Addis Ababa started on a wrong foot with me. My arrival coincided with the inauguration of a brand new terminal/arrival hall at the Bole International Airport and there was massive chaos. Incidentally, a lot of planes landed at that time and I guess, the staff was unprepared for the influx of passengers and the new infrastructure. The result was people getting lost, making multiple queues at the immigration, and claustrophobic nightmarish few moments where scuffles broke out between the Addis travelers and those who had onward flights. However, today, if I have to remember the key memory of that experience, then it would of the hand that pulled me out from amidst the crowd before I was about to faint. I am not a tall person and I got totally swallowed by tall, European travelers who flocked around me thick as flies. I couldn’t see ahead of me, had no clue which way to go, and being claustrophobic was gasping for breath.

A fruit seller of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia

A fruit seller of Addis Ababa

My first contact with Addis Ababa

Someone from Addis Ababa took me out of the misery, helped me through immigration, got my bags while he gave me some water to drink, and even hailed a taxi for me to go to my guesthouse. He was an old gentleman, who was an airport security officer, and his kindness was incredible. That was my first disorienting experience of Addis Ababa and little did I know, that the rest of the city stay would go the same way. My taxi driver was a nice guy, who charged me the regular (and not the faranji) fare, but the guesthouse owner turned out to be a crook. Not only had he given false information on the booking platform, but for the next two days ended up guiding me to the most expensive hotels and overcharging me for a battered blue taxi. However, it was with him, that I attended my first Ethiopian cultural dance and dinner show and ate shekla tibs (Ethiopian charcoal barbeque). By the time, I figured out the rip-offs, I had gathered enough confidence to venture out into the city by myself.

a street cafe in addis ababa

A street cafe conversation

Addis Ababa is a people’s city; take it all in

That was the most freeing moment I had in Addis Ababa. Until then, I was on the brink of packing my bags and leaving. It was my sheer distrust in the guesthouse owner and his cronies that killed the travel spirit and it was the kindness shown to me by other people in the neighbourhood that left me hanging in there. The people in the neighbourhood which was not Bole, unlike what was mentioned in the platform, were lower middle-class hard working folks. There were mechanics, drivers, hotel employees, and some office workers. They worked hard all day, were of a religious mindset, fasted on certain weekdays, and welcomed my curiousity with patience and kindness. I would often get invited for beer and shekla tibs at the neighbourhood cafe in the evenings where they would supply me with travel tips, for example on how to use the mini-vans. Those were priceless moments and the tips helped me throughout my trip. Thus armed with those tips, sharpened by rip-offs, and boosted by local people’s kindness, I started to explore Addis Ababa. It turned out to be a great experience because, during my wanderings in the city, during which I would walk miles and ride mini-vans, I met with some of the kindest, friendliest people on earth.

Addis Ababa street photography

Addis Ababa street photography

Learning to smell flowers and calculating time

Addis Ababa was blooming with flowers at the time of my visit. Jacarandas cast lovely lilac shadows, forest flame flowers were red and big, and numerous other blooms made the city very pink. The first thing that struck me during my walks was altitude sickness and I had actually forgotten how highly elevated Ethiopia’s capital city was. Set at 2355m, Addis Ababa made me slow down, take it easy, and taught me to pace myself at the Ethiopian time which is incidentally, seven behind years behind our Gregorian calendar. I learned to count the exchange rates of Birr in my head, understand the mini-van routes, and after a few failed appointments, schedule meetings in two different calendars. It so happens that Ethiopia works on a 13-month calendar, with 12 30-day months and a 13th intercalary month of five or six days. It also follows a 12-hour clock in which time is determined roughly by sunrise and sunset. So what would usually be 7 a.m. in IST is simply called “1 o’clock” in Ethiopian time and until I learned to ask “in which time”, I have missed quite a few appointments.

A street of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia with its blue cars and shoe shiners.

A street of Addis Ababa with its blue cars and shoe shiners.

My local highlights of Addis Ababa

In Addis Ababa, I saw the usual sights: the National Museum of Ethiopia where I met Lucy, the Australopithecine hominid and one of our oldest ancestors, the Holy Trinity Cathedral where the former emperor Haile Selassie is buried with his wife, enjoyed coffee at TOMOCA, and visited the absolutely maddening Mercato, Africa’s largest open-air market. These were fun, eye-opening, and extremely photogenic even though Addis Ababa is considered to be a city of no discernible beauty. However, my most memorable moments in Addis Ababa were spent talking with my neighbours, drinking beer, and digging into shekla tibs. My day trip to Entoto Hill was another fantastic experience. It was a part of the cooking class tour that I bought from Pick Your Day and included cooking injera with an old lady in Entoto Hill and visiting the Mercato. Known as the lungs of Addis Ababa, Entoto Hill is a popular outing spot for the local families of the city. The green hill provides bird’s eye views of Addis and the shady eucalyptus forests scent the air fresh. The hill has the Entoto Mariam Church and Saint Mary, Emperor Menelik and Empress Taitu Memorial Museum within its compound. I went there with my guide to cook injera, drink some excellent tej (local honey wine), and buy a goat for slaughter for a newfound local friend’s family. It was December Solstice holiday and Entoto Hill rang with shepherd bells as they herded their flocks to the city for the sacrificial feast.

Learning to cook injera in Addis Ababa

Learning to cook injera in Addis Ababa

A perfect introduction to Ethiopia

Since its establishment in the 19th century, Addis Ababa has spelled magic for the multitude of Ethiopian rural masses. It was like a portal to a magical place where jobs are plenty and the city streets are paved in gold. For the daring foreign travelers of the olden days, Addis Ababa was a city that was the capital of an ancient, mystical world that is Abyssinia. In today’s realistic world, this seemingly ungainly sprawling capital city is a diplomatic hub with traffic-choked streets and a diverse skyline. Most transit as quickly as possible, but that would mean missing out the best introduction to the complexity called Ethiopia in the comfort of modern facilities: an agreeable climate, plentiful hotels, cafes, and restaurants, a smooth public transport system, and vibrant urban life.

View of the city from Entoto Hill

Addis Ababa Travel Guide

Addis Ababa is absolutely safe to visit. Just be aware of pick-pockets.

Best Time to Visit It is a year-long destination although February and May tend to get pretty hot.

The easy public transportation system

For an eco-friendly way of navigating this city, consider taking Addis Ababa’s light rail train system. Built by a Chinese firm, it was the first one to open in Africa, and ever since its completion in 2015, has revolutionized public transport in the city. There are two lines – the North/South and East/West lines – and the train only costs $0.15 USD (4 Birr) one way.

Things to Do 

  • The Ethiopian National Museum that houses Lucy
  • The Red Terror Museum – many of the museum staff are survivors of this humanitarian crisis
  • Mercato – the largest open-air museum in Africa
  • Entoto Hill
  • Yod Abyssinia – for traditional food and Eskista dance show

Day Trips from Addis Ababa

  • Wenchi Crater
  • Debre Libanos Monastery and Entoto Mountain
  • Menagesha Forest and Addis Alem
  • Ethiopian Rift Valley Lakes and the UNESCO Site of Steles of Tiya (bird watching is possible here)

Accommodation Tip

Try staying in the Bole area of Addis Ababa. It has the expat community, lots of cafes, restaurants, bars, banks, etc. The airport is closeby and nearly everybody in Addis Ababa knows where it is. The accommodations here are more foreign tourist-oriented, and there are plenty of guesthouses where you can team up with other travelers to save money on expensive destinations like the Omo Valley, Simien Mountains, or the Danakil Depression.

A scene from Entoto Hill

A traditional Ethiopian platter

Inside TOMOCA in Addis Ababa

Inside TOMOCA in Addis Ababa

One of the Ethiopian royalties

Ethiopian crown jewel as seen at the National Museum

Enjoying Tej (honey wine) in Addis Ababa during my Ethiopia trip

Enjoying Tej (honey wine) in Addis Ababa

Addis Ababa street art

Addis Ababa street art

At a cultural show in Addis

Jacaranda blooming all over Addis Ababa

Jacaranda blooming all over Addis Ababa

The crazy busy Mercato

Spices for sale at the Addis Ababa Mercato

Lucy skeleton at the National Museum in Addis Ababa

Lucy skeleton at the National Museum in Addis Ababa

TOMOCA coffee shop is nothing short of being an icon

Ethiopian traditional show in Addis Ababa

Ethiopian traditional show

A street market in Addis Ababa

A street market in Addis Ababa

A donkey carrying firewood in Entoto Hill

Addis Ababa street photography

A gorgeous TOMOCA coffee

Welcome to Addis Ababa

Follow the rest of the Africa series here