The Go-To Guide to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Kevin Whipple /
Kevin Whipple / | © Culture Trip
Anna Samson

Addis Ababa, a thriving city with around 4.5m people – often referred to as the gateway to Africa – is a destination for travellers keen to go off the beaten track. The city’s buzzy streets and growing population make it a hive of activity and the perfect spot in which to immerse yourself in Ethiopian culture and food. It’s also a city rich in history and a place where old and new collide. Here’s everything you need to know.

Ethiopia is considered the birthplace of humanity

Get to know your ancestors by coming face-to-face with Lucy, one of the oldest hominin skeletons ever found, at the National Museum of Ethiopia. Discovered by archaeologists in north-east Ethiopia, Lucy walked upright and resembled a chimpanzee. We do of course share around 96% of our DNA with the primates, so the resemblance shouldn’t come as a surprise. Discover how scientists managed to create a reconstruction of Lucy and see the similarities (and differences) in person. Sadly, Lucy’s real bones are not on display, but you’ll get to see just how far humans have come in the past 3.2m years.

Food is delicious and most likely to be vegan

Ethiopian food is massively underrated and incredibly tasty, and in Addis Ababa you can get a real flavour for the traditional dishes. Typical Ethiopian food is based around injera – a spongy, slightly sour flatbread that also serves as a plate and cutlery. Tasty stews, such as wat, are infused with spices including berbere and served on top of the injera. The best way to eat it is by getting stuck in with your hands. Tear off the injera and use it to scoop up the stew – though meat is available, most Ethiopian food is vegan as avoiding animal products during fasting times is important for the large community of Orthodox Christians.

The city has stunning views of a sacred mountain

Addis Ababa, which means “new flower” in Amharic, was built in the shadow of Mount Entoto. The sacred mountain is where legendary Emperor Menelik II and his wife resided after founding the city in 1886. It’s worth hiking your way to the top and taking in the stunning views of the city from above. Aside from that, there’s plenty of other sights to see on this holy mountain. Eucalyptus trees line the slopes, and there are numerous monasteries and churches, along with the Entoto Observatory of Ethiopian Space Science Society. If hiking isn’t your thing, you could always grab a taxi and stroll the summit at a leisurely pace.

The churches are astonishingly beautiful

Many Ethiopians are Orthodox Christians, living peacefully alongside Muslim communities. The Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa is a huge, ornate place of worship which is also the final resting place of Emperor Haile Selassie. The churchyard is also home to the tomb of suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst. The murals and stained-glass windows fill the cathedral with life, light and colour. Then there’s the St George Cathedral, dedicated to the patron saint Ethiopia shares with England. The octagonal church was completed in 1911; if you do decide to visit, make sure to visit the adjacent museum, which houses religious artefacts.

Ethiopians know how to do coffee – and it’s everywhere

Famous for its coffee – many believe it is where the plant originated – Addis Ababa is heaven for caffeine lovers. From roadside stalls to arty cafés, you can find your fix all over the city, and it is most commonly drunk from small cups. For a true Ethiopian experience, take part in a coffee ceremony. You’ll be offered the roasting beans to smell, and then can enjoy coffee served from an elegant clay coffee pot, sometimes accompanied with burning incense. If you prefer your coffee European style with steamed milk, you’ll still be able to find delicious lattes and macchiatos at many cafés around the city.

Shop at Merkato, the biggest market in Africa

Thousands of traders set up shop each day at Merkato, an open-air market that takes up several square miles. It’s best navigated with a guide as this labyrinth of stalls is packed with people and not your average tourist trap. You won’t find fridge magnets here – instead, it’s where local chefs, families and shopkeepers go to pick up their stock and ingredients. Even if you don’t buy anything, experiencing the sheer scale and variety of items on sale is memorable in itself. Just be careful you don’t get lost.

The music scene is unparalleled

Ethio-jazz is a unique fusion of traditional Ethiopian music mixed up with, yes you guessed it, jazz. It’s legendary among those in the know and cherished by its loyal following. Having flourished in the 1950s and ’60s, Ethio-jazz was banned by the Derg regime. Thankfully its comeback has proved immensely popular with people of all ages, who spend their evenings in clubs listening to the music and enjoying a Habesha Cold Gold beer or some tej honey wine. There’s also a growing hip-hop scene and artists perform in Amharic.

Get out of the city and immerse yourself in nature

Visiting the city is pretty incredible, but travellers may also want to experience the serenity of nature after a busy few days. The recently redeveloped Unity Park is a clean, green place to take a walk but if you fancy going a little further afield, Bishoftu is a town roughly an hour’s drive away. Here visitors can choose to relax by the crater lakes or take a day trip to Awash National Park. Be sure to take some binoculars for some the best birdwatching around – here you’ll find more than 453 native species of birds. A particular favourite is the North African ostrich – although you probably won’t need the binoculars to spot those.

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