Addis Ababa is a very diverse city, with various religious and ethnic groups and socioeconomic groups. It is a dramatic scene for many visitors and a new context. We don’t usually see a gap in communication but there are some things that tourists miss or don’t understand when they come to Addis Ababa.
Here, I will briefly tell you everything you need to know before coming to Addis Ababa.
1. The Climate
Addis Ababa is not a desert or a hot balloon as you may have heard. The city, unlike many African cities, has optimal temperature throughout the year that is better than many American and European countries. It is not called the land of 13 months of sunshine for no reason. The land really gets sunshine all the months and gets a shower of rain at least for 3 and 4 months.
The rain doesn’t persist all day either and comes and goes within hours, either in the morning or in the afternoon. The city’s location that is around the equator makes the weather constant. In January the temperature ranges from a high of 68°F (20°C) to a low of 53°F (12°C). Source
The day is sunny from January to May, sometimes hotter. Recently the rapid construction seems to have increased the city’s temperature. The open spaces are disappearing following these activities.
Tip: choose clothes based on the month you visit
2. Geography of Addis Ababa
The city is a land in-between mountains, Entoto is located in the north at the highest point of 2440 meters and 8000 feet altitude. Yerer mountain is on the east and Mount Wochecha is located on the west.
Addis Ababa as a ring road, constructed to alleviate the traffic flow. And the east wet road takes traffic from the Tor Hailoch area to the CMC area. That is a good reference for studying the city’s map.
Tip: visit Entoto to understand Addis Ababa
3. The population of Addis Ababa
Since Addis Ababa is a capital, many people from the nearby town migrate for work. The city had residents of 3.4 million people in 2007. The population is growing at 3.8 percent annually and the 2007 estimation is expected to double in the near future. The city has 527 square kilometers and about 5000 people per square kilometer lives. The center of the city is probably one of the densities settlements in the country.
Ethiopians have never been under colonialism. You will not see much European influence, except for some Italian like buildings and Italian names.
Hollywood seems to have a grip on the social life of the society. English is widely spoken in the city. Most of the education has English courses in them and students are expected to learn with English after the sixth grade. However, many people have a poor command of the language.
You can always use English to ask for directions or communicate with locals.
Tip: English could be bad, but many people understand and respond to English. The shops and directions use English as a second language as well.
Addis Ababa was founded in 1887, by Menelik the second. Before settling at the present-day area, the king moved around various encampments, finding a place with sustainable firewood and security. There was no other place with optimal temperature and with an abundance of eucalyptus trees (that was originally imported from Australia) and with higher altitudes such as Entoto for security issues.
After settling on the mount Entoto, later legend says that the empress was attracted to the area, especially to the hot springs in the Fil Wuha area. Later, she called the area, Addis Abeba which is translated as ‘New Flower’.
Tips: visit museums and monuments to understand the history of the city
Ethiopia has never been colonized, therefore, has no European influence in the country. However, the city fell under the Italian army for 4 years in 1936 where the capital was captured. This led the emperor Haile Selassie into exile. The Italian army used prohibited gas in the fight and about 5000 Ethiopian fighters lost their lives, and 1537 Italians died in the action. The Italians, on the other hand, estimated that 16,000 Ethiopians and 2700 Italians died in the battle.
In May 1937, to stop resistance against the Italian army, the Italians began a rampage of murder throughout Addis Ababa and killed more than 5000 people. Many leaders and church people were killed throughout the country.
With infrastructure development and buildings, the Italians also left their footprint in Addis abba. They built a road between Addis Ababa and Massawa, Addis Ababa Mogadishu and Addis Ababa Assab roads, and the railway to Djibouti. They also created an airport and started a flight to Rome.
In 1941, Haile Selassie returned to Addis Ababa to reclaim his throne. with the British assistance, the Italians left Ethiopia.
Tips: Ethiopians are proud people. Treat them like one.
7. African Capital
Addis Ababa’s diplomatic and pollical position throughout history. The African Union is located in Addis Ababa. The new building is also a tourist attraction.
Tip: You may see traffic disturbance in the meeting days.
They say 80 percent of Addis Ababa is categorized as a slum. A slum is a place not good for living. Most places have a constant upgrade but stayed low quality and without the proper amenities. The new condominium housing ventures have stayed short due to financial reasons. Even these are in the suburbs where there is no infrastructure and increasing commuting time, creating more problems.
It is nice to visit slums to have a glimpse of the urban poor. But do not enter into the neighborhoods and limit your activities on the street for your own safety. (It is to be careful. But most neighborhoods are peaceful)
Tips: visit the slums, safety first
9. Budget stay
Budgeting in Addis Ababa seems impossible since the price is not fixed in many places. But it is still possible to have a great stay on a budget. Therefore, you may need to identify economical services. For example, you will find places to stay from a 20 dollars nice hotel to 30 dollars per night Air BNB to 50 dollars high-end hotels.
The food also differs based on locations. The food quality in many places seems to be similar. However, prices differ based on the quality of the restaurants, not the food. Many restaurants and hotels have hidden costs for extra services such as WIFI and plumbing.
Only a few have really trained chefs and world-class services. If you are sure that the cafes and restaurants are neat and the places are alive and comfortable, you can always stick to that place.
I would also advise you not to pay for long days, instead, pay for a few days and see if you like the place you rented. You can always talk to the front desk for any uncomfortable situations.
Tips: find your stay based on your budget, there are lots of options
The Ethiopian airlines have two terminals, domestic and international. A new international building started working only recently, to ease the high need. The flight time from Addis Ababa to London is usually about 8 hours long, depending on the route. Travel to most European counties is five hours or sometimes more. Travel to America is up to 14 or more hours long.
For visitors, traveling in Addis Ababa on a bus or minibus taxis seems a bad idea. Many tourists complain about the delay in public transport including local air travel. You will surely be disappointed if you expect a world-class public transport service. The overall service lacks quality and doesn’t even oblige the basic demand.
Instead, using a contract blue taxi or the recent Uber type drives would be the best option. Especially the Uber type drives have an app where you will call for a taxi and even know the distance and rate you traveled. An average distance could cost up to 150 birrs or less, that is about 5 dollars, for a long-distance trip.
If you travel from Addis Ababa to another city, air transport is still the best option. You will find ticket offices everywhere inside the city. If you used Ethiopian airlines to travel internationally, then you would have a big discount on your local flights. You need to take a flight to the Bole airport in the domestic section.
Long-distance buses are also an option for a trip to another city. Ethiopia is a vast nation and travel would be tedious, and you may need to travel through various altitudes and temperate regions. This could mean you need a bit more resistance to rapid weather changes. Traveling from Addis Ababa to Axum could take more than a day and you may need to rest on the way. Most direct route roads are asphalt paved; therefore, you don’t worry about discomfort. The buses are also standard and are comfortable. You may need to purchase a ticket a day before and know the departure location and be on time.
However, some buses, especially that you take from a small city to another may not be as comfortable. You would have to seat on old chairs, and with people standing next to you. You may need to get prepared as you would be traveling with rural residents, and smell from working clothes and stuff they carry would be obvious and sometimes hard even for the urban residents in Ethiopia.
Most buses begin at stations in the city, at Autobus Tera, near Merkato or Akaki Kality station or other similar stations at the exit of the city. Some start at Meskel Square. You may need to make sure where to take them before your departure date.
Tip: Avoid public transport in Addis Ababa, instead use Ride, a Uber type app.
A year before while engaging with some Americans and European visitors, I noticed how they were amazed at how slim Ethiopians are. Everyone was cheerful and wondered how it happened. They saw the Ethiopians were eating a lot, even more than some of the visitors, but they stayed fit. The secret probably is the injera that has low calories.
But the main one could be the religious celebration of fasting twice a week, that discourages eating animal products. On these days, the followers of religion avoid dairy or meat and only consume vegetables and crops.
This would continue once a month for a few more days. This may seem trivial for some, but this simple way of life has a huge impact on the daily life of the people.
For this, the foods such as Beyaynet ( Injera with vegetables on a single plate), Suf Fitfit (injera immersed in a sunflower seed sauce) became top choices.
For non-veggies, you can always have tibs, meat Firfir, Kitfo (may be hard for some new eaters as the raw meat is immersed in locally made butter) and Doro wot (stewed chicken with the local way of cooking). These foods are eaten with butter (locally made), Ayieb( local cottage cheese).
Tips: Don’t eat much of some traditional foods at a time. Start small.
Shopping in Addis? Yes, it right. You can always shop in Addis Ababa and surely, you would find great choices that you won’t regret. Besides the choices, that are from China, you will find amazing locally made garments and cloths and artifacts in the city. Merkato would not be the best choice to go alone. Even if you do, you probably get lost than buying anything worth. Instead, visit Shiro Meda, a locally made clothes market, near the US embassy. The place has shops full of Ethiopian clothing and artifacts. If you bargain, with the normal price on your mind, you may get the best price.
If you are interested in local spices, then you need to visit the shola market in the eastern part of the city. Many shops sell locally made honey, and spices and locally made coffee pots and cups.
If you are interested in historic artifacts and jewelry, then you should visit the national theatre area, behind the post office. You need to bargain at every option, or you will end up paying more than the original price. The best option is to know the price before going there or go with a local person.
Many data show that Addis is one of the safest cities in Africa. Except for a few pickpockets and con artists, the city is safer than even other cities in the country. There is always a risk of going to highly chaotic and dense places like Merkato and places that have no traffic. It is better to leave personal belongings back in your room before walking on the street. Don’t engage in arguments or fights. These could be con artists trying to check your pockets.
Fights on the streets are rare. Don’t let strangers wipe your cloth after they throw garbage on you. This is a trick to get close to you. Don’t engage in an argument if people force you to buy something. Some places, they may push you to take food telling you it is free, and they may tell you to pay after you eat.
Public transport is another comfortable place for pickpocketing. Don’t carelessly put your phone or wallet where it is accessible for thieves.
Report to the police station nearby or to a policeman on the streets near you if you encountered any problem.
Have a hand torch, as blackouts could appear at any moment. These usually don’t stay long unless it is a serious problem and yet they appear annoying for visitors. Be aware of stray dogs and feral cats.
Tips: The police number in Addis Ababa is 991.
Pollution is obvious in the city. The old cars on street pollute the air. The new construction also has a huge impact on the city’s air quality. The air is dusty and trees appear grey. It is not usually noticeable but there definitely air pollution.
Due to a lack of garbage disposal systems, some residents remove garbage directly into rivers. Even factories prefer rivers to remove their toxic disposals. In some areas, we witnessed dried trees and dying soil due to toxic disposals. Some say that there is heavy metal in the vegetables grown next to rivers.
Sanitation is sometimes low on street-side kiosks since dust and dirt are not controlled. Avoid eating in cheap street-side small places.
15. Sport in Addis Ababa
Addis Ababa has not many sports facilities. Many hotels, however, host swimming pools and tennis fields. There are few stadiums being built in the city. Many young people frequent at Jan Meda, a field near sadist kilo and others on Meskel Square.
You probably don’t see joggers on the streets, as most of them do them early in the morning.
Addis Ababa is a seat for the world embassies. You can directly consult or call your embassies. The US embassy, for example, encourages citizens to contact them if needed. Find a printable document of addresses of embassies in Addis Ababa.
17. Important Addresses- Emergency
Find important addresses in Addis Ababa.
18. Time Difference
The most confusing part of the Ethiopian culture is time usage. Time doesn’t start at 7 here, it starts at 1 and ends at 12. The evening starts at 1 and ends at 12 in the morning. Since Ethiopia is located at the equator, daylight saving is not necessary and the day and night stay equal. Therefore, you may need to ask if your schedule is with local time or international time. Or you may miss your meeting. Ethiopia has its own calendar. The country also has 30 equal days in a month and a five- or six-day leap year.
The country is located at +3 UTC. You need to calculate the time difference based on that. New York is at -8, therefore, there is an 11 hours difference and most American cities have 8hours difference Europe have equal or not more than 3 hours difference to Addis Ababa time.
Related: What Time Is In Ethiopia?
19. Best Time to Go
The best time rather depends on your goals. If you are planning to visit and to go around trekking and outside activities, then the winter is a bad time to visit Addis Ababa since the rainy season begins in June and ends in September. Mostly the rain would come and go in half a day. The sun always shines even in wintertime.
Therefore, the best time would be in the dry season from September to May. In September and May or June, there are a few showers of rain and the rent prices get cheaper in some areas.
The city is much visible from the Mount Entoto.
Related Post: 16 Important Things to Do in Addis Ababa
21. Discover Addis Ababa
At first sight, there seems not much to visit in the city. The city is truly different from many other cities you have visited. The vast language, ethnic diversity, religious diversity all make the city remarkable. On the other hand, Addis Ababa has large slum settlements, the UN classified as an unliveable place. It is a pity that the city’s policy and the economic situation held back the city from growing. Most of society lives in a poor situation. Well, that is a dream killer.
But Addis Ababa has much wealth that needs attention. You can visit many historic, religious, social spaces and be part of it to experience it. These places include the national museum where you will visit Lucy, ‘one of the first humans’, and other hominid skeletons and charts and historic artifacts. Meskel Square is another social space where you will meet different people from many classes and social groups.
Monuments express the dark and bright histories of the city. The Derg monument tells stories of a socialist government. The lion of Judah tells the story of royalty. The red terror museum displays true horror stories of the socialist era.
Merkato is another depiction of chaotic but organized spaces of Africa. It is the top open market in Africa as well. Besides, the informal activities and economic structure make the place worth visiting.
Related Post: 16 Important Things to Do in Addis Ababa
22. Health and Pharmacies
I read some guides talking about not eating foods in Ethiopian restaurants and not to drink tap water. The whole advice seems a good tip for any traveler who changes places and eats foods they have never eaten before. Of course, one would expect some dysfunction inside that belly.
I am reminded of a time I went to see a doctor after I first moved to Europe years before. After I heard his explanations, I replied saying that I became sick only after drinking the tap water. The doctor was confused and pissed at the same time. And egoistically, he continued explaining how tap water was the best in the world. After all, the disease I had was only imaginary.
The tap water is drinkable but some locals avoid it.
Use filtering or warm the water before drinking. Instead use it only to wash your face, your clothes and to cook with it. Instead, use plastic bottles. Two liters of bottled water is about 40 cents USD.
23. Car Free Days
With the objective of promoting healthy living and air pollution free day, Addis Ababa has car-free days once a month. These days, usually on weekends, some main streets will be closed for traffic. One these days kids and young people who had no park or open space in the city would come out on the streets to play soccer and to skate.
24. Internet and SIM
Addis Ababa has internet access from the solo provider Ethio-Telecom. Most hotels provide free internet but the speed is not that good in many of the places. In a few places, there is good internet speed, especially on the high-end hotels. Most internet cafes have a dial-up connection and the speed are unreliable.
If you stay longer, and if you have the budget, Ethio telecom has unlimited 4G service for 130 dollars a month. The rest of the service is not reliable or is very expensive.
You can obtain a sim card for a dollar once you get to Addis Ababa. You can get it from any telecom shop. With topping with different priced cards, you can get 4G internet and voice and texting time. It is an expensive option to use this service for video streaming.
Well, it seems cliché to advise someone to have coffee before leaving a city. But this is true. Ethiopia probably has one of the best homemade coffees. It is said that the first quality of arabica coffee in the country is exclusively for export. Most cafés don’t serve first-grade coffees, yet, the coffee remains good. Ask for ‘ye jebena Buna’ at a local café and you will have a good traditional coffee. Buna is translated as coffee and Ye jebena Buna is a coffee made with ‘Je Bena’ (traditional kittle).
The best place to have coffee could be at Tomoca, small cafes that exclusively serve coffee. Since the coffee is from machines and is very strong, I would not advise you to drink only coffee. Instead, order a Macchiato. That will surely make you hyper like the Khalid’s goat.
Coffee is about 2 dollars inexpensive houses and about 50 cents USD in average cafes.
Related: How to Make Ethiopian Coffee at Home
26. Taking Pictures in Addis Ababa
Everyone takes pictures these days. But the locals don’t take pictures of the dirt on streets, or street boys or random people. Only visitors do. It is always best to ask to take pictures of people before doing so. Ethiopians are not violent most of the time, but you may need to respect boundaries. This is a problem I see in many places including in African nations. Foreigners taking pictures of random people on a train or on the street. Better to respect boundaries.
This article is not the ultimate fact, rather it is a simple guide to help you what to expect. Use it as a baseline for your actions and for what to expect.