Welcome to Accra, Ghana’s capital and one of the world’s liveliest cities. Spread along the rolling coastline of the Gulf of Guinea. Accra, the capital of Ghana, is one of Africa’s most love it or hate it cities. Its streets are a chaotic mixture of beat-up cars and mopeds; hawkers sell fresh produce (such as mangoes and banku, fermented maize) alongside mobile phones and plastic gizmos on every corner; the climate is anything but kind with high humidity and rainfall; and it lacks the blockbuster attractions of the nearby Cape Coast or Elmina. Because of this, Accra is considered West Africa’s hidden gem by many backpackers traveling through the region. This backpacking guide to the capital of Ghana will make sure you love it just as much as they do.
Explore The Ruins Of Colonialism In Jamestown
Like the rest of West Africa, Ghana’s history has been scarred by colonialism. First by the Portuguese, Spanish, British and Dutch who forced the region’s peoples into the Atlantic slave trade. Second, through the British colony of the Gold Coast.
Within Accra, the capital of Ghana, the best place to explore this traumatic history is in Jamestown; a vibrant neighborhood that has grown out of the ruins of the 17th century Fort James. This was once the center of British rule in Ghana. The former fortress has become the heart of the district. It’s full of informal restaurants, bars, and homes that are painted a dazzling array of colors, while the surrounding streets are peppered with grandiose yet crumbling colonial-era buildings.
To get an aerial view of Jamestown, climb to the top of the colonial-era lighthouse that perches on the edge of the sea. From there you can get a bird’s eye view of the former heart of British imperialism.
Admire The Architecture Of Independence Square
Modeled on the communist public spaces designed in Moscow, other Warsaw Pact countries and Havana, Accra’s Independence Square is one of Africa’s most impressive architectural set pieces. Constructed to commemorate Ghana’s independence from the British Empire, which came as late as 1957, the square showcases the optimism and sense of defiance that captured the newly free nation.
The highlight of the square is the gigantic Eternal Flame of African Liberation. It was lit by the Ghanaian revolutionary and first post-colonial leader, Kwame Nkrumah. This artifact was designed to inspire a new generation of Africans to break free from the shackles of colonialism. Across the street lies Independence Arch, another marble edifice that is topped with a singular black star; Ghana’s national symbol. At certain times of the year, Independence Square gets taken over for festivals arranged by Accra’s various evangelical churches. This can make for an unforgettable carnival-like atmosphere.
See Accra, The Capital Of Ghana, In All Its Vibrancy At Makola Market
As one of West Africa’s largest open-air markets, it is of little surprise that Makola can be a full-on experience. The streets south of Accra Polytechnic are crowded with hawkers selling various things. These things include fresh fish caught that morning in the Gulf, fruit, and vegetables grown in their gardens, and flamboyant clothing embroidered with traditional West African patterns.
For the uninitiated, Makola Market may seem daunting. However, if you relax and go with the flow it can be one of Accra’s most rewarding experiences. If tackling the market seems like too much on your own, hire a local guide (they are advertised across the city). Your Ghana guide will show you the best Ghanaian produce, local gastronomic delicacies, and Makola’s other attractions.
Get to Know Ghana’s Independence Struggle At The Kwame Nkrumah Park & Museum
One of the best escapes from Accra’s buzzing streets is the tranquil garden of the Kwame Nkrumah Park and Museum; dedicated to the country’s first post-colonial leader. The park is home to numerous tropical birds who wander through its lush vegetation and bronze sculptures. These garden sculptures depict Nkrumah in various stages of the independence struggle. However, the centerpiece of the entire park is Nkrumah’s towering mausoleum. Here, it is flanked by bronze statues of soldiers and various reflective pools.
While the park itself is beautiful, to better understand Nkrumah’s rise to power and his legacy, head to the on-site museum that houses an expansive collection of his personal belongings. This includes the clothing he wore on the day he declared Ghanaian independence, personal letters, and photographs of himself with world leaders. Additionally, his collection of pictures include one where he is with the British monarch Elizabeth II.
Learn About Denmark’s Colonial Foray Into West Africa At Osu Castle
While the Kingdom of Denmark may not be regularly associated with colonialism, it did have a trading and slaving outpost in Accra, the capital of Ghana. This outpost today is known as Osu Castle. However, in the 17th-century, it was called Christiansborg. The whitewashed building is one of the city’s most distinctive pieces of architecture thanks to its seaside position and profusion of canons that loom out of every window. There are information boards about Denmark’s role in Ghana in the surrounding gardens. However, Osu Castle itself remains off-limits to the public. Interestingly, until 2013 it was the seat of the Ghanaian presidency.
Relax On Labadi Beach
Just 8 kilometers east of Accra is one of West Africa’s most iconic beaches, Labadi. Sandwiched between dense tropical vegetation and the crashing surf of the Gulf of Guinea, the beach is a strip of golden sand that is the perfect place to come to unwind. During the weekends the beach is packed with locals playing sports, roasting meats over barbeques, and sunbathing. However, during the week it is often completely deserted. This means you will get the place all to yourself. Nearby are all some of Accra’s best beach bars, which often play host to up and coming Ghanaian musicians and stay open well into the small hours of the morning.
See The Legacy Of Dutch Colonialism At Ussher Fort
For decades Ussher Fort has lain in a state of neglect on the outskirts of Accra. However, this astonishing monument to Ghana’s colonial-era history is now being given the attention it deserves, thanks to a UNESCO funded renovation program. The first stage of this renovation was completed in 2007. It saw the former Dutch fortress transformed into a museum of colonialism in West Africa. Also, it became and a documentation center housing colonial-era archives and conferences on slavery. Beyond the museum, however, much of the sprawling fortress is off-limits to the public. This is only due to its crumbling masonry and is safer to be viewed from the outside.
Immerse Yourself In Ghana’s Contemporary Culture At ANO Centre For Cultural Research
Despite its rather scientific-sounding name, Accra’s ANO Centre for Cultural Research is a community center-cum-art gallery. It focuses on promoting local Ghanaian artists and musicians. Founded by the renowned filmmaker and art historian Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, the ANO Centre is host to a well-curated program of exhibitions that run throughout the year.
For the best experience, make sure to visit when an exhibition is taking place or when a local artist is holding a talk or performance. Indeed, for those backpackers looking to explore Accra’s burgeoning contemporary art scene, there is no better place to go than ANO.
Take A Day Trip To Elmina
Accra can make a great base for exploring Ghana’s most well-known attraction, the haunting village of Elmina. This village was once a major center for the slave trade. While the village today is a typically colorful affair with traditional pirogues bringing in the day’s catch and a buzzing market. The area’s main site is the UNESCO listed Saint George’s Castle.
The castle was originally built by the Portuguese in the 15th century before passing into Dutch and then British hands. It was one of the chief locations where captured West Africans were shipped to the Americas. The entry fee to the castle also includes a free guided tour. This tour takes you to the dank dungeons where thousands of slaves were held captive. There are also torture chambers and the infamous ‘door of no return’. The door of no return was where slaves were pushed onto the boats taking them to the New World.
Stop By Cape Coast Castle
Not far from the haunting village of Elmina lies Cape Coast Castle. Cape Coast was the focal point of British rule in Ghana before the capital was transferred to Accra in 1877. As one of West Africa’s largest former slaving castles, the eerily white-washed Cape Coast is protected by UNESCO. It offers a harrowing tour through this dark chapter in human history.
Excellent guides provide hour-long tours of the castle. This takes visitors into the dungeons, where slaves would be held for up to 3 months awaiting their transport to the Americas. Here, you’ll also visit the opulent governor’s chambers, which have luxury fittings and dazzling views of the ocean; the contrast could not be any starker. Once you have finished the tour head to the museum, which explores the experiences of the indigenous Akan people under colonial rule.