When I talk to NGO workers who have worked all over Africa, most say their favorite posting was Addis Ababa.
Ethiopia’s capital is a young city, founded by the Empress Itegue Taitu in the late nineteenth century. She named it the “new flower”, and while the pollution and crowded streets don’t give a very flowery impression, it’s still an enjoyable and easy city to visit.
I’ve already mentioned my first impressions and talked about the cafes of Addis Ababa, but there are many more things to do than simply sitting around sipping world-class macchiatos. Here are a few highlights.
Art Galleries. “Addis”, as residents affectionately called their city, is home to a thriving arts scene. Two galleries rise to the top. The Asni Gallery in the Entonto hills overlooking the city offers a cool, green getaway from the busy city. A ramshackle old house features exhibitions by local painters and multimedia artists, while the garden outside has an interesting collection of sculptures made from found objects, like this curious contraption beside which yours truly is posing in such a dignified manner. The gallery of Kristos Solomon Belachew next to the Itegue Taitu Hotel will enchant anyone who appreciates art. This third-generation painter has a style rooted in traditional themes, with vibrant colors depicting historic or Biblical scenes. His works are quite affordable and make unique gifts or mementos. We bought three pieces. Kristos is a fascinating man to talk to and a visit to his gallery/workshop will give you a deeper appreciation of Ethiopian art.
Museums. The National Museum of Ethiopia is justly famous for its collection of fossil hominids, including the famous Lucy, an Australopithecus afarensis who lived in Ethiopia 3.2 million years ago. One gripping display shows the precursors to modern humans arranged in chronological order to show how primate-like traits gradually gave way to a more human appearance, shattering Creationist mythology in a single room. Other rooms show the evolution of animals such as the horse. The rest of the museum is less impressive, with meager collections from Ethiopia’s many ancient empires poorly explained with minimal signage. The Institute of Ethiopian Studies is more user-friendly. Housed in one of Haile Selassie’s old palaces on the green and pleasant campus of Addis Ababa University, it features a beautiful collection of Ethiopian art as well as cultural artifacts. Long descriptions help the visitor put what they’re seeing into context. You can also visit the upper stories of the palace, where the emperor’s private quarters are still preserved, right down to his baby blue bidet.
Dining. With Ethiopian food being consistently good, few restaurants really stand out. The one at the Finfine Hotel and hot springs is the oldest in the city and serves flavorful national food and sweet, smooth tej. If gloppy stuff on injera is beginning to get tiring, go to Castelli’s, a old-school Italian restaurant run by very old-school Italians. It attracts an interesting mix of expats, tourists, and upper class locals.
Shopping. Addis boasts the largest open-air market in Africa, the Merkato. It’s as big as a medium-sized town and sells anything you can imagine that’s legal, and many things that are not. While a trip through its myriad lanes is popular with visitors, a trustworthy guide is essential as the area abounds with thieves. There are plenty of other shops and smaller markets throughout town that sell the usual tourist knick-knacks, a fine selection of leather goods, Ethiopian music, and colorful crafts from Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups. For some reason there’s a severe shortage of postcards; they’re almost impossible to find outside of the main tourist areas so buy them when you see them!
Where to stay. We tried only one hotel in Addis, the Itegue Taitu. It was the first hotel in Ethiopia, and features a grand old wooden staircase and balconies. It’s a bit worse for wear and desperately needs the remodel they are slowly getting around to. Even with the creaky floors and dingy bathrooms, it’s a wonderful place to stay. The back porch is relaxing, the restaurant is one of the best in the city, and the staff are truly kind and helpful. It makes for a good introduction to Ethiopia, both the good and the not-so-good. When I go back, I won’t consider staying anywhere else.
Getting around. Addis is spread out and not very walkable. Luckily there’s an excellent and cheap network of minibuses. A bit of experimenting and asking for directions will help you figure out how to get from A to B, and you’ll usually end up in some interesting conversations on the way. City buses are also numerous, but are crowded, only marginally cheaper, and popular with pickpockets. Taxis are everywhere but as with many countries it’s best to settle the price beforehand. In general, Ethiopian taxi drivers are far less annoying and greedy than their counterparts in other parts of the world.
So if you go to Ethiopia, spare a few days for Addis Ababa. Of the thirty capital cities I’ve visited, it’s one of the most enjoyable.
Don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel articles.
Next time: the medieval walled city of Harar!