Asmara is the capital and largest city in Eritrea, and I promise you it’s like no other city you’ve visited before. It is a city melancholically frozen in time, blending aspects typically associated with Africa with others typically associated with the Middle East, then sprinkling remnants of 1940s Italy all throughout. If you become one of the few tourists to visit, these are the top things to see and do in Asmara.
Psst: Also read the complete Eritrea travel guide for information on visas, what foods to try in Eritrea, other cities to visit while in Eritrea, and more.
This is the main street in the downtown, and it has a lot of the city’s coolest buildings. Walk from one end of this street to the other, and you will hit most of the next three listed sites. You’ll also see plenty of coffee shops and cafes. At night, this place comes alive. Definitely visit once in the day and once at night during your stay in Asmara.
Built in 1937, I’ve heard that the building was designed to look like a cassette tape. Though I haven’t been able to confirm that, what do you think? This place actually still plays movies. Moana was playing while I was there, and I actually planned to see it on my last day, but the power went out in the city.
Church of our Lady The Rosary, Asmara
Most pictures of Asmara feature this building. It is often called Asmara Cathedral, but technically it was never the seat of a diocesan bishop and thus is not a cathedral. Regardless, it is a lovely building to admire, especially considering no work has been done on it since it was built in 1923. Be sure to enter the inside, too.
This building is over 100 years old. Yep. It was built in 1918. This was my personal favorite building in the city. It features two beautiful curved staircases leading up to the cafe inside, which look even more lovely when lit up at night. You can ask for a tour to see the inside during the day, which has a nice painted ceiling.
After walking the length of Harnet Street, you will have to either turn right onto Denden or left onto Sematat. Be careful with your camera in this area, as the Asmara Government Center (which is a beautiful bunch of buildings) is nestled in between these streets. Try not to photograph any government buildings, or risk being approached and asked to delete photos. This street is not really an attraction, but walk along it to find the next two sites.
Like Cinema Impero, this theater was built in 1937. The cafe area of this theater is my favorite between the three large theaters and operas in Asmara. The decor is literally out of another century, and I loved the photographs hanging. Stay a while and order a drink to take it all in. This place also hosts viewings of European football (soccer) games. So check the schedule posted there if you’d like to hang out and watch a game while in Asmara. While locals can enjoy this and the other two theaters nowadays, they were not allowed to enter them during the Italian era.
Probably the coolest building in Asmara, hands down. I mean, a gas station in the shape of an airplane?? This futurist-style building was completed in 1938. Apparently, the authorities tried to convince the architect that this building needed columns to hold up the wings. But the architect wasn’t having it. Apparently, he went as far as threatening a construction worker with a handgun. But, I guess he was right, because this place is still standing all these years later – no columns needed.
The locals call this area “biassa,” a bastardization of the Italian word “piazza.” If you plan to do souvenir shopping, this is probably the place to do it. Be sure to arrive in the daytime though, as many stalls start closing up around 5pm. But the biassa is larger than just the souvenir area. Many dress shops are in this area, as well as the spices, grains, and fruits markets.
Khulafa al-Rashidun Mosque
Literally within a three-block radius, Asmara has a church, a synagogue, and a mosque. This mosque was built in 1938. Like with almost all mosques, only Muslims can enter.
Enda Mariam Coptic Cathedral
Together with the mosque and Catholic church, this orthodox cathedral is one of the three prominent edifices of Asmara. Like much of this list, this too was built in 1938.
The Bowling Alley
This building was built in the 1950s and is one of the few from that time still surviving in the world. Yes, you can still bowl here. Experience bowling like it used to be, having someone manually re-stack the pins for you. There are other games too, like foosball tables. Even if you don’t care for the sport or games, still take a look inside. There are tons of framed black-and-white photographs from bowling alley and other parts of Asmara during the Italian period.
This is the only site listed that is not in the downtown. But it’s absolutely worth a quick taxi ride. This “tank graveyard” is a junkyard-turned-monument collection of all the Ethiopian tanks, trucks, and even planes captured during the 30-year war for Eritrean independence. Looking at this really reminds you how much of a feat winning this war was. Eritrea had no such tanks or machines. All the Eritrean soldiers somehow fought on foot alone, while Ethiopia had all that is collected in this graveyard and more.
Train Ride to Arberobo
This can be difficult to arrange, but definitely try to do this while in Asmara. If you can get enough people interested on the same day, you can ride the old steam train from the Asmara rail station to Arberobo and back. This was a highlight of my trip, and the other tourists with me were raving too. You will need a permit for this activity (more on permits in my full Eritrea travel guide).
Other Things to See in Asmara
The above attractions are more iconic and quintessential things to see while in Asmara. They are the things that I believe one absolutely should not miss while visiting. But there are definitely more things to do in Asmara for those who have time and interest.
At Medebar Market, you’ll see metal workers recycling scraps into useful items. I was also told that spices are ground here, but I only walked around the entrance to the market, where it was just metal work.
The Cimitero Italiano Di Asmara may be an odd “attraction.” But the elaborate tombstones and statues surrounded by flowers are quite beautiful. It is also interesting to walk around and read the tombstones of Italians and other non-Eritreans who lived and died in Asmara.
Eritrean Freedom Fighters Cemetery
Behind the Italian Cemetery is a much more humble cemetery. It is for those who lost their lives fighting for Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia. I’m not sure the official name of this cemetery.
Kidane Mehret Cathedral
I had never heard of this Catholic cathedral prior to arriving in Asmara. But it’s large, yellow domes stood out over surrounding buildings and it piqued my interest. I think entering this cathedral is really worth your time, to observe its beautiful mosaics in the Eritrean (and Ethiopian) style.
Eritrean people are a great example of how differing religions can coexist peacefully side by side. As mentioned above, you’ll find a church, a synagogue, and a mosque all within a three block radius. While Orthodox Christians and Muslims make up the majority of the Eritrean population, there is a history of Judaism in Eritrea (and Ethiopia) as well.
In fact, the land of Sheba mentioned in the Bible is believed to be the Horn of Africa. So it is Habesha folklore that Habesha people came from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. (Habesha is an ethnic grouping containing a few different Eritrean and Ethiopian ethnic groups.)
National Museum of Eritrea
I regret not popping in here during my time in Eritrea, just to see what was inside since I had heard of it before arriving. It apparently has ancient artifacts and fossils amongst other things, so it might interest those who are history buffs.
Want More Asmara Pictures?
There are truly very few pictures of Eritrea on the web, so I was snapping away my entire trip. It was so hard to choose which photos to include in this Asmara travel guide, so I’m debating posting a separate photo journal with just pictures of Asmara. Let me know if you would like to see such a post by commenting below.