To say I was flabbergasted by Eritrea would be an understatement. With the exceptionally little amount of information available online, I truly had no expectations. But spending a week exploring Eritrea quickly became one of my all-time favorite trips.
Because of the lack of information available, this was actually one of the trips I was least prepared for. Unlike exploring South Sudan where it was possible to do some research, details about exploring Eritrea were very much based on phone calls, forum posts, Facebook groups, and hoping for the best.
But all of this ended up being part of the fun. It was a leap of faith, jumping into the unknown. It felt like traveling did in the 1990s before the internet was widespread. Not that I would really know, but let’s just pretend.
What makes Eritrea so special to visit?
As one of only two countries in Africa colonized by Italy, having endured 30 years of war against Ethiopia (successfully), and now living under a quasi-dictator government for just as long, Eritrea feels like a Afro-Italian fusion frozen in time 100 years in the past.
There’s truly nothing and nowhere in the world like it.
But if that’s not enough, you get an incredible preserved, magnificent slice of the Red Sea – including the stupendous Dahlak Islands (which you can easily visit and even camp on!)
You have a delightful mix of cultures and ethnicities, from the Tigrinya to the Afar to the Tigray, Islam & Orthodox Christianity, Arab & Italian. Eritrea is such a beautiful symphony of uniqueness, and it shines brightly within the Horn of Africa.
What are the downsides to visiting Eritrea?
I’ll start by saying that the downsides to Eritrea do nothing to sway me away from having the fondest admiration for this beautiful nation and its wonderful people.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some things you should be prepared for. These include:
- No working ATM’s, so you need to bring cash (preferably USD) and convert it ($100USD=1500 Nakfa)
- It’s a difficult/long process to obtain a tourist visa at most embassies and consulates
- Foreigners cannot get a SIM card, so you need to ask locals to make calls (not a problem, they are very accommodating)
- The internet is extremely limited and slow, even on WiFi at hotels or Internet cafes
- You need to obtain permits to visit anywhere outside of Asmara (but they are done quickly and easily)
Overall, I’d say all of these add to the experience. It was refreshing and fun to finally fully disconnect for a week.
I highly recommend downloading the Maps.Me app as well as offline maps on Google Maps. You also need to bring enough cash to cover you for the whole trip (at least $1000 per person per week including the boat tour).
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How to get a Visa on Arrival in Eritrea
For those (like me) who don’t have the time or ability to give up your passport for weeks and await approval for a Visa, there is an option to get a Visa on Arrival.
This can be done through several tour agencies, such as:
- Asmara Grande – Mr. Tekeste
- Captain Kahsai – email@example.com
There may be a charge or requirement to sign up for a tour, and the VOA approval is not guaranteed. However, it did work for me using Tekeste, even with an American passport. (Typically these are awarded if you’re from a country without an Eritrean Embassy).
On arrival at the airport, there’s a little room to the left where very, very friendly immigrations officers will take care of the Visa on Arrival process. It takes 30-60 minutes, and the officers can even make you copies to save you time later on at the tourist office!
The Top 11 Places You Need to See in Eritrea
There’s a ton to see and do in Eritrea, but not a whole lot of information on it. Luckily, once you arrive and head to the Tourism Office in Asmara, there will be plenty more information and guidance on visiting these incredible local gems:
- Dhalak Islands National Park
- Dissei Island
- Debra Brazen (if open)
- Giant Tank Graveyard
- Green Island & Diving
- Monument of the Last Battle of the 30-Year War
- Kohaito Ruins
The Best 7-Day Eritrea Itinerary
It’s best to arrive in the early morning on Day 1 (FlyDubai) or the night before (Turkish Airlines) so you can get your permits at the Tourism Office in Asmara as soon as possible.
You can also fly here twice a day on Ethiopian Airlines, with whom I’ve had great experiences.
The best and most efficient way to start your trip is by heading to the tourism office with your plan already established for the week, and obtain/apply for all your tourist permits at once.
Here was the plan we presented for the ultimate 7-day trip exploring the highlights of Eritrea:
- Day 1: Head to the tourism office & apply for permits, go macchiato-hopping at amazing cafes, discover Asmara and visit the Tank Graveyard (permit required), then drive to Massawa in the afternoon
- Day 2: Start an epic 3-day boat journey across the Dahlak Islands with Giuseppe (Las Giuva Tours +2917115313 calling only)
- Day 3: Enjoy camping on Dissei island, visit the local fishing village, go snorkeling, hiking, and fishing
- Day 4: Return to Massawa and explore the old Arab town and souk, first mosque in Africa, and head back to Asmara in the afternoon
- Day 5: Day Trip to explore Keren, visit the animal market, viewpoint, historical Italian buildings & cathedral, then overnight there or head back to Asmara
- Day 6: Markets, Sights, Cafes, Food, Coffee, Gelato, Pictures, Friendly Locals: Discover what Asmara is all about!
- Day 7: Return home wishing you could stay longer!
How to get tourist permits in Asmara to explore Eritrea
As soon as we landed in Asmara (at 7AM with FlyDubai), we took a taxi to the Tourism Office for 300 Nakfa ($20).
The office is right next to Sweet Cafe and across from the Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral, and it’s open from 8am to 12pm & 2pm to 6pm. The taxi driver knew exactly where it was.
We were greeted by super friendly and helpful workers. After presenting our passports and Visas, we were told to come back just an hour and a half later to pick up our permits. In the end, we were pleasantly surprised by how quick and efficient the whole process was!
The only pitfall is that you need to select a driver ahead of time, and he/she needs to come present his/her license information as well. Luckily, we found a friendly taxi driver just outside the office, negotiated fair prices for the drives, and got all of this done very quickly.
In case you don’t want to chance it, you can reach out to Haben, a friendly local and vet, for the tours/driving. If you want to set this itinerary up before you arrive in Eritrea, you can contact him on WhatsApp at +2917368535 and by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You will need permits for: Keren, Tank Graveyard, Massawa & Dahlak Islands (1), and really anything else outside Asmara. Each permit costs 51 Nakfa (about $4) per person.
The Top 10 Sights You Need to Visit in Asmara
While waiting for your permits, you can start exploring the absolutely stunning and fascinating city of Asmara. Personally, we headed straight to the Spaghetti & Pizza House for a surprisingly good breakfast and fantastic Macchiato.
And when you come back on day 6, you’ll still have a ton to discover in Asmara. It’s a beautiful city that you could spend all day walking around.
The top 10 places to see in Asmara include:
- Cinema Roma
- Fiat Taglierò Gas Station
- Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral
- St Mariam Cathedral
- Local markets, especially the metalwork market
- Italian Cemetery
- National Museum
- Cinema Impero
- Bowling Alley
- Khulafa al-Rashidun Mosque
Eritrea’s Tank Graveyard: The Most Shocking, Amazing, Crazy Place to Visit in Africa
However, there’s another sight just outside Asmara you 100% cannot miss. After our permits were ready (around 1030AM), we made our way to the absolute top sight you NEED to see in Eritrea: The Tank Graveyard.
It’s a pretty brutal, honest, and stupendous war memorial. Instead of fancy statues commemorating war veterans, this is a massive stockpile of Ethiopian tanks, trailers, cars, trucks, and even MIG fighter jets that were destroyed by Eritreans during the 30-year war. Absolutely mind-blowing, and I’ve truly never witnessed anything like it in my time exploring over 100 countries.
Best Hotels in Asmara
Though we booked our first night in Massawa, you may need to book a hotel in Asmara if you’re coming in on a late night flight with Turkish Airlines. Plus, you’ll need a hotel in Asmara the last two nights of the trip.
Luckily, you have many choices, and the quality almost directly relates to the price;
- Albergo Italiano (book by phone): $100/night (excellent hotel but no WiFi)
- Crystal Hotel: $60-83/night (hote shower, WiFi, great Cafe)
- Savanna International Hotel: $60/ night (WiFi, hot shower)
- Africa Pension: $16-32/night (250-450 Nakfa), Tel 121436
- Pushkin Guesthouse: $22/night (350 Nakfa)
Best Restaurants and Cafes in Asmara you need to try
You’ll be amazed by the quality of the food in Asmara. It’s truly some of the best food we’ve ever had exploring Africa.
Some of the top restaurants in Asmara for a drink or food include:
- Spaghetti & Pizza House
- Cafe Roma
- Alba Bistro
- Gelato da Fortuna
- Bar Diana
We found that Ghibabo offered the absolute best food in Asmara, followed by the Spaghetti & Pizza House. Cafe Roma had the best coffee.
Best Places You Need to See in Massawa
In the afternoon, we made our way to Massawa before embarking on a 3-day Dahlak Islands comping tour the next morning. However, we didn’t end up having enough time to visit these sights until our return from the boat trip.
The top places you need to visit in Massawa include:
- Massawa’s Old Town/Souk and cafes
- The Imperial Palace, stunning Italian ruins still (half) standing
- The First African Mosque (ever!)
- Italian Central Bank, full of bullet holes from the war
- Gurgussum Beach, a local delight especially on weekends
Best Hotels in Massawa
There are several rather good hotels you can stay at in Massawa. We chose Seghen International as it was the cheapest offering air conditioning, and ended up quite liking it. But we visited the Dahlak Grand Hotel and were amazed by its high-end quality and good vibes as well.
- Seghen International: 800 Nakfa, air conditioning, no WiFi
- Dahlak Grand Hotel: 500-2500 Nakfa, some rooms with AC
- Red Sea Hotel: could not find information, seems quite run down
Dahlak Islands: How to set-up ultimate 3-day boat & camping tour
Possibly our favorite part of the trip was an epic, totally off-the-beaten-path trip through the Dahlak islands. We hired a local skipper, half-Italian half Eritrean, 100% entertaining, a real self-sustaining mechanic, filled with elucidating stories and witty humor, for about $400 per person for 3 days. His name is Giuseppe and he owns Las Giuvas tours.
As he’s based in Eritrea, Giuseppe doesn’t have much access to the internet, so it’s best to call him directly at +2917115313 to set up the tour. Trust me, it’s worth it.
We spent 2 nights on Dissei Island in the middle of the Red Sea, exploring local villages, snorkeling along crystal clear water and amongst some of the healthiest reefs we’ve ever seen, eating fresh fish we caught ourselves. It was truly a remarkable experience.
Best Things to See in Keren
After returning from Massawa to Asmara on day 4, we elected to visit Keren the next day after hearing wonderful things. We were extremely lucky with our timing – the fantastic and enormous animal market only happens on Mondays!
Nonetheless, there are still awesome places to visit in Keren, including:
- The Monday Animal Market
- Hotel Keren (Viewpoint)
- Church of San Francesco
- Covered Clothes Market
The drive to and from Keren itself is absolutely breathtaking, with windy roads overloading massive fields of flower-yielding cacti, beautiful villages with massive monasteries, and lovely valley views the whole way. By the end of the drive, you end up in Sudan-like desert with camels and sparse vegetation. It’s truly a spectacular drive.
Best Hotels in Keren
If you decide to stay the night in Keren, you do have a couple choices. These include:
- Hotel Keren
- Costina Hotel (200-750 Nakfa, AC rooms available)
- Hotel Sicilia
Costina Hotel seemed the biggest and most modern, while Hotel Keren had an epic rooftop and felt more authentic and local.
Eritrea might be the most special country we’ve visited in Africa
Even now, weeks later, we are still gawking about how surprised and amazed we are by our visit in Eritrea. We both share a yearning to go back, back to this place who’s name evokes something so different from the reality of being there.
A place that has suffered tragedy, war, destruction, but has come out putting the best pieces together and leaving out the worst. A country that feels so safe, our taxi driver left his doors unlocked with all his money in the car. A country in Africa where you can get delicious gelato and walk the streets at night, watch a movie in a 1920s Cinema, and go diving in the clearest water you’ve ever seen the next day.
There’s just something different, surreal, and magical about Eritrea. And if you have the chance to go – well, you would be remiss not to.