Once a year I go to Ethiopia to visit my family. It's one of the best times of the year. Not only do I get to see my loved ones, I also get to relax and enjoy myself. I have put together this food and travel guide for those of you thinking about visiting Addis Ababa and in need of inspiration. If you're transiting through Addis Ababa, consider staying for a few days. There are many reasons to extend your layover.
How to get to Addis Ababa
First things first. To get to Ethiopia, you'll need to book your flight to Addis Ababa. Addis Ababa is Ethiopia's capital and the sixth highest city in the world. Bole International Airport (ADD) is one of the best served airports on the continent and the city's primary gateway. It is the hub for Ethiopian Airlines, Africa's best airline for five years running. Ethiopian Airlines has the largest flight network of any airline in Africa and flies to over 120 domestic and international destinations. I always fly with Ethiopian Airlines because the service is excellent. For my last trip to Addis, my husband and I got the opportunity to travel business class and that was an experience to remember — excellent business lounge facilities, courteous flight attendants, and amazing food & drinks offer. Watch the video I made here. We enjoyed a delicious three-course dinner with paired wines. We then reclined our seats to the fully horizontal position and slept all the way to Addis. We enjoyed every moment of the journey, so thanks to Ethiopian Airlines for the experience!
Another good reason to fly Ethiopian is that you'll be eligible for a discount on domestic flights. We have grown used to making our way around Ethiopia by air. Domestic flights are reliable, affordable, and get you almost everywhere (Ethiopian Airlines currently serve 23 cities). It's also much safer than travelling by road.
All tourists travelling to Ethiopia need a visa, unless you are from Kenya or Djibouti. Most nationals can apply for a tourist e-visa online. This can take anywhere from 7–30 days. For more information, I suggest contacting your nearest Ethiopian embassy.
When to travel
This depends on which part of the country you're visiting. Generally, you'd want to avoid the rainy season, which happens at slightly different times in the north and south. As for Addis, I recommend visiting between November and May. You'll likely experience some rain but you're also guaranteed long sunny spells!Tip: Plan your trip around one of Ethiopia’s many religious festivals such as Timket or Meskel. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians celebrate Timket, or Epiphany, in January. Meskel, the discovery of the True Cross, is also celebrated by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians in September, a few weeks after Ethiopian New Year.
Where to stay
I mostly stay with family whenever I go home but Addis has a wide range of hotels and guest houses to choose from. International brands such as Hilton and Sheraton offer high-end service while so-called "pensions" (a small hotel or guest house) cater to smaller budgets. If you're looking for room and board, you might be better off in a hotel as many pensions don't have a restaurant.
I have previously enjoyed staying in pensions in the past. Something to look out for is location: make sure there aren't any nightclubs or bars in the same street. The best pensions are those that have only just opened. The facilities will be new and the staff will go above and beyond to make your stay a happy one. The quality of pensions tends to go down over time for lack of maintenance.
As for hotels, I recommend Sidra International Hotel in Haya Arat. It's a 3-star hotel, very well priced at $50-60 a night, which includes breakfast and a foot massage at the spa. They offer discounts on longer stays (also have a look online for the best rate). The hotel is located in a quiet neighbourhood, is close to the city centre, and has a decent restaurant. The spa offers various kinds of massages, manicures, pedicures, Moroccan bath, jacuzzi, sauna, steam sauna, etc. There's also a small gym in the basement. All rooms have WiFi.
Where to eat
It goes without saying that the best food in Ethiopia is found at home. If you're lucky enough to be invited, you will know what I am talking about. However, eating out can be an amazing experience too.
To begin with, it's important to note that almost every restaurant in Ethiopia offers vegan food. There are no vegan restaurants as such. Veganism as we know it in the West doesn’t exist in Ethiopia. Strongly influenced by religion, we have a long tradition of eating plant-based foods. For example, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians fast throughout the year. During such periods, they refrain from eating any animal products. The longest fasting period, Abiy Tsom, last 55 days and takes place before Easter (which is celebrated a few days after Easter in the UK), which makes this a particularly good time to travel for vegans. Many restaurants will be serving only vegan food or might even experiment with new dishes. So when visiting a restaurant just have a look at the fasting (ye'tsom) section on the menu or ask for their tsom offerings.
Addis is a foodie heaven with endless culinary options. The city is very outward looking. Besides traditional Ethiopian staples, you'll find food from all over the world. As you'll see from the list below, when I'm in Ethiopia, I tend to focus on the Ethiopian food! Here's a list of my favourite places.
Mitmita restaurant in Bole. This is a fairly new place that serves Ethiopian food in a modern setting. We had one of their combos which had such classics as shiro and miser but also dishes that you can only find here such as carrot tibs. The food was amazing and the portion size generous. Mitmita has a great ambiance with very friendly and attentive staff. It is not a budget restaurant but the food is worth every penny.
Temsalet Kitchen in Sarbet. If you like tej (Ethiopian honey wine) or want to try it, this is the place to go. They have traditional Ethiopian food on offer, expertly prepared. We tried one of their combos and the food was outstanding. The wooden furniture gives the restaurant a lovely rustic feel. Tip: Temsalet organises lots of events, so keep an eye on their socials.
Kategna in Bole. This may be the most famous restaurant in Addis but it is worth mentioning. Kategna are known for their impressive menu. They serve food from all over Ethiopia and popularised the concept of "half and half"—for the price of one, you get to enjoy two dishes (half a portion each). The restaurant gets packed around lunch time and it might be hard to find a table. Whatever time of day you visit, the restaurant is infused with the smell of incense and coffee. One of the dishes I like to order is ful medames, a savoury breakfast dish made with fava beans. Tip: visit early to mid-morning to enjoy a quiet meal.
Delmela in Bole. A great place to have brunch, a light lunch, or early dinner. They have a wide-ranging menu, from waffles and firfir to rice bowls. We tried their cado bowl, veggie sandwich, and skin-on fries. Everything was delicious and we enjoyed every bite.
Ethiopian & non-Ethiopian food
Sami Café and Restaurant in Sarbet. My brother-in-law took me to this place. On arrival, we were greeted by very friendly staff. The atmosphere is relaxed and they have outdoor seating. They serve both Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian dishes, we tried one of their combos and a sandwich. Both dishes were delicious. Tip: They organise traditional dance shows (contact the restaurant for the schedule).
Koba Pastry in Kebena. Koba is by far the best pastry shop in Addis. From chocolate eclairs to red velvet cakes—you can get your sweet fix here. They have two other branches, one near Atlas and the other around Arat Kilo. The Kebena branch has a beautiful terrace where you can eat your scrumptious cake in the shade of a false banana tree (koba). We visited during the fasting season and couldn’t believe they had over 10 vegan (ye'tsom) cakes to choose from.
Mekonen Baklaba in Piazza. The name says it all: this is Ethiopia's oldest baklava shop. Don't expect any bells and whistles. You'll find people from all backgrounds standing along the high tables tucking into their baklava. Tip: Order an Ethiopian spiced tea (shai qimmem) to go with your baklava.
Street food & juice
Ethiopia has a huge juice culture. In every neighbourhood, you will find amazing fruit and vegetable grocers who sell freshly made juice. This is a unique aspect of Ethiopian culture and one of my favourite things about going home. Tip: Order a spriz (mixed juice) to get a combo of all in-season fruits.
Arsema Juice in Bole Dildiy. A very well frequented juice place. They are always busy and serve one of the best mango and avocado layered juices in the city. They are also known for their vegetable salad with bananas.
Sami Juice in Habtegiorgis Dildiy. This is a great juice place. It's small and slightly off the beaten track but this juice place has been making the rounds on Ethiopian social media. It is famous for its avocado juice, which is so thick that you can hold your glass upside down and it won't fall out.
"Special ertib" in Amist Kilo. "Ertib" is not a restaurant but a dish. Actually it's a sandwich filled with roasted potatoes covered in berbere and herbs, a bit like a chip butty, but better. "Special" means it's served with a dollop of spiced avocado on the side. You can get this dish in any of the small restaurants near the university. It's a favourite among students (no surprises there).
What to do
Coffee tour with Ethiopian Holidays (part of Ethiopian Airlines). One of the things you want to do while staying in Ethiopia is learn more about coffee! Ethiopia has one of the oldest coffee cultures in the world. Coffee is consumed daily with almost all meals. Most households and business establishments make traditional coffee from scratch around lunch times. This includes the washing, roasting, and grinding of the beans. The coffee is then served with a side of popcorn. It is very unlike your usual coffee experience.
This year I went on a myth-busting coffee tour with Ethiopian Holidays and I learned a lot. We visited a coffee museum-cum-roastery, where they taught us how to taste coffee using professional cupping techniques. We also enjoyed a traditional coffee ceremony. We ended the tour by visiting a café where we tasted different kinds of coffee from all over the country. Throughout the tour we were accompanied by someone from Ethiopian Holidays who answered all our questions. The tour took half a day, but can be made longer or shorter depending on your preferences. We were made to feel welcome at both places, which shows the great relationship Ethiopian Holidays has with each establishment. Tip: Contact Ethiopian Holidays before travelling so you can be guaranteed to have an amazing time.
Food and Market tour with Go Addis. Go Addis is a tour company operating in Ethiopia and Rwanda. They offer unique tours, have strong relationships with local business owners, and take pride in their incredible customer service. What I like most about Go Addis is the wide range of packages available and the fact that each can be tailored to your needs. We decided to combine the food tour with the market tour, which took up a whole day. We had all three meals plus snacks and coffee and visited two of the biggest markets in Addis Ababa, including Merkato—one of the largest open-air markets in Africa. Check out this video of me on the tour. Tip: Contact Go Addis in advance so they can help you create the best tour package.
Fendika in Kazanchis. This cultural centre hosts live music, dance, and other cultural events. It's a lively place where Ethiopians and foreigners mingle freely. If you're lucky, you might be able to see Melaku Belay perform, Fendika's owner and Ethiopia's most famous dancer. Tip: Call in advance for a schedule as they have many events.
African Jazz Club at Gihon Hotel. This jazz club is owned by Mulatu Astatké, the creator of ethio-jazz. This rotunda-style venue has a circular stage surrounded by raked seating and bars. It features local talent as well as African musicians from all over the continent. If you're lucky, you might get to see Mulatu and Girma Beyene perform. Tip: Call the hotel for a schedule and arrive early to get the best seating.
Friendship Park in Arat Kilo. This new park was recently completed. Like its cousin just up the road, Unity Park, this park was commissioned by Ethiopia's new prime minister Abiy Ahmed in an effort to turn Addis into a greener city. It offers beautiful views of the city. There's also a café and ice-cream parlour (and more restaurants are slated to open). Note that there is a ETB 100 entrance fee. If you're into jogging, there's a track around the park.
Ethiopia is a great place to buy high-quality, hand-woven textiles and other handicrafts. The craftsmanship is excellent but there will be pretenders too, so use your eyes! In the following markets you will be able to find great traditional pieces.
Shiro Meda Market in Shiro Meda. This is the market where locals go to buy traditional fabric or items (baskets, jewellery, coffee pots). I had all my graduation dresses made here. You have the option to buy ready-made dresses or place an order for a custom-made design. You can also find, baskets, shoes, wall hangings, and brass jewellery. Tip: Go with someone who knows their way around the market.
Sabahar in Mekanisa. A textile company that makes high-quality scarves, shawls, table linen, floor mats, etc., made from locally sourced cotton and silk. Everything is meticulously handcrafted in their own workshops (one of which you can visit on site). Sabahar has a beautiful lush garden, which is very calming and worth a visit. The on-site shop has a great selection of products. Tip: Bring your credit card.
I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed putting it together. I’ll try to update this guide after each visit. If you come across a new place that isn't mentioned here but worthy of mentioning please let me know and I might add it.