Popularly known as the North Korea of Africa for being the most repressive and hermetic country on the continent, Eritrea is a real off the beaten track, undiscovered gem which not many people know about.
Paradoxically, this is a surprisingly chilled-out and tourist-friendly destination, filled with kind-hearted people, huge diversity, and loads of unique things to do.
Only being independent since 1991, after a 30-war against Ethiopia, traveling to Eritrea is the ultimate offbeat experience in Africa.
This guide contains everything you need to know about doing tourism in Eritrea, including visas, permits, tips and a 9-day itinerary.
In this Eritrea travel guide you will find:
Introduction: what’s tourism in Eritrea like
Eritrea is a tiny nation sitting on the shore of the Red Sea, nestled between Sudan, Djibouti, and Ethiopia.
When I was in Ethiopia, many travelers asked me what traveling in Eritrea was like, and I always told them:
Eritrea is sort of an extension of Ethiopia, very similar, but extremely different at the same time.
The dominant group in Eritrea are the Tigrayans, a group of people who share the exact same culture as Ethiopians from Tigray region, in the north of the country, one of the most touristic regions in Ethiopia.
However, in Eritrea, you also find many different ethnic groups and what makes doing tourism in Eritrea unique unlike Ethiopia is that this used to be an Italian colony, from 1890 until 1943.
And, since this colonization is so recent, plus the Italians created the country pretty much from scratch, the Italian influence is very present, and visible, especially in Asmara, which was entirely built by the Italians, a capital filled with art deco buildings, palm-lined streets, and lovely cafés whose terraces are packed with Eritreans slurping delicious macchiatos.
Unlike most capitals in Africa, Asmara has a sophisticated African style and is a reason in itself to visit Eritrea.
However, once you leave the capital, you’ll find yourself in one of the most traditional countries on Earth, like if you traveled back in time.
How to get a visa for traveling to Eritrea
Getting a valid tourist visa for visiting Eritrea can take time and money but it is easier than most people assume it will be.
Getting an Eritrean tourist visa via embassy
This is the cheapest way but be aware that it can take a lot of time, usually more than 1 month; plus there are only a small number of Eritrean embassies around the world, typically in those countries where there is a significant Eritrean population, including France, the UK, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland and the USA.
If your home country doesn’t have an Eritrean embassy, it is also possible to mail both your passport and application form to the nearest one but, personally, I don’t like this option because you never know how long you are going to be without your passport.
In any case, according to all travelers I talked to, most applications get approved sooner or later and the average visa price is around 70€ (1-month visa), but this could vary slightly, depending on the embassy or your nationality.
Contact your nearest embassy to find out all the specific requirements & instructions.
Your experiences and reports are welcome.
Getting a tourist visa on arrival (via a travel agency)
Note: you are only eligible to get a VOA if there isn’t an embassy in your home country. Since there is no Eritrean embassy in my home country, Spain, I went for this option.
Getting a tourist visa on arrival for Eritrea might seem the most convenient option and, logistically, it really is but it can get very expensive because you can only arrange it through a travel agency.
Travel agencies will either charge you an administrative fee or make you book a full tour, but they can process your visa document in 1 week.
In my case, the agency charged me 250USD for processing my visa and 70USD for a minimal tour, which included airport pick up and drop off, plus 1 night in a relatively good hotel, so 320USD in total.
These were only agency fees but, then, you have to purchase your visa at the airport, which costs an additional 70USD (valid for 1 month).
I think they only accept USD – I am not entirely sure – and, if needed, they give you the change in USD as well.
Processing your visa at the airport is relatively quick. In my case, it didn’t take more than 45 minutes. Weirdly, the people who stamp your passport are young women who are barely 20 years old.
Permits for traveling around Eritrea. Is independent travel allowed?
Eritrea is known as the North Korea of Africa for a few reasons, one of them being that most of the country is heavily restricted and off-limits to tourists.
Nevertheless, things have greatly improved recently and I would say that you are allowed to travel independently to 20% of the country’s territory.
In order to visit any place outside of the capital, however, you need to get a specific permit, one for each different place you visit.
Most permits can be obtained at the Ministry of Tourism’s office, a small office located right in the city center, just in front of the big Roman Catholic Church.
Each permit costs 50 nakfas – a bit more than 3USD – and takes a couple of hours to process.
This means that, if you apply in the morning, you can pick it up in the afternoon and, if you apply in the afternoon, you can pick it up the next day.
Remember that the office is closed on Sunday.
When applying for your different permits, you need to specify the exact dates you are going to spend in each place, so you really need to plan your day-by-day itinerary.
This sucks because it means that there is no room for improvising.
To be honest, the police never asked me for the permit, but all hotels did and, if the day you arrive doesn’t match the specified date in the permit, they won’t host you.
What happens if you travel without a permit?
I did visit one town (Foro) in which a special permit was required but I didn’t have one.
There was a checkpoint right at the town’s entrance but the bus didn’t stop and, since it was market day, the village was packed with people from all over the region, so I went unnoticed by the authorities. I went there on a day trip from Massawa.
During my trip, I met one Italian who also tried to sneak into a forbidden area but he got caught by the authorities, who held him at the checkpoint for a few hours before letting him go. No big deal, he said.
What happens with the remaining 80%?
When you travel in Eritrea, it doesn’t look like you are traveling in one of the most repressive states in the world: you barely see any police, you don’t see more poverty than in other African nations, the atmosphere is so chilled and you never feel any sort of tension. However, remember that, as a traveler, you can only see 20% of the country so, during my trip, I could never stop wondering: what is really going on in that unknown part of Eritrea? In any case, I am pretty sure there is a lot of undercover police, plus the numbers speak for themselves, as there are millions of Eritrean refugees living in different parts of the world.
Travel insurance for Eritrea
No matter where you travel to, remember to always have valid travel insurance, especially if you travel to countries such as Eritrea, where anything can happen.
I recommend World Nomads for the following reasons:
- One of the few companies that cover travel in Eritrea
- The only company that offers unlimited medical budget
If you want to know more options, read: Tutorial – How to find the right travel insurance
Best time to visit Eritrea
Do you know what slogan the Ministry of Tourism uses to promote tourism in Eritrea?
Eritrea, 3 seasons in 2 hours.
Sitting at an elevation of 2,235 meters above sea level, Asmara might be one of the highest capitals in the world, a city which enjoys relatively cool weather all year round and, by only driving a few hours, you can get to the green rolling hills around Ginda, the humid and utterly hot shores of the Red Sea or the desert plains near the Afar region.
Therefore, you can visit Eritrea all year long, except for the Red Sea, which has similar summer temperatures to Saudi Arabia.
How to get to Eritrea
Eritrea shares a border with Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti but, as of today, all borders are closed, at least to foreigners.
After Eritrea and Ethiopia signed the Peace Agreement in 2018, they agreed to open the border after decades of being shut down but, unfortunately, Eritrea decided to close it again after a few months, as many of the Eritreans who crossed into Ethiopia never came back in an attempt to seek freedom.
Therefore, the only way to travel to Eritrea is by flying in.
I personally came from Istanbul with Turkish Airlines, but you can also fly in from Addis Ababa (Ethiopian Airlines), Cairo (Egypt Air) or Dubai (FlyDubai).
Best books for backpacking in Eritrea
Understanding Eritrea: Inside Africa’s most repressive state, by Martin Plaut – Amazing book written by a BBC journalist, which helped me to understand the complexity of Eritrea, as well as its relationship with Ethiopia, a key factor in the evolution of the country.
Eritrea travel guide by Bradt – The last edition is from 2007 (the one I have) but the good news is that Bradt is releasing a new one in December 2020. Bradt specializes in offbeat destinations and has the most insightful guidebooks about destinations in Africa. I love Bradt.
Get a KINDLE! – Buying a Kindle has been one of my best recent acquisitions.
Eritrea: the people and culture
Despite its small size – only 6 million people – Eritrea is a complex society, ethnically speaking.
As I said in the introduction, Tigrayans are the dominant group but Eritrea is composed of 8 more different ethnicities: Tigre, Rashaida, Afar, Saho, Bilen, Beja, Kunama and Nara.
If you visit Keren, you will meet the Tigre, nomadic Muslims.
If you go to Foro or any place south of Massawa, you are likely to meet Saho people, whose women dress up in some very colorful attire. In Foro, I also got to see many Afar people.
Here you can read more about ethnic groups in Eritrea.
From a traveling perspective, Eritreans are kind and pleasant people to deal with.
Scams are rare and expect many Eritreans to approach you to ask your opinion about Eritrean culture, or what have you learnt about their culture. In Asmara, they would asked me this question several times a day.
Other than that, most locals talking to you just want to have a small chat because they are curious, not because they want to get something from you, unlike in neighboring Ethiopia.
Language in Eritrea
All the languages spoken by the different ethnicities are considered official but Tigrinya – and also Arabic – is the governmental language and the most commonly used among all Eritreans.
Tigrinya is a Semitic language that comes from Ge’ez and is the official language in Tigray region, northern Ethiopia.
It also has many similarities to Amharic, the official language in Ethiopia.
Do Eritreans speak English?
Surprisingly, you always meet someone who speaks decent English, especially in Asmara.
I also met many people speaking Italian, usually Eritreans above 60 or 70 years old.
To be very honest, language shouldn’t be a barrier when backpacking in Eritrea.
Religion is a big deal in Eritrea and, according to official sources, Christianity is practiced by 60% of the population, whereas Islam is by 40%.
Most Christians are Orthodox – but there are Catholics too – from the same Orthodox branch as Ethiopians.
In most cases, religion is based on ethnicity, which means that it is very regional, the northern part close to Sudan being very Muslim, while the area close to Ethiopia being very Christian.
Churches are always packed and I recommend you attend the Sunday service that takes place early in the morning, around 6am, in which the locals sing some very peculiar canticles.
Is it safe to travel to Eritrea?
Is Eritrea safe? Well, it is said that Eritrea is one of the safest countries in Africa.
I have been walking in the center of Asmara at 3am, with many people hanging out outside of the different bars and nobody bothered me.
In Eritrea, you bump into the occasional intense and slightly aggressive beggar, but more often than not, if noticed by a local, they will approach and tell him to get the hell out.
Crime in Eritrea is pretty rare, everybody says so, and I never heard of any foreigner saying otherwise.
For whatever reason, Eritrea is not like other African countries.
Moreover, according to the FCO advice, all Eritrea is safe to go except for the area within 25km of Eritrea’s land borders but that’s because of past conflicts, nothing to worry about today and, in any case, as a tourist, you can’t even go there.
Remember to travel to Eritreawith proper travel insurance!
Read my tutorial: How to find the right travel insurance
Taking photos of local people
Like in any traditional country, the streets of Eritrea are filled with great picture opportunities.
In my experience, in Christian areas, people were mostly OK with you taking photos, and I only had a few issues in very traditional Muslim areas, even when taking photos from far away, especially if there were women in the frame.
As a responsible traveler and, like you would do in any other country, ask for permission first.
Talking about local politics in Eritrea
Honestly, the only potential danger you might face when visiting Eritrea is talking about politics.
You should never say anything negative about the Government to people you don’t know or trust, since that’s enough reason to be put away for a while.
I only talked deeply about politics with one Eritrean and every time I asked him a question, he would look around and whisper his answer in my ear.
I had never seen anything like that before. Crazy.
Food & drink in Eritrea
The local traditional food in Eritrea is pretty much the same as in Ethiopia, no big difference, other than a slight change in their names and spices.
Injera, the teff-based flat, sour, fermented bread is the base of any local meal.
Some local dishes you must try are:
- Tibsi: small pieces of lamb fried in tomato sauce, always accompanied by injera.
- Shoro: spicy chickpea paste, also accompanied by injera.
- Kicha: pieces of flat bread dipped in different sauces or stews. Weird, too much bread for me.
- Foul: Smashed beans, typically eaten for breakfast
The biggest difference from Ethiopia is that in Eritrea, because of the Italian influence, you find a lot of Italian food and in some restaurants, it is great, with pasta al dente and delicacies such as caprito al forno (lamb in the oven) or parmigiana.
If you are vegetarian, you need to say you want nait-som (pronounced like night-some), which literally means fasting-food. Christian Orthodox Eritreans fast twice a week at least, days on which they can only eat vegan, so that’s why most restaurants will always serve vegetarian dishes. The traditional fasting dish usually consists of lentils and other stews with injera.
Alcohol in Eritrea
Beer is widely available in Eritrea, including in Muslim towns, but they only produce one brand: Asmara Beer. It never costs more than 15-25 nakfas (1-1.50USD)
What is funny about Asmara beer is that it always tastes different.
Sometimes it comes so light and watery, while on other occasions it is like one of those unfiltered, thick beers. Weird.
In bars and more exclusive restaurants, you can find a wide variety of wines and spirits but because they are all imported, they are very pricey.
Coffee in Eritrea is a big deal
If you like good coffee, you are going to love to travel to Eritrea. Their coffee is mostly imported from Ethiopia but they prepare it in Italian style and in the endless cafés around Asmara macchiato is the way to go. To be very honest, what they serve isn’t real Italian macchiato, but more like a Spanish cortado, but they do it very well, with thick foam and great presentation. If you like it strong, you need to order a black macchiato. Otherwise, they put too much milk in, in my opinion.
Stay connected during your trip in Eritrea: Internet
This is a pretty important section.
Fact: in Eritrea, there is no internet.
Well, this isn’t entirely true but mobile internet doesn’t exist, really.
The only places where you can connect to the internet are in cyber cafés and specific hotels, in which you need to buy a voucher that costs around 1USD and can be used for 1 hour.
However, the internet is absolutely awful and all you can do is send WhatsApps, text emails or simple browsing.
In addition, you can’t use it unless you connect to a VPN.
Learn here how to find the best VPN for traveling.
This means that, before traveling to Eritrea, you must download all the information needed for traveling, plus all your music, Netflix movies, etc.
Some travelers told me that the internet situation is similar to the one in Cuba but the little internet you get is even slower.
On the bright side, in the different cafés, restaurants, and buses, you never see anybody checking their phones but people are just talking like we used to do some years ago.
You get used to it surprisingly fast.
Remember to travel with proper travel insurance!
Read my tutorial: How to find the right travel insurance
Money in Eritrea $
In Eritrea, they use the Eritrean Nakfa (ERN) and, in 2020, 1USD = 15ERN
A few years ago, there used to be a black market in which you could exchange 1USD for 55ERN.
Things, however, have changed and this black market has been eradicated so, today, you can only change in some Governmental offices named Himbol. Both USD and € are accepted.
You can still exchange on the black market if you know the right people but it is extremely illegal and the maximum rate you will get is 18ERN for 1USD.
Important! Bring enough cash for the whole trip because international cards can’t be used!
How much does it cost to travel in Eritrea?
Overall, Eritrea is cheap but, in a country in which most people earn less than 50USD, this is a very expensive country, much more than Ethiopia.
These are the costs of the most typical things:
- Macchiato: 7-10 nakfas
- Breakfast (foul): 15-25 nakfas
- Vegetarian lunch: 50-70 nakfas
- Non-vegetarian lunch: 100-120 nakfas
- Internet 1 hour: 15-20 nakfas
- Water 1 liter: 15-25 nakfas
- Beer: 15-25 nakfas
- Permits: 50 nakfas each
- Public bus from Asmara to Keren: 25 nakfas
- Mini-van from Asmara to Keren: 70 nakfas
- Public bus from Asmara to Massawa: 31 nakfas
- Mini-van from Asmara to Massawa: 75 nakfas
- For hotel prices, go to the Accommodation section
The price of water in Eritrea
On my first day, I went to a local grocery shop to buy some water. They only had a 1L size and when attempting to pay, he said: 20 nakfas, almost 1.50USD. I really thought he was ripping me off, so I left the bottle and left. Then, I went to a nearby shop where prices were written, only to find out that a 1L bottle there cost 25 nakfas, almost 2USD. What the hell? I talked about this to a random local I met in a café and he said that, yes, water in Eritrea is crazy-expensive and the reason is that there used to be a local company that processed mineral water but the Government shut it down without giving any explanation, so now they have to import it from Ethiopia, and this is a huge issue because most people can’t afford it and tap water isn’t drinkable.
Accommodation in Eritrea
Eritrea is relatively well-sorted for hotels.
The problem with accommodation is that sometimes it can be very overpriced, but you can find some good options.
Hotels in Asmara
Asmara has, obviously, the best offer of hotels, from 4USD-filthy rooms to top-end.
- Budget: African Village – Best option for backpackers. A majestic colonial building in which you find rooms of all prices, from 10USD rooms with shared bathroom to 30USD. All rooms are impeccably clean. I stayed here on my last night.
- Budget-Mid-range: Top Five Hotel – I stayed here during my first 3 nights in Asmara. The cheapest room you can get costs 20USD, with a private bathroom, and it is just OK, but it is very clean. You can get better rooms paying a bit extra. The hotel’s restaurant is very good and it is always filled with locals.
- Mid-range: Crystal Palace – A fancier hotel with rooms starting at 60USD.
Hotels in Keren
- Budget: Sicilia Hotel – The owner speaks amazing English and his mother impeccable Italian. The rooms are very basic but clean. All rooms cost between 8 and 12USD. It has a great garden/terrace.
- Mid-range: Keren Hotel – The first hotel ever opened in Keren and where most foreigners stay. When I visited Keren, I saw a tour group of around 20 foreigners coming out of the hotel. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the prices, but it should be in the 30-50USD range.
Hotels in Massawa
- Budget: Luna Hotel – This is the best budget option but still, it is very overpriced. Non-AC rooms cost 20USD, and they are extremely basic, with not even plugs and a filthy shared bathroom. Otherwise, slightly better rooms with AC cost nearly 40USD.
- Mid-range: Dahlak Hotel – A fancier hotel next to Luna, with rooms starting at 60-70USD.
Transportation: How to travel around Eritrea
As long as you have the necessary permits, you can move around Eritrea independently by public transportation.
Bus – Bus is pretty much the only way to travel between Eritrean towns and cities. There are both minivans and big public buses. I recommend you go early in the morning, otherwise, you may find very long queues and have to wait there forever and, occasionally, pushing hard and getting a bit aggressive is the only way to find a seat.
Train – The beautiful steam train that used to run from Asmara to Eritrea doesn’t work anymore and today, the only functional section is the one that runs from Asmara to Nefasit and it only works for the occasional tourists who book the whole train in advance. Someone told me that, if you were a group of 15, you would pay around 50USD per person.
Renting a car – In Asmara, I saw more than one rental car office but I am not sure to what extent you can just drive around by yourself. You will need to figure it out by yourself.
Things to do in Eritrea in a 9-day itinerary
You could squeeze this Eritrean itinerary into one week and, probably, I could have visited one or two additional places but I don’t like to rush and, in any case, I was already pretty satisfied with what I managed to visit 🙂
Map of the places to visit in Eritrea
Day 1, 2, 3 – Arrival and visit Asmara
In my experience, Asmara was the highlight of my trip to Eritrea, without a doubt.
Unlike many other African capitals, this is such a peaceful city. Can you imagine an African city in which all cars would let you pass when you cross the street?
The best thing you can do in Asmara is hanging out in the different cafés over a macchiato, searching for good Italian food and checking out the several art deco buildings found across the city.
However, there are also some specific great sites to visit, all listed below.
You will need a minimum of two days to visit them all.
Things to do in Asmara
- Tank graveyard – The military arsenal the Ethiopian army left behind. You need to get the permit at the tourism office. It is free.
- Fiat Tagliero building – The most outstanding Italian building, built in 1938.
- Café Roma – An old Italian cinema today turned into an old school café.
- Saint Mariam Church – The main Orthodox Church in town.
- Medeber Market – A recycling market where they turn junk into useful items.
- Asmara Great Mosque – The most important mosque in Eritrea.
- Bowling Center – From the Italian era and where the bowling pins are placed manually.
Day 4, 5 – Keren
Predominantly a Muslim city, Keren, the capital of Anseba region, has a sort of Middle Eastern feel, or Sudanese perhaps, but what is obvious is that it is a completely different world from Asmara.
Keren is a super traditional city, in which you are likely to find more donkeys and camels than cars.
The best day to visit Keren is during the animal market (Monday, from 7am to 3pm), a lively market in which Eritreans from all over the Anseba region come to buy and sell livestock, from camels to massive bulls.
Other than that, besides an Italian & British cemetery with soldiers from WWII and a few mosques and churches, there isn’t much to do but the highlight of Keren is the traditional life itself.
Day 6 – Journey from Keren to Massawa
The journey from Keren to Massawa is a long one (8 hours at least) and if you have time, I recommend you break the journey in Asmara, especially because there are a few places between Asmara and Massawa which are worth checking out.
Whatever you decide, you will need to stop in Asmara because there is no direct bus from Keren to Massawa.
The first big town you find is Nefasit, from where you can hike up to Debre Bizen, a Christian Monastery from where you get stunning views – I missed this place, unfortunately.
But the town I did visit and I recommend you to stop is in Ginda, a beautiful, photogenic green town surrounded by lush green mountains
Day 7 – Massawa
Massawa was one of the cities most affected by the war and here is where you realize the problems the country is going through, as it’s been decades since the end of the war and most buildings are still in ruins.
Ruled by the Ottomans and then the Egyptians, Massawa has a very different from vibe from anywhere else you have been to in Eritrea, not only in the architecture but also in the atmosphere, as the humid and utterly hot weather of this area has made life terribly slow and relaxed.
Things to see in Massawa
- Former Italian Bank – And old Italian building today in ruins
- Imperial Palace – A stunning building which served as the winter residence of , the emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974.
- Old City – Check out all the Ottoman buildings.
- Try the local fish – There are many fish restaurants and I recommend you try Selam Fish Restaurant, a very authentic place in which you choose the fish you want to eat.
Day 8 – Day trip to Foro
Foro is a small town located 50km south of Massawa and pretty much the gateway to the inhospitable and infamous Afar region.
The main reason to come to Foro is for the ruins of Adulis, the most important ancient port of the Axumite Empire, an ancient civilization that ruled in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia for 800 years, from 1st to the 10th century.
The ruins are a couple of km from Foro but guess what.
I didn’t visit the ruins.
I didn’t visit them for the simple reason that it was market day (Thursday) and people from all over the region attend that market, including many Afar & Soho, so I preferred to enjoy that unique, super offbeat place.
In any case, I am not a big fan of visiting ruins and, apparently, the site is very much in ruins, so unless you know the history, you would need a lot of imagination to enjoy the place.
Extend your Eritrea itinerary
If I had more days to visit Eritrea, I would have visited the following places:
Dahlak Islands –Dreamy islands just in front of Massawa. However, getting to these islands is very expensive, plus you need to get the permit at the National Museum of Asmara. Ask the tourism office for more information.
Mendefera – Traditional Tigrinya city in the south of the country.
Qohaito – Some very important ruins and a stunning canyon.
How did you find this comprehensive travel guide to Eritrea? Got any comments or suggestions? Post them in the comments section 🙂