Ethiopian escape

Although lacking infrastructure for tourism, Ethiopia is worth visiting for its rich culture, says Urbane Nomads founder Hajar Ali.


Who: Hajar Ali, 35, founder of Urbane Nomads luxury travel agency and the newly launched Travel Like A Humanitarian, a Web platform for non- governmental organisations to promote their travel- related products.

Favourite destination: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Why: Nothing quite prepares you for Ethiopia. War and famine have had a devastating impact on the country. Tourism, while not in absolute infancy, is still unsupported by the necessary infrastructure that you see in the rest of Africa. Yet, it is worth visiting for its rich culture, civilisation and history. For example, the kings of Ethiopia, up to Emperor Haile Selassie who ruled until 1974, are believed to be descended from the Queen of Sheba. And as the only country in Africa that was not colonised by a European power, Ethiopia has had an indelible impact on contemporary African identity that is referenced by figures from Bob Marley to Nelson Mandela.

Favourite place to stay

The Sheraton Addis (Taitu Street, Addis Ababa 6002, Ethiopia, tel: +251-11-517-1717, www.sheraton is the best place to stay in Addis Ababa. There is a certain incongruity between the hotel's well-manicured and thriving gardens and the surrounding poverty, but there is nothing like it in the whole of Ethiopia in terms of luxury. There is also an excellent buffet daily. Rooms start at US$340 (S$460).

Slightly outside Addis Ababa is Kuriftu Debre Zeit (, an eco- hotel, where you can go rowing on the lake or have dinner overlooking the lake while the sun sets.

Favourite place to eat

Yod Abyssinia Cultural Restaurant (Mekanisa, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, tel: +251-11-372-0607, www.yod has a reputation as a tourist restaurant, but this is not true. There are more locals who patronise the restaurant, which serves traditional Ethiopian food. Besides delicious dishes such as a thick spicy stew called wot, it is known for its performances of regional dances, most of which are performed in Amharic, the national language. A light meal here costs about US$10 a person.

A great meal can also be had at the famous Ristorante Castelli (Mahatma Gandhi Street, Addis Ababa, tel: +251-11-157-1757, open: noon to 2.30pm and 7 to 10.30pm, Monday to Saturday). Celebrities such as Bono and Brad Pitt have eaten here, and Irish singer Bob Geldof described it as the best Italian restaurant in the world. Dishes to try here include the mushroom ravioli and the antipasto buffet. A meal for two light eaters costs less than US$50, with no alcohol.

Favourite museum

The Ethnological Museum (Kechene, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) is a good place to learn about the country's different ethnic groups and history.

Favourite tourist site

Street markets are the best place to observe local life. Addis Merkato (open: 6am to 7pm, Monday to Saturday) in the Addis Ketema district of Addis Ababa is the most famous in the city and the largest open-air market in Africa. Go with a guide or a local friend as the market is huge and not really one for tourists, so you are not going to find anything of interest to you without help.

Best stop for souvenirs

Replicas of some African pieces of furniture in the Ethnological Museum can be found at the St George Gallery (Taitu Street, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, tel: +251-11-551-0983,, just down the hill from the Sheraton hotel. However, the items there, such as antique headrests, West African chairs and African masks, are very expensive.

Food to try

A typical breakfast food called fir-fir or fit-fit, which is shredded injera, a spongy sourdough flatbread that is ubiquitous in Ethiopia.

Best offbeat find

The jazz lounge Jazzamba (Piazza, Itegue Taitu Hotel, tel: +251-11-896-0265, in the Itegue Taitu Hotel, the oldest hotel in Ethiopia that was opened in 1907 by Empress Taitu, wife of Emperor Menelek II. Ethiopian jazz occupies its own musical genre and is worth checking out in its original context. Also a music school, Jazzamba is the best incubator for local jazz acts.

Unfortunately, a fire broke out at Itegue Taitu Hotel last month and you may not be able to visit Jazzamba at the moment, but it is still an institution I have to recommend.

Sightseeing highlights

The town of Lalibela in northern Ethiopia, famous for its 11 rock-cut churches, is a star attraction.

Other places to visit include The Danakil Depression, a geological depression that is the hottest and one of the lowest places in the world. Danakil is part of the Afar Triangle, where in 1974, American paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson and his colleagues found the famous 3.2 million-year-old Lucy fossil.

Southern Ethiopia's attractions lie in the varied tribes who live there. The most famous are the very photogenic Mursi, known for their lip plates, body and facial scaring and body paints.

Event to bookmark

The most popular and colourful is Timkat, an Ethiopian Orthodox festival celebrating the baptism of Jesus. It takes place in Addis Ababa, Gondar and Lalibela on Jan 19, or Jan 20 in leap years.

Ideal length of stay

To see everything of interest to a tourist, you need at least three weeks, though most people plan for 10 to 14 days.

Recommended reading

The Danakil Diary: Journeys Through Abyssinia, 1930-34 by Wilfred Thesiger, an explorer whose reputation was cemented when, at 24 years old, he made his first incursion into the Danakil Depression, an area which had claimed two Italian expeditions and an Egyptian army that had gone before him.

This was during a time when the Afar people who inhabit the Danakil were still engaged in the practice of proving their manhood by killing and castrating a man of a warring tribe. Till today, Afar men still sharpen their teeth to prepare themselves in the event of an altercation and some houses still display a castrated phallus.

This article was first published on Feb 15, 2015.
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