Stepping off the plane, I felt like I’d arrived in a different country. I was instantly hit by the sticky heat typical of lowland East Africa. I could hear the Call to Prayer echoing from a nearby mosque. Instead of white-clad Christian shepherds, I was surrounded by black-robed businesswomen in high heels. I hadn’t originally planned to visit Dire Dawa on my Ethiopia trip. But I was starting to think this city might be pretty interesting.
Dire Dawa is Ethiopia’s second-largest city and the gateway for the eastern part of the country. Most foreigners visiting Dire Dawa just pass through on the way to Harar or Somaliland. But since I couldn’t quite stomach the idea of jumping from one plane to another plane to taxi to crowded minibus, I decided to spend the night.
Why visit Dire Dawa?
While the rest of Ethiopia seems bizarrely cut off from the rest of the world, traders have been traversing the east for centuries. They brought with them their religion (Islam) and Arab-style markets. They left Dire Dawa and the rest of eastern Ethiopia with a very cultural-crossroads vibe.
Dire Dawa is the most cosmopolitan of the eastern cities. It’s well-connected to both Djibouti and Somalia, which gives Ethiopia its access to the sea. It has swanky cafes. People drive nice cars. It’s a welcome respite from the small towns of the highlands.
But for all its modernity, when you visit Dire Dawa, you’ll notice the city still drips with tradition. The markets pulse in the mornings. Everyone drops what they’re doing to go to the mosques five times a day.
Eastern Ethiopia in general sees fewer foreign visitors than the rest of the country. But Dire Dawa seems to be completely forgotten. You won’t find anyone looking to rip off tourists — but you will benefit from the friendliness that comes with being off the beaten path.
In short, what Dire Dawa lacks in headline attractions is more than made up for in its friendliness and tradition-meets-modernity feel. It’s well worth a short stop on your way further east.
Exploring Dire Dawa on foot
I arrived in Dire Dawa late in the afternoon, after a long flight from Lalibela. The flight was trouble-free, but I had to go through some sort of registration process at the airport before I was allowed into the city. It basically amounted to writing my name in a notebook; who knows what for.
I grabbed a cab — the drivers were all surprisingly honest — and headed to my hotel in the city center. After dropping off my bags, I decided to make the most of visiting Dire Dawa and headed out to explore.
I started out at Haile Selassie’s palace. It was once the imperial residence, and while I’m sure it’s quite the sight from inside, it’s virtually impossible to see from the street.
Next, I headed down the tree-lined boulevard to the old European quarter. This neighborhood is dominated by pretty architecture, most evident at the old train station. It’s a gorgeous French-built structure that has been in disuse for ages, although theoretically will reopen for passenger service soon.
I wandered down the side streets to find some charming old mansions and churches. In between the old buildings are modern auto repair shops and convenience stores. I stopped to buy a bottle of water and ended up in a long conversation with a shop owner — just a friendly guy eager to help me get to know his city.
The khat obsession
As my last stop on my mini-Dire Dawa walking tour, I headed for the markets — where I was first introduced to khat.
The drug of choice in the Horn of Africa, khat is a mildly-stimulating leaf. In social settings, locals pop some in their mouth and chew for hours in order to get a slight buzz.
And khat is everywhere at the markets in Dire Dawa. Every inch of sidewalk is covered with women trying to sell it or men sitting around and chewing it. It’s as iconic to this part of Ethiopia as coffee and injera.
As tempting as it may be to join in the local experience, you may want to steer clear of khat. The science demonstrating its adverse affects is disputed, but khat is banned as a drug in much of Europe and the US (most recently by the UK).
The locals who were using it heavily looked pretty out of it — not a great position to put yourself in as a traveler. So by all means, observe the culture, have a coffee with khat-chewing locals, and ask them about it. It’s an essential part of a visit to Dire Dawa. But at least to me, it didn’t seem appealing to try it.
Where to stay and eat when you visit Dire Dawa
One of the main reasons to visit Dire Dawa is it has one of Ethiopia’s best backpackers. Trust me on this — if you’re headed to Harar afterwards, it’s worth the one night of comfort. African Village, just west of the town center, has everything faranji travelers need. Rooms start at $25, including breakfast.
The rooms are rustic but charming. Comfy beds, cute little desks, and hot showers add to the appeal. The (Swiss) owner and his staff are great sources of onward travel info. The only downside is the WiFi connection is pretty bad.
African Village also has a fantastic restaurant. I can vouch for the pizzas being great, but the burgers looked pretty darn good too. Sit in the garden and take advantage of the (still pretty bad, but better than the hotel’s, and hey, it’s free) WiFi.
If you’re sick of injera but not looking for burgers and pizza, try Bollywood Restaurant. For under $5 you can get a great and authentic Indian meal. It specializes in tandoori dishes, but there are veg-friendly options.
Every other street stall and convenience store serves good coffee. But if you’re after something fancier, stop in at Elga Cafe. You can get a tasty cake or pastry with your caffeine, or try the delicious and filling avocado juice. With comfy chairs next to the huge windows, you can sit in air-conditioned comfort and watch Dire Dawa’s street life go by.
How to get to Dire Dawa
You’ll probably visit Dire Dawa on your way to or from Harar. It has the region’s most convenient airport.
Several flights a day do the 90-minute run to and from Addis Ababa (with connections to Lalibela, Axum, Gondar, and pretty much everywhere else). I paid about $50 to fly from Lalibela with a layover in Addis.
Backpackers with more time than money will appreciate the Selam Bus service connecting Dire Dawa with Addis. It costs about $12 and takes 8-10 hours, but it’s comfortable, as fast as can be expected in the Ethiopian highlands, and safe.
To get to Harar, head to the bus station behind the Coca Cola factory. Minibuses run throughout the morning and early afternoon. They leave when full, take about 90 minutes and cost no more than $1.50 (drivers may try to charge you extra for baggage).
Is it worth it to visit Dire Dawa?
Dire Dawa isn’t much of a destination in its own right. But if you’re heading to the absolutely magical city of Harar (post coming soon), it’s worth a stopover — if only for some modern comforts before you go back to roughing it.
Have you been to Dire Dawa or anywhere in Eastern Ethiopia? What did you think? Leave a comment!
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