Ethiopia is an incredible country that is often an African favourite for many travellers. The country has so much to offer from volcanic lava lakes to the tribes of the Omo valley and many UNESCO Heritage sites which means the capital of Addis Ababa is often overlooked. The city is rich in history and culture and deserves to get a few days of your itinerary before you head onto your next destination. This itinerary will fill your stopover with the best things to do in Addis Ababa (አዲስ አበባ ‘New Flower’ in Amharic).
Did you know Ethiopia uses it’s own time format different from the Universal Time Coordinated (UTC)?
Addis Ababa Highlights
- Learn about the horrors of the Derg regime at the Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum
- Drink, dance and learn about Ethiopian culture at Fendika
- Visit a sacred site of the Rastafarian religion
- Addis Ababa Nightlife
- Experience the chaotic Merkato, Africa’s largest
- Coffee, churches and culture in Piazza
- Love history? Go see your (likely) relative Lucy at the National Museum
After completing an overland trip from South Africa to Kenya I had a 3 day stopover in Addis Ababa on my way back to Australia. You can always fit so much into 3 days so I was excited to see the best of the Ethiopian capital. There’s heaps of art, history and nightlife in Addis and I was lucky enough to see a World Cup qualifying match against Ghana.
Best Areas to Stay in Addis Ababa
The best areas to stay in Addis Ababa are Piazza and Bole. Both are safe neighborhoods close to lots of bars, restaurants and tourist attractions. I think Piazza is a better place to stay because it’s closer to most things you’ll want to see in Addis but I stayed in an AirBnB in Bole which was great and I found it easy enough to get around. Bole is better located for experiencing the nightlife in Addis (which is why I stayed there) and there’s less tourists in Bole but there really isn’t many in Piazza anyway.
So, what Time is it in Ethiopia?
One thing that definitely sticks in my mind about Addis Ababa is the time they use there. It’s the first time I’d ever heard of a country not using the standard time zone (UTC/GMT). I found out the
hard way interesting way which confused the s#!t out of me but made me laugh about it later.
I was walking around the city one afternoon and saw a lot of people gathering around a stadium. After asking what was going on someone told me that there was a soccer game on between Ethiopia and Ghana. It was a qualification game for the World Cup so I was immediately keen to get a ticket. I asked where I can buy a ticket and what time the game was on. They said “10pm”, I thought, “that’s a bit late”, and wondered why everyone is here now if the game doesn’t start for another 7 hours.
I was pointed to a ticket booth so I got in line to buy a ticket, but before I reached the front it was announced that there were no more tickets available. I went to the front anyway and asked about getting a ticket, the lady told me I could buy a VIP ticket but it would be much more expensive. She told me where the VIP ticket sales desk was and before I left I asked what time the game was on, “10pm” she replied.
So, still confused I walked around to the VIP area and bought a ticket (for US$12), sure enough on my VIP ticket it said 2000. The stadium was packed so there was no way I was leaving and coming back at 10pm. I walked into the stadium and went to my seat where there was a bottle of water waiting for me.
The game kicked off at 4pm and the atmosphere was fantastic and most of the stadium (other than the VIP area) was jumping, signing and waving flags the entire game. The crowd seemed just as excited to see the stars from Ghana than their own Ethiopian players. I started chatting to the guy sitting next to me who told me he once managed the the national team, I was shocked but I guess that’s who you meet in the VIP area.
So I took the opportunity to ask the ex manager what is going on with the time and why everyone told me the game started at 10 instead of 4. He laughed and told me that Ethiopia uses its own time and not the standard UTC. I was shocked. He then explained that Ethiopia has AM and PM; PM runs from 6am to 6pm and AM from 6pm to 6am. This is because the sun comes up and goes down at the same time everyday so its easier to just have 12 hour day and 12 hour night. So their 10pm is 10 hours after 6am which is actually 4pm. Simple…kind of.
Getting from the Airport
If you’re arriving on an Ethiopian Airlines flight they provide a free shuttle service into the city. Otherwise taxi’s are easy to find and cheap, a taxi from the airport to Bole will cost you $US4 or an extra $US3 if you’re heading to Piazza. If you’re on a tight budget and want to save some Birr then you can get a bus which will cost you less than US$1 .
How to get around
Minibus – The blue and white minibuses are the best option for getting around Addis. They’re generally reliable, cheap and run from morning until around 9pm. Drivers stop regularly at major crossroads and yell out which way they’re going.
Train – I only took the train once in Addis and it was way too packed so I avoided it from then on. The trains were clean and on time but very overcrowded. I suggest sticking to the minibuses for longer distances or taxi’s if you’ve got the budget.
Taxi – The easiest way to get around Addis is by taxi (like most cities) but it’ll cost you considerably more than using the minibuses or other public transport. Most taxi rides will be less than US$5. If you plan to visit a few sites in a day then you can negotiate a day rate with a taxi driver.
Red Terror Martyrs Museum
The museum was an eye-opening experience for me as I wasn’t aware at all of the civil war and terror inflicted on Ethiopia by Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Derg.
The Red Terror Martyrs’ museum showcases the brutality inflicted during the two-decade rule of the Derg regime in Ethiopia. Up to 750,000 people are believed to have been killed between 1975 – 1987 due to random arrests, torture, abduction and murder which became normal under his oppressive leadership. The ‘Red Terror’ purges from 1977-78 remain one of history’s darkest moments with countless victims never able to be identified or given justice for their suffering. Inside the museum you’ll see walls covered in photos of victims, bloody clothes, bones and skulls that were found all across the country.
I accepted an offer for an English speaking guide and he spoke of the period of terror and at the end of the tour gave his personal account. Most of his close family members had been killed and he is aware of those responsible. Once the regime was over many of the lower ranked officials were not punished and have since been part of everyday life in Addis, meaning victims families often see those responsible for their deaths. Many Ethiopians have similar accounts.
Grab a Coffee
After visiting the Red Matyr Terror Museum you might want to take a break to reflect on what you just saw or perhaps compare it to modern day life in Addis. Ethiopia is considered the birthplace of coffee, and you’ll find street side ‘bunna’ stands on almost every corner seeling cheap cups of freshly brewed coffee. Usually you’ll find a woman roasting the coffee beans before serving them in small cups with sugar and a bit of rue herb.
Merkato is an open-air market which is the largest in Africa and also one of the oldest. It is a vast labyrinth with narrow alleyways, shops and street stalls selling everything from fresh fruit and vegetables, clothes, electronics and souvenirs. The atmosphere is vibrant and chaotic, but the locals were incredibly friendly and helpful. The market was originally close to St George Church in Piazza but during Italian occupation in the 1930’s the market was moved to where it is today. The Italians renamed the original site to Piazza and restricted access to Europeans only.
Piazza gets its name from when the Italians occupied Ethiopia during the 1930’s and is now a vibrant lively neighbourhood which feels like the centre of Addis. You can find bars, clubs, restaurants serving traditional Ethiopian cuisine or foreign meals around the busy square and is a great place to visit both during the day or at night. A lot of the main sights in Addis are close to Piazza making it a great place to stay while you’re in town. It’s also a great place to meet locals as there’s heaps of people just sitting around seemingly doing nothing.
Located in the north of Addis Ababa, Mount Entoto has great views over the city as well as monasteries, churches, an observatory and a restaurant. The area was once the capital of Emperor Menelik II’s kingdom is where he and his wife lived after founding the city of Addis in 1886. You can go on a guided tour or make your own way up there. I love to walk so walked from Piazza up to the top and around the 7km loop track at the top of the hills.
National Museum of Ethiopia – See Lucy
At the National Museum you can see Lucy, one of humanity’s oldest, most significant ancestors. Discovered in Ethiopia by archaeologists, Lucy is a 3.2 million year old hominid who walked upright and shared striking physical similarities to chimpanzees due to their 96% DNA similarity. The bones on display are a replica of her remains but you get the idea.
Thankfully my second night in Addis was Saturday so was perfect to go enjoy the nightlife. I recommend going to Fendika Cultural which has something on every night but the busiest events on from Thursday through Saturday. At Fendika you’ll see traditional dance and song in a fun and interactive environment.
From there you should go to Bole where you’ll have the most options for bars and clubs. I ended up at A/V Club which is a typical nightclub with electronic music, laser lights etc. the club is open all night and felt like a higher class type of place due to the drink prices and people I met there. I didn’t take my phone out with me but I felt safe anyway and didn’t have any issues
walking stumbling back to the AirBnB in the morning.
St George Cathedral
Interestingly Rastafarians consider St George’s Cathedral a sacred pilgrimage site due to its connection with Empress Zewditu and King Solomon’s descendant Emperor Haile Selassie I who was crowned there in 1930. Rastafarians, whose most famous member is Bob Marley, believe that Emperor Haile Selassie I was their returned Messiah. The church is one of the most famous and visited churches in Addis Ababa and has the remains of Emperor Menelik II and Empress Taitu, which are on display near the altar.
Take a Detour to Tewodros Square
In the 1850’s, Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia invited Christian missionaries to Addis Ababa, not for religious purposes but he wanted to use them to build more powerful cannons and mortars…which they did. They built the Sebastopol mortar which is sitting on a hill 25kms north of Addis, however, there is a replica on display on a busy roundabout at Tewodros Square.
Holy Trinity Cathedral
Holy Trinity Cathedral is one of Addis Ababa’s most important landmarks. Built in 1941, the cathedral was constructed by Emperor Haile Selassie and designed by Polish architect Joseph Mehoffer. The Church contains a fragment of the True Cross, brought to Ethiopia in the 12th century by an Ethiopian man who had been sent to Jerusalem on a mission by the Emperor of Ethiopia. Inside is decorated with elaborate carvings and detailed stained-glass windows of scenes from Ethiopian history and biblical stories. Like most Cathedrals, Sunday mornings are when it fills with worshippers for mass.
Go See More of Ethiopia!
Unfortunately I could only spend a couple of days in the capital but I will definitely be back to see more of this culturally diverse and naturally beautiful country. The stories I hear and see of this place, the pictures, the videos it’s really a place to spend months exploring.
Travel Resources for Visiting Addis Ababa
Fendika – Experience authentic Ethiopian culture through music, dance, art and poetry.
Viator – Huge selection of activities, tours and experiences with great cancellation and price match policies.
Get Your Guide – Great selection of experiences from sea, land and air.
SkyScanner – The best place to start looking for flights. They compare prices from a huge amount of airlines.
Hostelworld – Thousands of hostels with millions of reviews. You can also contact other travelers before you arrive.
Travel Insurance – None of us plan to fall off motorbikes or break a leg snowboarding but if it happens make sure you’re covered.
Booking.com – One of the best accommodation booking pages available. This is my benchmark before searching for a better deal (which often can’t be beaten).
AirBnB – Huge range of home to rent across the globe and discounts for longer stays.
RentalCars.com – The best site for renting cars while travelling, they find the best rates and provide great insurance options.