A super quick guide to Dire Dawa
Here’s everything you need to make the most of Ethiopia’s second-largest city
As the second-largest city in Ethiopia, Dire Dawa (ድሬ ዳዋ) is a unique place that intertwines history, culture and a railway legacy, revealing a multicultural port-town that refuses to be ignored. The Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway route essentially spawned the modern-day version of the city in 1902 and allowed it to become a cool respite from the Djibouti heat for traders and diplomats, but Dire Dawa is far more than just a transient layover. Here are six things to experience for a classic taste of the city sometimes referred to as ‘the Queen of the desert.’
Thanks to local tastemaker Yitbarek Asfaw for their input.
Dire Dawa is made up of two distinct settlements, divided by the Dechatu Wadi (a seasonal river). The European-style Ethiopia-Djibouti railway influenced the ‘new town’, known as Kezira, juxtaposed by the colourful, Eastern and Muslim-influenced ‘old town’, known as Megala – both are thrilling to explore by bajaj, the ubiquitous three-wheeled motorised rickshaws that zoom through the city’s wide streets, around its carousel-like roundabouts, and along its tree-lined promenades, which also serve as perfectly crafted shaded pathways.
Bowls piled high with colourful fruit and vegetables, sacks bulging with grains and rice, wooden crates piled high everywhere you look… Kafira Market’s sharp textures and colourful rows brings a calmness to the chaos of fast movement and transaction. Featuring a range of goods from local produce to electronics to homeware, the market brings people together from surrounding areas and is a great way to experience a taste of local life.
Around two kilometres south of Dire Dawa lies this tucked-away cave and archaeological site, dating back to the Middle Stone Age. Various excavations throughout the 20th century (the first during the 1920s) uncovered all kinds of fascinating historical artefacts, including pottery, tools, animal bones and cave paintings, which have become the main draw for visitors alongside the fantastic views offered from the high-altitude position. That high-up position also means it’s quite a steep climb to get to, but it’s worth the hard work.
This railway graveyard for the remnants of the Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway (once a major industrial engine for this boom-city) has been turned into a low-key museum of sorts, allowing visitors to step back in time thanks to the 1950s transportation and communication tools strewn around the site. As a testament to Dire Dawa’s remarkable railway heritage, visitors and locals alike enjoy snapping a selfie at the museum.
Another essential Dire Dawa activity actually lies outside of Dire Dawa, thanks to its proximity to the historical trading city of Harar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located 53km away. While you’re in this famous, five-walled city, be sure to enjoy some kuti (a herbal tea made from the leaves of coffee plants) at a local cafe, visit the preserved home of
Dire Dawa’s multicultural imprint of French, Arab, Italian, Indian and Greek cultures overlapping with local flavours from Somali, Oromo, Amhara, Afar and Hadere means those with a truly transcontinental palate will do well here. Stop by Al-Hashimi, in the Megala area, for a whole world of global sweet treats to choose from. Try the baklava (ever-popular flaky pastries filled with nuts, spices and other good stuff), laddu (sweet balls of chickpea flour with cardamom), halva (similar in texture to fudge, often flavoured with sesame), mushabak (deep-fried dough coated in sugar syrup) and whatever else you think you can handle – you’ll have time to plan out your sweet odyssey in the queue, as Al-Hashimi’s is an unsurprisingly popular spot.