Libby Young gives us her advice on what to do, see, shop, eat and drink in the Ethiopian capital. All images copyright Libby Young.
ith a wide range of connections from Addis Ababa’s international airport, Ethiopian Airlines is becoming a convenient option for many travellers visiting Africa, and spending a night or two in one of the world’s highest capitals takes the pain out of the stopover. At an elevation of more than 2300m, Addis has a lovely climate, and an enticing culinary reputation. The capital is also safe and friendly. Pickpockets may roam the markets but injury is usually to your purse and not your person. There’s no shortage of things to see in Addis, but if time is limited, concentrate on food, drink and the markets rather than the museums.
Ethiopia was never successfully colonised by the Italians but it has retained one of their most coveted attributes: Italian cuisine. Perhaps the best-known Italian restaurant is Castelli’s on Mahatma Gandhi Street. Part of the old piazza area, the restaurant’s exterior is unprepossessing to say the least, but a thumbs-up from the likes of Bob Geldof gives it enormous credibility. The interior is old-school, with heavy gleaming cutlery, starched linen and polished wood. The antipasti display next to the front door is something to behold with a huge variety of colours and textures. The menu itself is traditional and delicious.
Addis Mercato is the famously enormous food market – although you may struggle to get its produce into whichever country is next on your itinerary. However, that won’t be a problem with the textile heaven of Shiro Meda Market, near Entoto Hill. The assortment of traditional Ethiopian wear is astounding. The embroidered, white scarves vary in price, depending on the quality of the cloth. Bargaining is expected and required.
Blue and white taxis are easy to find but be prepared to negotiate the fare before climbing aboard. Make sure you have small bills as the driver will likely claim to have no change; most fares average 150-200 birr (US$5-7).
Before you leave, try to find a café that serves coffee the traditional way. Coffee is taken very seriously in Ethiopia and plays an important role in social relationships, with family and friends gathering to talk and drink several cups. In social settings it is bad manners to leave before the third cup is served, as this is supposed to bestow a blessing.
Preparation starts with the roasting of green beans in a flat iron pan over a charcoal fire. The coffee is then ground and brewed in an earthenware pot, known as a jebena. It is served strong and without milk. Sugar can be added, and a sprig of rue gives the coffee a delicate, fresh aroma.
There’s plenty more to see in Addis besides the food. The National Museum exhibits Ethiopian art, traditional crafts and prehistoric fossils, including replicas of the famous early hominid, ‘Lucy’. The copper-domed Holy Trinity Cathedral, burial place of the 20th-century emperor Haile Selassie, is a Neo-Baroque architectural landmark.