Word of Mouth: Addis Ababa
Word of Mouth: Addis Ababa
On the cusp of a renaissance, the Ethiopian capital packs plenty of charm off the beaten path
by Jenny Miller
Addis Ababa is a capital on the up-and-up. As the gateway to the rest of Ethiopia and its beguiling landscape, Addis is a city of almost constant sunshine and, in recent years, construction dust. Countless hotels, a light rail system and other developments are in the works, but the city's charm is more than sufficient enough to make up for any byproduct of its rapid modernization. Still devoid of global sameness, the shifting metropolis is one to visit soon, while you can take it its unique food, world-class coffee, gorgeous handicrafts and enchanting culture.
A lot of hotels might claim to be "an oasis in the city," but Zeist Lodge really embodies that, with high walls surrounding a peaceful tree-lined courtyard. The boutique property, which opened earlier this year, is tucked down a residential lane (across the way from the Swaziland embassy), and its 12 rooms are modestly appointed with furniture and textiles handcrafted locally. The staff is B&B-level friendly, and in addition to Western offerings, breakfast includes traditional Ethiopian foods like fir fir—torn-up pieces of the spongy sourdough flatbread called injera, mixed with clarified butter and berbere, a typical piquant spice mix.
In the '70s, the budding Ethio-jazz scene was quashed by the rise of a communist regime that lasted until 1991. Since then, jazz has been making a slow comeback in Addis, and Jazzamba, a cavernous club attached to the historic Taitu Hotel, offers live music each night. You can dine while you watch acts like the Addis Acoustic Project (which plays Ethiopian classics from the 1950s and '60s every Friday) or simply relax with a local beer. The Taitu, just next door, is a funky old dame worth having a peek at for its old-school wooden interior and rotating art exhibits.
Don't leave Ethiopia without buying a scarf. The country has a long, proud tradition of gorgeous hand-woven textiles, often elaborately embroidered or bespangled. To see the weaving process in person, head to Salem's, a small factory where visitors can observe the men creating these scarves, blankets, baskets and jewelry. Have tea with the friendly Salem herself in the workshop's sunny, lush courtyard, then pick out an item from her shop; it's the ideal Addis souvenir.
Most of the restaurants easily accessible to tourists in Addis serve boring Western food. It is possible to seek out a proper Ethiopian meal, but a sure bet is to put yourself in the hands of Addis Eats, a two-year-old food tour company founded by Eliza Richman, an American who was raised by an Ethiopian nanny. Richman, co-founder Xavier Curtis and their guides are extremely knowledgable about local food and culture; a half-day tour with them includes five or six spots—a juice place, a coffee shop, a vegetarian stew restaurant and at least one meat or fish place depending on the day of the week (Wednesdays and Fridays are meatless fasting days). They offer a much more comprehensive picture of the food scene than a visitor could get otherwise (especially since most of the places you'll hit don't have names in English), and it's a delicious way to spend a morning. Addis Eats recently started offering city tours and visits to the open-air Shola Market.
Ethiopia has been called the world's best coffee country, and indeed it's a double whammy java-wise: not only do excellent beans grow here, but there's a long tradition of coffee enjoyment. What's more, since Mussolini made a brief, failed attempt to take over the country in the 1930s, it's also possible to find excellent Italian espresso here. The most famous source for this is Tomoca Coffee, which has several locations around town. The original and most charming is in the lively area known simply as Piazza. After enjoying a small cream-dolloped macchiato in the wood-paneled, '50s-era shop, burn off your extra energy by strolling the neighborhood's bustling streets.
Performance images courtesy of Jazzamba; all other images by Jenny Miller