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Stopover: Addis Ababa, gateway to the flavours of Ethiopia

By African City Guide 18 September 2019

A photograph taken on 25 January 2018 shows African Union headquarters building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. EPA-EFE/STR

There is no better place to understand what makes Ethiopia so alluring and get a taste of its multifaceted culture and history than in the country’s fascinating and flourishing capital, Addis Ababa. Ethiopian-born and Paris- and New York-based model, maternal health advocate, and the designer behind clothing brand Lemlem, Liya Kebede, shares with us her favourite spots.

Addis is much more than a starting point for exploring the Rift Valley. It is the sprawling commercial and cultural heart of an eclectic nation. Expect to be surprised by the stark contrast between skyscrapers and informal traders, or the pursuit of the latest fashions alongside the observance of ancient customs.

As you admire the prehistoric fossils in the city’s National Museum, shop at one of the bountiful markets or sample its distinctively fragrant cuisine, you will become increasingly aware of just how much there is to be explored and savoured.

Liya Kebede is a devoted ambassador for her city: “The minute I land in Addis Ababa and I breathe the air, I know I am home – that is what I love about this city.”

Kebede is also the founder and creative director of the home-grown Lemlem fashion brand – Lemlem means “fertile” or “flowering” in Amharic – and the Lemlem Foundation, a non-profit organisation that helps women artisans in Africa thrive by connecting them to healthcare, education and pathways to jobs.

About traveling to Addis, she recommends:

“Make sure to have cash with you. Not many places take credit cards – although big hotels accept cards – and there are not many cash machines available. Don’t eat raw foods and only drink bottled water.”

For those interested in outdoor exercise, Kebede praises the Entoto forest at sunrise, perfect for a run; she also loves playing tennis at the Hilton Hotel, followed with an afternoon coffee ceremony or a cooling ice cream at Tutto Gelato. When it comes to music, she heads to Ghion Hotel for Ethiopian jazz and drinks and to Fendika Azmari Bet for local traditional music.

Before you set off for Addis, consider getting a copy of Cutting for Stoneby Ethiopian-born Abraham Verghese, a riveting family saga intertwined with Ethiopia’s past half-century.

Addis Ababa (Photo from City Government of Culture and Tourism Bureau)

Addis Ababa stopover

Tomoca Coffee

Coffee is a national obsession, which is no great surprise, since Ethiopia is one of the places where the dark brew was born. The Coffee Roasting Ceremony is a daily centuries-old ritual bringing family and friends together around the city. You should easily come across one at any market.

For an equally genuine coffee fix head to Tomoca, the oldest roaster in Addis, with six outlets around the city. A tip: although English is widely used, a couple of words of Amharic will go a long way. Start with selam (hello) and eshi (yes, sure, okay, of course).

Tomoca Coffee

ZOMA MuseumMost innovative museum

Zoma isn’t just an outstanding museum of contemporary African art, it is in itself a striking architectural masterpiece. This environmentally conscious structure was created from natural materials including mud, straw, stone and wood, using ancient building techniques that are still employed today. Added to the inspirational art and architecture, Zoma is also a place of learning, incorporating a gallery, library and vernacular school.

La MandolineFrench cuisine at its best

You may be in Addis Ababa, but when dining at La Mandoline you will find nothing but the very best of traditional French gastronomy. Unpretentious, yet utterly satisfying from starter through to dessert. And when you see what’s on the menu, you will have to have all three courses. The atmosphere is sociable, with a relaxed outdoor area where you can often hear the pleasant melodies of an accordion player.

Five LoavesMost convivial café

Five Loaves is the epitome of a welcoming café. It is a real home from home – as it happens, it is in a converted house. No fussy cooking here. We’re talking generous portions and tasty, continental comfort food. Not forgetting the irresistible homemade cakes and pastries. Live piano adds to the feel-good vintage vibe.

Bake&BrewTo work or not to work

If you need to do some work while you’re in Addis, this can easily be your office. It’s a casual eatery combined with co-working space offering fast WiFi, office supplies and a business printer. It is also a venue for professional and social events. But don’t feel you have to work; you can just sit back and enjoy a reliably good coffee, breakfast, brunch or lunch.

Bake & Brew, Addis Ababa (Photo from Bake & Brew)

Sholla MarketAuthentic local market

Smaller, but somewhat less crowded and easier to navigate than the enormous Merkato, Sholla will give you a real introduction into the sights, sounds and aromas of a buzzing local market where friendly vendors offer a variety of food items such as coffee, grains, herbs and spices that are essential to the Ethiopian way of life, as well as clothing, textiles and homeware.

Entoto HillSpectacular city views

A steep, but most worthwhile climb (or drive) to the top of the 3,200m high Entoto Hill takes you to the best views over Addis. While you are there you can visit the historic octagonal Entoto Maryam church. Don’t miss the beautiful paintings inside and the museum displaying artefacts and personal belongings of Emperor Menelik II, whose modest palace is nearby.

SabaharHandwoven

This is no ordinary handwoven fabric outlet, it is one of the best in Africa. Sabahar produces luxurious scarves and shawls made only from natural fibres such as locally sourced silk and cotton, as well as equally sophisticated and expertly finished home décor and bags. Inspired by ancient Ethiopian hand-weaving, all Sabahar’s products are entirely handmade from beginning to end.

Ristorante CastelliSublime Italian

While the mouth-watering flavours of Ethiopian food are obviously not to be missed, nor is this Addis landmark. Ristorante Castelli is not only one of the oldest restaurants in the city, it also promises the best Italian food imaginable. Small wonder then that many celebrities have graced its tables. The pasta (and everything else) is perfetto and the service is impeccable.

Go Addis ToursAddis from every angle

If you don’t have much time, but want a great overview of the city, or if you are looking for an easy way to see a lot of Addis, Go Addis Tours offer well-planned options covering the must-sees of the city. Entoto Hill, museums, markets and coffee fit in a half- or full-day tour; if you are an aspiring foodie, take the food tour which allows you to sample local fare from many specially selected restaurants and learn about the customs behind the cuisine. ML

For more select recommendations on where to stay, eat and drink, shop and what not to miss in Addis, go to African City Guide

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