Set at an elevation of 2355m in Ethiopia’s fertile central highlands, ADDIS ABABA is both the nation’s capital and its largest city. As the main point of arrival for international travellers, it’s also the hub from which the overwhelming majority of visitors explore the rest of the country, whether by road or air. Fortunately, in most respects, Addis Ababa – often shortened to Addis – forms an pleasant enough introduction to Ethiopia: the climate is agreeably temperate, hotels and restaurants are plentiful, areas such as the Mercato and Piazza boast a compelling urban vibrancy, and there are enough worthwhile museums and other landmarks to keep new arrivals busy for a day or two.
Less positively, while violent crime is not a serious cause for concern, Addis is the one place in Ethiopia where pickpocketing and other petty crime are rife, and since the city ultimately lacks the historical pedigree of Aksum, Harar or Gondar or the scenic appeal of Bahir Dar or Hawassa, most visitors to Ethiopia limit their time in the capital to a night or two at the start or end of their trip. If you do end up spending longer here, however, it is worth knowing that the surrounding countryside is rich in sightseeing opportunities, from the crater lakes of Bishoftu and wildlife-rich Menagesha State Forest to the historic monastery of Debre Libanos and engraved stelae at UNESCO World Heritage-listed Tiya Archeological Site.
Legend has it that it was at Addis Ababa (or more accurately in the Entoto Hills on its northern outskirts) that the rulers of Aksum took refuge from the violent reign of Queen Yodit towards the end of the tenth century. The foundation of the modern city, however, is accredited to the future Emperor Menelik II, then King of Shewa, who relocated his capital to the Entoto Hills in the early 1880s, fulfilling a prophecy made by his grandfather Sahle Selassie. During the chilly rainy season of 1886, Menelik II descended from Entoto to a new encampment at the lower-lying and warmer Filwoha Hot Springs, and was soon encouraged to build a permanent house there by his wife Taitu Betul, who is credited with naming the site Addis Ababa – literally, “New Flower”. The capital shifted seasonally between Entoto and Addis Ababa until 1889, the year in which Menelik was crowned emperor of Ethiopia and started building a palace near Filwoha.
Top image © wuthrich didier/Shutterstock