Eritrea is known as one of the hardest countries in the world to visit but with right contacts, you can get the visa very easily. I traveled to Eritrea last year after my Cape Town to Cairo trip, and it remains as one of my highlights in Africa.
When I tell people that I’ve been there the first question they ask is “Isn’t it really dangerous there?”. The people who actually are travelers themselves and know that it’s a very safe country to visit will ask how did I get the visa. I will get to the visa part later but to clear this up first – visiting Eritrea is NOT dangerous. In fact, I’ve never felt safer in Africa. Yes, the country still has its own problems and some local people are leaving the country, but for foreign travelers, Eritrea is very safe. I also have to add that after dealing with horrible street harassment in Egypt, getting to Eritrea was a huge relief because there I didn’t need to deal with any harassment or hassle. Eritrea is great for solo female travelers!
But as always when traveling, good travel insurance is necessary. I highly recommend WorldNomads because it’s great for long-term travelers. You can buy the insurance when you’re already traveling and claim online from anywhere in the world.
How to Get the Visa
Eritrea is relatively closed country, and the border crossings are closed for foreign people. You also can’t just walk to their embassy and apply for the visa – the chances of getting it are very low.
When I heard of a tour company called Asmara Grande and a man named Tekeste who might be willing to help me with the visa, I emailed him immediately. I was happy to hear that all I needed to do was to send him a copy of my email, address, phone number and my profession. A week later I received a visa approval letter via email and I simply just printed it and showed it to the immigration officers at the airport in Asmara. I also needed to pay $70 in cash for the visa.
If you want to visit Eritrea too, you can email Tekeste: tekeste.tekeste.azere[at]gmail.com
Update: It may not be possible to get the visa on arrival anymore, but instead, you have to apply at the nearest Eritrean embassy. I can’t tell if it’s any easier to get the visa than it used to be, but it seems like Eritrea is opening more to the outside world. Ethiopian Airlines started to fly to Asmara again in July 2018 after 20 years.
Note that, you can only fly in and out of Eritrea and the visa is not for border crossings. There are flights almost daily from Dubai, Cairo, Istanbul, Khartoum and Jeddah. The easiest options are the flights from Cairo (on EgyptAir), Istanbul (on Turkish Airlines) and Dubai (on flyDubai) and you book these flights online.
Update: In July 2018, Ethiopian Airlines started flights between Addis Ababa and Asmara. In August 2018, Eritrean Airlines also started flying the same route.
The currency in Eritrea is Eritrean Nakfa. The fixed exchange rate is USD$1 = 15 Nakfa, but black market rates are better. There are no ATMs in Eritrea that take foreign cards, and you also can’t get any Nakfas outside of the country. You need to bring all cash you need in US dollars and exchange when you get to Asmara.
Exploring Asmara – The Capital City of Eritrea
Eritrea is a former colony of Italy, and you can notice this when exploring the capital city Asmara. Not only you can see the old Italian architecture everywhere in the city, but you can also eat pasta, gelato and pizza, and enjoy a cappuccino at one of the old-school cafes. The best way to experience Asmara is just walking around and immersing yourself in the culture. The city is very peaceful and quiet compared to other big African cities and walking is a pleasure because there’s no hassle and you can walk around without getting unwanted attention. Local people are very friendly and warm, and also curious about your presence because there are hardly any tourists.
It’s difficult to explain how Asmara is – you have to travel there yourself and experience the city. I could spend hours and hours just wandering around there and feeling the city. It’s a very unique city with its old Italian colonial buildings and a tranquil, peaceful atmosphere. It’s so different compared to other African cities, and sometimes I felt like I was in Europe – just in another era. It’s a city stuck in time. There are no big international brands, no new technology and hardly any internet at all. The only way to try to connect to the internet is going to specific internet cafes where you can get wifi so slow that opening one website will take you half an hour. Not worth it, so save your money and take a digital detox! This is actually one thing that adds charm to the place because people aren’t looking at their screens but instead having real human connections.
Asmara lies at an elevation of 2,325 meters above sea level making the temperature pleasant all year. After spending so much time in hot parts of Africa, I was kind of cold in Asmara, especially on the days it was raining. So prepare to get your jeans and jackets out!
Where to Stay in Asmara
Eritrea is one of those African countries where most of the hotels are not online. I stayed at Sheghey Hotel where I had a basic room with everything I needed. The only thing that bothered me with this place was the fact that my room was above a bar and they played loud music at night. Another hotel option is The Ambassador Hotel that is a popular choice among travelers.
There are a few hotels you can book online on Booking.com:
Hotel Asmara Palace – Five-star hotel featuring a swimming pool, tennis court, fitness center, free wifi, spa & wellness center.
Sunshine Hotel – Old style hotel with a nice terrace and views of the garden. The facilities include free wifi restaurant and bar.
Crystal Hotel – Three-star property with a terrace, free wifi, restaurant and the breakfast is included.
The Beautiful Views Outside of Asmara
Even if you’re only staying in Asmara, it’s worth getting a little bit outside of the city center to get some spectacular views. You don’t need to travel far, but if you follow the road leading from Asmara to Massawa, you’ll soon witness amazing views.
Trip to Massawa
I really wanted to see one other place in Eritrea too, so I decided to make a trip to Massawa. If you’re going to travel to other places in Eritrea, you need to get travel permits for every town you visit. This is a relatively simple process, and you can get the permits from a Tourism Permit Center that is located close to Sweet Asmara Cafe. You need a copy of your passport and visa before you go there and you should be able to get the permits in a few hours.
I took a local bus to Massawa, and the trip took a few hours. Buses are very cheap and run regularly. I read in another travel blog that tourists can’t take local transportation. This is not true! I had no problems taking local transportation, and no one even wanted to see my travel permits.
It’s been said that in Eritrea you can experience three seasons in two hours and you can really notice this when you travel from Asmara to Massawa. I left rainy and somewhat cold Asmara wearing jeans and a jacket, but the temperature rises gradually. When I got to Massawa, I was melting in the hot and humid weather.
It’s possible to visit Massawa as a day trip like I did, but if you want to visit the beaches and islands, for example, you would need to stay there overnight because you need to take another bus/taxi/boat to get there. I just walked around the old town, and while some of the parts are only ruins, I still found the architecture to be fascinating. Massawa is very different compared to Asmara and has more Arabic feel to it.
Eritrean Coffee Ceremony
On my last in Eritrea, Tekeste invited me to their home for a traditional Eritrean coffee ceremony. If you’ve been to Ethiopia, the ceremony is very similar. It was such an honor to get to experience this!
Huge thanks to Tekeste for all of his help and making my trip to Eritrea possible!
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This is a perfect description of Asmara. As an Eritrean I couldn’t have said it better myself. Its like living in a different time, where time moves slower, people take thier time to enjoy eachothers company, take long slow walks and spend hours in cafes. It’s a place to enjoy lifes simple pleasures. I’m glad you enjoyed it!
Thank you! Nice to hear that you enjoyed reading it 😊
Great post and it made me more curious about Eritrea.
Thanks! And nice to hear 🙂
I forgot that Eritrea was an Italian colony – so interesting! Have never been to Africa, would love to go someday!
You should really make it to Africa! So many different countries to visit there 🙂
Really cool post—and gorgeous photos! I’ve met lots of lovely Eritreans around the world, but never seen a travel post about their country before. This was informative and inspiring!
Thank you 🙂
This country sounds fascinating! I love learning about “least visited” countries, as they usually have the most to offer! You did a great job shedding light on this unique place.
And I love traveling to the least visited countries 😀
Really interesting . I lived in Ethiopia for a while and reading this makes me sad we didn’t get to Eritrea when we were there. I also felt as if I could smell the dusky coffee of the region.
At least you have a reason to travel to the region again! To visit Eritrea 🙂
Sadly, I’d not heard of Eritrea. But, it looks like an incredible place to visit! A little piece of Italy in Africa. Your photos are gorgeous and I’m sure that they do the place justice. I loved reading how hardly anyone is on their phones there and there is human interactions. Thanks for the great tips on how to get there. It’s been added to my African bucket list. Thanks!
Not many people have heard about it (or if they have, it’s usually something negative).
I had NO idea it Eritrea was a former Italian colony! How fascinating!
We really want to start to explore Africa and this was such a helpful and insightful blog to learn more about the hidden gems there!
Yes, I have lots of other African destinations featured on my blog too so make sure to check them out 🙂
I am amazed by how spotlessly clean the streets are! Asmara looks fabulous and the landscapes are stunning. I’d love to visit.
Yes, it was very clean there! I loved it 🙂
Visiting Ethiopia and Eritea are really high on my bucket list! This is a really useful guide. Thank you.
Nice to hear 🙂
The first travel blog post I’ve read about Eritrea. Good to hear that it’s solo female travel friendly. Inspiring post. Well done.
Yes, I had no problems traveling there solo 🙂
Wow wow this is amazing and honestly written travel article regarding traveling to Eritrea in a long time. As a frequent Traveller to Eritrea it pains me to read articles purposely written to defame the country for political ends and completely unrelated to ones travel experience such as safety, transportation,basic services etc.. with the peace agreement with Ethiopia destination to Eritrea is even getting more attractive for average Traveller price, safety,redsea experience, diving , snorkeling,desert Safari, mountain hiking and off course three seasons in two hours. Thanks again for your article.
So true! And great to hear that you’ve been traveling there too 🙂 I don’t know many people who have been there!
I sent an email to Tekeste last week about VOA, but he told me that we have to get our visa at the embassy here in Europe. There is a new visa policy since May 18 🙁
I heard about it and updated the post. Hopefully, it will be easier to get the visa!
Great post – and amazing pix! Love the architecture though it’s a pity some of it is in ruins. I’d love to go to Eritrea, just not sure I’d do it solo (much as it was safe).
I hope you get a chance to visit it one day 🙂
So Accurately written,Thanks. Eritrea is so a such peacefull place and once you know their culture you love them even more ,very generous people .
Eritrea is beautiful. I am glad you enjoyed visiting Eritrea, more so unlike others who call themselves travellers/tourists, you have no illusion of mixing politics and tourism
This is a really useful post for those of us thinking of travelling to Eritrea, so thanks for taking the time to write it!
You mentioned doing a day trip to Massawa by bus. If you do this trip by bus, how many hours do you get to stay in Massawa? Do buses from Massawa to Asmara run in the late afternoon or evening? Thanks!
The bus takes 2-3 hours and I had plenty of time to walk around the city. Just leave early in the morning! There were also lots of buses coming back in the late afternoon 🙂
Gabriela, this post is such a good and informative read! I am astonished to know there is a country called Eritrea and it is such a beautiful one at that! By reading your post, I am amazed at how difficult it can get to get inside the country. But I guess all the efforts will be worth it once you start exploring the place. It would be lovely to set foot here in the future!
I like your article, thank you, however, you failed to mention a very important point. Can one get by with speaking only English?
Yes, you definitely can!
I have just got my Eritrea visa and will be leaving for Asmara in a few days. It was lovely reading your experience. I am sure it will help me in my trip. Do you have any suggestion for traveling to the islands from Massawa? I heard that there is a train journey from Asmara to Massawa and the ride is one of the most beautiful. Any idea about this?
Just wondering, how many days do you recommend for staying in Asmara?
We will be a group of 4 and arrive in Asmara on 30th Oct for 3 nights, en route to Ethiopia. Here in Australia most people are very curious as to why we would choose such obscure destinations. I love the road less travelled and so looking forward to the scenery and meeting the people. Visa was easy enough to organise through Eritrean Consulate in Melbourne. Once approved we had to send our passports down but all went smoothly. We booked through Oasis Travel, also listed on the consular website. One night in Asmara, then an overnight trip to Massawa for old Port and snorkeling , then back to Asmara. So looking forward to it. Thanks for your info and beautiful photos
Gabriela, you are amazing yourself. I enjoyed reading your article. I am an eritrean and I couldn’t have described it any better… I love Eritrea and I always wished for this day to come a day for people like you to visit it and tell the truth about it!!! Thaks again I pray to run into more people like you.
Hi Gabriela, thank you very much. i am planning my trip and I was looking for female solo travelers experiences. Did you contact a local travel agency there, or did you organize everything by yourself?
Thank you, Gabriela. You are absolutely right. Eritrea is special. I’ve just been there 8 days. By the way Tourist Permits: I went by bus to Keren and by taxi to Filfil and Police controls wanted to see my permit plus asked for a copy of the permit.
Tage Bonde, Denmark
Hi, Gabriele, I have read your report about Eritrea, thank you very much, everything sounds very nice and good. – As soon as CORONA is finish I’ll go to Ethiopia, where I will try to get a visa for Eritrea. –
I want to ask if it’s still not allowed to enter Eritrea by land border?
I really don’t like to fly very much, I prefer to go by train or by bus.-
And also I am planing to go to the near Djibouti, this country seems to be also very interesting for me.
I want to see all the countries at this continent.
I wish you all the best and may be I can hear from you more? I’m a solo male traveller with a very bif´g back pack – for me is nothing impossible to manage. Keep well, take care, Tonicek