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Addis Ababa, like the rest of Ethiopia, is a destination with many faces. It isn’t always pretty, but exploring the city and its surrounding landscape will take you from the material to the mystical, the chaotic to the tranquil, and back again. Many consider the Ethiopian capital to be the heart of all Africa, be it economically or culturally, politically or spiritually. For that reason it attracts pilgrims of all stripes, whether they seek religious piety, a return to their ancestral roots, or simply a phenomenal cup of coffee.
Addis Ababa is home to many great museums and its religious monuments, mostly serving the Ethiopian Orthodox faith, are among the Christian world’s most unique. St. George’s Cathedral has a relatively short but nonetheless fascinating history – the Emperor Haile Selassie was crowned here and the church still attracts Rastafarian pilgrims. Its strong but humble exterior possesses a power lacking in many of Europe’s more opulent churches, but step inside and it blooms with glorious colour. The murals, mosaics and stained-glass windows by the renowned Afewerk Tekle, are gems of Sub-Saharan religious art. Tekle’s work can also be seen at the more ornate Holy Trinity Cathedral – where Haile Selassie is buried.
The National Museum of Ethiopia has one of the country’s most prestigious collections – and includes the world-famous fossilised hominid, Lucy – although the quality of the curation is dwarfed by the outstanding Ethnological Museum, set in Haile Selassie’s former palace. It’s one of the African continent’s top museums, covering the length of Ethiopian history over two floors, and is the place to go for an in-depth understanding of the country’s social and cultural evolution.
People and Traditions
The people of Addis Ababa are generally good-humoured and hospitable. It’s worth booking a tour or two as you’re likely to meet some of the most entertaining guides and storytellers of your life in doing so. However, there is also a lot of poverty and visitors should keep a close eye on their belongings, particularly in busy tourist areas.
Ethiopia is home to over 80 different ethnic groups. There’s a large cultural overlap, though different communities bring their own flavour to the melting pot. Whether you prefer to eat vegan or gorge on raw meat, Ethiopian cuisine has something for everyone. Addis Ababa is home to some of the country’s best traditional restaurants, and Yod Abyssinia is a great option for both dinner and entertainment.
Addis Ababa’s high elevation means temperatures rarely reach extremes. Expect temperatures to range between 20-25ºC year-round, though some nights can be quite chilly. The city also receives a lot of rain. The long wet season lasts from June to September, however, you should pack for at least some degree of rainfall no matter what time of year it is.
Ethiopia is home to several national parks and wildlife reserves. The closest are the Abidjatta-Shalla National Park to the south and the Aledeghi Wildlife Reserve to the east, but it’s worth taking a longer trip to the Semien Mountains if you can. Part of the Ethiopian Highlands and home to the country’s highest peak, Ras Dejen, this picturesque national park offers breathtaking scenery and is home to rare species like the walia ibex, gelada monkeys, caracal wildcats and the highly endangered Ethiopian wolf.
One of Addis Ababa’s core attractions is its bustling market culture. The Merkato is Africa’s largest open market and certainly isn’t for everyone, but it’s worth seeing even if all the chaos puts you off staying long enough to get any actual shopping done. Keen and confident hagglers will find exceptional bargains on everything from spices and coffee pots to fabrics and jewellery.
Music fans will be interested in Ethiopia’s unique jazz scene, which emerged in the 60s but was oppressed for decades under Communist rule. Since the 90s it’s been making a spirited comeback, however, and Jazzamba is one of city’s best venues for it.