Updated in 2018: My Favorite 27 Things to do in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
My Favorite 27 Things to do Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - Understand
Addis Abeba (or Addis Ababa) is the capital of Ethiopia and located at 7,546 feet of elevation. It is a good idea to bring Diamox for the first week until you are adjusted to the elevation.
Despite being north of the equator, Ethiopia's 'winter' is from April to October, with rainy days and temperatures in the 60s. 'Summer' is usually blue skies, minimal humidity and days in the upper 70s.
Ethiopia is one of two countries in Africa that was never colonized and indeed feels very different than anywhere else. Ethiopians speak their own language (Amharic), have their own calendar, their own way to tell the daily time (no joke!) and their own worldviews on pretty much everything. Traveling to Ethiopia is a bit like traveling to China before the big boom; the economic boom seems just around the corner and I have no doubt that Ethiopia will be one of the richest countries in Africa within 20 years (it is now one of the poorest).
Ethiopia is famous for its 'cultural tourism' and Addis does not disappoint. The city is about to experience a major hotel boom and has big plans for the immediate future with major freeway and light rail projects just completed. There is so much (unfinished) construction around that it feels like a Beijing suburb. Also, a completely new terminal for its national carrier (which is now Africa's biggest airline) is currently being built.
The airport is a major economic center and forms the richest part of the city; the further west you go, the more developed the city becomes.
Ethiopia is a multi-regional country and Christian Orthodox, Islam and Judaism have all co-existed here rather peacefully for centuries.
Addis isn't an easy city to explore but the charm and friendliness of Ethiopian people make for an interesting adventure.
My Favorite 27 Things to do Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - Pollution
Addis features plenty of old cars with huge diesel exhaust plumes when accelerating. However, traffic is on a much lower level than in many other cities. Cars are still a luxury for most and there are NO motorbikes or motorcycles. There is generally a fresh breeze and traffic dies down at night, so mornings feature crisp and fresh air, especially if you get off the main roads.
There are generally low levels of hygiene and cleanliness in Ethiopia. Do not drink the tap water and get all the required shots.
My Favorite 27 Things to do Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - Get Around
Locals are not fans of Google Maps, Foursquare or GPS and many places are just missing. It's important to know your neighborhood to get to and from.
Most of the tourist-friendly districts in Addis are full of mafiosi taxi drivers in their blue Ladas from the 1970s. Prices are $5-$10 per mile - yes, you read that right; the mafia gambles on one ride per day instead of actually driving around. That might be the right choice though, given the state of their vehicles that usually look like they will fall apart at any moment. Ignore the taxi mafia - do not use them!
The local minibus 'taxis' ply their trade on most major roads and they getyou wherever you want. It's a safe alternative and costs just ETB 3-10 for drives under one hour. Most run between 7AM and 10PM and the attendants usually speak some basic English. It is very crowded but seats are usually guaranteed. Use Google Maps so you know where to get off.
Another alternative is using a 'metered taxi' that you need to call from an app (search for 'Ride Addis Ababa' in the Google Play Store or App Store) or by dialing 8294 from a local cell. These 'metered taxis' are usually new cars and safe to use. The issue though is the gamble of whether they will show up, as many times they did not for me.
There is no Uber in town and given the tight regulations in Ethiopia, it may not appear anytime soon.
My Favorite 27 Things to do Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - Safety
The flip side of the tight control on people's lives in Ethiopia is the relative safety there. In neighborhoods like Bole, it is safe to walk around during the day and even at night if you know your way around and choose routes wisely. In general, violence and muggings are very rare (though there have been recent instances of violence).
There are large numbers of hustlers around most streets and you will constantly get unwanted attention from beggars (including children) and small-time scammers.
That's the good news; the bad news is that Ethiopians have mastered the art of parting you from your money through an endless set of scams. None of those are likely to blow your budget but the whole procedure is just overwhelming.
My Favorite 27 Things to do Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - Scam Alert / Harassment
Ethiopians are somewhat friendly people but also xenophobic. Generally, all over the country, 'donations' are expected just for being 'friendly' and Bahir Dar is likely the worst place for this.
Ethiopians are somewhat sociable but NOT with foreigners, so if you hear anyone approaching you speaking English, it is likely a scam. While we thought the title of 'con men capital' of the world would be Lagos, Marrakech or Cairo, I feel it has, in fact, been conquered by Ethiopia.
There is very little common courtesy or respect in Ethiopia and this is especially an issue in many restaurants and shops. Of course, there are plenty of differences between people but after many stares and after days of street harassment here, you are likely to agree.
If the 'con men' aren't enough, there are also plenty of aggressive beggars and child beggars pulling at your clothing and at times it will feel like the whole city is following you.
Bear in mind that I do A LOT to avoid all that (this isn't my first rodeo here) by walking fast, knowing my directions, having no valuables out and not stopping.
My Favorite 27 Things to do Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - Connectivity
Several large, major Internet cables go through or pass near Ethiopia. That's the good news though; the Ethiopian government has made tinkering with the Internet a priority and deliberately slows down services and shuts off the Internet at will - sometimes for weeks. Outside of that, Internet speeds range from slow to pretty fast.
There is no T-Mobile Simple Choice free roaming in Ethiopia and Skyroamdoes not feature coverage either. Getting a SIM card is cheap and easy but to use one you now need to register your device as well. Any Ethio Telecom office can do it but expect about an hour's wait. I used the Ethio Telecom office near Bole Road but other branches might be quieter.
The fastest Internet is usually at the To.Mo.Ca coffee shop in the lobby area of the Radisson Blu Hotel.
You can either get a one-hour voucher or use the Boingo roaming service.
My Favorite 27 Things to do Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - Sights
Bole Area Walk
You should stay in Bole and even if you don't, take a walk by Edna Mall and the surrounding streets.
Medhane Alem Cathedral
This pretty cathedral is right next to Edna Mall and Bole Road. It's an easy stroll that'll take about 30 minutes. It's usually quiet and off the main roads (so no pollution).
While technically this is the city center, there isn't much to see here. There's a bus station and a light rail station that is still under construction. It's a landmark in case you get lost, though, as everyone knows the way back to Meskel Square.
Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum
The Red Terror Museum details the terrible events of 1977 and 1978 under the military ruler Mengistu Haile Mariam. It's right at Meskel Square and worth a quick stop.
The Addis Mercato is a manic open-door marketplace. However, it is less fun than a Bangkok-style 'wet market', with way too many scammers and people who will not leave you alone.
Yes, it is possible to go there and come back with all your belongings but even locals avoid it. The crowds are menacing; while it is fun, I would not recommend going (anymore).
National Museum of Ethiopia
This small museum can be visited for just 50 cents (US). It has a number of exhibits from the first hominids and all about Ethiopian culture. It's not in the best shape, though, and you can explore most of it in 20 minutes or less.
The Sheraton Hotel is in a palace-like compound, very close to the city center. When you are there, it's hard to believe the chaos of Addis Ababa is even anywhere close.
The pool area is magnificent and is a great contrast to the rest of the city.
Boston Day Spa
Boston Day Spa offers high quality modern and traditional treatments for pricesthat are so low it is hard to believe.
My Favorite 27 Things to do Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - Coffee
The word 'coffee' is derived from the Amharic word 'kaffa' and the brown beans are treated here as quasi-religious. There are two principal variants of making coffee - either in the traditional way, where the beans are roasted over a fire and then ground and used for piping hot coffee, or with an espresso maker (as introduced by the Italians).
You can get coffee at almost any roadside stall and almost all restaurants in Addis. Pretty much anywhere, the quality blows all but a few third generation US coffee shops out of the water.
Espresso drinks usually come as a macchiato for 15 ETB and roadside coffee is under 10 ETB. That is less than 50 US cents! Ethiopian coffee is often acidic and strong (but not as bitter). It is taken with foamed milk (as a macchiato) or just with a lot of sugar.
Tryst is run by an Ethiopian-American entrepreneur who wanted to bring a bit of third generation coffee culture to Addis. The outcome is a local neighborhood favorite with a great vibe and it's likely the only place in town that features my favorite cortados.
Aster Bunna Coffee Shop
Aster Bunna is in a small back alley and you need to follow a few signs to get there. It's worth it, as you feel like you're in someone's summer house with a beautiful patio. A delightful coffee here costs just ETB 15.
To.Mo.Ca Coffee (multiple locations)
To.Mo.Ca enjoys a reputation for making the best coffee. Prices are low at around 15 ETB and the chain has mushroomed from one original outlet in the Piazza neighborhood (which isn't my favorite) to many locations now.
It almost seems every week there is a new fancy To.Mo.Ca coffee shop. I find it almost impossible to not stop by and get a cup - it is that delicious!
Sadly, pastries are not anyone's forte in Ethiopia, so bring your own breakfast.
Kaldi's (multiple locations)
Kaldi's makes solid espresso drinks that are a little less strong and easier to digest. There are many locations in almost all major buildings.
Garden Of Coffee
Newly-opened Garden Of Coffee doesn't actually feature a garden and resembles a Viennese coffee house. It's airy yet cozy and they make great coffee. It's a bit of a walk from most places, though.
My Favorite 27 Things to do Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - Eat & Drink
Ethiopian food is world-famous and comes with its own terminology that needs to be learned. You better like it, since other ethnic options are a rare occurrence in Ethiopia. It is either Ethiopian or 'western'.
Hidden next to a drink store (for Ethiopian wine from the Rift Valley no less) is this excellent place for Ethiopian fasting food. I got a huge plate of delicious fasting food 'curries' (beyaynetu) for just ETB 75.
There's no website or Foursquare listing but you can find Hiwet Shiro opposite Tryst.
Beer is being made here right in front of your eyes - or at least it feels like it! I tried a number of the local brews - stoutand lager - and found them to be yummy and they cost just ETB 25 for 0.4 liters!
There's no website or Foursquare listing but you can find it opposite the Turkish Airlines Sales Office.
Kategna (multiple locations)
Kategna has built a reputation for fast, delicious Ethiopian cuisine. The newer outlets (like in Bole) are best, as they get the most traffic and the food is the freshest. I liked the vegetarian dishes (the appetizer samplers) or the tomato salad the most.
Meat (including raw and intentionally undercooked meat) is a specialty that requires a healthy appetite and a stomach made of steel. Maybe wait until week two for this...
Lucy Lounge & Restaurant
Lucy offers traditional cuisine in a more upscale setting and features a beautiful garden. I found the curries to have just the right flavor and spiciness, which mixed extremely well with the sour Ethiopian bread. It's a bit more expensive to eat here, but they serve a fantastic Ethiopian macchiato and it's located right next to the National Museum of Ethiopia.
Yeshi Buna (multiple locations)
Yeshi Bunahas several locations and I visited the one about a mile from Bole Road.They serve traditional Ethiopian food in a simple, yet clean, environment.I ordered the beyaynetu, a vegetarian appetizer plate, which combines all the spicy, vegetarian options that the restaurant has to offer. The curries here tasted better than anywhere else during my time in Ethiopia and were so good that I ate here twice in one day!
Addis has a big number of great bakeries like Munch German Bakery, La Parisienne and a number of non-chain outlets.
Each usually offers a good number of delicacies for your morning sugar rush.
Beer Garden Inn
The aptly named Beer Garden Inn serves big glasses of delicious, German-inspired beer for just $1. It also serves fresh grilled chicken and schnitzel in a cozy outdoor area. It's a great place for an after-work drink.
MyFavorite 27 Things to do Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - Co-Working
Addis isn't as advanced as Nairobi and the Internet population is small in this nation of 90 million people strong.
Innovation hub and tech startup iceaddis has co-working locations in Bole and Kazanchis that offer cheap day passes and flexible week passes. The staff are friendly and the workspace is inviting. However, at the time of writing, fast Internet is scarce.
My Favorite 27 Things to do Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - Where to Stay
I have stayed at the Radisson Blu, which is great, yet pricey, and in a not so ideal location.
The HiltonAddis Ababa is close by and has a beautiful outdoors but is much older.
As mentioned above, the Sheraton Addisis a fortress and it resembles a medieval place. It has a beautiful pool but is too removed from the better areas of Addis.
The Friendship International Hotel has a great location and great beds but aging hardwareand service issues.
Harmony Hotel and Impress Hotel are also solid choices.
A huge number of branded hotel rooms will come online soon; it's gonna be interesting to see how they do.