Layover in Addis Ababa? Explore the city!

Addis Ababa is one of the major gateways to East Africa, India and the Middle East. Ethiopian Airlines offers cheap flights to these otherwise-hard-to-reach destinations. So many travelers find themselves with a long layover in Addis Ababa either at the beginning of their Ethiopia journeys or en route to somewhere else.

 

But there’s no reason to spend 17 hours sitting in an airport during a layover in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia’s capital is a dynamic city with a handful of world-class sites, excellent food, the largest market in Africa, and the country’s best variety of accommodation.

 

 

Ethiopia provides transit visas, including a tour, to travelers on layovers. But you can also visit the city on your own. So in this post, I’ll walk you through how to explore the city independently if you have a one-day layover in Addis Ababa.

 

Apologies for the bad photos in this one…I didn’t want to carry my good camera around Addis.

 

Things to do in Addis Ababa

 

Can’t-miss museums

 

Addis Ababa has some of Africa’s best museums. They’re a convenient way to get a taste of Ethiopian culture on a short stop.

 

Ethiopian Ethnological Museum

 

Traditional religious paintings at the Ethnographic Museum
Traditional religious paintings at the Ethnological Museum

 

This is the one attraction you should definitely not skip on your layover in Addis Ababa. It’s one of the best ethnography museums I’ve visited not just in Africa, but anywhere in the world.

 

The museum covers indigenous cultures and traditions from across the country, all well-displayed and labeled in English. It occupies a building on the pretty, quiet campus of the University of Addis Ababa.

 

The museum starts with an overview of the different ethnic groups in Ethiopia. It has a strong focus on the tribes of the Omo Valley. If you’re uncomfortable with the relationship between photography, tourism, and tribal heritage in South Omo, this section of the museum is a low-impact alternative to learn about them.

 

It also has displays of more modern life, including a fascinating section on traditional Ethiopian beekeeping. You’ll learn the origins of the coffee ceremony, how to harvest teff (the local grain that the staple food injera is made from), and what the grave markers used in the Omo Valley mean.

 

The second floor of the museum displays a chronology of traditional religious paintings, so you can see how they’ve changed over time. But the real highlight is an extensive display of musical instruments. You can even try playing some of them!

 

Cost: 100 birr
Time: Allow two hours. You could rush through faster, but you’d miss stuff.
How to arrange it: Just show up; the museum is never crowded. It’s a bit hard to reach by minibus — if your budget allows taxis, it’s worth the splurge.

 

Ethiopian National Museum

 

Lucy's (replica) bones
Lucy’s (replica) bones

 

Ethiopia’s second-best museum is the National Museum. As the birthplace of civilization, Ethiopia has some pretty old stuff — and this museum contains much of it.

 

Most people come here to see the replica of Lucy, thought to be one of mankind’s oldest ancestors. The displays on the evolution of humans and archaeology in Ethiopia are excellent and labeled in English.

 

The ground floor of the museum contains many ancient statues and artifacts from around Ethiopia. There are also extensive traditional and modern art displays — I really enjoyed the modern art on the top floor.

 

Cost: 10 birr
Time: 1 hour max
How to arrange: It’s easy to get here by minibus or taxi. Domestic and international tour groups descend on this one en masse, so time your visit for early in the day.

 

Red Terror Museum

 

Wall of victims of the Derg regime
Wall of victims of the Derg regime

 

Anyone born before 1990 will be familiar with the stereotype of Ethiopia as a barren desert nation full of starving children. This stereotype came out of an extreme famine that hit the country in the 80’s, largely thanks to the disastrous Derg regime.

 

The Red Terror Museum is a monument to the victims of the Derg. It’s an essential stop for anyone traveling in Ethiopia or on a layover in Addis Ababa. You’ll see graphic depictions of what the Derg leaders did to its its victims, including bloody clothing, displays of torture devices, and heartbreaking letters written from prisoners to their family members. It ends with a large wall with photographs of the known victims.

 

It’s a very moving and impactful museum, all the more so because many of the staff are survivors of Derg-era violence. They’re more than happy to accompany you through the displays and contextualize them for you.

 

Cost: Free, but you should leave a donation
Time: 1 hour
How to arrange: The museum is just off Meskel Square, so it’s very easy to access. Ask the staff at the front desk to show you around if you want more in-depth information, but be sure to leave a bigger donation if you do.

 

Churches and important buildings

 

Addis Ababa is the center of African diplomacy and home to several cathedrals important to Orthodox Christianity, all open to the public.

 

Africa Hall

 

This is one of Addis Ababa’s most iconic buildings. It’s where the African Union was founded, the UN Economic Commission for Africa is headquartered, and a major meeting point for African diplomacy.

 

Most visitors are content to see the building from outside. But if you arrange it in advance and bring your passport, you can also tour the building. It’s famous for its stunning stained-glass windows.

 

Cost: Free
Time: Just a few minutes if you stay outside, or up to one hour if you tour the building
How to arrange: Call in advance if you want to go inside. Otherwise, it’s near Meskel Square and easy to reach by minibus or taxi

 

Trinity Cathedral

 

The pretty exterior of Trinity Cathedral, the one must-visit church on your layover in Addis Ababa
The pretty exterior of Trinity Cathedral

 

This cathedral is the second-most important place of worship in Ethiopia (after St. Mary’s in Axum). It’s a stunning building located in beautiful surrounds. If you only visit one church during your layover in Addis Ababa, make it this one.

 

Your admission buys you entrance to the church museum, which houses artifacts from centuries of religious leaders. Check out the traditional cross-shaped keys, and the textile paintings.

 

The interior of the church is expansive. A priest will probably offer to show you around and explain the significance of each detail. Be sure to tip him a few birr.

 

Trinity Cathedral is an active place of worship, and you’ll encounter many Ethiopian pilgrims from across the country. Use common sense when it comes to photography, and of course ask permission if photographing individuals (most will be fine with it — and if you have your camera out, they’ll probably ask you to take a photo before you ask them).

 

Cost: 100 birr
Time: Allow at least 30 minutes. The priest who showed me around was chatty and it took me more like an hour.
How to arrange: It’s easy to reach by minibus or taxi, but harder to find a taxi when you’re leaving.

 

St. George’s Cathedral

 

Right in the center of the Piassa neighborhood, St. George’s Cathedral is a dominating structure. It seems like half of Addis Ababa congregates here during mass times.

 

The exterior is pretty bland — it’s just a large circular building. It’s worth wandering the grounds and chatting with the locals. Then, if you can find one, try to get a guide to take you inside to see the impressive interior artwork. Be sure to tip them generously.

 

Cost: 100 birr, and if a priest shows you around, you’ll be expected to tip on top of that
Time: 30 minutes
How to arrange: You can’t miss it — it’s right in the center of Piassa. The church closes from noon to 2 pm.

 

Merkato and surrounds

 

Addis Ababa has the largest market in Africa. Known as “Merkato,” this sprawling neighborhood contains thousands of local shops. There is also a large and important mosque nearby.

 

If you decide to venture here on your own, leave all your valuables at your hotel — the market has a serious pickpocket problem. Prepare to get very lost in the maze of shops. Some areas — such as the enormous chaat (a leaf locals chew for a mild high) section — may not be friendly to faranji (foreigners) at all, and especially not female faranji.

 

 

One great way to visit Merkato without the risk is to take a tour with Go Addis ToursI didn’t have time to take their tour, but I communicated extensively with their incredible staff in advance of my visit to Addis and was impressed with their operation.

 

If you want to go shopping without the hassle of Merkato, Churchill St. down the hill from Tomoca Coffee has a good selection of souvenir shops.

 

Cost: Free to visit on your own, $85 for the Go Addis market tour
Time: 
Allow at least two hours. You’re going to get lost and need time to find your way out.
How to arrange: Merkato is a hub for several minibus routes, and has a light rail stop. You can easily take a taxi too, but the area has tons of traffic.

 

Eat all the things

 

Whether Addis Ababa is the first place you try Ethiopian cuisine, or if you’re on a layover in Addis after weeks in the provinces, the food scene will impress you. There are options for all budgets, and plenty of places to eat European food if you can’t handle seeing injera one more time.

 

Cultural Restaurants

 

Vegetarian injera platter in Lalibela, Ethiopia
Vegetarian injera platter, common at cultural restaurants

 

You can sample Ethiopian food, music, and dance all in one go on your layover in Addis Ababa by visiting a “cultural restaurant.”

 

These restaurants serve authentic Ethiopian food in tourist-friendly settings (i.e. they have menus, usually in English). They’re decorated beautifully, often with traditional baskets and textiles adorning the walls. And they serve dinner alongside music and dance performances. If you’re unfamiliar with the awesome, weird and wild phenomenon that is Ethiopian dance, this video gives a good idea of what to expect, although regional variations are huge.

 

Is it touristy? Yes. But don’t worry, locals and domestic tourists love the cultural restaurants too. They usually have about a 50-50 split of Ethiopians and faranji.

 

Some of the most popular and famous options are Addis Ababa Restaurant, Habesha 2000, and Dashen Traditional Restaurant. If you want the traditional decor and food with more of a background-music ambiance, your best bet is the Itegue Taitu Hotel.

 

Meals are rarely more than 100-150 birr at a cultural restaurant, so they’re very good value for money. I paid 40 birr for a shiro tegamino (chickpea stew) that would easily have fed two people at the Taitu Hotel. Servers typically speak good English and can help you choose what to try if you’re unfamiliar with Ethiopian cuisine.

 

Western food

 

Not a fan of injera? No problem. You don’t have to miss out on the dining scene. You can sample some world-class international food on your layover in Addis Ababa.

 

Ethiopia may never have been formally colonized, but it does have lots of Italian influence. So good Italian food is easy to find in Addis. If you want to splurge, snag a table at Ristorante Castelli — one of the city’s oldest and most storied restaurants. Gusto Ristorante is another favorite, or try Mamma Mia if you want atmosphere.

 

If you’re on a budget, you can still get good international food. The pizzas at KG Corner are delicious and huge, for about $2 — plus they have WiFi (still somewhat of a rarity in Addis)! Stop by Lucy Lounge & Restaurant and have lunch in the pretty garden after you visit the National Museum. Or try the outstanding Armenian food at Ararat Restaurant.

 

Coffee Shops

 

Really sad my photo came out out-of-focus, but the cappuccinos at Tomoca are perfect
Really sad my photo came out out-of-focus, but the cappuccinos at Tomoca are perfect

 

Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, and Addis has some of the country’s top places to caffeinate. The best selection is in the Piassa neighborhood.

 

Don’t miss a visit to Tomoca Cafe on your layover in Addis Ababa. A stop here feels like a step back in time to about 1945. Plus the coffee is some of the best in Ethiopia. You can get a cappuccino or a coffee (espresso-sized and spiked with sugar, with sludgy black grounds at the bottom) for about $1, which is quite expensive for Ethiopia but totally worth it. They also sell beans for $2-3 a bag. It’s often standing-room-only, very friendly, and like all Ethiopian cafes, perfectly friendly to solo women.

 

For a taste of 21st-century Africa at its finest, stop in at Kiyab Cafe. It’s like Starbucks-meets-20th-century-Italian-hotel-lobby, and stands in stark contrast to the very-African city just outside. (Street vendors pedaling a head-spinning variety of cheap spoons, anyone?) The coffee is excellent, they serve delicious sweets, and you can grab a table on the balcony to watch Piassa’s chaotic street life go by. Customers are mostly members of Addis’s Millennial gentrifying class, and dressed to the nines.

 

Oslo Cafe is another fine spot for a caffeine break. It has tasty baked goods, fruit juices, and excellent coffee. It feels very modern and caters to mostly local clients of all ages and backgrounds (i.e. it’s less pretentious than Kiyab).

 

If you’re feeling a bit culture-shocked on your layover in Addis Ababa and just want a break, stop by a Yeshi or Kaldis. Both are local chains that feel just like Starbucks, and depending on which neighborhood you’re in, have a largely-expat clientele.

 

Practicalities for your layover in Addis Ababa

 

Where to stay

 

If you’re on an under-24-hour layover in Addis Ababa, you may not need a hotel. But if you want to stay a little longer, the primary thing to consider is which neighborhood you want to be in. The two most popular areas for budget travelers are Bole and Piassa.

 

Bole: Pros and cons

 

The neighborhood around the airport in Addis is known as “Bole.” This is one of the most upmarket, modern, and expat-dominated parts of the city.

 

If you want to stay near the airport, Bole is very convenient. Even at rush hour you’re only fifteen minutes away. But for pretty much everything else, it’s a pain. There isn’t much great food around and you’re a (long) minibus or taxi ride away from the main sights and attractions. Additionally, Bole is one of the few parts of Addis where pickpockets and street crime are fairly common.

 

The area around Atlas Junction is a decent compromise between Bole and central Addis. It’s only 3 km from the airport. But there is a lot more local life around — plenty of good restaurants and a handful of bars. It’s not the easiest neighborhood to reach, but a 1 km walk will take you to a minibus stand that will take you all over the city (or just use taxis).

 

Mr. Martin’s Cozy Place is Addis’s top backpacker haunt, and is one of a cluster of budget hotels near Atlas Junction. Rooms start at $25 per night. I had a less-than-great experience with their airport pickup service, so it’s probably better to just arrange a taxi when you arrive.

 

Piassa: Pros and Cons

 

Piassa is the place to be if you want to explore the city center on your layover in Addis Ababa. This traditional neighborhood has it all — street life, great food, an important cathedral, and shopping galore. You don’t have to walk far to get the most out of the city.

 

The downside is Piassa is as close to a “touristy” neighborhood as Addis gets. That comes with all the typical bad things associated with tourism — overpriced everything, hostile taxi drivers, hassle, and pickpockets. And while the neighborhood feels like backpacker ghettos around the world, there are actually very few other tourists — so all the attention will be on you.

 

Still, after spending a night in Bole on my first layover in Addis Ababa and a night in Piassa on my second, I far preferred Piassa. Part of that was convenience for sightseeing and eating. The other part is the Taitu Hotel is simply amazing (okay, it’s so not, but it has so much atmosphere and character that I didn’t care that it was slightly dingy).

 

It’s Ethiopia’s oldest hotel. It has a traditional restaurant attached. It’s only about $15 a night for an en-suite, clean room. And best of all — the staff know what backpackers need, and they deliver. There are signs with the “real” rates for taxis to popular destinations across the city. There’s an ATM and currency exchange. There are lockers where you can leave your valuables while you explore. Everyone speaks English. The one thing it doesn’t have is Wi-Fi, but KG Corner right next-door does.

 

 

If the Taitu is full, Baro Hotel and Wutma Hotel are right around the corner and offer similar rooms at similar prices. If you’re arriving in Addis on a late-night flight, book in advance — most hotels don’t leave their doors open overnight unless they know someone’s coming.

 

Getting around

 

Addis is a huge city, with lots of different neighborhoods and loads of traffic. Fortunately, the parts of interest to tourists are in a relatively compact area. Navigating the city is pretty straightforward, but it’s worth familiarizing yourself with major landmarks and how to correctly pronounce them.

 

Taxis

 

If you only have a short layover in Addis Ababa, chances are you’ll want to use taxis to get around. They’re affordable and convenient if you’re hopping from major landmark to major landmark.

 

Yellow taxis are metered, and tend to be the cheapest option. But you need to book them in advance. Ask your hotel to arrange one for an early-morning ride to the airport or bus station.

 

More common on the streets are blue-and-white taxis. Drivers hang around outside government buildings, museums, and popular hotels, but it can be hard to hail them on the street elsewhere. These taxis are unmetered and you are expected to negotiate a fare in advance. Outright scams are rare, and it usually didn’t take me more than one try to get them to come down to the local price.

 

Expect to pay about 80 birr from Piassa to the Ethnography Museum, or 200 birr from Piassa to the airport. If you find a good driver, ask for his card and consider hiring him for the day.

 

Light Rail

 

Addis Ababa has a new, ultra-modern light rail line covering the city center and the suburbs. Unfortunately, it’s not super-useful for tourists, but it can get you to a couple major attractions.

 

The most useful stops for visitors on a layover in Addis Ababa are Autobus Tera (for the bus station/Merkato) and Menelik II Sq. (for Piassa).

 

Tickets are cheap at 2-6 birr, but crowds can be overwhelming during rush hour.

 

Minibuses

 

Tuk tuks (called "bajaj" here) and minibuses at a Harari intersection
I don’t have any photos of the Addis minibuses, but the traffic was equally chaotic in Harar

 

Like most large African cities, Addis Ababa’s primary mode of local transport is an enormous network of minibuses. While almost no tourists use them and they can seem overwhelming at first, they’re actually quite easy and a very budget-friendly way to see the city.

 

This is where knowing your landmarks come in handy. Which major square are you nearest to? Which one are you trying to get to? If you can convey those two things (in Amharic) to minibus drivers, they’ll point you to the right vehicle.

 

Major minibus depots are located near the airport, at Piassa, at Meskel Square, at Merkato, at Arat Kilo, and around the corner from Tomoca Cafe. From there they branch out all over the city.

 

Fares are only 3-5 birr. The minibuses get crowded, so they’re not a great idea if you have luggage. And they’re known for pickpockets — keep your wits about you.

 

While it’s easy to get to a major destination, getting back can be more challenging. When I was staying near Atlas Junction, I asked minibus drivers to get me to Piassa and they said “no problem.” It was only after they took me to a second depot and put me on a different minibus that I realized I had no chance of replicating my journey in reverse — Atlas Junction isn’t on one of the major routes and I didn’t know how to say it in Amharic. I managed to get back (after asking about 60 minibus drivers) by figuring out the name of a bigger square about 1 km away from my hotel, but it was stressful and took longer than I expected.

 

On foot

 

Addis is a surprisingly pedestrian-friendly city. Okay, the sidewalks aren’t perfect and sometimes you’ll have to dart across a six-lane highway (*cough Meskel Square cough*). But for the most part, you can cover the city center’s sights on foot, stress-free.

 

I did this on my layover in Addis Ababa by taking a taxi to the Ethnography Museum. Then I walked down King George St. to the National Museum — a pleasant 1 km stroll. After lunch I continued south on Niger St. to Trinity Cathedral. Then I cut up General Wingate St. for about 1.5 km to get back to the southern end of Piassa. The whole loop took me about four hours, including stops and lunch.

 

Piassa itself is also quite pedestrian-friendly. I never needed a taxi, even at night, to get around the neighborhood. Wandering on foot is the best way to soak up the area’s history and enjoy the (lovely, if faded) architecture.

 

Safety in Addis Ababa

 

Alright y’all, let’s get one thing straight: There are dangerous capital cities in Africa. Addis Ababa is not one of them. You don’t need to worry about violent crime. Pickpockets are more of a hassle than a true danger. Scams exist, but aren’t rampant. Solo women face no special problems. Overall, it’s a very relaxed place to spend a layover.

 

Violent crime

 

Addis is no Nairobi or Johannesburg. For the most part, in the city center and inner neighborhoods, violent crime is very rare. There’s the odd armed robbery in Bole and I’m sure other neighborhoods aren’t immune, but keep your wits about you and you don’t have to worry about violent crime.

 

However, Addis is still a big, busy city where many locals struggle to get by. Walking around with wads of cash, or an expensive camera dangling from your neck, is asking for trouble. Leave valuables at the hotel.

 

Pickpocketing

 

As much as Addis lacks violent crime, it does have a serious pickpocketing problem.

 

I personally never experienced an attempt to pickpocket me on either of my two layovers in Addis Ababa. But nearly every other traveler and expat I met in Ethiopia did. Piassa, Bole and Merkato are especially rife with pickpockets. To prevent losing anything valuable, carry only the cash you need for the day, leave your nice camera in a hotel safe, and if you must carry a day-pack, wear it in front of you instead of on your back.

 

Pickpockets often work in teams. If someone spills something on you, turn rapidly in the opposite direction to make sure no one is reaching into your bag.

 

Scams

 

Ethiopians are very friendly and love to talk to foreigners. The vast majority of the people who introduce themselves to you are simply curious locals who want to get to know you. Unfortunately, a small handful of them are scammers.

 

The most common scam in Addis is for someone to invite you to a wedding, traditional restaurant, or other cultural event. You go, and are surrounded by some combination of: beautiful women performing for you (especially if you’re a solo man), lots of food served to you, lots of alcohol served to you, or gifts bestowed on you. At first it will be presented as a gift. But when you try to leave, you will be expected to pay for everything — often at significantly higher prices than it’s worth (bills of hundreds of dollars are common).

 

To avoid falling victim to this scam, insist on hanging out with locals at places of your choosing. Most will be happy to simply chat in a park for awhile, or go to a coffee shop with you. The scammers are pretty obvious — they’ll claim to know you from your hotel, or they’ll say they’re a student at an international university. Trust your instincts — if it doesn’t feel right, don’t accompany them anywhere.

 

Solo women

 

Ethiopia in general, and Addis Ababa in particular, present no special issues for women alone. It’s a refreshingly hassle-free city to explore, even on foot, even at night.

 

On my layover in Addis Ababa, I got a single snarky cat-call. But far more memorable were the many men I met who were helpful, friendly, kind, and welcoming. I chatted with businessmen at Tomoca Coffee. I had dinner with a local guy at KG Corner who I met when they had no other open tables. And I befriended a dad whose kids wanted their photo taken by me.

 

Eating and drinking coffee alone didn’t raise any eyebrows. I felt completely secure walking around Piassa at about 10 pm.

 

Overall, I had fewer issues with creepy guys on my layover in Addis Ababa than I do on a daily basis in my home city of Washington, DC.

 

Should you leave the airport on a layover in Addis Ababa?

 

In conclusion, Addis Ababa is a fascinating, diverse, and hassle-free city. There’s no reason to spend 17 hours sitting in the (kind of dingy) airport when you could be out exploring!

 

If you have more than 8 hours on your layover, you’ll find it well worth it to leave the airport. Better yet, spend some time traveling around Ethiopia before moving on to your next destination. It’s one of the greatest travel experiences on the planet.

 

Have you been to Addis Ababa on a layover? What did you think? Leave a comment!

 

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Not sure what to do on your layover in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia? Here are some ideas: food, museums, culture and more.

 

Read more about Ethiopia here

 

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