Up until last decade ago, “no one” went to Ethiopia. This has changed, thanks to an easy-to-get eVisa, the rise of Ethiopian Airlines, and a unique range of natural wonders and ancient rock churches. Ethiopia now gets about one million international tourists per year, except when a global pandemic is going on.
On my way home from South Africa, I took advantage of an offer that gave me a free hotel room and a full day to explore Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. This post will show you what I saw during a 15 hour layover. At the end of this post, I’ll tell you how to get in on this deal.
The cover photo shows the brutalist concrete Lion of Judah Monument, created by Maurice Calka in the 1950s. A lot of confusing history goes into it, involving the Rastafarian messiah and controversial emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. The statue is now an icon of Addis Ababa. Typical for most tourist highlights in this city, it is large and not visually pleasing, yet fascinating.
Let’s begin at our accommodation for the day; Soramba Hotel. We do not choose it, the airline just send us here to wait for our connecting flight. We can sleep the hours away in comfort, or we can go out and explore.
The room is nice and clean, the food is … okay, and the location is fine. We’re in the Piazza district, within walking distance of many points of interest. Outside the hotel is your average chaotic major African city, although it does look a tad richer than most capitals in this part of the world.
The view from our room consists mainly of power lines, but what we can glimpse through them looks safe enough to encourage us to go for a walk. I feel lucky, so I even bring my camera, loaded with a fresh memory card. I’m only one day away from going home, anyway.
We exchange a few euros into the local currency, birr. Instead of recognizable money, we are given a few orange, sticky pieces of bacteria, carefully stringed together by paper-like molecules.
It’ll have to do. If I’m mugged, I won’t even be sorry. And I will clean my hands thoroughly after having handed over my lethal money.
Ethiopia has a proud history. Except for one tiny decade ruled from Italy, ending after World War II, they were never a colony run by Europeans. Ironically, this is commemorated by a European style golden-ish “Emperor on horseback” statue, in the Emperor Menelik II square, at the center of the Piazza district.
Thanks to it’s location in the highlands, almost two and a half thousand meters above sea level, the temperature in Addis Abeba is surprisingly comfortable. We’re still close to the Equator, so it’s hot enough to turn most people off walking. Therefore, a myriad of minibuses clog up the city streets. The public transportation is relatively well organized, with pick-up points where people get on and off the many vehicles.
We don’t really know where we want to go, so we just randomly walk down a street instead of playing the minibus lottery. We do sit down to watch the queue for a while, though. The way people dress here is a curious mix of African, European and Middle Eastern fashion.
A snapshot from where Mahatma Gandhi Street meets Cunningham Street. An old guy in a white trenchcoat and a smart hat drags 50 brightly colored plastic cans across the busy road. No one lifts an eyebrow.
No plastic was hurt during the making of this photo.
The Volkswagen Beetle is the world’s best selling car of all time, manufactured between 1938 and 2003. Almost 20 years after the last new Beetle was made, these vehicles are still plentiful in Addis Ababa, often pimped beyond recognition.
You’ll have trouble finding a car without multiple dents in Addis Ababa, Beetle or not, but people here generally take extremely good care of their Beetles.
The streets are lined with proper shops. Some places you find people selling stuff off sheets on the sidewalk, but there’s surprisingly little of that.
What Addis Ababa does have just as much of as expected, are men sitting around with little to do, under the pretense of doing some kind of job. They’re all happy to attempt answering our questions about where we should go, as we get increasingly lost in this metropolis. Their general suggestion seems to be that we should go back the way we came. We ignore this advice, of course. Every street offers another bag of surprises. We want more of that.
On Churchill Avenue I have to pinch myself. Across the street I see something strangely familiar.
Whatever this is, it just has to be made in North Korea.
It turns out to be the Derg Monument, also known as the Tiglachin (“Our Struggle”) monument, commemorating the Ogaden War, when Cuban soldiers came here and “helped” Ethiopia, in the name of Communism. Thanks to the Cuban help, Somalia was sent spiraling into civil war and the present day catastrophic conditions in that country. It’s sort of comforting that this monument is in pretty bad shape as well.
A soldier guarding the monument will not let me bring my camera anywhere near it. So here’s a zoom from the other side of the street.
African faces aside, it’s strikingly similar to things you can see in Pyongyang. Later I verify that it actually is a product of the Mansudae Art Studio in that very city.
At first glance, the city appears relatively modern and orderly, but often the illusion breaks.
For instance, we frequently see people riding on the roof of cars, sometimes accompanied by sheep and goats.
Standing out from the many shops selling cheap Made in China necessities, there are boutiques that sell products that you just wouldn’t expect there being much of a market for in East Africa.
But there must be one. And I would not be surprised if this mostly having to do with Addis Ababa being home to the headquarters of the African Union. There must be a literally awful lot of corrupt rich diplomats with stylish homes here.
Wherever we go, we’re surrounded by vivid colors.
Usually not painted very evenly, or recently, but definitely painted. Those who live in Addis Ababa are people of color, to the fullest extent.
We’re also continuously surrounded by an orderly chaos.
Goods are dropped off. Garbage is collected. Old men walk around in elegant clothes that must be at least 30 years old. Children run by on their way to school, wearing spotless uniforms. Minibus drivers yell out names of the places they’re heading for, not willing to leave until their vehicle is filled sufficiently beyond capacity.
It’s a beautiful mess.
Watching people is a particularly fun activity in Addis Ababa. I especially love the wide range of headwear we encounter.
This fruit salesman knows that hygiene is important when selling edibles. There will be no stray hair on his bananas.
We’re in the middle of a metropolis, but if there’s green grass around, there will be goats.
While the risk of lions here is relatively low, there are plenty of other ways a goat could disappear. This shepherd seems happy with his career choice, allowing him to stop and talk to people all the time.
Skyscrapers doesn’t seem necessary in Ethiopia, but of course the Chinese have arrived in this part of Africa as well, and brought their mega structures with them.
This may or may not eventually become the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia Headquarters. They started building in 2015, and ran out of money 46 floors later. It’s too big to just leave standing there like this. But for now it’s the largest skeleton signalling a city that is growing at a fast pace.
Fun fact about high-rise buildings in Addis Ababa: The most expensive apartments are found at ground level, and they get cheaper the higher up you go. Frequent power cuts means that the elevator service is unreliable. If you’re a rich Ethiopian, you’ve already climbed all the stairs you intend to in this life.
We’re not on a safari, but we do see some animals. Most of them are cats.
While not of certified Abyssinian breed, the street cats in Addis Ababa live in the middle of what used to be Abyssinia, so you don’t get cats more Abyssinian than this. They’re very similar to how the ancient Egyptians depicted their cat gods. That’s no coincidence. This is probably close to what the cats of the pharaohs looked like.
The most popular and reliable geocache in Addis Ababa is guarded by the sweet Mesy, the owner of a small stall where you can try Ethiopian coffee just the way it should be enjoyed.
She is extremely worried on my behalf, seeing me carry a camera and a GPS in plain view, but she is mainly thrilled to see another geocacher. Do visit her if you’re ever in the area.
Please ignore the almost invisible sweat rings.
The street fashion of Addis Ababa is anything but boring.
Some streets are rougher than others.
And if that sign is to be believed, I suppose we didn’t end up in the seediest hotel in Addis Ababa at all.
We round off our day with a visit to the Saint Gibi Gebriel church. Ethiopia is most famous for churches carved out of bedrock, but we unfortunately do not have time to seek them out today. Ethiopia does have some rather unique wooden churches as well, and the Saint Gabriel Church is a good example of this. It’s a parade of bright colors and colonial style wrought iron details.
Ethiopia became a Christian country in the early fourth century. More or less completely surrounded by Islam, they have had a long time to evolve independently from Christian culture and architecture elsewhere.
These two charming locals come up to us at the church and demand to know our name and nationality. If you’re the kind of tourist that enjoy being the main attraction when you travel, Ethiopia can be just your thing. Outside the main sights, people see few foreigners here. So when they have the chance, they are likely to want to interact with you. It can be quite entertaining, and in some cases a humbling and/or eye-opening experience.
With that, our day is over. Just as the sun sets, we head back. First to the hotel for a quick rest, and then on to the airport.
It’s been a busy day, but well worth the effort. And to be given the opportunity to explore a city for a full day basically for free, that’s something no one should pass on.
Be warned, though. Having done this, there’s a huge risk you’ll just have to return to Ethiopia for a longer and considerably more expensive visit sometime later.
I know I will.
How to see Addis Ababa for free
Ethiopian Airlines is likely the best airline in Africa. Among the many good things they do, they offer a free hotel room and transit visa for many of their passengers with connecting flights through Addis Ababa.
Here’s how it works.
First, you must have a passport that qualifies you for getting a visa on arrival. Citizens of most countries do, but you should verify that it applies to you.
Secondly, you must have two connecting flights through Addis Ababa, and both of your flights must be operated by Ethiopian Airlines. Between the two flights there must be not less than 8 hours and not more than 24 hours.
Thirdly, and this is where it gets complicated; in the period where you wait between your flights, there can be no other flights with Ethiopian Airlines that you could have taken to reduce your waiting time.
I will use my own flights as an example of when the offer is valid, and when it isn’t:
I could not find a way to use this offer when flying from Oslo, Norway to Johannesburg, South Africa. That is because Ethiopian Airlines offer several flights every day from Addis Ababa to Johannesburg. So when my plane from Oslo lands in Addis Ababa, the next possible flight to Johannesburg will always leave in much less than eight hours.
Traveling the other way, however, it’s easy to find a way to get the offer. Ethiopian Airlines has only one flight per day to Oslo, and it leaves late in the evening. So by taking an overnight flight from Johannesburg to Addis Ababa on my way home, I arrive very early in the morning in Addis Ababa, and my next possible flight option to Oslo gives me about 15 hours of waiting time in Ethiopia. And I get all the hours of daylight in the city. It’s perfect!
If I had been exhausted, I could have spent those hours sleeping in the hotel room and eating for free in the hotel restaurant. Fortunately, it is not required that you actually sleep in the hotel the airline arranges for you. So after checking in and refreshing yourself, you can go out and explore the city as much as you like throughout the day.
Transportation between the airport and your hotel, both ways, is also included in the offer.
Because the system is a little bit strange/basic, here’s how it works:
When you check in to your flight with Ethiopian, and you do qualify for the free layover, you should be given a voucher along with your boarding pass. If you don’t get one, your flights probably do not qualify for the voucher, but it doesn’t hurt to politely ask if they’ve forgotten to attach a voucher.
If you have scored a voucher, take it to Ethiopian Airlines’ transit office at the airport in Addis Ababa as soon as you arrive. The person working there will take your piece of paper and give you a hotel voucher and a small yellow piece of paper (a transit visa card).
Use these documents to get through immigration. Just show them to the immigration officer, and you’ll be admitted into the country for 24 hours.
Now you must wait for your transport to the hotel. Find the Ethiopian Airlines representative that is on duty just before you leave the transit area and enter the public part of the airport. Sit in this hall and wait until the representative comes over and tells you your bus or taxi is here.
You’ll be told where to go. Bole International Airport isn’t large, so you’ll easily find your way. The drive should not take more than half an hour.
When you arrive at the hotel, show them your hotel voucher, and they’ll give you your room key and meal vouchers. The number of meals you get depend on how long you’re there for. If you’re there for the whole day, they’ll give you both breakfast, lunch and dinner.
You can usually exchange money at the hotel reception. Do not get more Ethiopian money than you realistically need. Maybe just enough for a meal and public transportation, which both can be really, really cheap in Addis Ababa. It’s unlikely that you’ll find any souvenirs you want and should bring home.
Your receptionist is likely to be very interested in arranging a driver or a tour for the day for you, but there’s really no need for that. If you still want it, be ready to bargain for the price, as they may well start out high. And despite what they may say, if you’re even just a tiny bit street savvy, you’ll be safe walking around in Addis Ababa on your own.
A couple of hours before your next flight leaves, you will be picked up at the hotel and taken to the airport. You can ask for an earlier pick-up time if you want to. After sunset there’s little reason for staying in the city center anyway. Unless you want to sleep, of course. Just do not oversleep and miss your flight!
Keep in mind that you will not have access to your checked luggage during your lay-over, so make sure you have everything you need for the day in your carry-on luggage.
That is all. This may look like a bit complicated, but it’s actually an easy procedure. And even if you’re a bit tired from your first flight, do try and get out and see some of this highly interesting city! You will not regret it.