Fondly known as Tana, Madagascar’s capital is home to Ivato International Airport (TNR) and as such is the first port of call for most overseas visitors. Its central location makes it the ideal base for visiting the rest of the island’s attractions - but it’s also well worth exploring in its own right. Founded in the early 17th century, Antananarivo has a rich history and a burgeoning modern culture that includes world-class restaurants, art galleries and shopping opportunities.
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Tour the Rova Palace Complex
Perched atop one of the highest hills in the city, the Rova palace complex can be seen from all over Antananarivo. Known as Manjakamiadana, or a Fine Place to Rule, the complex was home to the rulers of the Kingdom of Imerina and the Kingdom of Madagascar from the 17th to the 19th century. Although it was gutted by fire in 1995, you can still explore the ruins of several different palaces, a gateway protected by a large carved eagle and the royal cemetery. The Rova is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
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Discover Madagascan History at the Musée Andafiavaratra
The Musée Andafiavaratra is housed on the ground floor of the pink-walled, turreted 19th-century palace once inhabited by Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony. Most of the collection comprises artifacts rescued from the 1995 Rova palace complex fire. A series of royal portraits, photos and gifts give visitors an insight into the lives of the Merina monarchs, while other highlights include ethnic paintings of tribal leaders and 19th-century photographs of Tana street scenes. Keep an eye out for the fossilized skeleton of a Majungasaurus, discovered near Majunga.
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Make the Pilgrimage to Ambohimanga
Located 15 miles northeast of the city itself, Ambohimanga is a hill and traditional fortified settlement that served as the spiritual seat of the Merina royal family from the 15th century onwards. The walled village includes wonderfully preserved royal residences and graves, and is considered a sacred site. Pilgrims come from all over the country to worship here, and in 2001, Ambohimanga was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its significance as a symbol of the cultural identity of the people of Madagascar.
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Catch a Show at the French Institute of Madagascar
Formerly known as the Albert Camus Cultural Center, the French Institute is the place to go for a cultural night out in Antananarivo. Its auditorium hosts dance recitals, plays, concerts and other live performances; while the cinema shows an eclectic variety of films ranging from documentaries to live opera screenings. In addition, don’t forget to check the Institute’s website regularly for updates about temporary art exhibitions being held in the gallery.Continue to 5 of 18 below.
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Visit the Musée de l’Art et de Archéologie
Head to Tana’s Isoraka neighborhood to visit the Musée de l’Art et de Archéologie, a fascinating attraction established in 1970 and curated by the University of Antananarivo. It houses the ethnographic and archaeological artifacts unearthed at the island’s many excavation sites. The collection totals some 7,000 objects that represent each of Madagascar’s regions and tribes, including grave decorations, talismans and ceremonial accessories. In its capacity as a center of learning and discussion, the museum also hosts regular guest speakers.
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Meet Madagascar's Iconic Primates at Lemurs' Park
At 5-hectare nature reserve Lemurs’ Park, you can observe nine species of lemur including the vulnerable lesser bamboo lemur and the endangered crowned sifaka. These charismatic primates are free-roaming, and can be seen at amazingly close quarters on a guided walking safari. Other highlights of the park include its stunning panoramic vistas and an open-air vivarium that’s home to chameleons, turtles, iguanas and more. Of the 70 species of plant found within the reserve, 40 are endemic to Madagascar. The park is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
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Get Close to Nature at Croc Farm
Situated near the airport, Croc Farm is another popular botanical park. The main attraction is the Nile crocodiles (to see them in action, time your visit to coincide with feeding time at 1:00 p.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays). The park is also home to approximately 80 other Malagasy animal and bird species, including lemurs, fossa and the world’s smallest chameleon, which reaches a maximum of 1.1 inches in length. Croc Farm is open every day from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Entry costs Ar15,000 per adult, while children under 8 go free.
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Go Birdwatching at Parc de Tsarasaotra
Parc de Tsarasaotra is a tiny natural refuge in the heart of the city’s industrial area and as such seems an inauspicious destination for keen birdwatchers. However, the park’s Lake Alarobia is a RAMSAR wetland and a key nesting site for 14 threatened endemic bird species. These include the vulnerable Madagascar little grebe; the endangered Meller’s duck and the endangered Malagasy pond heron. The park is privately managed, and tickets must be purchased in advance from tour operator Boogie Pilgrim’s offices at Tana Water Front.Continue to 9 of 18 below.
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Attend Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Also known as the Catholic Cathedral of Andohalo, this magnificent church is the seat of the Archdiocese of Antananarivo. Construction started in 1873 and was completed by 1890. Today, the cathedral offers a magnificent example of Gothic architecture and is a wonderful place to attend Sunday mass. With its twin towers and rosette-shaped window, the cathedral’s façade is often compared to that of Notre-Dame in Paris. Inside, the decor is less ornate than most Catholic places of worship, but the quality of the stained glass is astonishing.
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Soak Up the Atmosphere at Analakely Market
Tana’s main marketplace is not a tourist attraction, but a bustling, chaotic destination full of local vendors selling everything from traditional fabrics to household items and souvenirs. Discover stalls overflowing with mountains of colorful fresh produce, including exotic fruits, pungent seafood and local delicacies such as grilled lizard. If you can speak French or Malagasy, you’ll be able to wangle some exceptional discounts - but be aware of pickpockets at all times. Don’t take valuables with you, though, and you should be perfectly safe.
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Shop for Souvenirs at La Digue Market
La Digue Market is your one-stop souvenir shopping destination. Located just outside the city on the road to Ivato International Airport, it features hundreds of stalls selling artisanal arts and crafts from all over Madagascar. Whether you’re looking for wood carvings and embroidered fabrics, or spices and vanilla to take the taste of the islands back home, you’ll find it here. Haggling is expected, and final prices often differ wildly from those originally quoted. The market is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day. Make sure to bring cash.
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Embrace Contemporary Creativity at Is'Art Galerie
Discover Tana’s contemporary art scene at Is’Art Galerie, the capital’s only contemporary gallery. Founded in 1999 as a workshop and exhibition space, the gallery instructs local children in various creative disciplines and helps artists to promote their work. Here, you can see the finest Malagasy painting, photography, sculpture and design showcased alongside foreign masterpieces. The gallery, which is housed in an old dye shop, also hosts the annual Festival of Urban Arts which encourages collaboration between Malagasy and other African artists.Continue to 13 of 18 below.
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Browse Quality Crafts at Lisy Art Gallery
For a more commercial creative experience, make your way to Lisy Art Gallery, located a short taxi ride from the center of town. Here you’ll find an impressive collection of arts and crafts designed to appeal to the tourist market. From fine leather goods to raffia baskets and bottles of rhum arrangé, this is the place to shop for quality souvenirs. Prices are fixed and a little more expensive than at the local markets. Perks include being able to pay by card, not worrying about pickpockets and the gallery’s affiliated restaurant.
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Enjoy Retail Therapy at Tana Water Front
It may not be the most authentic shopping destination, but Tana Water Front mall is nevertheless a worthwhile attraction for anyone in need of a little retail therapy. It boasts 50 boutiques selling everything from gourmet food to quirky clothing and beauty products. Malagasy delicatessen Pili Pili Dock is a particular highlight. There’s a supermarket for stocking up on picnic or self-catering supplies, while the food court is one of the best in the city. Expect to find European and American outlets rubbing shoulders with tasty Asian and Mexican restaurants.
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Feast on French Fusion at Le Saka
A favorite with locals and visitors alike, Le Saka restaurant is located inside Hotel Sakamanga, the top-rated hotel in Antananarivo. It specializes in fine French cuisine served with a distinctly Malagasy twist, with dishes including lobster and oysters from Fort Dauphin and Antalaha vanilla chicken. Complement your meal with a selection of global wines and rums. With its wood-paneled floors and tasteful collection of black-and-white framed photographs, the decor is as stylish as the menu. Le Saka has capacity for 80 guests, and booking is highly recommended.
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Dine in Colonial Style at Ville Vanille
Housed in an old colonial villa in the Antanimena neighborhood, Ville Vanille is an architectural jewel complete with red brick walls and a steeply sloped green tile roof. It’s also one of the city’s best Malagasy restaurants, serving dishes heavily inspired by the island’s famous vanilla crop. In the evenings, bands hailing from Africa’s many Indian Ocean islands entertain while you sample specialties such as vanilla soufflé and vanilla duck. The interior decor evokes the British colonies with long drapes, crisp white tablecloths and delicate wooden furniture.Continue to 17 of 18 below.
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Book a Day Trip to Andasibe-Mantadia National Park
If you have time, consider taking a day to visit the spectacular Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. Located a 3.5-hour drive from the city, it’s a wonderland of dense primary forest, plunging waterfalls and jungle trails. The park’s most famous resident is the critically endangered indri (the largest of all living lemur species). In addition to 13 other lemur species, Andasibe-Mantadia provides a refuge for all kinds of endemic mammals, reptiles and birds. Between September and January, keep an eye out for flowering orchids.
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Go on an Overnight Adventure to Ampefy
When you need a break from city life, book a two-day tour to the highland village of Ampefy. Located a 2.5-hour drive from Tana, the village sits on the shores of Lake Kavitaha and is characterized by the breathtaking beauty of the surrounding scenery. Volcanic peaks, lakes and waterfalls vie for space, with the region’s most famous waterfalls including The Geyser and the Falls of the Lily. Ampefy is the ideal base for hikers, who can explore independently or on a guided tour. The village has several rustic lodges and restaurants.