Our Associate Publisher Bugs Steffen, who has been travelling to Ghana for more than 30 years, writes on the interesting places to visit in Accra and beyond.
People often ask me what would be THE thing to do and what would have to be included in the must-see list of things if one were to go on a holiday to Ghana …
My answer usually comes as a surprise but unfailingly elicits confirmation from those returning from their holiday: it is the Ghanaians who are actually the greatest discovery to be made in Ghana!
You don’t ever run the risk of feeling lonely or left out, a helpful soul ready to accompany you or have a friendly chat with you is always at hand and frequently these chance encounters develop beyond mere travelling acquaintances into long-term friendships.
Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana’s capital, is the location where the majority of visitors first set foot on Ghanaian soil. You are immediately enveloped by warm, tropical, fragrant air.
Immigration formalities are swiftly and smoothly handled at this compact and modern airport and airlines such as Lufthansa, Brussels Airlines, KLM, Turkish Airlines, Royal Air Maroc or Brussels Airlines include the Gold Coast in their destinations. Times have truly changed: 25 years ago there would have been a thousand African eyes to meet the newly-arrived and one could never be sure whether they belonged to cab drivers, family members or curious spectators who had turned up for a spot of Obruni (White person) watching.
It is a good idea to do some Internet research for the first few nights in Ghana as there is a wide range of hotels of all categories and prices. For maximum results you can experiment or plan meticulously, whichever suits you best. For those with plenty of money to spend the exquisite La Palm Royal Beach Hotel at Labadi Beach would be a good choice. Football enthusiasts would be right at home at former Black Star Anthony Yeboah’s Yegoala Hotel in the Dansoman district. Who knows? You may even get a chance to discuss African football with the man himself… If music is your priority then make the Kunta-Kinte Lodge in Kaneshie your first port of call. The hotel is owned by Francis Fuster, percussionist of South African jazz icon Hugh Masekela.
The more central your location the easier it is to explore Accra on foot which I would recommend as the least problematic way of getting around. The Afia Beach Hotel with its cosy lodges is centrally located, very near the sea and between the Arts Centre and Independence Square. The hotel restaurant offers local as well as international dishes and in addition to high-quality African art; it will soon offer jazzy highlife music on the beach as Antwi Dabanka, the hotel owner, tells me. It is also an excellent place for socialising.
There are many possibilities as to how you could spend your days: start off with a walk to the Arts Centre. There is art galore here: Kente cloths, Black Stars tricots, naïve oil paintings, Akwaaba sculptures, Palogo drums, Krobo beads … Many visitors will start calculating how much money they have available to spend at this point because the temptation to acquire these beautiful objects is great but if you can be patient I would advise you to just look around and return occasionally to look some more. You will then find that prices will go down miraculously after a few days without you having to do any bartering. The shrewd traders will have caught on to the fact that you don’t fall into the American “Fast Food” tourist category.
Located next to the Arts Centre is the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park. This is where Ghana’s legendary first president and his wife have found their last resting place. There is a museum which provides information and the president’s Cadillac can be seen in the parking grounds. Local cats seem to be attracted to it, finding shelter from the sun under the vehicle.
If you feel up to it you can continue your walk and head straight into the heart of old Accra: James Town and Bukom. These two historical districts have been traditionally home to the Ga fishermen. At the lighthouse and James Fort you have access to the beach and fishing port and can take in the comings and goings which seem untouched by the passing of time.
However, the fishermen’s livelihood has been dramatically affected by the modern-day problem of illegal fishing by Chinese trawlers far off the coast. You are bound to get into a conversation with a fisherman who will unburden himself.
The little streets and alleys are worth a visit and if you sample the local dishes of fish, kenkey or fufu at one of the numerous food stalls, the locals will delightfully adopt you as one of their own.
The old saying that Europeans have clocks and Africans have time seems to be well and truly put into practice. You will find it relaxing to let yourself be part of the “African rhythm”, go with the flow and savour your experience of the country and its inhabitants. A short stroll like the one I described offers a multitude of impressions and experiences. For your next excursion you could turn “right” towards Independence Square. This is where major political and cultural events are celebrated. Back in the seventies, the legendary Soul To Soul concert which featured Santana and Ike & Tina Turner took place here.
The next stop on our walk is Osu Castle, the seat of government. Although you can’t tour the castle itself, the surrounding shops are well worth a visit. There seems to be the view, particularly among those with little or no experience of Ghana, that you can’t do shopping in Ghana other than being jostled along overcrowded, dusty markets with chickens to duck and traders vociferously flogging smoked fruit bats and endless lengths of colourful cloths that overwhelm your senses…. You can and should see all of this as part of your stay, e.g. at Makola Markets in Victoriaborg.
If, however, you would like a completely different shopping experience take a cab to the centre of Osu (Danquah Circle, Ring Road East/Cantonments Road’ crossroads). Not only are there high-end shops but the bars, restaurants and clubs are all fine examples of Accra’s nightlife. If you are after an all-European taste then the Accra Mall is the right place for you. This commercial centre, located at Tetteh Quarshie Interchange behind the airport going towards Legon, is comparable to the Duesseldorf Schadow Arkaden – were it not for the fact that the majority of people here are African.
Unfortunately, pedestrians are not the only ones characterising everyday life in Accra but motorists and cyclists also leave their mark. Because the existing road network can’t cope with the ever growing traffic, despite efforts to alleviate the traffic in the city centre by means of improved exit roads, there’re constant traffic jams; the early morning and afternoon rush hours being the worst times to be on the road.
I recommend to either travel by cab during the quieter hours or, for the stout-hearted among you, to hire a bicycle. Leaving from Afia Beach Hotel, our previous starting point, you could take a leisurely ride towards Labadi/La Pleasure Beach and spend a lovely time with the locals, perhaps at a weekend, enjoying the fresh sea air, live reggae and highlife music and a cool drink of trendy Star or Gulder beer varieties…
Theoretically speaking this programme could have easily filled a week in Accra but what about a visit to the National Theatre to watch a play or a cultural performance? What about a visit to neighbouring Teshie (to the East) to marvel at the skilful art of the coffin makers along Accra Tema Beach Road? What about Kokrobite, an artists’ village on the beach an hour’s drive to the West (given that the roads are clear), and the University in Legon to attend a lecture or presentation?
Accra is definitely a place that invites a longer stay. This could turn out an exhausting experience due to the sheer number of things to do. I would therefore recommend taking it in stages. De-stress and take a break from the capital for a couple of days and sample Ghana’s other attractions at leisure.
There are numerous excellent beach resorts between Accra and Elmina/Cape Coast where you can relax. Most of these offer a pick-up service in case you don’t want to travel on the Intercity-STC buses. You can then plan further excursions to other destinations. But I would bet that you will spend the last days of your stay in Accra, be it to spend time with your newly found friends or to get those souvenirs for yourself, friends and family!