Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: The Complete Guide

Elevated view of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

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Addis Ababa

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Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s capital and largest city, Addis Ababa, sits at the foot of Mount Entoto in the geographic center of the country. Its international airport is one of the continent’s busiest air travel hubs, and for most tourists, Addis is simply a transit destination. However, there are many reasons to extend your layover. 

The headquarters for the African Union and the UN Economic Commission for Africa are both based in Addis, making it the de facto political capital of Africa. The resulting influx of international diplomats and expatriates, as well as representatives from each of Ethiopia’s own ethnic groups, inspires the city’s amazingly diverse culture. It is the single best place in the world to sample Ethiopian cuisine, has a famous jazz scene, and boasts several important museums and churches. Plan your visit to Addis with our go-to guide. 

Essential Info

Geography & History

Addis Ababa sits atop a plateau amidst rolling hills and mountains, and with an elevation of 7,725 feet, it is one of the world’s highest capital cities. It was founded in 1886 by Emperor Menelik II and named by his wife, Empress Taytu Betul, after the Amharic phrase meaning ‘New Flower.’ Initially, the city was little more than the emperor’s palace and the homes of his army and accompanying noblemen. It grew, however, and served as the capital of Italian East Africa from 1936 to 1941. 

Demographics

Today, the CIA World Factbook estimates that the city has a population of almost 4.6 million people. The largest ethnic group is the Amhara, with Amharic being the mother tongue of over 70 percent of Addis's residents. Ethiopian Orthodox is the primary religion and is practiced by two-thirds of the population. Addis is known for its high standard of living and is considered relatively safe. Violent crime is a rarity, although pickpocketing and petty theft occur as they do in any major city. 

Health Issues

Health-wise, the CDC recommends several vaccinations for travelers to Ethiopia. These include (amongst others) polio, hepatitis A, typhoid, and yellow fever. Although malaria is not a problem in Addis Ababa itself, prophylactics are recommended for anyone who intends to explore other areas of the country. 

Top Things to Do

National Museum of Ethiopia

Artifacts in the National Museum tell the story of Ethiopia from prehistoric times to the present day. Amongst its many treasures, you will find imperial thrones, the fossilized remains of long-extinct animals (including a saber-toothed cat), and traditional weapons from the country’s many different ethnic groups. By far, the most famous exhibits are the casts of the fossilized skeleton known as Lucy, an early hominid who lived in Ethiopia’s Afar region 3.2 million years ago. 

Addis Merkato

Addis Merkato is reputed to be the largest market in Africa. Both overwhelming and awe-inspiring, it’s a gold mine for savvy bargain hunters; and anyone who wants a genuine insight into the lives of Ethiopia’s everyman. Keep an eye out for pickpockets and immerse yourself in the glorious chaos of haggling vendors, aromatic spices, and goods that range from coffee and silver jewelry to traditional fabrics and handmade crafts. 

Holy Trinity Cathedral

With its elegant dome and columned façade, Holy Trinity Cathedral is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. Art lovers come to admire the fantastic religious murals and stained glass windows that grace the cathedral’s interior. In contrast, pilgrims come from far and wide to worship and to pay their respects at the tombs of Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife. The entry fee also includes admission to a small ecclesiastical museum. 

Mount Entoto

Those that want a different perspective of the city should hike (or take a local taxi) up nearby Mount Entoto. You’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of Addis spread out below, and lush scenery characterized by the eucalyptus trees imported from Australia by Menelik II. The mountain is also home to several famous monasteries and churches, as well as the palace where Menelik II lived while Addis was being built. 

Where to Stay

Addis's accommodation options range from international hotel chains to affordable local establishments. For luxury travelers, top picks include Capital Hotel and Spa; or Sheraton Addis Hotel. Both are five-star hotels with gourmet restaurants, a spa, and opulent rooms. Addis Regency Hotel is a popular mid-range choice, with a great location near the historic Piazza and a rooftop terrace. The hotel also has a restaurant and bar. At the budget end of the spectrum, there's Ag Palace Hotel and backpacker-friendly Mr. Martin's Cozy Place

Where to Eat

Addis is a foodie’s paradise, with a culinary scene that reflects the multicultural nature of its population. If you want to sample Ethiopian staples such as wot, tibs, and kitfo (all served on a spongy pancake known as injera), get ready to eat with your fingers at legendary establishments like Yod Abyssinia Traditional Food or Kategna Restaurant. Expatriates give their seal of approval to Sishu, the go-to place for proper American burgers. At the same time, Bait Al Mandi, Abucci Restaurant, and La Mandoline serve excellent Middle Eastern, Italian, and French fare, respectively. 

Weather & When to Go 

The city’s high elevation keeps it cool all year round, while its proximity to the equator means that temperatures vary very little from month to month. Addis sees an annual average low of 49 degrees F and an average high of 74 degrees F. The main difference between seasons is the amount of precipitation. There’s a short rainy season (from February to May) and a more extended, heavier rainy season (from June to mid-September). The driest time of the year is from November to January. 

Typically, the dry season is considered the best and most pleasant time to travel. You may also want to time your trip to align with one of Ethiopia’s many religious festivals. Timket and Meskel are both mainly celebrated in Addis Ababa. The first is the Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of Epiphany, held in January. The second is the celebration of the discovery of the True Cross, held in September. 

Getting There

The city’s main gateway is Addis Ababa Bole International Airport (ADD). It is the home of national carrier Ethiopian Airlines, which flies to over 120 domestic and international destinations and has one of the most extensive flight networks of any African airline. If you’re traveling from the United States, you can fly direct to Addis from Washington DC. There is also a cross-border train line connecting Addis Ababa and Djibouti City, which stops en route at Dire Dawa. 

Unless you have Kenyan or Djiboutian citizenship, you will need a visa to enter Ethiopia. Citizens of most countries are eligible to apply for an e-visa up to three days ahead of their intended date of arrival. E-visas are valid for single-entry tourism visits and can only be used for entry through Bole Airport. Most nationals can also pay for a visa upon arrival at Bole Airport. Entry requirements include at least six months of validity left on your passport, and proof of yellow fever vaccination if you are traveling from a yellow fever country. 

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Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: The Complete Guide