There we were. Our last country of the African continent and after a long wait for the country to open up, we were ready to travel in Eritrea. Some call it the North Korea of Africa, others describe it as the undiscovered gem filled with stunning landscapes and a one-of-a-kind capital city. But most of the time when I mentioned my plans to visit Eritrea, I received a blank face and a question: “Where?”
Because no matter how you describe Eritrea, it’s definitely one of the most off-the-beaten-path destinations in the world.
Arrival in Eritrea
The plane landed in the middle of the night and after a covid rapid test and a rather long passport check, we were ready to explore the capital city of Asmara.
After a quick negotiation with the taxi driver with a smile, we were on our way to our hotel. Things seemed as per usual when travelling to other parts of this continent. The taxi car was older than me and screamed with each gear change, the streets were pitch dark, and street lamps only appeared once we hit the city centre.
We checked in at the hotel and got some much-needed rest under the sheets and those heavy fur blankets you only get to see now in some parts of the world.
We woke up to a sunny new day and suddenly everything felt different.
Introducing Asmara – the coolest capital city in Africa?
The streets were filled with kids dressed in their school uniform running to school laughing, locals were passing us on bicycles and once we turned the corner, the main street of Asmara felt like an adventure in itself.
The main street is Harnet Avenue, lined with towering gorgeous palm trees. Old yellow taxis ply the streets sharing the space with big old clunky buses taking locals into the suburbs. Everything seems to flow together in a calm and almost organised way – completely different to most of the capital cities of other African countries. The majority of them are loud, chaotic, and dirty; not enjoyable to spend a day roaming the streets.
Asmara is different.
The Opera House from 1920 with its elaborate staircase and columns stands next to the huge Ministry of Education built in typical Fascist style in the 30s. We start our walk down the street here.
Cafes are filled with people laughing over macchiatos and the sun is warming up the air. As Asmara is located over 2300 metres above sea level it has a much cooler climate than other parts of the country.
There are shoe shops, old-school barbers, a shop selling stationary and finally, the main cathedral from the ’20s appears and of course, we snap some photos and pop our heads inside. This is one of the finest Lombard-Romanesque churches outside Italy and the altar is made of Carrera marble, not to mention the stunning ceiling.
Anywhere else this might be the main sight in the city for tourists to see, but again Asmara is different: most people find the old cinemas built during the Italian rule more fascinating.
After a short stroll down Harnet Avenue, we refuel in Sweet Cafe Asmara ( such vibes) and then arrive in front of the famous Cinema Impero.
It’s been here since 1937 and I read somewhere it was designed to look like a cassette. The Italian 30’s architecture is striking – something you won’t even find in Italy anymore. But, time has taken its toll on this building and two of the neon letters in the word Impero have now fallen off. It’s a little sad to see.
The cinema was still functioning, but sadly in the post-pandemic world, we were told it is still closed for movies. Hopefully, it will reopen in the future.
The entire downtown of Asmara has a strong Italian feel as Eritrea was one of the three colonies of Africa (The other two were Libya and Somaliland). Mussolini called it the Piccola Roma (little Rome).
Back in the 30s half of the city’s population was made up of Italians and cinemas, operas and art-deco buildings sprang around the city centre along with Roman-style villas, some surviving until today. The aim was to make Asmara the new industrial base, labour and resources were poured in and a new architectural movement called rationalism took hold here as well.
Today the city centre is a showcase of Art Deco, futurist, cubist, functionalist and expressionist architectural styles. A photographers’ dream.
Why is Asmara so different?
Although the Italian occupation might have changed Asmara’s face forever, locals at the time were forbidden to enjoy the elaborate cafes and cinema houses. Eritrea had its own style of apartheid imposed by the Italians during this time.
Today locals seemed to be proud of the city’s beauty but even more so, proud to be part of independent Eritrea as the country has fought for it in a 30-year-long war with neighbouring Ethiopia.
It was most likely the war that has in some way protected the architectural gems as many other city centres have been reshaped as part of world urbanisation during that time.
Learning more about the history of this relatively new country is fascinating.
In a nutshell, it starts with Aksumite Civilisation in the Horn of Africa in the 4th century. Then the arrival of Christianity, followed by Islam in the 7th century. Then, the coastal region of Eritrea becomes incorporated into the Ottoman empire for 3 centuries in the 16th century.
The most definitive events take place in the 20th century when Eritrea becomes the main colony of Italy, but is later occupied by the British who essentially hand the land to the UN which succeeds it to Ethiopia in a controversial resolution.
War of Independence known as the Struggle breaks out in 1961 and lasts for 30 years until Eritrea is finally awarded its national identity and independence in 1993 and reappears on the map of Africa.
Day trip to Keren in Eritrea
Our travels continue further outside the capital. After receiving permits from the Tourism Office in Asmara, we are able to travel to Keren and Massawa.
The journey to Keren on a bus reminds us again how time has such a different concept here. We wait for the bus to fill up to depart and enjoy the scenery. We had just one brief breakdown and at the checkpoint to enter Keren they are happy to see our permit but insist we need to give them a printed copy, which we don’t have.
Keren is mostly known for the Camel market held here on Monday. We are here on Friday and the city feels even more Islamic with the Friday call for prayer. But overall we enjoyed seeing a different part of Eritrea.
Exploring Massawa near the Red Sea
We return to Asmara to visit Massawa the next day. This time we didn’t have much luck with the buses and ended up waiting for almost two and a half hours for the bus to fill up to depart. The scenery is even more breathtaking on this route. The distance is only 64km but it takes us almost three and a half hours to get there.
Massawa was the former capital and it was developed as the largest port on the East African Coast during the time it belong to the Ottoman empire. The city was badly damaged in 1990, during the war for Eritrean independence and essentially the old town feels like a ghost town.
We check into the Dahlak Hotel, considered the best hotel in town, yet its grand days seem to have disappeared. Without tourists and visitors, this huge hotel with now an empty pool is dated and in desperate need of restoration.
The Old Town is just a short stroll across the bridge, in the distance, you can see islands that belong to the Dahlak Archipelago that offers some incredible snorkelling in the Red Sea.
Massawa’s old town is easy to explore on the foot. There are gorgeous Ottoman buildings mixed with Italian-style houses, the most impressive being the former Bank of Italy.
But most of them have been severely damaged and we are surprised to see a few residents in the small narrow streets.
The sun is setting and our hunt for fresh seafood leads us to a restaurant that pops out on the streets out of nowhere. Sadly the fish is frozen so we settle on spaghetti and tea.
Time to return to Asmara
Our return to Asmara is once again an adventure. We arrive at the bus station around 7 am, but the bus is full now and about to leave. The next one is not due to arrive from Asmara for at least 2-3 hours and of course, then we need to have enough people to depart.
Suddenly, we see a bit of a reshuffle and a man announces there is one fold-out seat left which Rach and I can share if we would like.
We don’t hesitate for a second, we squeeze on and settle on this tiny seat, hips to hips with locals who don’t seem to mind we are now by default taking a part of their seat. But this is something we have observed regularly over the many months of our travels across Africa.
We spent more than half of the year in 2019 travelling overland in Central & West Africa. We can’t remember the number of shared taxis and buses we took to travel around this massive continent. Read more about this part of our journey – Travelling West Africa; Our INCREDIBLE Journey Recap 2019
There is a collective approach to transport in Africa. There is always a space for one more and the bus is never really too full. We pick up more people en route for short rides, they usually just step on and hold near the door. The journey seems faster and the views are spectacular.
Arriving in Asmara feels again like a different world. After a hot and humid climate, we are back to cool and dry days. Time for some of their famous Eritrean injera with flavourful stews and cold Asmara beer – it might not have a label, but it tastes so good after a long journey.
Our final days in Asmara are filled with more adventures. There is always another cafe to see and we get a hot tip from a local for the best cake in town – Diplomat at Cafe Dolce Vita. I guess the name says it all.
Diplomat cake at Dolce Vita Cafe in Asmara was the best
The Medeber market is also interesting. This is where all things get recycled: discarded metal, rubber, wood and even plastic.
The scrap material is repurposed by welders and craftspeople to make new furniture, household utensils and kitchen appliances. Oil cans are taken apart and recycled into shovels and boxes. Eritreans are clever, resourceful people.
Our last sunset is spent near the famous Fiat Tagliero Service station. Designed by an Italian architect, Pettazzi in 1938 in Futurist style, this structure still looks like it’s from the future.
It resembles a plane and even during construction, authorities tried to persuade the architect that the building’s wings required supporting pillars, citing safety.
However, Pettazzi refused to comply and the structure has survived a lot and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our last dinner is traditional Eritrean food: injera with vegetables and Asmara beer.
To say we have enjoyed our time in Eritrea is an understatement. We absolutely love it!
But it is time to continue this crazy journey to every country in the world. Next up are our 4 final countries in the Pacific and we are hoping that Samoa will be the final one.
Make sure you get travel insurance before hitting the road. Trust us, it’s one of those things you don’t want to leave home without. We recommend either World Nomads or SafetyWing, depending on the type of traveller you are.
Furthermore, Ethiopia has some fantastic cuisine. This Food Tour in Addis Ababa will introduce you to the best food and coffee in this bustling capital city.
Head to our AFRICA Page for detailed blogs about individual countries and if you’re simply looking for a place to find our best advice, tips, and suggestions on travel gear and products we use and love, then our Travel Resources Page is for you.
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A coffee lover, history junkie, former tour guide, and endless optimist. The mastermind of logistics and chief navigator for Very Hungry Nomads, two women on an adventure to visit EVERY country in the world. Marty is a social butterfly who describes her life as “just livin’ the dream".