Massawa: A Forgotten Gem By The Red Sea In Eritrea

Massawa on the banks of the Red Sea has an extremely rich history. It’s been part of some of the world´s most important kingdoms and empires like Kingdon of Aksum in the 8th century, the Ottoman Empire in 1557, Egypt in 1846. It was also the first capital of the Italy Eritrean colony before the capital was moved to Asmara in 1891, Britain after WW2, Ethiopia when they occupied it from 1950 to 1990 and finally returned to Eritrea when they finally got their independence back in 1991.

One of the biggest battles in the 30-year year long war between Eritrea and Ethiopia took place in Massawa. The evidence from the war is still extremely easy to see even today, 31 years after the war ended. More or less nothing has been rebuilt since the war.

While the capital of Eritrea, Asmara is located in the highlands at an altitude of 2,325 meters (7,628 ft), Massawa is located by the sea. Hence, you will have to do a long ascent. In the older days dating back to 1938, it was possible to do the 120 Km trip on a steam train, it was considered one of the most scenic train rides in the world.

No trains, no tourists 

These days the train have stopped running and the tourist have stopped coming which is a shame because Massawa has one of the biggest tourism potentials I have ever seen from the 100 countries that I now have been to. There are paradise beaches just a short boat ride away, also their history, world class diving in the red sea, and of course, Italian food.

The "Hotel Torino" built in 1938. now closed down.
The “Hotel Torino” built in 1938 is now closed

Most of the building were Italian and Ottoman style.  Some buildings bear ancient Arabic and there´s even an old temple standing. Even the ruins of Haile Selassie the Rastafarian Messiah and former King of Ethiopia´s personal castle is still standing.

The ruins of Haile Selassie the Rastafarian Messiah personal castle on the outskirts of old town Massawa

Even though the old city is more or less still in ruins, the locals are trying to have a functioning life. There are small shops, a few bars, a coffee house, and what seems like a newly built mosque.

Life must go on, even in a former war zone.

If this part of Eritrea ever gets rebuilt, will the old bank building be a pearl in east Africa?

The old bang building in Massawa.
The old bank building in Massawa
Memories from the old Italian area
The war did leave it scars

The only thing that seems to be fully working here these days and not in ruins is the harbor that serves as Eritrea’s main transport hub for goods into the country.

Massawa port as seen from the palace
The old town and parts of the port from my hotel room

Massawa is also the starting point for trips out to the Dahlak Archipelago (special permit needed in addition to the permit to visit Massawa) which is a group of islands consists of two large and 124 small islands.

I was lucky to visit two of them – Madote and Dissie Islands.

Dissie Island is the closed island to Massawa, but it´s still one and a half hours away with a speedboat (the same type of boat as the pirates in Somalia uses according to the boatman). It´s one of the only 4 inhabited islands in the Archipelago but the people here live an extremely tough life. Even though there are a few newly built hotels with private bungalows, there are no tourists.

A local house built up from driftwood.
Kids playing outside one of the nicest houses on the island.
Inside a local house, not much wind protection in those walls.

So fishing is more or less the only income for the locals here. Most of the houses here are built from driftwood that has been washed up on the beach. But despite their lack of “everything” here on the island, the locals invited us for a few cups of coffee.

The coffee being prepared.
The coffee being served
The traditional coffee jar.
Madote Island is no more than a big sandbank. The “island” is so small it´s not even visible on google maps. You could easily have passed Madote if it wasn´t for the old rusted up lighthouse that stands on the islands. Or rather what´s left of the lighthouse.

Approaching Madote Island.
The beach at Madote island.
The view from the top of the old lighthouse.
Panorama photo from my phone.
The view the other way.
What´s left of the lighthouse, the light has fallen down and now lay on the ground.

P.S – Sorry for the photo quality in this post, but my camera broke down so I only had my phone to use as a camera on this trip.

Additional Information about Massawa.

Like everywhere else in Eritrea, foreigners not allowed to use local transportation so the only way to reach Massawa is by hiring a car and driver.

There´s no party without a chicken company in a bar in Massawa.

Scuba Diving.

Because of Massawa’s location on the banks of the Red Sea, scuba diving is an obvious activity here. Dhalak Grand Hotel offers Scuba diving with a licensed PADI divemaster, but unfortunately the divemaster not in town during my visit. A shore dive would set you back 850 Nafka.

Massawa on the banks of the Red Sea in Eritrea, Africa. Has an extremely rich history, from Egypt , Italian to English empire.
Massawa on the banks of the Red Sea in Eritrea, Africa. Has an extremely rich history, from Egypt , Italian to English empire.


  1. Thank you so much for posting this info about Eritrea. We are going to Eritrea for Christmas holiday and spend some days in Asmara and hopefully some days in Massawa,. So this is really handy information. Any advice apart from the permission you need for traveling outside the capital?

    1. Heeey Charlotta.
      It´s great that you are going to Eritrea, have you received your Eritrea visa already?
      You will probably have to hire a driver to take you to Massawa, or you could even check if the train is running now. (It didn’t when I was there). Massawa is great people are friendly and very welcoming but be careful when talking to locals, there´s secret police everywhere. You should exchange enough money in Asmara before going to Massawa, the rate was much better in Asmara. I’m currently working on a post about Southern Eritrea with Qohaito and the surrounding areas, It should be done very soon. Christian

      1. Thank you for answering so quickly. Yes, the visa has arrived 🙂 Good to know about the money change and that you have to hire a driver. I´ve heard that they don´t always let tourists use the public transportation. I hope it won´t be to complicated to get the permission to travel outside the capital. Do you mean that it´s dangerous to talk to people in general or just dangerous to talk about politics? I´m really looking forward to this trip and I am even more excited after reading your blog that I haven´t seen until today. I saw that you went to Madagascar and the Comoros this year. It´s great that you publish positive info about these wonderful places because they are really worth a lot more tourists. It would improve their economy and even the environment, (since tourists go there for the nature and the wild life) Btw, I am really impressed by your trip along Karakoram Highway. I have dreamed about traveling that road for many years but … I don´t know if that dream ever will come true. Only time will tell.

        1. Hey Hey.
          All the permits have to be obtained from the Ministry of Tourist & Information on the main boulevard in Asmara (just across the big cathedral). The office is small so it´s easy to walk past it. But the guy working there is friendly and he speaks decent English. Every local I talked to was really eager to talk to me, and the level of English was much higher then I excepted. Try to keep off politics and especially about their President, and the refugee question (most refugees in Europe comes from Eritrea). You can also try to contact “Asmara Grande travel agency” about the permits, they helped me. Their website seems to have stopped working, but I have their email still if you need it.

          Yeah, this year has been an “Africa” travel year. Gone do a few more untouristy one next year, Angola, Chad, Libya, Reunion with Mayotte and Comoros again in September. I would like to go back to Madagascar to but no time before 2019;/

  2. Ok. Thank you for good advice. I suppose this is the mail to the travel agency: Madagascar is really worth going back to. Lucky you 🙂 Since you seem to like isolated places I can recommend Tuva in southern Siberia, West Mongolia and Turkmenistan. Kyrgizistan is not bad either even if it might be a bit touristy for people like you. However, it´s very hard, if not impossible to travel around by yourself in these places (except in Kyrgizistan). I used local travel agencies that I booked in advance. And I guess that one of your next plans will be South America, also excellent for discovering isolated areas.

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