Located on the eastern coast of Africa on the Red Sea, Eritrea is revered for its untouched beaches and landscapes. Although traveling outside of the capital requires a permit, it’s worth the effort to procure one. Eritrea boasts African, Arab, and European influences that can be seen in its architecture and culture; visitors will also find its marketplaces and street life to be unique. For instance, crime is virtually non-existent here. However, traveling near the border with Ethiopia and Djibouti should be handled with extreme care, as violence has erupted in these areas.
Located on the edge of the Eritrean Highlands about 40 miles from the nearest port on the Red Sea, Asmara is Eritrea's capital and most populous city. It was recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its preserved Modernist architecture, much of which was influenced by the Italians who colonized the site for a time. Asmara features busy marketplaces, a university, mosques, and churches all set within palm-lined streets. The city is well-loved for its slow-paced lifestyle, cafes, and pastry shops. Be aware that economic conditions have led to power cuts, but crime has not been an issue here.
A protected part of the Dahlak Archipelago, Dahlak Marine National Park features pristine, uninhabited islands. The park sits in the waters of Eritrea’s northern Red Sea Region, so a special permit is required to explore the area. Divers will want to procure the permit to catch a glimpse of dugongs, dolphins, and the 325 species of fish that swim in these waters.n addition, there are underwater volcanoes and shipwrecks in the area to explore as well. Dives are led by former Eritrean freedom fighters who trained as scuba guides.
Qohaito is Eritrea’s most famous archaeological area and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located on the edge of the Great Rift Valley, Qohaito contains rock art, tombs, and ruins that date to the 5th millennium BCE. The area covers about nine square miles that travelers can explore if they have a permit, which is available for free from the National Museum. After exploring the ruins, locals recommend taking a walk to the edge of Qohaito Canyon. On a clear day, they say you can glimpse the Red Sea.
Located just 40 miles from Asmara, the port town of Massawa is the nation’s main harbor. It’s known for its clean beaches and white-washed architecture. Enjoy exploring its arcades, alleys, and waterfront, which features painted vessels and nearby cafes. There are many sites in town, such as the local bazaar, that retain strong influences of its Ottoman founders. Be sure to view the houses made from coral, St. Mary’s Cathedral, and the 15th-century Sheikh Hanafi Mosque. Perhaps its most famous attraction is the Imperial Palace, constructed during the 19th century. If you prefer to get out on the water, popular pastimes here include scuba, snorkeling, and sailing.
The Danakil region near the Ethiopian border is a must-visit site for intrepid explorers, but be warned. As one of the hottest places on earth, temperatures can reach up to 145 degrees Fahrenheit here. The landscape contains the remnants of an inland sea, which are ere salt flats today. The flats are still important to the Afar people’s way of life. Volcanic cones, deep cracks, and crevices add an other-worldly look to the Danafil landscape. The Danafil Depression lies across the Ethiopian border, but travelers will have plenty of volcanic landscapes to witness on the Eritrean side.
The city of Keren is often regarded as Eritrea’s cultural capital because the nation’s most dominant tribes make their home here. Located in the highlands near banana plantations, Keren features spectacular views of the nearby Nafka Mountains; it also boasts attractions like its central Grand Mosque, colorful markets, multi-story hotels, and a 19th-century Egyptian fortress. There’s also a monastery believed to date to the 6th century BCE. Keren’s streets are traversed by both camels and automobiles, just one of the many ways the city incorporates the new and the old into its way of life.
Located on the Red Sea, the ruins of Adulis represent an ancient city that was integral to the Aksumite Empire. The city traded luxury items, such as tortoiseshell and ivory, with the Byzantine Greeks and Romans, which allowed it to prosper between the 4th - 7th centuries CE. Adulis was also an important travel stop between the Mediterranean and India. Although travelers can explore the ruins of the site, much of the city lies underground, requiring extensive excavation. Highlights of the archaeological site include its ancient temple, tombs, and an 8th-century Christian church. The country hopes to have Adulis soon listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
For a day of snorkeling and relaxing on the beach, head to Green Island. The Grand Hotel Dahlak organizes day trips to the island, but private guides can also usher you to the island for a reasonable fee. Located in the Bay of Massara, the island provides a tranquil getaway without having to travel too far from civilization. There are no amenities whatsoever here, so travelers must bring everything they need. There are ruins of an old mosque on the island that may be explored, as well as tracts of mangroves that provide feeding grounds for seabirds.
Located in southern Eritrea, the market town of Senafe is best known for its Matera Ruins. The ruins include a 3rd-century Obelisk and palace. Ethiopia has removed many of the artifacts, and, so far, Eritrea has been unsuccessful in its quest to get them back. Though there are no guides available, this is a must-see attraction for archaeology buffs or anyone interested in seeing the home of the world’s oldest discovered human skeletons. Because the Ethiopian border is just 25 miles away, travelers should use extra caution when visiting. It’s also commonplace for people who live in the area to carry arms for protection.
As much of Eritrea’s lands are cracked and dry, Filfil provides a rare contrast with its rainforest vegetation and river views. Many travelers visit to witness the rich birdlife and spot animals like baboons, leopards, and various reptiles. Visiting these protected forests has only recently been possible with the completion of the road that connects Filfil with Massara and the capital, Asmara. Although the five-hour trip can be done in a day, many people prefer to stay at the park’s centrally located hotel or at the lodges that are situated near the edge of the forest.