The capital city of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa was founded in 1886 by Emperor Menelik II. Exactly half a century later, Italian forces invaded the city and designated it the de facto capital of Italian East Africa. It did not remain so for long; after just five years the Italian army was ousted by British forces and peace reigned once more.
This period of occupation was so brief that Addis Ababa – and Ethiopia as a whole – remains distinctly African. Italy’s Mussolini attempted to Europeanise the city both geographically and socially, but with just five years to do so, failed. The only lasting legacy of this period of rule is in the paved road network, hydro-electric dam at Gafarsa, and a handful of ‘Italian’ neighbourhoods which now home wealthy Ethiopians.
Today, Ethiopia is one of the few African countries that has remained largely uncolonised, and accordingly the intriguingly indigenous and unadulterated city of Addis Ababa retains a historical and diplomatic significance for the continent. Finally stable after a lengthy civil war, economic hardship and famine, its blossoming status as the “political capital of Africa" fits nicely with Addis Ababa’s Amharic translation: “new flower”.
Take a walking tour of the city, starting at Meskel (Revolution) Square, one of Addis Ababa’s most famous locations. Head in the direction of Sidist Kilo (12 Martyrs Square) where a white obelisk pays tribute to the 39,000 city dwellers killed during the Italian occupation. On the way you’ll pass Africa Hall, where the African Union was founded; the National Palace, residence of the President; the Imperial Palace and Parliament building – seat of the government; and the Holy Trinity Cathedral, built to commemorate the country’s liberation from the Italians and the place where Emperor Haile Selassie was re-interred in 2000.
Finally, don’t miss the Ethiopian National Museum. Ethiopia is believed to be the origin of mankind due to a number of hominid fossil discoveries; the most important of these is ‘Lucy’, a 3.5 million year old fossilised skeleton known in Ethiopia as Dinkinesh. The discovery has completed the missing link between apes and men – shedding light on man’s origins. Lucy is preserved at the museum while an exact replica is on display.
One of Addis Ababa’s best-known sites is the Merkato. The largest open-air market in Africa, Merkato employs an estimated 13,000 people who sell locally-grown agricultural products such as coffee, melons, tomatoes and spices. With a range of indigenous arts and crafts, the bustling market displays everything from clothes and textiles to intricate woodwork and metalwork.
Most of Addis Ababa’s larger hotels offer a range of international fare and the city has a number of Chinese, Italian and Indian restaurants. For a truly authentic Addis experience, visit one of the city’s traditional restaurants where meals are served in a grand fashion around a brightly-coloured woven table called a masob. Specialities include we't (meat or vegetables cooked in a hot pepper sauce) served on injera (a flat, spongy bread); shivro and misir (chickpeas and lentils); tibs (crispy fried steak); and kitfo (raw ground beef marinated in hot chilli powder). Please note: cutlery is rarely offered except in international hotels.
Nightlife in Addis is lively, and particularly so on the weekends. Much of it is concentrated along Bole Road (also known as Africa Road) and includes clubs, bars and traditional dancing (Habasha) shows. There are many nightlife options throughout the city, but ask for advice before you go because many bars have a justifiably seedy reputation.
Five hundred kilometres from Addis Ababa is the walled city of Harar. A UNESCO World Heritage site, with 82 mosques, three of which date from the 10th century, and 102 shrines, Harar is considered the fourth holy city of Islam. The city stands on the eastern wall of the Great Rift Valley and enjoys 360 degree views of the surrounding deserts, mountains and plains.
Harar is known for its exquisite silver and handcrafted baskets, and there are two colourful markets where you can buy both. Don’t leave without marvelling at the Hyena Men of Harar; local men who collect offal and bones to hand-feed to the wild hyenas outside the Fallana Gate of the old city walls.