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Addis Ababa is a diverse and riotous capital city of well over three million people. Home to roughly 80 different nationalities, it has a multitude of distinct religious and linguistic groups.
Nestled at the foot of Mount Entoto, it 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 home to the world-renowned early hominid, Lucy, whose skeleton is 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.
The city is perfect for tourists to buy souvenirs of their stay in Ethiopia. Top of the 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 popular too. Filigreed silver and gold jewellery are other great buys. Addis Ababa is the best place in Ethiopia to sample the local cuisine, which is inventive and flavourful.
The destination 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 poverty.
Most travellers merely pass through Addis as it is the main transport hub of the country, but this transit shouldn't be rushed. Rather, it 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.
The Mercato is one of the largest outdoor markets in Africa and Addis Ababa's most colourful sight. Ideal for souvenirs, there are tailors, spice merchants, and purveyors of just about every commodity under the sun, including wonderful Ethiopian coffee. Mercato is memorable but not for the faint hearted, given its wandering animals, hollering vendors, and riot of colour, aromas, and sensations. The spice market is particularly interesting, with its exotic colours and smells. The Mercato is a pick-pocketing hotspot so visitors should be careful with their valuables. It's best to wear a money belt under clothes rather than keeping cash in an accessible place. Shoppers should bargain hard as prices are enormously flexible and foreigners are routinely charged three to four times the going rate.
This museum displays a varied range of exhibits across three floors, and they cover Ethiopian history from the prehistoric to the contemporary. The museum is not world-class in terms of 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.
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, one of Ethiopia's most celebrated artists. 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.
Addis Ababa has a subtropical highland climate, which means the temperature stays relatively constant, hovering between 46F (8C) and 77F (25C) for most of the year. The rainy season lasts from June to September, with July and August being the wettest time of year, when each month receives around 27 days of 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.
A large and efficient network of blue and white minibuses covers the city of Addis Ababa. These minibuses are easy to hail from the side of the road, though it is worth having an Ethiopian guide along if it is a tourist's first time using these taxis. Small blue taxis are more expensive. Negotiation is the norm and foreigners often have to press quite hard to get a bargain. These taxis can be contracted for a full day after some negotiation.
There aren't many road names and they 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 the city, and a fully valid international licence is required. The licence from a traveller's country of origin must also be endorsed locally and the driver must be a minimum of 18 years old. It is a good idea to hire a car and a driver if visitors 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 it 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. The Ethiopian ride-hailing app, ZayRide, is another option; walking is still the preferred method of transport around the city.
There is plenty to see and do in Addis Ababa, and the journey to the attractions is frequently as interesting as the sights themselves. This is particularly the case should visitors choose to walk the city and navigate their way to the main museums and buildings.
It's a good idea for visitors to hire a taxi driver for a daily fee and have him drive them around. Those who choose to rely on maps and GPS should note that roads frequently change names. Travellers should be aware of scams that involve 'cultural shows' that take place in backstreet venues. If visitors do wish to see traditional dancing and music, they should simply dine at any decent and reputable restaurant where such attractions are provided free.
As for mainstream attractions in Addis Ababa, travellers shouldn'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), seeing the wonderful cultural artefacts in the Ethnological Museum, and studying relics of the city's past in the Addis Ababa Museum.
It's also worth keeping their eyes open for the numerous concrete Soviet statues and buildings that dot the city. There is a good tourist information booth off Meskel Square if tourists need some impartial advice or want a reliable tour guide.
Lalibela is one of the world's most remarkable spiritual sites and Ethiopia's greatest tourist attraction. It is home to the country's astounding rock-hewn churches and is an important pilgrimage site for Ethiopia's Orthodox Christians. There are 11 functioning churches in total, all carved from a single piece of granite. 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.
Axum is a city in far northern Ethiopia. Its 17th-century Church of St Mary of Zion is said to house the Ark of the Covenant, which visitors aren't permitted to see. Colossal stone obelisks dating back to 300 AD are remnants of the Kingdom of Aksum and are recognised as remarkable historical artefacts by UNESCO. In 2005 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 is 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 stele, but archaeologists have not yet explored the vast majority of this fascinating underground world, and the extent of the mysteries the obelisks guard is unknown.
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 and was forbidden to outsiders until 1887, when it became part of the Ethiopian Empire. Harar boasts about 82 mosques (three from the 10th century) and 102 shrines. 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.
Bahir Dar is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Ethiopia. Known for its palm-lined avenues, it sits at the southern edge of Lake Tana, which is the source of the Blue Nile. The town is the main base for visiting Tissisat Falls and the lake's 37 islands with their ancient churches and monasteries. Unfortunately, many of these churches deny access to women but there are exceptions. The lake is enormous and it will probably take half a day just to visit two or three of the monasteries. The scenery is beautiful, though, and visitors may even spot some local fishermen in traditional papyrus canoes or groups of hippo. The most beautiful of the monasteries on Lake Tana are Debre Kebran Gabriel, which dates from the 14th century, and Ura Kidane Mehret, which has exceptional frescoes.
Gondar is a city like no other, scattered with ancient castles and churches, 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. Founded by Emperor Fasilides around the year 1635, Gondar 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 numerous castles. The oldest and most architecturally interesting is the Castle of Fasilides, which has Axumite, Portuguese, and Indian elements. Near the edge of Gondar is the Church of Debre Birhan Selassie, which was built in the 17th century 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.
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