5 Ways Ethiopia Will Surprise You

And why you should visit.

Last January, I was unexpectedly gifted with a few extra weeks of vacation time, which inspired me to stretch a layover in Addis Ababa into a two-week trip. I knew very little about Ethiopia other than: a) The legendary Queen of Sheba is often associated with the ancient region that now encompasses modern-day Ethiopia, and b) In the 1980s, images of malnourished Ethiopians became the symbol of cause-related anti-famine efforts. While poverty and hunger are still a huge issue in the country, especially in rural areas, in other parts of Ethiopia an economic boom and cultural renaissance is in full swing. Here are just five ways Ethiopia surprised me:

1. Addis Ababa is a boom town.
The African Union chose the city as its de-facto capital in 2001. The city’s newfound clout, combined with Chinese investment and a growing economy, has resulted in a modern capital with new high-rises going up on every block. Locals bemoan the navigation challenges, but relish the future benefits of convenience and commerce that are promised to follow.

2. There are restaurants that look like a set from Mad Max.
You’ll find plenty of the standard Ethiopian fare: injera (spongy textured flatbread) with an assortment of sauce-based meat and vegetable dishes. I highly recommend a trip out to Ben Abeba in Lalibela; though, being honest, that’s more for the innovative architecture and incredible views of Lalibela. Chefs in Ethiopia often seek training overseas, so if you tire of injera, there are also plenty of global options at your fingertips.

3. The jazz scene is hot, hot, hot.
In the early ’70s, the “Ethio-jazz” genre emerged, combining national folk sounds with jazz from the west. Today, there’s a resurgence of jazz in small clubs and hotel lounges throughout the country—I spent many nights lingering over a drink in the Jazzamba Lounge at the Taitu Hotel.

4. You can easily hop back to the 17th century, or earlier.
The Ark of the Covenant supposedly found a resting place in Axum, located in Northern Ethiopia. Throughout the region you’ll find ancient rock-hewn churches, castles dating from the 17th century, and mysterious obelisks marking the tombs of former royalty. Set against a backdrop that’s comparable to glorious desert vistas in the Southwestern United States or the Australian outback, it’s a stunning and fascinating circuit to explore.

5. That famous coffee comes with a ritual.
When Ethiopian coffee is made, either in a shop (To.Mo.Ca Coffee has a great vibe) or by a local who’s serving you street-side, a captivating ceremony takes place before the first cup is poured. While the water boils, coffee leaves are spread around the fire and an incense blessing takes place—I’ve never enjoyed waiting for my coffee so much in my life.