I was first introduced to Ethiopian culture in Washington, DC, which many people (outside of DC) don’t know is the largest Ethiopian community outside of Africa. Thanks to a friend Brett, in the summer of 2008, I was introduced to Ethiopian food and FELL IN LOVE. So, so good. Before having my eyes opened to this vibrant culture in DC, I fell into the trap of visualizing “starving children in Africa” when I thought of Ethiopia. If that’s what you think of too, I’ve got news for you! This country is flourishing under a government making incredible strides in terms of development and infrastructure.
Seriously, you can’t walk more than a couple of blocks without seeing massive structures being built all over the city…
And the people are so, so, so lovely. They possess the most beautiful smiles I’ve encountered from any people in the world, and they are some of the most friendly. When I passed people on the street almost everyone would say hello and then stop and ask how I was doing. And it wasn’t a polite thing you say in passing, they actually expected a response and would have a conversation with you. Remarkable! Another bonus: Ethiopia somehow has managed to remain under the radar for most tourists; there were only two times in my four days in the city that I encountered any other tourists (at Tomoco Coffee Shop, THE gold standard for coffee in Ethiopia, and African Jazz Village, see below for more on both). Makes for a really authentic experience when visiting. And in a continent that is so incredibly beautiful and diverse, but is often unsafe for solo female travelers, I found Addis Ababa very safe! I spent hours each day walking around the city, often turning down side streets and alleys, and never felt unsafe.
(I had such a lovely conversation with this couple as I walked past them. Like almost all Ethiopians I encountered, my presence on the street near them was all the reason they needed to strike up a conversation.) My trip to Ethiopia was a last minute decision, like most of my travel plans, so I could only squeeze in a few days after Cape Town and before arriving to the next destination, Egypt. Unfortunately, this meant I didn’t have time to get outside of Addis Ababa, which was a shame. That leads me to my main piece of advice for visiting Ethiopia: Addis Ababa is a lovely city, but you really only need 2 (maximum 3) days in the capitol city. If you have more time, venture outside of the city and visit the rest of the country!
However, I did not know that prior to my arrival, so I planned for 4 days in Addis Ababa. While food in Addis Ababa is incredibly affordable, hotels are surprisingly expensive! (When most meals cost only $2USD or so, and you can take a bus for around/less than $0.10, paying >$100USD/night is pricey! So I opted for an Airbnb, and am SO HAPPY I did, because I stayed with two beautiful souls, Melanie and Yvan, who are two of my favorite people I’ve met in all of my stays around the world.
They not only opened up their lovely home to me, but Yvan also spent hours during my first full day in the city to walk me around, help me get and activate a SIM card (tip: this is a more arduous process than anywhere else I’ve visited in the world, you have to buy a SIM card from a specific office downtown if the airport vendor is closed upon arrival, separately buy a card to activate from a kid selling such cards on the street, then decipher instructions to call in and get the SIM card working), and he sat down at a cafe with me and helped me to pin the best sites in the city to visit. What a rock star! If you’re heading to Addis Ababa, I highly recommend that you stay with them. Here’s where to find their listing: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/16832665?guests=1&adults=1
There are markets all over the city, but Yvan advised me to skip the main outdoor tourist market and instead head to the market in Shero Meda for your shopping. And you can find the most incredible stacks of fruit and veggies on roadside stands all over the city!
Here are some other tips I have from my days in Addis Ababa: (1) download ride sharing app RIDE, it’s Ethiopia’s ride sharing app, (2) this is a pure cash society, so make sure you have your ATM card with you, (3) internet and power can be spotty so charge your devices while you can, (4) free wifi is hard to find, most businesses or hotels will charge you a price per hour to use their wifi. I found a cafe and restaurant that has good, fast wifi and doesn’t charge a fee! Yes, I did buy a coffee and lunch, but the coffee and food were great, and I would have had a coffee or lunch anyway, so to get free wifi in exchange was a real treat! So if you find yourself in Addis Ababa and in need of free wifi, check out Maji Coffee/The Garden Court. And (5) In terms of appropriate dress, I kept my legs covered below my knees, but wearing short sleeve (or even sleeveless) shirts is totally fine.
During my days in Addis Ababa, I did lots of walking around the city, visited several museums, took in a jazz show, dinner with traditional songs and dancing, and ATE SO MUCH GOOD FOOD! Also, the rest of the world can thank Ethiopia for coffee, so don’t forget to drink lots while here. One of the most famous spots is Tomoco Kaffa Coffee House. The original location is near Piassa, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. Also in Piassa is St. Giorgis Church, one of the most significant in the city.
Here are a list of places I visited and that I recommend (and that you can definitely fit into just a couple of days in the city)…
Museums: Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum. Adisi Abeba Muziyemi. (A couple of friends also recommended the Ethnographic Museum at Addis Ababa University.) Photo below is from the Red Terror Museum. It reminded me of seeing the Killing Fields in Cambodia, so heartbreaking and in our recent history. Devastating. But for me, it’s so important to take the time and learn about such significant events in countries I’m visiting. Just be emotionally prepared. The Red Terror Museum is free, though they do request you leave a donation when you finish (you don’t have to, but supporting their efforts is definitely worthwhile).
Restaurants: Azmera Shiro. Tsige Shiro. Katenga.
Live Music: African Jazz Village (located in the Ghion Hotel). Yodi Abisiniya Yebahili Resitoraniti. Mama’s Kitchen. Advice: go for music only, can’t say I’d recommend food at any of these places.
While it was a quick trip, I quite enjoyed my stay in Ethiopia and look forward to going back to see more of the country! And with a little luck, spend more time with Yvan and Melanie!
Up next: my grand tour of Egypt!