Things to see and do in Eritrea
Attractions in Eritrea
The Turkish and Egyptian colonial periods left numerous interesting buildings and sites in Akordat (Barka Province) including the tomb of Said Mustafa wad Hasan. Qohaito, Metera and Rora Habab are also important archaeological sites.
There are few cities so suited to the simple pleasure of walking and exploring as Asmara. The climate is perfect, the streets are clean, refreshment is widespread, crime is very rare, the architecture is stunning, the distances are manageable, the sights are varied, and the people are warm. Explore the city on foot and discover its many hidden treasures, from 1930s cinemas to futuristic petrol stations, and when you're tired there's always a café nearby in which to refuel with a wide selection of drinks and pastries.
With nearly 1,000km (620 miles) of Red Sea coast, Eritrea boasts a stunning range of untouched beaches – from pristine white sands to black volcanic shorelines and from the deserted to the popular tourist beaches around Massawa.
Dankalia occupies a large portion of southern Eritrea and the lowlands of northeastern Ethiopia. The portion of Dankalia that lies within Eritrea comprises the narrow strip of land extending to the south and kissed by the sea for almost 500km (310 miles). Even the gentle breezes off this most majestic of Red Sea coasts barely stirs the thick soupy air, which boils up from the baked ground in unforgiving waves that burn the skin and choke the lungs. If the devil wanted to create hell on earth, the infernal wastes of Dankalia would be his choice, but for the most intrepid travellers this hostile landscape offers an unforgettable journey.
The town of Decemhare is a short drive south of Asmara. It was a favourite settlement of the Italians who originally intended it to be the transport hub of the entire Italian Empire in the Horn of Africa. It is worth stopping in Decemhare to have a look around, if only to see what remains of this once proud town.
Emberemi is famous for the mausoleums of Sheikh el Amin and Muhammad Ibn Ali. It is an important pilgrimage site.
Explore Asmara's Modernist architecture
Asmara was the centre of Italy's East African Empire. Following Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, Asmara became a boom town and transformed into one of the most modern cities in Africa. Today, it appears like a city lost in time and possessing the highest concentration and most complete collection of Modernist architecture in the world.
To the northeast of Asmara lies the Semienawi Bahri, or 'Green Belt' region of Eritrea. The area is more commonly known as Filfil and contains the last remnants of Eritrea's once abundant tropical forest, home to an impressive array of birds and mammals. It is hard to imagine such dense forest exists in this region of Africa. The forest thrives on the vast, moist escarpment that links the highland plateau with the burning lowland plains.
Although cycling is one of the country's popular sports, it is unusual for bicycles to be rented out to tourists. However, each year Eritrea hosts one of the toughest races along the Asmara-Keren road. Regular meetings are organised by the Cycling Federation (tel: (1) 117 280).
Keren is the capital of the Anseba province and the third largest city in Eritrea after Asmara and Massawa. It is a relaxed pretty town, famed for its quiet pace of life, colourful markets and ethnic diversity. It forms the crossroads between several roads that branch out towards Nakfa, Agordat, and Asmara. The town rests in a bowl, the rim of which is formed by the formidable peaks of Lalemba, Ziban, Senkil, Felestaw, Itaber and Amba Mountains.
Massawa was an ancient port and remains the largest natural deep-water port on the Red Sea. If Asmara is an Italianate city, Massawa is Turko-Egyptian style, reflecting the periods of Ottoman and Egyptian rule from the 16th century to the late 19th century. The beautiful but ramshackle old town was damaged during the 'Struggle' but its coral block buildings still retain some of the former grandeur that makes this antique port appear like a miniature version of Zanzibar's Stone Town.
Metera and Senafe
The site of Metara on the outskirts of Senafe covers about 10 hectares, and is known variously amongst locals as Balaw Calaw, King Kaleb's remains and the Gate of Axum. There are many ruins including the ancient obelisk dating to the 3rd century. The nearby town of Senafe is dominated by the huge rocks to the south. You can climb to the top of the largest of these and it is worth it for the views but you should ask someone to show you the easiest way, as it is not a simple climb.
Monastery of Debre Bizen
Journey the spectacular road from Asmara to Massawa, 105km (65 miles). It descends from 2,438m (8,000ft) to sea level, with hair-raising hairpin bends negotiating the escarpment, and magnificent views over the coastal desert strip. 20km outside Asmara, the road passes through the pretty town of Nefasit, behind which, perched on top of the mountain ridge, is the famous Monastery of Debre Bizen.
Eritrea is rich in archaeological sites, many of which have yet to be excavated. The ruins of Qohaito, on the road south of Asmara towards Senafe, and Adulis, on the coast, are the most famous. The site contains the Safra's Dam and the ruins of the palace of King Saba from the Axumite and pre-Axumite period. The ancient port of Adulis is currently being excavated.
The Dahlak Archipelago
With around 350 islands off the Eritrean coast the Dahlak Archipelago is a national park that is the window on an unspoilt underwater world of flat reef gardens and an extraordinary variety of sea life. Travellers cannot go alone or without permission and should also be mindful of the extreme temperatures.
Tomb of Said Abu Bakr el Mirgani
Visit the religious sites of the Tomb of Said Abu Bakr el Mirgani and the Mariam de Arit. Debre Sina, near Elabered on the Asmara-Keren road, is also a noteworthy monastery.
Visit the steam railway
Eritrea's railway used to run from Massawa to beyond Agordat via Asmara. After falling into disrepair it has been restored between Massawa and Asmara. To explore the railway sheds and visit the old manufacturing facilities is a railway enthusiast's dream. The skeletal remains of locomotives in varying states of repair sit patiently on tracks in their sheds or on the hand-driven turntable outside. Those that have been lovingly restored by the aging workforce famously brought out of retirement and now in their 80s positively gleam. If you're lucky (or wealthy!) you might be able to experience a small excursion a few kilometres along the track in the direction of Massawa.
Eritrea Ministry of TourismAddress: Warsay Street, Asmara,
Telephone: (1) 154 100/111
Mon-Fri 0800-1200 and 1400-1700.