Why Addis Ababa?
Travellers frequently use Addis Ababa, the sprawling capital, as no more than a glorified pit stop from which to enter Ethiopia, before swiftly moving on to explore the treasures in the rest of the country. But spend a few days in Africa's diplomatic centre, and you'll discover that the city is deserving of its own attention. Culture abounds here and there are a cluster of intriguing museums and monuments which provide context to any traveller's journey through the country.
The Ethnographic Museum, housed in the former palace of Haile Selassie, has well-curated exhibits which take you through aspects of Ethiopia's varied social and cultural history. If you ever wanted to gain deeper insight into the lives of the more than 80 ethnic groups that live in Ethiopia, the ingeniously arranged artefacts and texts, provide a wealth of information. A short drive away, the National Museum commands as much attention. It's home to everyone's Aunt Lucy, standing in the middle of an intriguing paleontological exhibition. This fossilised hominid, a celebrity now in her own right, is claimed to be one of humanity's oldest ancestors.
Addis is like an onion, full of layers waiting to be peeled back. When you're not seeking out museums or palaces, you'd do well to treat your taste buds in a city which serves up all kinds of Ethiopian fare. However, the intangible offering from the city is the chance to feel the energy of a place that hasn't yet quite arrived. The city is full of young entrepreneurs and is home to many artisans producing endlessly fascinating offerings.
A comfortable bed
Even without the endorsement of the celebrity clientele who flock to the Sheraton Addis (www.sheratonaddis.com; doubles from Dh1,010 per night), it's easy to see the hotel's appeal. The building sits like a jewel amid well-tended gardens. Its interiors are opulent and you could spend an entire day indoors in just the in-house stores and restaurants, breaking up all that nose-to-tail dining with a soak in the pool or a stroll around the hotel, admiring its art and artefacts. The hotel staff respond quickly and cheerfully to every request, and the fact that there's a kid's club at which to leave the young ones while you luxuriate at the spa, adds functionality to the glamour.
The nearby Radisson Blu, centrally located, with comfortable rooms and modern amenities – from restaurants to a day spa – ticks all the practical/comfortable stay boxes (www.radissonblu.com/en/hotel-addisababa; doubles from Dh670 per night).
Find your feet
It's a good idea to have a car and knowledgeable driver at your disposal, to maximise your exposure to Addis. For the history and architecture aficionado, a halt at the octagonal St. George's Cathedral is essential. The interiors of this portal are a feast of art. Pay heed especially to the mosaics and paintings by Afewerk Tekle, one of the Ethiopia's most celebrated artists. The small adjoining museum, with its profusion of ecclesiastical bits and pieces, is also worthy of your time. Ancient scrolls, ornamented crowns and elaborate umbrellas lie amid the collection. A short drive away, the Holy Trinity Cathedral, ornamented with a copper dome and pinnacles, features a heady mix of architectural styles and has artistic and historic stories to tell. It was built to commemorate Ethiopia's liberation from Italian occupation.
Meet the locals
Stepping into the Itegue Taitu Hotel (www.taituhotel.com), built in 1905 and arguably the first hotel in Ethiopia, is a little like stepping back in time. Decorated with artefacts and studded with old-fashioned furniture, the atmosphere is as remarked upon as the lunchtime buffet is vast. The vegan lunch – (with a fish option for the carnivore) – is a sumptuous spread of traditional, hearty and straightforward Ethiopian fare. The chance to strike up conversations with the old-timers who linger here is one reason to visit. That the food offers you rapture for your birr, is the other.
Book a table
"Cultural restaurant" 2000 Habesha (www.2000habesha.com) – if you can look past how popular it is with the travelling hordes – is a good place to begin your culinary odyssey. Serving up all permutations and combinations of authentic Ethiopian fare, you can have your injera (traditional tangy bread made from tef – an Ethiopian grass), with a variety of toppings and sides. The meal is a colourful affair and on my plate atop the grey folds of bread are mounds of wat (spicy curry that can be served with chicken, for instance), messer (lentil curry), gomen (minced spinach) and ful (broad beans), alongside a heap of other offerings that I need the server to decipher.
That the food is to be shared by everyone at the table and from one large plate encourages the kind of camaraderie that these meals are supposed to encourage. Traditionally eaten using the hands, the food somehow tastes more delicious when consumed in company. The energy that surrounds the eating builds from about 8pm, when a variety of live traditional musical and dance acts take to the stage. If Habesha's full when you try to book, the nearby Yod Abyssinia restaurant offers a similar experience.
On the labyrinthine streets that make up the Merkato, you'll feel as if you're negotiating through Aladdin's Cave. Here incense, there spice, elsewhere a recycling section of the market where you can find sandals made from old tires.
But don't be so busy marvelling over your spoils, or the sheer energy of the place, that you neglect the safety of your wallet, or notice the traffic that swarms around you.
The 15-minute drive from the city centre to Entoto Hill is worth it. Eucalyptus trees dot the area, but it's the sweeping city views from here that are the real treat. When you're done taking enough images, wander towards the uniquely shaped hexagonal St Mary's Church. A stone's throw away, is what was once the Emperor Menelik II's palace. It is rather nondescript, but worth a look for its historic value.
What to avoid
Don’t hire a driver or guide from an uncertain source. Use one recommended by the hotel. And never leave your bags unattended.
Direct flights from Dubai to Addis Ababa cost from Dh1,880 return, including taxes with Emirates (www.emirates.com). Ethiopian Airlines offers a round trip costing about Dh2,075 from Dubai (www.ethiopianairlines.com).