Addis Ababa travel guide
Addis Ababa (sometimes spelt Addis Abeba) is a diverse and riotous capital city of well over three million souls, home to roughly 80 different nationalities, and a multitude of distinct religious and linguistic groups.
Nestled at the foot of Mount Entoto, Addis Ababa was founded in the late 1800s by Ethiopian emperor Menelik II and was later occupied by the Italians during the second Italo-Abyssinian War. Once the Italians had been ejected, Emperor Haile Selassie immediately set about rebuilding the capital and formed the Organisation of African Unity, replaced by today's African Union, which still has its headquarters in this proud African city.
Addis Ababa is also home to the world-renowned early hominid, Lucy, whose skeleton, as well as a replica, are housed in the Ethiopian National Museum. The city also boasts several interesting mosques and cathedrals, Menelik's old Imperial Palace, which is the official seat of the Ethiopian government, and one of the largest open air markets in Africa (in the Merkato district).
Addis is the perfect place to buy some emblematic souvenirs of your stay in Ethiopia. Top of your shopping list is likely to be a pack of Ethiopian coffee beans, preferably vacuum sealed to preserve freshness. Decorative metalwork, in the form of crosses, and painted religious artworks on carved wooden boards are also popular. Filigreed silver and gold jewellery is also a great buy.
Addis Ababa is an interesting mix of poverty and wealth, urbanisation and nature (the city is surrounded by forests and cultivated land). It is a dynamic capital and not without charm, but has its fair share of unemployment, petty crime and destitution. Ethiopia's capital is a loud, chaotic, industrious city teeming with people in search of a better life and the main appeal of the place is actually the people themselves. Most travellers pass through Addis as it is the main transport hub of the country, but this transit shouldn't be rushed. Addis Ababa is a good two-day tourist city, offering travellers an authentic taste of urban Africa and enough interesting attractions to make a decent sightseeing itinerary, but more than a day or two is probably unneccesary, particularly considering the wealth of world-class attractions awaiting visitors beyond the city.
The Mercato is one of the largest outdoor markets in Africa and
Addis Ababa's most colourful sight. There are tinkers, tailors,
spice merchants, camel traders, and purveyors of just about every
possible commodity under the sun, including, of course, wonderful
Ethiopian coffee. Needless to say the market is a great place to
pick up souvenirs. Mercato really is an exhilarating place to visit
although it is not for the faint hearted. With animals wandering
the streets, vendors hollering, the pungent aromas of local dishes
and a riot of colour and sensations, you will find a visit here to
be a memorable experience. The spice market is particularly
interesting with its exotic colours and smells.
The Mercato is a pick-pocketing hotspot so be careful with your valuables. Wear a money belt under your clothes rather than keeping cash in an accessible place. Bargain hard as prices are enormously flexible and foreigners are routinely charged three to four times the going rate. Often you can bargain your way down to as little as 20 percent of the original asking price. Be careful of purchasing antiques and historical artefacts as without a certificate they may not be genuine and even if they are they could be confiscated at the airport. The market is enormous, chaotic and easy to get lost in - many travellers prefer to hire a local guide to show them around.
National Museum of Ethiopia
This museum has a varied range of exhibits displayed across
three floors and covering a wide scope of Ethiopian history from
the prehistoric to the contemporary. The museum is not world-class
in its facilities or exhibition space but it does contain some
genuinely fascinating artefacts and gives visitors a good
historical overview of Ethiopia. The most famous exhibit is the
replica statue of Lucy, thought to be the oldest hominid skeleton
ever found and estimated to be 3.18 million years old. Lucy was
discovered in 1974 and named for the Beatles song. The fragile
original skeleton is in the vaults of the building. Also of
interest is the selection of celebrated Ethiopian artworks from
Axum, Lalibella, and the Tana Monasteries, as well as relics from
Haile Selassie's reign. Check ahead of time as to whether there is
a power cut scheduled because they are common in the city and it is
impossible to appreciate the museum in the dark.
Another great museum in Addis Ababa, ten minute's walk from the National Museum, is the Ethnological Museum inside the main university campus at Sidist Kilo; the two museums are easily combined on a morning of sightseeing.
Address: King George VI St, Piazza
St Georges Cathedral
St George's Cathedral was founded by the great Emperor Menelik
to commemorate his 1896 victory over the invading Italian army. A
relic of St George was carried into battle by the Ethiopians and
the emperor built the cathedral to pay tribute to the saint that
ensured his victory. The cathedral is a holy place of pilgrimage
for Rastafarians. It has a traditional Ethiopian design and
octagonal shape and the outer walls of the building are covered in
wonderful artwork and mosaics, including work by Afewerk Tekle.
Inside beautiful stained glass windows enhance the sacred
atmosphere. In 1930 the church hosted the coronation of Emperor
Haile Selassie and he and Empress Menen are two of the famous
Ethiopians buried here. Attend a service (enquire for times) to
experience the wonderful singing and prayerful chanting so typical
of Coptic Christianity. If you do attend a service - visitors are
welcome - then be aware that the congregation stands for the
duration of the service with men to the left and women to the
right. Visitors must take off their shoes before entering the
There is a small museum at the church which has some useful information and interesting displays. You can also get some great views of the city by climbing the museum's tower.
Address: Fitawrari Gebeyehu St, Piazza
There is plenty to see and do in Addis Ababa, but the journey to the attractions is frequently more interesting than the sights themselves. This is particularly the case should you choose to walk the city and navigate your way to the main museums and buildings yourself. It is a good idea to hire a taxi driver for a daily fee and have him drive you around. Those who do choose to rely on maps and GPS should note that roads frequently change names in Addis Ababa.
You are likely to be offered seats at an alleged 'cultural show' which takes place at a backstreet restaurant or venue. Refuse these offers - they are the opening bid in a classic scam that ends with a thorough fleecing of their tourist victims. If you do wish to see traditional dancing and music simply dine at any decent and reputable restaurant where such attractions are provided free.
As for Addis Ababa's mainstream attractions, don't miss paying Lucy a visit at the National Museum, doing a bit of shopping at the Merkato - one of the largest markets in Africa - and seeing the wonderful cultural artefacts in the Ethnological Museum and relics of the city's past in the Addis Ababa Museum. It's also worth keeping your eyes open for the numerous concrete Soviet statues and buildings that dot the city. The most overrated attraction in town is the zoo, which should be avoided as it is poorly maintained and the conditions may be upsetting for animal lovers.
There is a good tourist information booth off Meskel Square if you need some impartial advice or want a reliable tour guide.
Lalibela is one of the world's most remarkable spiritual sites,
home to Ethiopia's astounding rock-hewn churches and an important
pilgrimage site for Ethiopia's Orthodox Christians. There are 13
churches in total, all carved from a single piece of granite, and
all in current use. The churches were carved from the top down and
some lie nearly hidden in deep trenches, while others stand in open
caves. Each is unique. The churches are connected by a labyrinth of
tunnels and dark narrow passageways with crypts, grottos, caverns
and galleries hewn from the red rock. They were carved between the
10th and 12th centuries in a bid to create a New Jerusalem for
those unable to pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
The small town of Lalibela is fairly rudimental, but there is an airport, some tourist accommodation, and good restaurants. The atmosphere of Lalibela can be described as biblical, a quiet, mystical place, with a cool, moist climate, that never fails to astound its growing number of visitors. It should be noted that Lalibela and its churches are not tourist attractions, but places for worship and contemplation: tourists should be respectful when visiting and taking photographs. Having said that, the people are really friendly and welcome visitors, and it is difficult to imagine people being disrespectful of this awe-inspiring place, which is deservedly Ethiopia's greatest tourist attraction.
Axum is a city in far northern Ethiopia that is believed by
Ethiopian Christians to be home to the Ark of the Covenant, housed
in the 16th-century Church of St Mary of Zion. You cannot see the
Ark - nobody is permitted to see it under any circumstances - and
there are many theories about where exactly the famous holy relic
rests. Almost every little church in Ethiopia has a replica Ark,
but Ethiopian Christians are adamant in their belief that St Mary
of Zion enshrines the true Ark.
Axum's other major attraction is possibly more remarkable than its putative Ark: ancient and colossal stone obelisks (stellae), weighing up to 500 tonnes, and dating from around 300 AD. The Kingdom of Aksum, or Axum, had its own written language called Ge'ez, and also developed a distinctive architecture exemplified by these giant obelisks which are recognised by UNESCO as remarkable historical artefacts. In 2008 one such obelisk was returned to Ethiopia with great fanfare after having been looted by Italy in the early 20th century. The largest number of these impressive sculptures are in the Northern Stelae Park, and the tallest one that remains standing is King Ezana's Stele which is over 78 feet (24m) tall and weighs 160 tonnes. Some tombs have been excavated under the giant stellae but the vast majority of this fascinating underground world has not yet been explored by archaeologists and the extent of the mysteries the obelisks guard is unknown.
Axum is considered a holy city and is commonly the destination of pilgrimages. Although visitors will be impressed by the city's long and proud ancient history and it certainly has treasures worth seeing, the city itself is now rather unremarkable. Axum was once the centre of a mighty empire, although from the 10th century it declined into insignificance leaving behind a dusty, lugubrious town largely ignorant of its glorious past.
Harar is a fascinating, exotic town of considerable interest to
visitors willing to make the 320-mile (520km) journey east from
Addis Ababa. Harar is the fourth holiest city in Islam, forbidden
to outsiders until 1887 when it became part of the Ethiopian
Empire. Harar boasts about 82 mosques - three of which date from
the 10th century - and 102 shrines.
An enduring reputation for having the most beautiful women in Africa, and possibly Ethiopia's best coffee, adds to the allure of this intriguing destination. The city is perched on the eastern wall of the Great Rift Valley, affording it a cool climate and wonderful views of the soaring mountains to the east. The main attractions are inside the Walled City, a fascinating warren of medieval mosques, houses and markets. Another popular attraction is the nocturnal Hyena Man, who feeds wild hyenas strips of raw meat suspended from his mouth and sticks. Brave visitors can join him.
Harar's two most famous Western inhabitants were Richard Burton, and Arthur Rimbaud, who lived here for a decade in the 1880s, writing poetry and running guns for the sultan. Rimbaud's house is now an interesting museum in Harar, worth a visit even for those who aren't familiar with his work. Shoppers should look for the highly regarded hand-crafted silverware, and the locally brewed Harar beer. The city has been a trade hub for centuries, an ancient shopper's paradise.
Bahir Dar is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Ethiopia and is known for its wide, palm-lined avenues and many attractions. The charming town of Bahir Dar sits at the southern edge of Lake Tana, which is the source of the Blue Nile. The town is the main base for visiting the spectacular Tisissat Falls and exploring the lake's 37 islands with their ancient churches and monasteries. Unfortunately, access to many of these churches is denied to women, but the boat trip around the lake and exteriors is still worth the trip, and there are a handful of monasteries that will welcome women. The lake is enormous and it will probably take half a day just to visit two or three of the monasteries but the scenery is very beautiful and you may be lucky enough to see wildlife like hippo as you explore. Also look out for the local fishermen in their traditional papyrus canoes. The most beautiful of the monasteries are Debre Kebran Gabriel, which dates from the 14th century, and Ura Kidane Mehret which has exceptional frescoes. The monasteries each charge their own entrance fee. The Tisissat Falls, often known as the Blue Nile Falls are still impressive but the dam has seriously reduced the amount of water coming over the falls which is sad. Bahir Dar also has an enormous market where visitors can trawl for local crafts and fresh produce.
Gondar is a city like no other, scattered with ancient castles
and churches and endowed with magnificent mountain scenery and a
pleasantly cool climate. Situated 460 miles (748km) north of Addis
Ababa, this is the next clockwise step after Bahir Dar on the
official Historic Route through Ethiopia. Gondar is often called
'the Camelot of Africa' because of its many castles and medieval
Gondar was founded by Emperor Fasilides around the year 1635, and grew as an agricultural centre and market town. The city was the capital of Ethiopia for hundreds of years, which accounts for the abundant imperial architecture, most densely concentrated in the Royal Enclosure which contains five castles. The oldest, and most architecturally interesting, is the Castle of Fasilades which has Axumite, Portuguese and Indian elements. Near the edge of Gondar is the Church of Debre Birhan Selassie which dates from 1682 and contains the country's most celebrated ceiling murals.
Gondar is also a natural base for treks into the Simien Mountains and many tour companies tout their services in the city. Choose carefully and get the opinion of recently returned trekkers before committing to a particular guide as quality varies. Another good excursion out of the city is the small but beautiful town of Gorgora on the northern shore of Lake Tana, about 43 miles (70km) from Gondar, where visitors will find some interesting ancient artefacts.
Addis Ababa Bole International Airport
Location: The airport is situated five miles (8km) from Addis Ababa.
Time: GMT +3.
Transfer between terminals: The terminals are close to each other, but a free shuttle service is available.
Getting to the city: Most hotels offer shuttle services from the airport, however these should be booked in advance. Local minibuses are also available but these tend to be crowded and can be uncomfortable with luggage.
Car rental: Car rental is available at the airport.
Airport Taxis: To avoid haggling and overpricing use the yellow/cream coloured government taxis parked at the terminal. These are more comfortable and reliable than the unofficial blue and white cabs. Make sure to agree on a fee with the driver before starting your journey.
Facilities: Facilities include a bank and bureau de change, restaurants and bars, duty-free and gift shops, travel agents, a post office, and a tourist help desk.
Parking: Public parking is located near the entrances of each terminal.
There is a large and efficient network of blue and white minibuses that covers the city of Addis Ababa. These minibuses are easy to hail from the side of the road. It is worth having an Ethiopian guide with you if it is your first time using these taxis. Small blue taxis are more expensive. Negotiation is the norm and you often have to press quite hard to get a bargain as a foreigner. They can be contracted for a full day, just negotiate.
Walking is still the preferred method of transport around this city, though beggars can be bothersome. The road names are few and often don't match the ones written on maps, so it is best to navigate by using landmarks. Churchill Avenue is the main thoroughfare and shopping street in Addis Ababa. Car hire can be organised through international agencies in Addis Ababa and a full valid international licence is required and the licence from country of origin must be endorsed locally. Drivers must be a minimum of 18 years old. It is a good idea to hire a car and a driver if you plan to travel extensively.
Vehicle travel outside the city after dark can be risky. Autobus Terra, near Mercato, is where most of the national buses arrive and depart and is the main bus terminal. The only working railway line runs between Addis Ababa and Djibouti, via Dire Dawa and Harar. Travellers should be prepared for occasional delays.
Addis Ababa has a subtropical highland climate; the temperature stays relatively constant, hovering between 46°F (8°C) and 77°F (25°C) for most of the year. The rainy season lasts from June to September, with July and August being the wettest time of year, with 26-27 days of each month receiving significant rainfall. These are also the coolest months. The best time to visit Addis Ababa is from October to February, when the temperatures are warm and the days are sunny.
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