(CNN) — Rambunctious, manic, beguiling, exciting — it’s hard to accurately describe Addis Ababa.
“Addis,” as it’s often simply known, is the world’s third-highest capital city at 2,400 meters, and has worn its heart on its sleeve since it was founded by Ethiopian Emperor Menelik about 1892.
Life is lived very much outdoors on its bustling streets thanks to comfortable temperate weather boosted by months of nonstop sunshine.
“Perhaps the highest praise one can direct at this chaotic, contradictory and compelling city is this: Addis Ababa does feel exactly as the Ethiopia capital should feel — singularly and unmistakably Ethiopian,” says travel writer Philip Briggs.
1. Black gold
Ethiopia is famous for its coffee and Tomoca is one of the oldest joints in town.
It’s impossible to separate Ethiopian culture — that unparalleled Ethiopian-ness — from coffee.
This is the land of the finest Arabica coffee — as legend would have it, discovered by an Ethiopian shepherd boy and his goats sometime around the sixth century.
And Addis is the city of cafés, traditional coffee stalls in bars and restaurants, and women walking the streets with thermos flasks — all dispensing potent high-quality coffee.
All modes of coffee distribution are worth trying, though you may struggle to sleep for some time afterward.
Extra tip: The delicious Ethiopian version of a macchiato is worth a try — many foreigners confess to being unable to start their days without two of them. Or you could ask for a spriss, which is half coffee and half tea.
2, Local art and fashion
Addis Ababa’s arts scene is thriving. Makush Art Gallery is a popular draw.
When it comes to fashion, Ethiopian designers like to combine the old with the new as illustrated by the Mafi label of Mahlet Afework, one of the best known and most daring designers.
Extra tip: When it comes to shopping, the Mercato market — one of Africa’s largest — occupies a swathe of the city easily missed by tourists. It’s an eyeful to say the least, in which anything appears to be available, though it’s best go with an Ethiopian guide, and with a watchful eye on your pockets.
Ethiopians are superb dancers. Regardless of age, all Ethiopians appear to relish the chance to hit the dance floor (or turn any location into a dance floor). And they love it when a foreigner joins in, or at least tries to.
You can’t beat finding a so-called “azmari bet” for live music and to witness the wild, eye-popping traditional iskista dance of the Amhara people.
4. Ethiopian history
Ethiopians take their history very seriously, and they have good reason: Ethiopia has one of the world’s oldest Christian traditions. It was one of only two African countries not colonized, plus it’s widely accepted that the first humans came from the Rift Valley running through Ethiopia.
Hence, in the National Museum of Ethiopia, you’ll find the legendary Lucy, the oldest and most complete hominid skeleton ever discovered, which was found in the northeastern Danakil desert (an amazing travel experience itself). (National Museum of Ethiopia, King George VI St., Addis Abab; +251 11 111 7150).
Extra tip: Addis Ababa serves as the hub of Ethiopian Airlines, which provides an excellent domestic service to visit the historic marvels around the country such as Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches and Harar’s ancient walled city.
5. Local food
Injera is Ethiopia’s national dish — a grey, spongy bread with vegetables and sauce toppings.
It’s a rite of passage to try local staple injera — a spongy pancake-like bread piled with various meats, vegetables and delicious hot sauces.
Addis has a number of well-known traditional restaurant options, which typically also put on traditional dancing displays while you eat.
Farther from the city center is Totot Restaurant (+251 11 646 0718) in Mebrat Hail, specializing in kitfo, a spicy minced beef dish often praised by Ethiopian supermodels for its nutritional powers.
Extra tip: It’s well worth diving into any of the thousands of local eateries serving traditional Ethiopian fare — it’s relatively safe to go truly local as food is well prepared. You shouldn’t be deterred by windows full of carcasses that accompany most local restaurants: meat doesn’t come fresher, served straight from the fire.
6. Food that’s not injera
If you end up feeling the need for some more familiar sustenance, there are plenty of Western-styled restaurant options in Addis because of the city’s role as a diplomatic hub with a large expat community working for international organizations.
Most weekends there’s usually a cycle race somewhere in Addis, drawing enthusiastic crowds and a festive atmosphere as people sit outside bars and cafes drinking beers under the sun.
The soccer stadium at Meskal Square is a raucous experience — Ethiopians are soccer mad. Any weekend bars across the city are full of impassioned Ethiopians watching the English Premiership soccer league, clasping their heads in horror or cheering the goals.
And of course there’s running — the Great Ethiopian Run is an annual 10-kilometer road-running event growing in reputation and popularity that takes place in late November.
Extra tip: Ethiopian sport is getting more diverse all the time — rally car driving is taking off, with a number of events held throughout the year.
8. Decent accommodation
9. Attractions off the beaten track
There’s bound to be a few surprises in a city of about five million people that’s capital of a country with a cultural, historical and linguistic identity quite distinct from the rest of Africa.
You can watch the sun rise from a rocky outcrop atop Yeka hill overlooking the area of Megananya to the east of the city before visiting the nearby 700-year-old rock-hewn church of Washa Michael.
Or there’s the Horn of Africa’s first space observatory high in the Entoto hills encircling the northern reaches of the city. As well as offering great panoramic views over Addis, it’s an indication of how far Ethiopian development wants to go.
Extra tip: At street level, another local custom is the tiny juice bars dotted all over the city serving delicious mixes of freshly squeezed juices.
10. Amharic language
Similar to dancing, Ethiopians, young and old, love it when foreigners try to speak their language. Just one word is usually a great way to break the ice. It can be a mind-bogglingly diverse country for linguists with more than 80 dialects, but in Addis Ababa, Amharic is the most applicable.
Here are five essential phrases:
Ameseginalew: Thank you
Yirkirta: Excuse me or sorry
Konjo! Beautiful (a good word to use in reply to the many Ethiopians who will ask you how things are or how you are finding Ethiopia)
Yeut no? Where is …?
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist based in Addis Ababa, from where he writes about Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa for various international media. Twitter: @jamesinaddis.
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