot of time (to be honest, after a few photos you’ll have probably had your fill) but, given its sheer size, it’s hard to miss as you amble your way around the Accra. The square, which is the second largest City Square in the world after Tiananmen Square in Beijing, is the home of the Independence Arch, Black Star Gate, and the Liberation Day Monument, each of which are monuments to Ghana’s independence struggle.
National Museum of Ghana: The museum, which is run by the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board (GMMB), opened in 1957 and has several interesting collections covering Ghana’s archaeology, ethnography, and art. Together the exhibits communicate the richness of Ghana and its culture. For me, as an African Tribal Mask collector (or perhaps hoarder is a more appropriate term; my wife would certainly think so), the absolute highlight of the museum is the amazing collection of ceremonial masks from across Africa. To find out more about the latest opening hours and ticket fees check out the National Museum of Ghana Website.
Jamestown: Starting on John Evans Atta Mills High Street (I know, a bit of a mouthful) you’ll find yourself in the center of Jamestown hugging the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean’s Gulf of Guinea. This may be where Accra was founded as a trading town, but today Jamestown is a hub of artistry. My suggestion is to explore the area on a self-guided walking tour. Start your tour by visiting James Fort Prison and Ussher Fort, which are located about 1km from each other. Whilst Ussher was built by the Dutch and James Fort Prison was built by the British, the one thing they have in common is that both have severely deteriorated with the sands of time. Nonetheless, a tour of Ussher is well worthwhile. Next up is Brazil House, which hosts an art gallery worth stopping by. Continuing along the High Street you’ll next reach Jamestown fishing harbor and Lighthouse. The lighthouse is local symbol and the panoramic views over the fishing harbor and brightly painted boats offer some worthwhile photography opportunities. Just be careful when photographing the lighthouse as we encountered some mildly aggressive locals demanding ‘donations’ in order to do so.
The Beach (Labidi – better known as La Pleasure Beach): You could hardly come to a beach town like Accra and ignore the beach, right? La Pleasure Beach is the best place to head and offers up a combination of Reggae DJs on Wednesday nights, occasional live bands (especially at the weekends when the beach gets incredibly busy in the evenings), numerous bars and hotels, hookah, and an abundance of street food options (nothing beats a kebab twinned with some Jollof rice and a beer as the sun goes down). A decent night out for sure…I can’t comment on the daytime as I typically hide from the sun to avoid catastrophic sunburn; the perils of being ginger!
Fantasy Coffin Workshops: Have you ever dreamed of spending the afterlife buried in a giant shoe? Perhaps you’d prefer a luminous orange fish, or a miniature Boeing 767? I thought not. Nonetheless, those are just some of the infinite fantasy coffin options on offer in the Ghanaian suburb of Teshie; a mere 20-minute drive from the center of Ghana’s capital city, Accra. This small town has found itself at the center of Ghana’s custom coffin business. A place where the term “going out in style” takes on a whole new meaning! I recommend reading my guide to the fantasy coffin workshops to plan your visit.
W.E.B. DuBois Memorial Centre for Pan African Culture: The former home and final resting place of Edward Burghardt Du Bois, an African-American Civil Rights activist and father of Pan-Africanism, is now a memorial, mausoleum and museum. Along with the couple’s mausoleum, the site features his personal library, as well as a museum with a number of Du Bois’ personal belongings on display. The site is open from 9am to 4.30pm, Monday to Friday, and 10am to 4pm on Saturdays. You can read more about the center on its website which can be found HERE.
Shopping: Accra has several places where you can pick up some souvenirs of your time in Ghana. Here are four of my top picks:
- The Artists Alliance Gallery is, in my humble opinion, the best place in Accra to pick up high-quality artwork. You’ll find a range of renowned artists on exhibit and everything in the center is for sale. Alongside paintings you’ll also find wood carvings, a huge collection of tribal masks, fantasy coffins, fabrics and furniture. Smaller trinkets are also available if that all sounds a bit much.
- The Arts Center is more specifically focused towards tourists and is located close to Independence square and the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum. If nothing else that makes it much easier to visit than the Artists Alliance Gallery. However, unlike the serene shopping and browsing experience at the Gallery, you should expect to be accosted from the moment you enter the Arts Center. The good news is that the further back in to the Center you go the quieter it gets, and the fabrics, sculptures, masks, drums, and antiques on sale are generally of good quality – Just be prepared to barter!
- I’m including Makola Market in my list of shopping destinations even though it’s predominantly geared towards locals. The reason for that is that it’s an absolute riot for the senses and the best way to get a better understanding of how the locals go about their daily lives. To make the most of your visit, and to navigate your way around what can at points feel like an absolute maze, I recommend hiring a guide to show you around. In addition to some excellent street photography opportunities, make sure you check out the fabrics – this is where the local tailors shop for theirs!
- If all the above sounds a little too much like hard work, and you’re just looking for a simple shopping experience, consider Wild Gecko Handicrafts. The store, whilst seemingly a little pricier than some of its counterparts mentioned above, has the noble cause of developing local artisanal skills and utilizing technology to develop traditional products to better meet export demand. The store has everything from jewelry, textiles and small souvenirs to bespoke furniture and household décor. It’s well worth a visit and a much more relaxing shopping experience.
Legon Botanical Gardens: I debated putting Legon on the list because I haven’t personally been there. However, after three consecutive people I spoke to asked me whether I was planning to visit whilst in Accra (including my driver/ impromptu tour guide) I felt the need to add it. It bills itself as an escape from the harsh heat of the city but, looking at THIS article, to me it looks like an opportunity to work up a sweat on an assault course. However, some of the other sections of the gardens (most notably the Lake, Canopy Walkway, Rock Garden, Arboretum, Woodlands, Royal Palm Avenue, Shrubbery and Mango Lane) do at least hold some promise of relaxation. The ‘high rope course’ course certainly won’t! For a better understanding of what the gardens have to offer, opening times, and directions make sure to check out their WEBSITE.
Timeout Accra Website: https://www.timeout.com/accra/home
W.E.B DuBois Center Website: http://webduboiscentreaccra.ghana-net.com/index.html
Ghana Museums Website: http://www.ghanamuseums.org/national-museum.php
National Museum of Ghana Website: http://nationalmuseum.ghana-net.com/visitor-information.html
Artists Alliance Gallery Website: https://www.artistsalliancegallery.com/
Wild Gecko Handicrafts Website: http://wild-gecko.com/