Planning a trip to Asmara: Africa’s unique Art Deco city

Eritrea and its capital, Asmara have much to offer tourists looking to go off the beaten track. Our writer, Gunnar Garfors shares his tips on how to get there.

Visiting Eritrea’s capital, Asmara is a bit like stepping into a time machine. The city is a great example of jaw-dropping Art deco architecture, inherited from its Italian colonialist past.

But bad press has scared off tourists, given Eritrea’s bitter relations with its neighbour, Ethiopia. Friends of mine who were invited to join me on my trip politely declined.  Some of them raised security concerns. But I didn’t have any problems, and have rarely felt safer in any other city, even when strolling through the capital alone in the middle of the night.

The UK’s Foreign Office has lifted its travel warnings for most parts of Eritrea, as long as you don’t wander near the borders with Djbouti, Sudan and Ethiopia.

Visa and entry

Getting a visa to visit Eritrea is no walk in the park. You should set aside at least six weeks to receive your visa. And ensure you fill out every little detail on the application form, or risk being declined a visa without much of an explanation.

I was denied entry on my first attempt. My passport was returned by mail with a Post-it note attached, which read: “Hellow! Visa denied.” After a second try with an explanatory letter accompanying my passport and visa application, I was successful.

The main point of entry into Eritrea is through Asmara International Airport. It’s currently Eritrea’s only international airport, although there are plans to open up international flights to the beach town of Massawa (MSW) too.

Information screens inside Asmara international’s airport terminal show you all 29 departures throughout the week. It makes the airport look busier than it is. Cairo is the most popular destination with seven outbound flights a week while there are six to Dubai.

The only European destination currently served by Asmara is Frankfurt, with three weekly flights.

Allow ample time at the airport, as it’s not the easiest of terminals to get through – from the checkpoint where you have to declare all your money (regardless of currency) to the likelihood of having your luggage searched.

If you’re planning to take a laptop, you’ll have to register it before being able to leave the airport.

Money matters

You need to plan carefully when it comes to cash. On arrival you’ll have to fill out a money declaration form, which will be logged by staff at the currency exchange shops.

My best piece of advice is: don’t try to outsmart anyone. You face intensive questioning or worse if custom officers find any discrepancies if you end up with more or less money than you declare on the form. You can withdraw money from a Visa or Mastercard at Himbol, the only official currency exchange shops, but you won’t be able to change more than 3000 Eritrean Nakfa (£130) – pronounced ‘naffa’ – back to USD or Euro if you withdraw too much.

Currency exchanges can also only take place at the main Himbol shop on Harnet Avenue, despite the presence of a currency exchange at the airport. Some hotels are also allowed to exchange money.

Gunnar’s trip highlights

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