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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.

Travel guide to 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.

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 make 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 has stopped running, and the tourist has 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 in Massawa

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.

Massawa in Eritrea east africa

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.

Massawa in eritrea ruins

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 Eritrea

The old bank building in Massawa

Old Italian buildings in Eritrea

Memories from the old Italian area

old italian style eritrea

The war did leave it scars

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

Massawa eritrea port

Massawa port as seen from the palace

Massawa port in eritrea

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.

Eritrea beach in east africa

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 four 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.

local house in Eritrea

A local house built up from driftwood.

Eritrea house in east africa

Kids were playing outside one of the nicest houses on the island.

inside eritrea house

Inside a local house, not much wind protection in those walls.

eritrea landscapeSo 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.

local coffee making in Eritrea

The coffee being prepared.

coffee serving in Eritrea

The coffee being served

coffee jar in Eritrea

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 the beach of Madote island off the coast of Massawa, Eritrea

Approaching Madote Island.

Eritrea's beaches in Madote island

The beach at Madote island.

island Eritrea

The view from the top of the old lighthouse.

Eritrea beach paradise

Panorama photo from my phone.

Eritrea remote island

The view the other way.

Eritrea lighthouse

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.

Eritrea bar in Massawa

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.

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Travel guide to 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

Massawa on the banks of the Red Sea in Eritrea 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

Travel guide to Massawa on the banks of the Red Sea in Eritrea, Africa. Has an extremely rich history, from egypt , italia to english empire.

Massawa on the banks of the Red Sea in Eritrea, Africa. Has an extremely rich history, from egypt , italia to english empire.

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Marie-Noelle

Tuesday 28th of January 2020

Hello, I would like to go scuba diving in the Dahlak islands in March -April this year. Difficult to find information on how to manage to dive there. Do you have any experience on how to plan that once in Massawa ? Thanks a lot for any answer :-) !

David

Saturday 25th of January 2020

Foreigners can now use public transport and taxis to travel around Eritrea. thank for all the great info. I'm going in March 2020.

Christian L.

Saturday 25th of January 2020

Thank you for the update, I will update the information in the post

Russell Zaino

Tuesday 22nd of October 2019

I was with the US Army In Asmara in 68-69. Loved the people and the city. Are Locals friendly to Americans, former soldiers?

Christian L.

Monday 28th of October 2019

Hello.

I found the locals to be friendly to everyone, I meet an older American in my hotel in Asmara and he had a great time in Eritrea.

Yutaka

Sunday 18th of August 2019

"Like everywhere else in Eritrea, foreigners not allowed to use local transportation,"

Back in 2004, I could travel from Asmara to Massawa with a bus. Well, being on a fully packed bus with endless Eritrean bus is not for everyone but it was an experience.

Is there any change to the regulations on foreigners which I'm not aware?

BTW, thank you for posting beautiful pictures!

Rahul

Friday 8th of November 2019

That is not true. I traveled there in Jan 2019 and I traveled and roamed freely both in private and public transport without any issues. However, you do need a permit to visit places outside of Asmara but hardly there is anyone who ever knows that you need a permit, nor is there anyone to check your permit.

Christian L.

Sunday 29th of September 2019

Hello Yutaka. For years it´s been very difficult for foreigners to travel freely around Eritrea now, but it recently seems to have changed with the rules getting abit more liberal. So hopefully next year we can once again take local busses around the country:)

charlie dodge

Saturday 13th of October 2018

I lived in In Asmara at Kagnew Station for 18 months in the 902MI Group, the most wonderful time in my life. This was 1967-68. The people were beautiful and wonderful, the city was very clean and pleasant, good foods and great weather. Many driving trips trips to Masawa always were an adventure. Stayed in a couple of very nice hotels and visited good restaurants. Times at the beach, skin diving, a visit to the small local jail (scary), Nice trips up into the hills to the old Italian Villas Keren. Visiting the busy Masawa port and even had my VW that I bought new in Asmara, was shipped from that port to New Jersey. The fondest memories of Eritrea, but it is not the same today. I hope to visit again.

Yosef

Tuesday 16th of March 2021

If you still have the VW you should have a Licence Plate "ER 67-68"

Pretty

Wednesday 12th of August 2020

My dad was there around that time in the Peace Corps.