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Welcome to Addis Ababa

Addis Ababa

Addis Ababa (sometimes spelt Addis Abeba) is a diverse and riotous capital city of nearly three million souls, with roughly 80 different nationalities, and a multitude of religious and language groups making up its colourful population.

Nestled at the foot of Mount Entoto, the city was founded in the late 1800s by Ethiopian emperor Menelik II and was later occupied by the Italians during the second Italo-Abyssinian War. When Ethiopians regained control, Emperor Haile Selassie immediately set about rebuilding the capital and formed the Organisation of African Unity, replaced by today's African Union, which has its headquarters in the city.

Addis Ababa is also home to the world-renowned early hominid Lucy - her fossilised skeleton, as well as a replica, are housed in the Ethiopian National Museum. The city also boasts the largest open market in Africa (in the Merkato district), several interesting mosques and cathedrals, as well as the world's largest prefabricated building, Shengo Hall, and Menelik's old Imperial Palace, which is the official seat of the Ethiopian government.

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, but has its fair share of unemployment, petty crime and destitution. Addis Ababa, however, is well worth exploring, as there are plenty of 'diamonds in the rough' to be uncovered.

Information & Facts


The highest capital in the world, Addis Ababa's elevation moderates monthly temperatures, and being situated on the equator, the temperatures are very constant throughout the year. Addis has a subtropical highland climate that is generally mild and pleasant with average temperatures of 25 °C (77°F).

Getting Around

There is a large and efficient network of blue and white minibuses that cover the city which are easy to hail from the side of the road. The cost ranges from 0.70 Br for short trips, to 1.55 Br or more for a longer trip. It is worth having an Ethiopian guide with you if it is your first time using these taxis. Small blue coloured taxis are more expensive. They range from 10 Br for a very short journey, to about 35 Br for a cross-town trek. 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 and more sensible 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. 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. Churchill Avenue is the main thoroughfare and shopping street in Addis Ababa. 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.

Kids Attractions

There are a few havens of peace and familiarity for children and their parents. Chief among these are the Hilton and the Sheraton which both have swimming pools that non-guests can use for a fee. The food is also good there, although expensive. Kids also tend to enjoy the Addis Ababa museum with its stuffed animals and various curiosities. Some children will find Mercato to be a fascinating and exciting experience; others will loathe its chaos and congestion. In fact, much the same can be said for the whole of Ethiopia.

Amharic is the official language, although over 80 local languages are also spoken. English and Arabic are widely spoken as well as some French and Italian.

The official currency is the Ethiopian Birr (ETB), which is divided into 100 cents. Foreign currency can be exchanged at banks and authorised hotels. Credit cards have limited usage outside of Addis Ababa, and even in the capital they are only accepted by major establishments. Visitors should carry a supply of travellers cheques or hard currency with them, preferably in US dollars. ATMs are sparse, but banks are usually open every day except Sundays from 8am to 11am and 1pm till 4pm.


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 their 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.

Other good buys are woven blankets and cloth, 17th century silver Marie Therese Thaler coins, and items bearing the image of Haile Selassie and the distinctive Rastafarian colours. If buying what you believe to be an antique ensure you obtain a clearance certificate from the vendor as Bole customs are always on lookout for smugglers of Ethiopian heritage items.

The most popular place to shop is the Merkato, which is an essential tourist experience although not for the fainthearted. This is a chaotic, thrilling flea market with a diverse range of both goods and people, including a fair number of shifty characters. All prices are negotiable. Another shopping area is Churchill Road, above the main post office on the right.

If bargaining is not your thing, and you don't mind being overcharged a bit, do your souvenir shopping in the boutiques at the Hilton and the Sheraton, where high quality examples of the classic Ethiopian souvenirs can be bought without the crush and fuss of the more typical shopping experience in Merkato. The shops at Bole Airport are decent too, but are only open when an international flight is departing.

Visit the Former Women Fuelwood Carriers Project for good quality souvenirs like woven hand shawls in support of a good cause. Similarly the alert Handicraft Shop makes sells beautiful embroidery in support of the Berhan Taye Leprosy Disabled Persons Work Group. Check out Sabahar, near the Salem nurses college, which makes extraordinary silk scarves. There are also some great bookshops in Addis. Try The African Bookshop for great second-hand reads, The Mega Book Shop for the most eclectic range of literature you'll ever find, and Ethiopian Trading Enterprises for fantastic and cheap postcards.

Before burning all your remaining birr on a shopping spree remember that luggage is carefully weighed at the airport with hefty surcharges for those going over the specified limits of 44 pounds (20kg) for check-in luggage and 15 pounds (7kg) for hand luggage.

A note on finding your way around in Addis: a good taxi driver is a better option than a detailed map or GPS as street names change name/direction quite often. If your driver can double up as a guide and negotiator for your trip into Merkato, so much the better.


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 probably a good idea to hire a taxi driver for a daily fee and have him drive you around.

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 - largest market in Africa, and seeing the wonderful cultural artefacts in the Ethnological Museum and relics of the early city in the Addis Ababa Museum. Its 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 - avoid it unless drawn to macabre sights.

There is a good tourist information booth off Meskel Square if you need some impartial advice or want a reliable tour guide.

Local time is GMT +3.

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. The city 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. Axum's other major attraction is possibly more remarkable than its putative Ark: its stone obelisks (stellae), weighing up to 500 tonnes, and dating from around 300AD. In 2008 one such obelisk was returned to Ethiopia with great fanfare after having been looted by Italy in the early 20th century.

The charming town of Bahar Dar sits at the southern edge of Lake Tana and is a base for visiting spectacular Tisissat Falls and exploring the lake's 37 islands with their ancient churches and monasteries. Access to many of these are closed to women, although the boat trip around the lake and exteriors are still worth the trip. The most beautiful of the monasteries are Debre Kebran Gabriel, which dates from the 14th century, and Ura Kidane Mehret which as exceptional frescoes.

Gondar is a city like no other, scattered with ancient castles, churches and endowed with magnificent mountain scenery and a pleasantly cool climate. Situated 460 miles (748km) north of Addis, this is the next clockwise step after Bahar Dar on the official Historic Route through Ethiopia.

Gondar was the capital of Ethiopia for 200 hundred 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 companies tout their services. Choose carefully and get the opinion of recently returned trekkers before committing to a particular guide.

Harar is a fascinating, exotic town of considerable interest to visitors willing to make the 320 miles (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.

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.

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. Shoppers should look for the highly regarded hand-crafted silverware, and the locally brewed Harar beer.

Lalibela is one of the world's most remarkable spiritual sites, home to Ethiopia's astounding rock hewn churches and an important source of pilgrimage to Ethiopia's Orthodox Christians. There are 13 churches in total, each carved from a single piece of granite, and all in current use. They were carved between the 10th and 12th centuries in a bid to create the New Jerusalem for those unable to pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The small town itself is fairly rudimental, but there is an airport, one large hotel 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 visting and taking photographs.

The Mercato is the largest outdoor market in Africa and Addis' 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, it is a great place to pick up souvenirs. Mercato really is an exhilarating place to visit although probably 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.

This is a pick-pocketing hotspot though, 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 3-4 times the going rate. Be careful of purchasing antiques and historical artifacts as without a certificate they may be confiscated at the airport.

The museum has a varied range of exhibits across three floors covering a wide scope of Ethiopian history. The most famous exhibit is the replica statue of Lucy, at 3.18 million years old, the oldest hominid skeleton ever found. The fragile original skeleton is in the vaults of the building. Also of interest is the selection of celebrated Ethiopian artworks from Aksum, Lalibella, and Tana Monasteries, plus relics from Haile Selassie's reign. Check ahead of time as to whether there is a power cut scheduled.

St George Cathedral was founded by the great Emperor Menelik to commemorate his 1896 victory over the invading Italian army. 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. Luminaries such as Haile Selassie and Empress Menen are buried here. Attend a service (enquire for times) to experience the wonderful singing and prayerful chanting so typical of Coptic Christianity.

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