So, you’ve decided you want to visit Eritrea? First of all, props to you for even having heard of this country. There is not a lot of information about Eritrea on the web at all, which is why I made this ultimate Eritrea travel guide. Here I cover:
- How to get to Eritrea
- Main cities and top attractions in Eritrea
- Must-try Eritrean foods
- How to get an Eritrean travel visa
- What it’s like as a tourist in Eritrea (safety, tourism infrastructure, ease of mobility)
Ready? Then let’s get to it!
How to Get to Eritrea
First things first. How does one get to Eritrea? Surprisingly, it is really easy to get a flight to this notoriously hard-to-enter country. Several flights only have one stop. You can connect to Eritrea through:
- Istanbul with Turkish Airlines
- Cairo with EgyptAir
- Dubai with Emirates or FlyDubai
- Addis Ababa with Ethiopian Airlines
All flights into Eritrea will arrive into the capital, Asmara. It will be the smallest international airport you’ve probably ever seen.
What to See in Eritrea
Tourism in Eritrea basically centers around three main cities: Asmara, Massawa, and Keren. So in this guide, I’ll go through those, plus a couple other destinations!
Asmara is the capital city of Eritrea, and if you only have time or budget for one place in Eritrea, this should be it. The word “Asmara” means “they (feminine) united” in Tigrinya (the most spoken language in Eritrea). The city used to be called “Arbate Asmara,” which means “the four (feminine) united,” because the women of four villages in the area united the villages into one. But eventually the “Arbate” got dropped off the city name.
Asmara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and not without good reason. It’s got some pretty cool Art Deco buildings from the Italian colonial period, and although they are aging, they are beautiful nevertheless.
I have a full, detailed guide with tons of pictures on the things to do and see in Asmara, but here is a quick bullet list of the main items.
- Harnet Street
- Cinema Impero
- Church of our Lady The Rosary, Asmara
- Opera House
- Sematat Avenue
- Cinema Roma
- Fiat Tagliero
- Asmara Market
- Great Mosque of Asmara
- Enda Mariam Coptic Cathedral
- The Bowling Alley
- Tank Graveyard
- Train Ride to Arberobo
They call Massawa the Pearl of the Rea Sea. Though it is only 100km (60mi) from Asmara, this coastal port town feels a world away. It is extremely hot year round, with a lowest monthly average high of 29 deg C (84 deg F) in January. It was heavily destroyed from a bombing by Ethiopia during the war for independence. Nevertheless, this is the number two most popular spot to visit in Eritrea.
I have a separate guide with pictures and descriptions of the things to see in Massawa, but here is a quick bullet list.
- The Eritrean Highlands
- The Rea Sea
- Dahlak Archipelago
- Massawa Old Town (the Banca d’Italia, Sheikh Hanafi Mosque, the Tomb of Sheikh Durbush, and more)
- Taulud Island (the War Memory Square, Dahlak Hotel, and the Imperial Palace)
Not all tourists make it here, but Keren is called the “heart of Eritrea” and is Eritrea’s second-largest city. It is a calm, sunny place with wide tree-lined streets and locals out and about all day. Keren means “highland” or “mountain,” which makes sense when you see how it is surrounded by rather tall mountains on all sides.
I have a separate guide with pictures and descriptions of the things to see and do in Keren, but here is a quick bullet list.
- Assehaba Mosque
- Keren Market (visit on Monday if you want to see the camel market)
- Catholic Cathedral of Keren
- Murals of Keren
- Italian Army Cemetery
- British Army Cemetery
Other Things to See in Eritrea
Debre Bizen Monastery
Unfortunately, this one is only for the men. Women aren’t allowed to enter this Eritrean Orthodox monastery, located high in the mountains and requiring a 2 hour hike to reach. The library here contains many Ge’ez manuscripts, and the area is known for lots of baboons.
This is for all you history buffs. Qohaito was an ancient, pre-Aksumite city in the southern Debub region of Eritrea. This city was at one point a thriving stopping point between Adulis on Eritrea’s coast and Aksum (the capital of the Aksumite Empire which is regarded as once on par with powers like Persia, China, and Rome). It is home to stone ruins that have yet to be excavated, and there is nearby rock art in caves from 5000BC.
What Foods to Eat in Eritrea
If you like Ethiopian food, you’re in luck, because Eritrean and Ethiopian food are pretty close as can be. Try to have some of these main Eritrean foods if you can:
- Zignee: this is a sauce with chopped beef cubes, eaten with injera (spongey crepe-like base of most Eritrean and Ethiopian meals).
- Zebhee dorho: this is a sauce with chicken, eaten with injera.
- Shiro: this is a vegetarian sauce made from spices, eaten with injera
- Kitcha: this is a dense bread. It can be a little sweet depending how it is made. Great with tea for breakfast or a snack.
- Kitcha fit fit: this is the above, but savory. It is then cut up into bit-sized pieces and tossed with tesmee (spiced melted butter) and berbere (a spice).
- Himbasha: this is a fluffy bread. Also great with tea and can be eaten for breakfast.
- Boon: this is Eritrean coffee. If you prefer the Italian kind, there is no shortage of that either, so don’t worry.
Italian-inspired dishes like pasta and pizza are not hard to find in Eritrea, and neither are Western staples like french fries and omelets. In Massawa, many places serve freshly caught fish.
Always make sure foods (especially those using animal products) are fully cooked and served with fresh ingredients. New Fork Restaurant in Asmara (near Harnet Street) gets my reco.
How to Get a Visa to Eritrea
The Eritrean visa is infamously difficult to get. You MUST apply for the visa before arriving. The country no longer grants on-arrival visas. Here are the general steps to getting your visa.
- Apply at your local embassy. For Americans, this will be in Washington DC. Go to the Eritrean US Embassy website and print out the application. Fill it out, include the necessary passport-sized photo, your passport (valid 6 months after your Eritrea trip), your $50 payment, and mail it in.
- The application asks how long you will be in Eritrea, but they might not grant you the same time period of time you ask for if it is too long. Just be prepared.
- Consider requiring signature of receipt for your mail package to ensure it gets into someone’s hands at the embassy. Always pay for tracking there and back when shipping your passport.
- The process takes a minimum of ten days, but averages about a month, based on what I read online prior to applying for my own. Once you see that your package has arrived, I recommend calling the embassy to ask if they have received your package. Heads up: they don’t usually answer the phone. So it will likely take forever to reach them. (This is where it helps to have an Eritrean travel guide, who likely has spoken to the embassy folks before, can also continuously contact them on your behalf, and speaks their same first language.)
The Tourist Experience in Eritrea
Other Tourists in Eritrea
Eritrea, as you might guess, receives very little tourism. Visiting Eritrea is visiting a place yet to be even remotely affected by mass tourism. Locals mind their own business and will do little more than glance at a tourist walking by. If you’re considering a visit here, I assume you view that as a positive. If you prefer to interact with other visitors, consider booking a tour in a group. Don’t expect to meet a ton of fellow travelers once you get here.
English is taught in school, but there is no reason for most residents to continue using English after that or to speak it at a highly conversational level. Some people will know English, but do not expect random locals to definitely speak it like in touristy destinations. However, you can expect every single sign to be in Tigrinya, Arabic, and English.
Interest Access in Eritrea
Yes, technically there is internet in Eritrea. There are plenty of internet cafes all over Asmara where locals and tourists can buy (slow) internet for 30min at a time. Some hotels will also provided codes for internet by the day. But don’t expect to stream anything or send large files.
Safety as a Tourist in Eritrea
Eritrea is generally safe for tourists. Crime, violence, and theft are low. Women and even school children walk the streets alone. It is not a crowded country, and I would describe most (if not all) of the cities as “calm.” There is no religious or enforced dress code, though I would recommend to dress conservatively because the locals naturally dress conservatively. But do not worry about covering ankles or hair or elbows.
A quick Google search of just the word “Eritrea” will pull up some results that might have you worried about safety. Definitely do a bit of research on the political and economic situation in Eritrea, just so that you have proper context for your visit. But as with many destinations with complicated situations, the reality for tourists is; do not look for trouble, and trouble will not look for you.
Transportation Around Eritrea
Everything in the Asmara downtown is walking distance from each other. For sites around the city, waive down an inexpensive a cab. However, to visit anything outside of Asmara, you will need a permit. To get the permit processed can take a full day, so have your list of cities (and exact dates, car make, and license plate) ready to go and stop by the Tourism Office downtown on Harnet Street early on in your trip.
Due to the bureaucracy of tourism in Eritrea, definitely contact a tourist guide before even applying for your visa. They can help contact your local embassy on your behalf and advise you on the application in general. Once you have your visa, they’ll still be helpful. They’ll be able to speak your language well and give you tips and tricks for your stay. They can act as intermediary for phone calls and setting up activities like the train ride or hike to Debre Bizen. These things would be impossible to do without knowing the local language. Even to get from city to city by car, you’ll need a driver guide anyways as you cannot rent a car yourself. So to really see Eritrea, you’ll need a guide for most of your trip.
What Do You Think?
Have you ever even heard of Eritrea? Let me know below whether or not my site is your first time hearing about this country. Are you visiting for the first time and need more info on anything I brought up? I really want this Eritrea travel guide to be as helpful as can be, so please leave your questions below. I’ll get back to you.