Eritrea is a small unknown country found in the horn of Africa on the banks of the Red Sea. It is home to one of the world’s worst dictatorships and is (un)popularly known as the North Korea of Africa.
Traveling to Eritrea and the surrounding areas is not easy. Their visa is one of the most difficult in the world to obtain.
And don’t think that all the hard work is done when you receive your visa. You will also need to obtain travel permits to do basically anything in the country. You can’t even leave the capital without one.
But don’t let all this scare you. I found Eritrea to be the most fascinating and underrated country in all of Africa. After all, this is the country where the biggest national hero suddenly walks into the coffee bar while I’m enjoying a warm coffee.
If you’d like to experience one of the most unique African travel destinations, then you need to experience Eritrea tourism. This guide has everything you’ll need to know when planning a trip to this East African country.
This small nation, with just over 6 million people, is one of the world’s biggest providers of refugees. The UK receives more Asylum seekers from Eritrea than from anywhere else.
Eritrea got its independence in 1991 after 30 years of war with its neighbor Ethiopia.
The country was also an Italian colony from 1890 to 1947. The slice of history from its colonial times is very well preserved. The capital Asmara looks more like an Italian city than a city in Africa.
Apart from the difficulty of obtaining a visa, there’s also no ATM here, and the internet is among the worst in the world.
Visa For Eritrea Travel
Don’t get too worked up thinking about the visa requirement. The embassy’s pages state that they only need proof of hotel and flight bookings.
But the application needs to be approved by the government in Eritrea and not the embassy, so it will take a long time to get your answer. It can take months.
The Eritrean visa is notorious. It will most likely get approved within a few days before you go there.
I got my approval letter not much less than the day before I was flying to Eritrea, even though I had applied months in advance. The other travelers I met experienced the same.
Can I Get a Visa on Arrival?
Yes, but only if there’s no Eritrean embassy in your home country. This is also only possible if you have received a visa approval letter from the Eritrean government in advance.
The only way to get this letter is to use an approved government travel agency. If you receive the letter, then the visa will cost you $70 on arrival.
Permits for Tourism in Eritrea?
When visiting Eritrea, you will experience a bureaucratic permit nightmare like nowhere else in the world.
While you are allowed to walk around the cities freely, you will need a permit to visit every other place. Unfortunately, it is not just one permit but a separate permit for each place. And YES, the permits get checked!
Want to visit Massawa and explore some of the best Eritrea beaches? You will need a permit. Want to visit some islands in the Dahlak Archipelago? You will need a separate permit for each island!
Want to visit the Military Tank Graveyard outside Asmara? That’s right, another permit.
All the permits have to be obtained from the Ministry of Tourism and Information on the main boulevard in Asmara (just across the big cathedral).
The permit to the Military Tank Graveyard is easy to get (just bring your passport). The permits outside Asmara have to be arranged in advance by the local travel agency.
While I was in the office, there was an older French tourist who wanted to visit the southern part of the country. He was told it could take weeks to get the permit approved! So, if you think you can visit Eritrea without some prearranged paperwork. Think Again!
How to Travel to Eritrea
The one and the ONLY way to arrive in Eritrea is by flight, and the ONLY international airport is Asmara International Airport, just outside Asmara (the capital of the country).
The airport is currently only serving international flights by FlyDubai, Turkish Airlines, and Egypt Air. Qatar Airways stopped all its flights to Eritrea in December 2016.
The local airline Eritrean Airlines flies to Milan, Dubai, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia, but they currently don’t offer online booking.
Note: The land borders with Sudan, Djibouti, and Ethiopia are completely closed.
Visiting Eritrea: How to Get Around
Update: As of January 2020, Foreigners are now allowed to use local transportation around Eritrea. But you will need a permit from the Ministry of Tourism and Information for each place you want to visit outside of Asmara.
So really, the only way to travel around Eritrea is with pre-arranged transportation through a local travel agency. If you’re looking for a great way to explore the city, an Asmara guided tour is a guaranteed way to not miss out on anything.
Unfortunately, the famous train ride between Asmara and Massawa Eritrea is not currently running.
The relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia has improved a lot recently. As a result, you can now travel between the two countries if you’re heading to Ethiopia as well.
Travel Tip: If you’re visiting Ethiopia, be sure to check out this post of my Ethiopia travel guide.
Money for an Eritrea Vacation
First of all, there are NO ATMs in Eritrea that accepts foreign bank cards. So, you will have to bring cash to exchange. USD, EURO, and British Pound are all exchangeable, but USD is by far the best to bring with you.
The official rate in Eritrea for USD is 1$ = 15 Nakfa. There’s a money exchange at the airport arrival and most of the hotels. There are at least two official moneychangers on the main boulevard in Asmara.
Keep the receipt if you want to exchange Nakfa back to USD when leaving the country, but ONLY with a receipt. Taking local currency Nakfa out of the country is also strictly illegal.
The black market rate is $1 = 25/40 Nakfa. But be aware that exchanging money on the black market is strictly illegal, and locals can be punished with prison if caught. Even though the black market is illegal, I exchanged most of my money there. You will easily find the black market if you stay a few days in Asmara. But be careful!
NB: If you didn’t bring enough money, I noticed that the better hotels offered to give you cash with your credit card for a hefty fee of 10%.
Eritrea Travel Guide
Although I’ve already covered some of the most important travel tips, these are some other important things you should know before visiting Eritrea.
The Cost of an Eritrea Visit?
The cost of living and traveling in Eritrea highly depends on how you exchange your money. If you go with the official rates, Eritrea will be surprisingly expensive, but if you go for the black market rates, then Eritrea would be rather cheap.
There are some things I never managed to get my head around in Eritrea. To buy a beer or a soft drink in the supermarket was A LOT more expensive than buying them in a bar or restaurant.
A local Asmara beer was priced at 20 Nakfa in a bar or restaurant but would cost you 35–40 Nakfa in a supermarket. Similarly, a soft drink would cost 9–12 Nakfa in the bar or restaurant but 40–50 Nakfa in the supermarket.
Travel Tip: I got the answer to my question in the comment section of this post.
“Beer is more expensive in supermarkets b/c the Gov doesn’t allow the Beer Company to usually sell directly to the Supermarket. So they buy it first from the Bar and then sell it to the customer. Another reason why things Beer/Coke etc., cost more in the supermarket is the Bottle Deposit Fee is included which can be ~20 Nakfa. Thank you, Bereekt.”
The most common food in Eritrea is pizza and pasta (no joke). There is still some Italian influence here. A spaghetti bolognese would cost you from 100–200 Nakfa and a pizza from 140 Nakfa.
Internet in Eritrea?
When I say it’s bad, I do mean extremely bad. Out of the 100 countries that I have been to (except North Korea), Eritrea is by far the worst in the world when it comes to getting online.
You are not even ALLOWED to have internet in your home in Eritrea.
- Internet users: 48,692 users, 180th in the world; 0.8% of the population is connected.
- Fixed broadband: 122 subscriptions, 192nd (last) in the world; 0.0% of the population.
While all the hotels I stayed in during my ten-day trip to Eritrea offered “WiFi”, it was ridiculously slow. I did not even once manage to log on to my Gmail account. I could not even send a snap on Snapchat or post a photo on Facebook during my visit. Posting a photo on Instagram took 10 minutes!
Your sim card will also not work in Eritrea. The phone network in the country is not connected to international services. But when traveling to the southern part of the country, you can connect to an Ethiopian phone network if you are less than 20km away from the border.
Online Information About Eritrea
Most of the information online on websites like TripAdvisor, Wikitravel/Wikivoyage is out of date. The top 2 rated restaurants on TripAdvisor had been closed for many months when I visited Eritrea in February 2017.
Most of the restaurants/bars and even some of the hotels on websites like Wikitravel and Wikivoyage have also been closed down for a long time already.
Language in Eritrea
Eritrea is a multilingual country. Eritrea has no official language, and it’s written in the constitution that all Eritrean languages should be treated equally.
There are at least nine local languages, with the Tigrinya language, Tigre, and Dahlik being the three most common ones. But, a thing that surprised me in Eritrea is the level of English speakers.
“Everyone” spoke English, from the waiters in tiny restaurants and bars to people selling fruit in the market. I would go as far and say that Eritrea has the best level of English-speaking people I have ever experienced outside a native English-speaking country.
Every restaurant I went to had an English menu too.
Food in Eritrea
Italian food is the most common food – spaghetti, penne pasta (often from Barilla, you know the one) and Pizza is served in every restaurant.
The pizza is often from old Italian stone ovens. Even though the ingredients are not as good as the ones you get in modern countries, it is definitely much better than most south-east Asian countries.
If you want to try some more authentic local food like injera, Zigni and Tibsi were the three most common local dishes I came across.
- Injera: A flatbread with a unique, slightly spongy texture. It is traditionally made out of teff flour. It is a national dish in both Eritrea and its neighbor Ethiopia.
- Zigni: a spicy stew made with lamb or mutton.
- Tibsi: sauteed meat, onions, and berbere served with a sauce.
Drinks and Alcohol in Eritrea
Only drink bottled water. Unfortunately, bottled water is rather expensive. A 1L bottle costs around 30+ Nakfa ($2 with official rate). When buying a soft drink (Coca-Cola and Sprite most common), check if it’s a local or imported bottle/can. The imported ones, normally from Sudan, are a lot more expensive than the locally made ones.
I’m a coffee addict, and I’m picky. But I can easily say that the coffee in Eritrea is one of the best in the world. Easily.
Even the smallest coffee houses have world-class espresso machines that even top coffee houses in my home country, Norway, would be jealous of. A cup of delicious black coffee is around 10 Nakfa.
Alcohol seems quite liberal in Eritrea. They produce their own beer, gin, rum, vodka, wine, and some strange local strong homemade drinks. Imported liquor is also available but very expensive (of course) compared to the local.
Gin seems to be the favorite among the locals. And it’s even cheaper than beer. A double Gin costs normally around 17 Nakfa, even in good hotels and restaurants.
Asmara beer (the only local beer) is surprisingly good and available everywhere. The local beer is sold in glass bottles with no label in restaurants and bars.
It normally costs 20 Nakfa but all the way up to 35 Nakfa in high-end places. But, if bought in a supermarket, the cost of beer on cans would be 35-40 Nakfa.
The only imported beer is Heineken, and it will cost you between 80-90 Nakfa per can.
Electricity in Eritrea
Power cuts and blackouts are very common. I experienced multiple of them every day during my ten days’ stay in the country. While all the hotels I stayed in had generators that kicked in when the power cuts happen, most of the restaurants did not have them.
The day I left the country, there were rumors going around about the Government cutting the electricity for 3 days. The reason? To prove a point to the locals.
There are no street lights during the night, so be sure to bring a flashlight. The power plugs in Eritrea are standard 220V European plugs.
Is Eritrea Safe?
Eritrea is by far the safest country I have visited in Africa. I will also put it in my top 5 safest countries that I have ever been to. The locals were super friendly and welcoming.
But be careful not to criticize the Government or president Isaias Afwerki or anything about the country with or in front of the locals.
The secret police are everywhere. I learned that a boatman I used was not actually a boatman but a secret police agent.
Accommodation In Eritrea
There are no hostels, and couch surfing is strictly illegal in Eritrea. A hotel will normally cost you around 900 Nakfa / $60 a night (breakfast included).
In Asmara, I stayed at the Sunshine Hotel, which seemed to be the most popular one for tourists. I met around 7-8 other tourists there at a very popular Piano bar during the weekend.
The other two popular choices are the Hotel Asmara Palace and the Crystal Hotel, Asmara.
In Keren, I stayed in Sarina Hotel, which is a good hotel with big rooms and a balcony. 900Nafka / $60.
In Massawa, I stayed at Dhalak Hotel, which is a huge hotel with a great restaurant and location. It is by far the most popular hotel in Massawa. It cost me 750 Nakfa / $48 for a simple single room. I met a few foreigners there.
All the hotels had free Wifi, but as already mentioned, the speed was awful.
All the hotels also had an onsite restaurant and bars and money exchange (official rate).
Final Thoughts on Tourism in Eritrea
This mysterious east African country should be on most travelers’ bucket list. Whether you want to experience the unique Italian culture in Asmara or visit a breathtaking Eritrea beach, there is plenty to do here.
Just make sure you plan your visit to Eritrea properly and get all the necessary permits – otherwise, you might be limited to Asmara. You should now have all the travel information you need, so go ahead and book your Visa today!