Many of you know that we lived in Ethiopia for seven years. Our sons were born during that time, and they spent the first 4.5 years of their lives in Addis Ababa. If you are planning a trip to East Africa, here are my recommendations for things to do in Addis Ababa and Ethiopia.
Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, has a population about approximately 5 million. Addis, as it is commonly referred to, is home to the African Union, and is also the headquarters of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). The city is known as the political capital of Africa because of its historical, diplomatic, and political significance. There are several airlines flying into Addis, including Emirates.
At nearly 8000 feet, Addis Ababa has a delightful climate – we used to refer to it as perpetual spring. It rains heavily in June, July, and August, but we were gone those months anyway 😉
Things to do in Addis Ababa
First on your list must be Lucy, the fossilized skeleton of the early hominid. It is estimated that Lucy lived about 3.2 million years ago. I will be the first to say that the bone fragments you’ll see at the Ethiopian National Museum are… well, shall we say underwhelming? Although there isn’t really much to see, it’s way cool just knowing that you’re looking at one of the oldest human remains ever found.
No visit to Addis Ababa would be complete without a visit to the Mercato – the largest open-air market in Africa. Organized like many markets around the world, this market has large areas for different things. If you are looking for fabric, ask around to find the fabric section of the market. Want plumbing stuff? Then head to that section. Although wandering aimlessly can be great fun, you’ll probably enjoy it more if you find the sections that interest you. Don’t be afraid to dig through piles of “junk” to find treasures – that’s how I spent many a delightful hour when we lived there!
Be sure to plan an evening out for traditional Ethiopian food and dancing. Served in the traditional manner, injera and wat come served in a large hand-woven basket called a mesob. There are several restaurants that serve great food, and have wonderful dancers performing a wide range of traditional dances. Ask around to find out where you should go.
You shouldn’t have to go far to find a coffee ceremony but, if you happen to land in some sort of void, be sure to seek one out. This was one of my absolute favorite parts of living in Ethiopia. The coffee ceremony is performed every day, all over. It’s an integral part of Ethiopian life. When you’re drinking the coffee and eating kolo, think of me, ‘kay?
Meskel Square is another of those “must sees” in Addis, although there’s not much to see if there is no festival going on. Built as an open plaza during the Communist years, Meskel Square is the site for the annual Meskel ceremony – it’s well worth planning your journey to coincide with Meskel in late September.
The real strength of Addis Ababa, however, is just in the daily life of the people. Make a point of getting to know somebody from your hotel and you’re nearly assured to be invited to their house.
Out and About in Ethiopia
No visit to Ethiopia would be complete without a few side trips to great places in the rest of the country.
Lalibela is probably my favorite place in the whole wide world. The rock-hewn churches are mind-boggling and well worth a visit.
Axum is a very historic city, and is rumored to be the location of the Ark of the Covenant.
Bahar Dar is located in the north with Lalibela and Axum, and another frequent tourist stop. It’s on the shores of Lake Tana, and you can see the Blue Nile Falls, which are quite impressive.
Gondar is worth a visit as well. Known as the Camelot of Africa, there are plenty of castles to be seen.
And then there is the walled city of Harar. It’s fascinating to wander around, but you can also feed hyenas here – honestly.
PS (December, 2013): I heard from a friend of mine who is currently living in Addis. Here are the suggestions he had for what to do in the city:
Yod Abysinnia is the best place for traditional food and dancing. They have two branches in different parts of the city.
Edna Mall has current movies and is the main teenager hangout.
Sishu near Kera has the best hamburger in town-and basically serves only 3 versions of hamburger and a vegeterian hamburger in a big warehouse with lots of recycled (closed on Mondays, no beer served and there’s also a good ice cream shop outside in the same compound).
Born Free is an animal rescue place that was in National Geographic and only about 45 minutes outside of Addis. Taxi up to the top of Entoto Road and hike or just walk back down the steep, winding road with the ladies carrying eucalyptus branches on their backs and enjoy the views of the city.
Draft beer houses abound and they often have their own butcheries attached so you can order tibs right there too.
NGO Bazaar selling handcrafted items and organic foods from local NGOs is held one Saturday/month at the international church.
Right now the entire city is TORN up for the making of the subway. There are giant ditches and whole roads that are just a hole. Sometimes the direct route to many places is blocked. There’s also been a big uptick in foreigners getting pickpocketed and EVERYONE getting smart phones stolen, be sure to keep money and goods secure and hidden as they are very opportunistic. There is very little violent crime in Addis.