The Eritrean capital of Asmara is a vibrant mix of Italian and African architecture and culture. It is by far the biggest and most important city of Eritrea and not just the administration center of the country but also the cultural center and the place where every tourist will arrive to the country.
Electric power is not available throughout the day, although it depends a lot in which part of the city you are and also in which season. In the central part there is power mainly between afternoon and the early morning. So you should charge your phone and camera when you are able to. Power cuts are common, specially in the rainy season so you might be without power for some days in some cases.
The internet connection is very slow. Don't expect to be able to do more than receiving and sending emails. But there are many internet cafes where you can buy a ticket to use the wifi (~Nkf 20 per hour).
Founded in the twelfth century by a union of villages trying to protect themselves from bandits, Asmara has grown to become a bustling city of over half a million people. Over its history, the city has endured the rule of various empires and countries, including the Italian Empire from the late 19th century, the British from after World War II and Ethiopia from 1950. After a long and bloody war with Ethiopia, Asmara was finally liberated in 1991 and became the capital of a country which had not had self-rule for two centuries.
Today, it is difficult to walk down a street in downtown Asmara and not see an old Italian building. In the early 1930s, Mussolini, the Italian dictator, injected huge amounts of funds into the city with the goal of making it the centre of a second Roman Empire that spanned Africa. Architects were only limited by their imagination, and practically the entire city centre was rebuilt. Not only were cathedrals built in ancient-Romanesque style, but also numerous offices influenced by the architectural movements of cubism and futurism.
|Climate chart (explanation)|
The dry season from December to April is distinguished by the terrain of red-brown, rusty, beige or black rubble surrounding the city, resembling photos from Mars. The vegetation consists largely of shrubbery, eucalyptus, aloes, cacti and the odd explosively colorful specs of bougainville, jacaranda or other ornamental plants.
The rainy season between May and September (hopefully) brings torrents of rain and needed nourishment to the land, which transforms itself from lunar/marsian-esque to verdant and grassy in the post-rain months of August to October.
Regardless of when you go, temperatures in Asmara rarely rise above a comfortable dry 30° C in the sun. The capital is known for its lovely climate. There is very little humidity in the air so the biggest variations in temperatures occur between night and day, or whether one is standing in the sun or in the shade, not between seasons. Between December and February, it can get very cold at night and in the morning, it can even drop a few degrees below 0° C. Due to lack of heating and insulation in Asmara, it is important to bring proper clothes. Rains only last a few hours at a time and it all dries up quickly enough, although the occasional flash flood is not uncommon during the rainy season.
If you are entering the country without a visa, as a holder of an Eritrean ID card in combination with a foreign passport, you are required to register with the Immigration and Nationality office in Asmara within seven business days of entry into the country.
- 1 Asmara International Airport (ASM IATA). As of 2018, the airport served Istanbul 4 times weekly by Turkish Airways; Cairo daily by Egyptair; Dubai daily by Flydubai; Sharjah weekly by Air Arabia. Eritrean Airlines and Nasair might also be operating flights. The airport departure tax of US$20 or €15 is normally included in the ticket price. Ethiopian resumed flights from Addis Ababa in summer 2018, after a 20-year hiatus.
Asmara has 10 downtown bus-lines on distinctive Red Mercedes Benz buses, with a sign in the front saying where they're headed (oftentimes in Latin script). The bus stops are easily identifiable (there are signs and an obvious shelter with a bench), but the buses stop running quite early in the evening (about 19:00). They run on 15-30 minute intervals during the day (every day), but there is no fixed or published schedule. The roads get pretty jammed at rush hours (in the morning, midday and around 16:00). The fare is about Nkf 2, and the entrance is in the back where one buys the ticket. It is not necessary to have exact change, but one should try to pay in lower denominations.
Line number 1 goes between the airport, 3 km south of the city, and the former zoo in Biet Ghiorghis, 2 km (1 mi) east of the city on the eastern escarpment (the windy road to the Red Sea begins after Biet Ghirogis). Number 1 also passes through the main streets in downtown Asmara (Independence and Martyrs Avenues). All bus lines that begin with 2 (e.g. 21, 22), run between the marketplace downtown and the surrounding villages, but there are only a few a day. Therefore, plan to leave early in order to be able to return the same day. Only the locals know the schedule (through word of mouth). If you're lucky one of them speaks English and will be very helpful. Some villages like Embaderho and Tselot are well worth visiting for their scenery and traditional lifestyle.
There also white minibus-lines running on the main streets of the city, which run on fixed routes but without fixed stops or signs. They usually stop at the bus stops, but you still have to hail them when you see them, just like a cab. Before boarding, ask them where they're headed, unless the ticket-boy (called fottorino) doesn't beat you to it by announcing it loudly. Then, let them know when you want to get off ("Stop!" is a universally understood command). Costs Nkf 2.
Finally there are the yellow taxis, most of which also run on fixed routes on the main streets like the white minivans. They have a similar system to the minivans, and the fare is Nkf 5. You'll most likely be sharing the ride with 3 other people. Since some cabs do not use fixed routes, some will take you personally to where you want to go. These taxis are called contract taxis, and you will have to negotiate the price with the driver. The price depends on how far you're travelling, but most contract drivers charge, at a minimum, Nkf 70. These cabs usually wait outside the airport when a plane is coming in, the city's main hotels (Asmara Palace Hotel, Nyala, Ambassador etc.), the road to the right of the main cathedral downtown and other obvious spots. They can also be hailed on any street, but many cabs are on a fixed route with passengers already in them.
Renting a car is insanely expensive and fuel prices are higher than in Europe. Renting a cab to drive you around town is also quite expensive, but affordable. Be prepared to pay Nkf 3000 - 6000 for a weekend with a driver. It is perhaps better to take the bus or contact one of the national tour agencies (ask at the information desk at the airport upon arrival).
Asmara's main attraction is its World Heritage listed colonial Italian architecture. The palm-lined main street "Harnet Avenue" is colloquially referred to as "Kombishtato" (a creole of the neighbourhood's original name: Campo di Citta). It is full of cafés, bars, shops and old cinemas, and it makes for a nice mile long stroll between the eastern end of this avenue where the "half" stadium is (you'll know when you see half a bleacher) and the western end where the Government palace is. Asmara's colourful and bustling marketplace lies north of the catholic cathedral. It's a great place to learn how to haggle and buy some souvenirs.
From the café on the top floor of the Nyala Hotel, one has a great view of the city while enjoying a nice well-chilled beer. The beer is exceptionally good in Asmara, aptly called "Asmara Beer". Behind the hotel in the quieter Maryam Gmbi Street is the National Museum, it's the best museum of whole Eritrea which doesn't mean too much. But if you do not expect to much it is worth visiting the collection spanning the six millennia of the land's civilization (museum is closed on wednesdays and open between 08:00 and 11:00 and 15:00 and 17:00).
On Massawa Road near the outskirts of the city there is a great scenery of the eastern escarpment. There was a Zoo but it closed several years ago. Further down the road, one reaches Bar Durfo, a bar and café perched on a cliff overlooking the dramatic precipice of the Asmara - Massawa highway. You will need a car or taxi to get beyond the last stop of the No. 1 bus, Biet Ghiorghis, to Bar Durfo.
There are more places to see the dramatic highland landscape on the eastern escarpment. Additionally, one can see a traditional Eritrean highland village in the village of Tselot (which means 'prayer' and is also famous for being the President's village). Tselot lies about 7 km south east of the city center and is served by the red city bus line No. 28 departing from the sqare in front of the main entrance of the orthodox cathedral Enda Maryam. You should leave as early as possible because there are only a couple of buses per day so you have to make sure you have a way to get back. The rural highland lifestyle in Tselot resembles Biblical times: stone houses (Hidmo), small plots, ancient temples (both Christian and Muslim), people farming and herding with traditional means using little technology, transporting their goods (as well as themselves) on mule and camel back.
Within walking distance of the village, is the Martyrs National Park, inaugurated in 2000. It is a mountainous forest and wildlife reserve at the ridge of the highland plateau. The landscape consists of an eerily quiet semi-arid plain in a valley, an extension of the highland plateau, interrupted by the dramatic chasm of the eastern ridge which the village center straddles. The views and scenery are spectacular. The highest viewpoint features chasms, gorges and mountaintops bathed by a sea of clouds, which gives one the impression of standing "above the clouds".
- 3 Church of Our Lady of the Rosary. Often just referred to as "the cathedral", this former Roman Catholic church built in the early 1920s in a Lombard Romanesque style. With the decline of Italians in Eritrea after the Second World War its significance decreed significantly. It stopped being a cathedral in 1975 and from 1995 and onwards it's a parish in the Eritrean Catholic church.
- 4 Enda Mariam Cathedral (ቤተ-ክርስትያን እንዳ ማርያም), Arbate Asmara St. Eritrean Orthodox church, built in 1938.
If you are in Asmara for a short stay, the best thing to do after you're done sightseeing in this city is to head for the outskirts where the scenery is stunning at the very least.
Unless you come from a high altitude area yourself, you may need a couple of days of strolling in Asmara to get your body used to the thin dry air at 2,300 m.
Bring lots of sunscreen lotion but also a sweater as it can get really chilly not only at night but even when standing in the shade (temperatures can vary greatly on different sides of the same street depending on the position of the sun). The sun shines very bright throughout the day in Africa, especially so in Asmara where clouds are rare, so unless you enjoy squinting, bring UV blocking shades.
If you like hiking, rock climbing and mountainbiking, the above mentioned areas outside of town are excellent places to do so, but bring your own gear (including bike) as there are no rental bikes and a very limited supply of safety equipment (shoes, ropes, etc.) in Asmara. However, tents and mosquito nets are readily available at an affordable price in the marketplace downtown. Also consult the locals and bring a guide, because it is good to have someone familiar with the place who speaks the local language in case of an accident or any other eventuality (like what is legal and not legal). For example, taking pictures around any government installation or authority (police, airport, ministries etc.) is strictly forbidden, and your guide can help you get out of such sticky situations.
Finally, take time to savor some good food in Asmara. Drinking fresh fruit juices or eating ice cream might be unsafe, but it seems like the situation improved a lot, a good spot for fresh juice is Wintana Fast Food, at Meda Eritrea square. Regarding drinking water you should definitely stick to bottled drinks.
If you need fast internet go to Asmara Palace- Nkf 100 per hour. There is reported to find an other good internet café few hundred meters west of Nakfa house / Fiat Tagliero. If you start to miss good old American candy and Soda, Wikianos Super-market has all the stuff you need. If you want to take them Photo's - Photo Zula If you want to get a nice Eritrean pendant Gold silver etc. around the main mosque there is a bunch of Jewellery shops. If you need a hair cut - there is two barbershops that are bomb - one in Mai-Temenai beside Ghirmai Hotel on Menegedi Keren. The other one is in Shuk by the bus stop. The ones in Mai-Temenai were dope!
Clubs: Expo - Benifer and Berhe Aiba were the two main spots . If you want like bahlawi experience check out Hidmona- the food there is bomb too.
- 1 Asmara Theatre (Teatro di Asmara). A historic theater, built in 1918. The architectural style is a combination of Romanesque Revival and neoclassicism. Unfortunately the theater is not well-used, however there is an café in the building to soak in its atmosphere.
Gold and silver jewellery is cheap in Asmara and is definitely a bargain by world standards. So are frankincense and myrrh (if you have any use for them).
Otherwise most of the souvenirs bought by tourists are the local home-spun and gold-thread embroidered cotton garments, traditional goat-skin rugs, olivewood carvings, clay coffee-pots and other traditional knick-knacks - all of which are found at the marketplace.
- 1 Bar Zilli, Sematat Ave. Eritrean restaurant housed in one of the most iconic colonial Art Deco buildings.
- Albergo Italia, for authentic Italian food.
- Casa Degli Italiani. outdoor setting
- Alba Bistro, Opp. Post Office.
- Castello, Behind the Nyala Hotel.
- Mask Restaurant. Hamburgers using quality organic beef or lamb.
- The Spaghetti and Pizza House, Harnet Avenue. a great choice of pizza and pasta dishes as well as its signature Chilli red snapper.
- Rooftop Garden (for Asian food.).
For traditional food (injera), you have many options, for example Hamassien Restaurant on Seraye Street. If you are looking for cheaper options than restaurants you should try fast food restaurants or snack bars. They have not just burger but also Eritrean food like fuul, silsi, salata, fata and others. It consists in bread rolls with a tasty sauce. Just try different ones and pick your favourite.
If you miss Chinese food and Indian food. Beside Sunshine hotel in Tiravolo there is a government building to the left. Its an embassy or Eritrean government building. Hop in the elevator go to the 5th floor. Its called Grassroots cafe. Also Bar Bereket if you want Kitcha fit-fit and shai. If you want Seafood there is Paradiso restaurant in Mai-temenai (sadly seafood sucks in Asmara). You got to go to Cherhi in Abashawel and just enjoy the 360-degree view of Asmara and get your self a latte or espresso.
If you want ice cream and don't want to be sick, go to the Gelateria da Fortuna, lead by an Italian. Ice cream is definitely not cheap here but tastes as good as in Italy. It is a hundred meters south east of Mai Jah Jah. If you eat ice cream anywhere else in Asmara you will get the runs.
If you want good pastries and coffee and tea just stroll around the center and pick any of the cafés, there are a lot of them in Harnet Avenue and Sematat Avenue. Near Edaga Ekli there is a place called Pharmacy Hamassien.
Eritrea is not a big wine country, even though it used to have a wine-making tradition during the colonial period. On the other hand Eritrea, is a big beer-drinking country, and the Eritrean beer is definitely a good one. There is only one brewery in the country (Asmara Beer) producing only one type of beer (Pilsener), that's why they don't even need to put a label on the bottle. Asmara Beer is great, quenches your thirsty throat and has a good taste. It has around 5% alcohol per volume and a nice hop flavour in the well known bottle. Enjoy!
Nightlife in Asmara is often considered quieter than most other country capitals, but there are a good range of local bars. Prostitution is legal and rife.
- Bar Alfa Romeo, close to Alfa Romeo.
- Peacock Bar, close to Alfa Romeo.
- Mocambo, Downtown (Look for the basement).
- Warsai. Out of the way and a little seedy.
- The Green Pub, at Asmara Palace Hotel. Discos on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights.
- Benifer, Expo Grounds.
- Shamrock. Popular with UN staff.
- Zara Bar, near the Blue Bird restaurant. Popular haunt with expats.
Asmara is an extremely safe city, safe enough for a stroll in the middle of the night. Most people are genuinely friendly, without wanting anything in exchange, beggary and "hustling" is not as common as in most other third world countries and neither is tourism. However, homosexuality is illegal and can in the worst case scenario lead to execution.
- 1 Albergo Italia, Nakfa Avenue, 13 (Next to the central post office), ☏ . Boutique hotel situated in an turn-of-the-century building.
- 2 Asmara Palace Hotel, ☏ . Formerly the Intercontinental Hotel, out by the airport. The odd spaceship-looking hotel probably has the comfiest beds. But quite far from the city centre and with a heafty price.
- Freedom Pension, Back side of the Post Office.
- 3 Nyala Hotel, Martyrs Avenue. Located in the city's highest building.
- Embasoira Hotel, behind Independence Avenue (on the east side).
- Hamassien Hotel, right next door to the Embasoira. The Swiss-cottage-looking building.
- Sunshine Hotel, near the Roof Garden restaurant.
- Selam Hotel, a few blocks away from the Presidential Palace and the National Museum and has a nice garden.
- The Buon Respiro is a very cosy Bed and Breakfast in an ornate Italian villa with a nice patio in the middle of the city just a few blocks from Cinema Odeon.
- The Crystal Hotel behind Cinema Roma, similar to the Sunshine Hotel.
- Asmara Central Hotel, good value, directly beside Harnet Avenue in Mata Street
- Greece, P.O. Box 4173, ☏ , fax: .
- United States, 179 Ala St, ☏ , fax: . M-Th 08:00-18:00, F 08:00-12:00.
To leave Asmara to go anywhere else in the country you need a traveler's permit which can be obtained from the Ministry of Immigration and Nationality opposite the Cathedral compound on Harnet Av. downtown.
If you intend to leave by Air, see the "Getting In" section. In 2018 there are no domestic flight routes as of date.
There are roads heading in 4 directions from Asmara. There might always be military-police roadblocks (called "blocco" locally) where you will be checked for your ID and traveller's permit. Always carry these or certified copies of these with you. There are fixed bloccos and there are also mobile and random checkpoints on the roads both inside and outside the limits of nearly all towns and communities in Eritrea. So you might be asked more than once for your papers. Around Asmara there were no fixed bloccos in 2017.
Formerly the blocco for the road towards the coast was placed past the village of Durfo and was called "blocco Batsi" (Batsi is another name for Massawa). The blocco for the road heading west towards the country's second largest town Keren and the western lowlands (bordering Sudan) was called "blocco Keren" and the blocco for the two roads heading south was called "blocco Godaeif" (Asmara's southernmost suburb) which later divides at a fork with one road towards the southwestern highlands and the Mereb river border crossing (now closed) to Ethiopia and the other road towards the southeastern highlands and the "Zalambessa" border crossing to Ethiopia (closed).
Buses are the main means of transport in Eritrea other than camelback or your own car. Buses run to all main towns and villages from Asmara, some several times a day, others only once a day or a couple of times a week, requiring you to sleepover for one or more nights there or even on the way, before returning. Buses don't run after dusk because of road safety (Eritrea is a very mountainous country). Fog and mist can severely delay traffic as well.
Renting a car or chartering a taxi is possible in Eritrea, but both cost about the same and are extremely expensive, as is the price of fuel. There is one narrow-gauge train line, from Asmara to Massawa, but it is driven by a slow steam-engine which only runs for chartered tours.