24 hours in Addis Ababa

Andrew Bain traces the history of a nation, from ancient origins to a turbulent recent past, through its capital city.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital city, is a vivid sprawl of more than 3 million people that seems to defy its origins. Chosen as a site by an empress in the late 19th century because of its beauty and the presence of hot springs, and with a name that means "new flower", it is today one of Africa's largest and busiest cities.

Addis Ababa is not the reason people travel to Ethiopia but it does offer the chance to experience big-city Africa in an entirely inviting atmosphere. "Welcome to Ethiopia," I'm constantly greeted as I wander its streets.

It has a cityscape that's changing daily, with rickety wooden scaffolding creeping slowly skyward and enough history and sights to warrant more than a stopover.

8am

Coffee is believed to have its origins in Ethiopia, so a day in its capital should begin with caffeine. Small and unassuming, Tomoca is a cafe that's championed by locals and guidebooks as serving the city's best coffee, which it has done for almost 60 years. A map on the wall shows Ethiopia's coffee regions, while a chart explains the flavours and preparation for the coffee from each of them. There are just three stand-up tables to share with Addis's other caffeine fans.

Tomoca is on Wavel Street, near the major thoroughfare of Churchill Avenue.

9.30am

Begin the sightseeing day in prehistory at the National Museum of Ethiopia, where human history begins. Displays are spread over four levels but the star attraction is in the basement. Her name is Lucy, a 107-centimetre-tall, 3.2-million-year-old skeleton. When she was found in 1974 in the badlands landscape around the Ethiopian town of Hadar (and named after the Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds), she was the oldest known pre-human discovery and remains the most complete ancient hominid skeleton (and probably the most famous) ever found.

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In the dedicated Lucy Room you'll find a reconstruction of the skeleton laid out in a glass case. Sharing the room is an artist's model of Selam, the skeleton of a child discovered in 2006 and said to be about 150,000 years older than Lucy. The skeleton itself is still undergoing cleaning and study at the museum.

If you need to supplement your liquid breakfast, try the Lucy Restaurant on the museum grounds.

The National Museum, King George VI Street. Admission 10 birr (56¢). Open 8.30am-5pm.

11am

From the museum it's a 10-minute walk to the Holy Trinity Cathedral, said to be the second-most important church in Ethiopia (which is saying a lot for a country that claims to possess the Ark of the Covenant and about 40,000 churches and monasteries). The city's religious cornerstone is ringed by graves, though it's the two tombs inside that really count, for this church is as much about Selassie as saviours.

Ethiopian emperor from 1930 to 1974, Haile Selassie is a revered figure (and not just in Ethiopia - he is worshipped as a god incarnate by Rastafarians) and he dominates the cathedral. Beside the altar are the marble tombs of Selassie and his wife and the thrones in which they sat during services. In a ring around the base of the dome are four large painted scenes: three of Selassie and just one of the Resurrection. In a chapel behind the cathedral is the Selassie Museum, with a range of religious and royal items, including crowns, robes and a mother-of-pearl Last Supper icon given to the cathedral by Selassie.

Holy Trinity Cathedral, off Niger Street beside the Parliament building. Admission 30 birr. Open 7am-6pm.

Noon

At the top of the hill that forms the vague outline of the city centre is the district of Piazza, with its Italian styling providing a reminder of Ethiopia's brief colonial days. It's here that Addis Ababa seems to meet Italy, and Ristorante Castelli has even been called the best Italian food in Africa.

Located at the edge of busy De Gaulle Square, Castelli serves a large range of pastas and antipasti plates featuring parma ham and speck, among other meats. If nothing else, it might make the best bread in the country.

Ristorante Castelli, Mahatma Gandhi Street, open daily except Sunday.

2pm

Take a taxi to the eucalyptus-covered hills of Entoto, on the northern edge of the city. The drive will offer a glimpse of Ethiopian rural life: donkeys carting loads; women stepping out from the forest with firewood strapped to their backs. You may even see an Olympian or two, for these hills are a popular training ground for many of the country's best distance runners.

Atop the hills is the site of the former capital, chosen by Emperor Menelik in the 1880s, before it was moved down to the plain at Addis. Prime space goes to the Church of St Mary, painted in the Ethiopian red, yellow and green. Next to it are the buildings of the former palace, looking like an empty safari lodge, and a museum filled with gifts to Menelik from foreign leaders, plus other treasures, such as medals donated by athletes who prayed here for success before Olympic Games.

From a deck behind the church is Addis Ababa's best view, out over the suburbs and city. Savour it - the more popular viewpoint a short distance beyond is overgrown.

A taxi from the city centre to Entoto costs about 400 birr.

4.30pm

Round off the day at the modern end of Ethiopian history in Addis Ababa's newest museum, the Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum. Opened in March last year, the museum tells of the brutality of the Derg rule and the famine through the 1970s and '80s. The museum claims 500,000 people were murdered by the ruling Derg, with the story told predominantly through photographic displays.

It's a small but powerful museum, if a little haphazard, like the city itself. It helps to have read some history on the Derg people before visiting.

A memorial at the front declares "Never Ever Again" and every room seems more chilling than the last, culminating in a room containing the coffins of 30 people strangled by the Derg in 1987 - their families chose to place the coffins in the museum as a reminder.

The Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum is at the edge of the landmark Meskel Square. Admission is by donation. Open 8am-5pm; redterrormartyrs.org.

7pm

For an authentic slice of Ethiopian dining, head to Habesha restaurant. With a covered outdoor eating area suited to warm Addis Ababa nights, the restaurant attracts a mix of locals and visitors. The menu features Ethiopian staples such as tibs (sliced lamb) and kai wat (meat in a hot sauce), spread on the ubiquitous injera (Ethiopian flat bread). Eat it Ethiopian-style, ripping up the injera with your right hand and throwing the scraps on the floor at your feet.

Stay for contemporary and traditional Ethiopian music and dancing. An evening's entertainment and some of the city's best food will cost less than $10.

Habesha is down a small alley off busy Bole Road.

Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Peregrine Adventures.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Emirates has a fare to Addis Ababa for about $2550 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including tax. You fly to Dubai (14hr), then Addis Ababa (4hr). Ethiopian Airlines (ET) has fares flying to Bangkok with Thai Airways (or Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific) and then ET to Addis Ababa. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days. The 30 days start the day the visa is issued.

Travelling there

Peregrine Adventures runs four trips through Ethiopia, all starting and finishing in Addis Ababa. The 14-day Simien Mountains Trek or Lost Tribes of Ethiopia trips cost from $2680. See peregrineadventures.com.

Staying there

The classiest hotel in the city is the Sheraton Addis, perched above the city and National Palace. Rooms from $US275 ($259) a night. See starwoodhotels.com.

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