What if I told you that there is a wonderful place that is one of the oldest and newest in the entire world? That exciting location is Addis Ababa, the capital of the beautiful country of Ethiopia. Both Addis and Ethiopia are magical places full of exciting sites to explore.
We aren’t in Kansas anymore Entoto!
Human occupation in Ethiopia dates back in time to at least 3.2 million years ago. The famous fossil remains of “Lucy”, an Australopithecus Afarensis hominid were found in Hadar, Ethiopia about 185 miles (300 km) northeast of Addis Ababa. Lucy walked on two feet and was anatomically much like us. More importantly, a study in 2008 found that the very first members of our own species came from the region 100,000 years ago because all genetic diversity in the entire world is greater the further away from Addis Ababa DNA is extracted. So, Addis Ababa was the original homeland of all mankind!
Despite this incredible antiquity, Addis Ababa was not formed as a city until 1886 when the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II and his wife Empress Taytu Betul founded the city as a mineral springs resort for Ethiopia’s royal family and nobility. In 1892, the Emperor made Addis Ababa his capital.
The city was modernised under the long-reigning Emperor Haile Selassie. Did you know that some followers of the Rastafari Movement believe that Haile Selassie was the returned Messiah of the Bible and God incarnate? Rastafari religious rites are most associated with reggae music, smoking cannabis and the Island of Jamaica.
Today, Addis Ababa is the modern hometown of the African Union with a vibrant population of more than 4.5 Million.
You’ll probably fly into Bole International Airport, it’s the busiest airport in East Africa and the home of Ethiopian Airlines. The airport is modern, clean and convenient. It’s served by many international airlines with daily flights to Europe, the USA, Asia and throughout the African continent. It’s only 5 km (3.1 miles) away from the city and will require just 20 mins by taxi to reach most hotels.
Here’s a pro-tip: October to February is the dry season so this is the best time to visit. You may find lower prices from March to September (during the rainy season) and there will be fewer tourists, but the rain can spoil your sight-seeing.
Indiana Jones apparently didn’t look here!
Ethiopia and Addis Ababa are culturally very rich. These are my favourite places to explore in the capital and the surrounding region:
- National Museum of Ethiopia – In an unassuming concrete building lies Africa’s most important discovery, Lucy. Discovered in 1974, the fossils were named after John Lennon’s hit song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”
- Ethnological Museum – If you want to really understand Ethiopia and its culture then this is the museum for you. An incredible interpretation of life, traditions, and cultures through an Ethiopian’s life, from childhood to death is displayed here at the main university campus.
- Merkato – Visit Africa’s largest outdoor market. There are more than 7000 vendors selling everything from fresh fruit to livestock. It’s an exciting way to witness local life. There is beauty in its chaos but, if it’s a bit too much chaos for you, I can recommend taking a guided tour.
- The Entoto Hills – On the skyline you can see Mount Entoto, sacred to the Ethiopian Orthodox faith. The views over Addis from there are breath-taking; you have a panorama of the entire city. If you are feeling energetic, you can walk all the way to the top from Saint Mary’s Church. The hike will take around half a day.
- Unity park – What was once Ethiopia’s National Palace was turned into Unity Park in 2019 by Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. With several cultural attractions that include the old palace and a museum, you can spend many hours on this site.
- Axum and Lalibela – These are two of the most incredible sites in all of Africa. Axum is the reputed home of the Ark of the Covenant, the sacred container that holds the Ten Commandments. By legend, the Ark is ensconced in a treasury next to the Church of Saint Mary of Zion at Axum.
My friend Rocky really feels at home here!
- Wildlife – There are no typical African safaris near Addis but you can still experience diverse landscapes and wildlife:
- Bishoftu (Debre Zeyit) lies to the southeast of the city and is famous for its array of crater lakes and peaceful atmosphere. It’s the perfect spot for birdwatching. There are several upscale resorts in the area where you can stay overnight.
- Awash National Park was established in 1966 and is around 200km from the capital. Wildlife in the park includes the East Africa oryx, ostriches, dik-diks, wild dogs, warthogs and gazelle. The landscape is equally as impressive; it has a mildly volcanic geology that contains bubbling hot springs.
Ethiopian food is traditionally based around injera, a pancake-like bread whose surface is used as a platter to serve a vast array of foods. These include spicy stews and vegetable curries like Wot, which is Ethiopia’s version of curry. Here’s where I love to eat in Addis:
- Yod Abyssinia Cultural Restaurant – If you love music, food and dancing you need to visit this restaurant. Colourful costumes, traditional dances and lively music make this the perfect atmosphere to eat delicious local food. This venue serves the best Ethiopian food in the capital with specialist meat dishes that include tibs (a combination of stir-fry and stew) and kitfo (raw minced beef in a spicy marinade).
- Totot – This restaurant offers up delicious classic Ethiopian food with traditional music and dancing. What makes this place different is that it is loved by local residents. It’s lots of fun!
- Tomoca (TO.MO.CA) Coffee – This small, antique looking coffee shop is where you can find the very best coffee made from Harar beans. You’ll never forget the enticing coffee aromas as you enter the shop. You can even buy coffee beans to take home.
Here’s another pro-tip: You should only drink bottled water in Addis Ababa. Tap water should not even be used for brushing your teeth. Hotels provide plenty of bottled water and always grab a bottle or two when you are on your way out.
The nightlife in Addis is lively, colourful, and entertaining. These are my favourite things to do after dark:
- Fendika – This cultural centre is the best place to visit on a Friday night but it’s always absolutely packed. Melaku Belay runs this cultural centre. He is a leading contemporary performance artist who preserves and showcases Ethiopia’s heritage through live shows.
- Cascara Coffee & Cocktails – Located in the Hyatt Regency, this lively bar is based in their courtyard surrounded by flowers and water fountains. True to its name, the bar offers coffee flavoured cocktails and nibbles and they have live music or a DJ.
- The Africa Jazz Village – I doubt that you’ve ever heard the musical genre Ethio-jazz. It is a mix of ancient Ethiopian tribal music with undertones of jazz and a little dash of Afrobeat. This is a really cool venue for a few drinks and a listen.
If my recommendations have you itching to plan your next trip to Addis then you’ll need somewhere comfortable to stay. Here are my top picks:
- Mado Hotel – Located in the Bole district, this comfortable and warm hotel offers up stylish and modern rooms. Many local sites are within walking distance and the property has a good bar and restaurant on site.
- Golden Tulip – A 5-star hotel without the 5-star price tag. Located close to the airport, this venue is a good choice for business travellers or if you’re planning a shorter stopover in the city before exploring elsewhere.
- Sheraton Addis – This resort is part of Sheraton’s Luxury Collection. The venue is a world-class property and one of the very best in Africa. There are eleven restaurants and bars offering food for all tastes, an outdoor swimming pool and highly rated wellness centre. Each room has a butler to pamper guests.
Ethiopia is called “The Land of the Origin”, for its remarkable hominid fossils but I love Addis Ababa for its present. This vibrant city is full of friendly and beautiful residents who are justly proud of their wonderful past and simply want to share their joy with visitors!