Massawa, Eritrea is known as the Pearl of the Red Sea. It sits merely 100km (or 60mi) from the capital city of Asmara, but feels nothing alike. Massawa was very sadly destroyed in an Ethiopian bombing at the end of Eritrea’s war for independence, and today it feels more like a ghost town in ruins than a true city. Nevertheless, there is still plenty to see and do in Massawa.
The Eritrean Highlands
This technically isn’t Massawa, but rather the drive from Asmara to Massawa. There is so much beauty on this drive, which starts at over 2000m or 7000ft. Expect to see monkeys, baboons, and wild camels, winding railroad tracks and tunnels, cities, and three different climates. Yep. “Three seasons in two hours” is actually the slogan the Eritrean tourism board uses. And it’s true. On my drive, I started with mild weather in Asmara, encountered some rainy season and cloudy mist in between, and ended at super humid, super hot summer in Massawa.
The Rea Sea
The most popular reason to visit Massawa is, of course, for the sea. Gergusum Beach is the local favorite and is a small drive up the coast from the main city. It has straw umbrellas and seating areas for rental. Closer to the main city is an island that can be reached by boat if you are staying at Dahlak Hotel.
If you really want the ultimate experience, then visit the Dahlak Archipelago. These are a group of islands off the coast known for insanely healthy reefs underneath. You’ll need to go scuba diving to properly enjoy this, but expect to pay $800 each way per boat to even get here. If you are one of the lucky few able to fit this into an itinerary, please wear reef safe sunscreen to preserve how uniquely healthy these waters and their critters are.
Massawa Old Town
This is the heart of Massawa, though in recent years it has turned into a bit of a ghost town. What you see here was primarily built by Ottoman Turks in the 1500s, but as mentioned earlier, all of their beautiful buildings are now just beautiful ruins.
Don’t expect to see locals in the heat of the day, but at night kids are out playing and adults are sitting out chatting. Keep an eye out for the Banca d’Italia, Sheikh Hanafi Mosque, and the Tomb of Sheikh Durbush. Massawa Old Town also houses the oldest Islamic shrine in the world, but this is located on what now is the Port of Massawa, which is closed to tourists. (If you really want to visit, you can ask for a tourist permit specifically to here once in Massawa.) In general, most of the old buildings here are built from coral.
The most surprising sign is at the entrance to the Massawa Old Town! It lists all the significant sites of the city in Tigrinya, Arabic, and English. Snap a pic and see how many you can locate!
This is the part of Massawa sitting in between Massawa Old Town and the mainland. This part of the city is newer (relatively) than the central part. Take a quick lap around in a car to view War Memory Square showcasing three stolen Ethiopian tanks. This island also hosts the Dahlak Hotel, which was a glamorous hotel back in it’s prime time. It’s also your best bet and my recommendation for a comfortable stay in Massawa. Across from this hotel is the Imperial Palace, now in ruins. It used to apparently be so beautiful with fountains and green grass.
Tips for Traveling Massawa
Visitors should know that Massawa is seriously hot year round. The lowest monthly average is a high of 29 deg C (84 deg F) in January. I also recommend visitors stay at Dahlak Hotel. We checked out two other hotels before settling on this one. While Dahlak Hotel is nowhere near its prime, it looked a lot more comfortable than the competition.
Lastly, check out my Eritrea travel guide for information like how to get a visa for Eritrea, what to eat while in Eritrea, travel permits, and more.
What Do You Think of Massawa?
Have you been to Massawa? Drop any tips and recommendations below in the comments section for future visitors.