Undervalued, charming and enchanting, Djibouti City is a journey through Arab, East African and European influences.
My drive from Djibouti’s international airport to the capital’s city center was calm and straightforward. No masses of people walking on the road, hundreds of cars beeping for no reason, or standstill traffic jams. Way differently – it was so calm, I rolled my window down, noticed the diverse architecture along the streets, and enjoyed the warm wind blowing on my face under the sofocating heat. This was not the chaotic, multicultural East African city I was expecting, but the beginning of rediscovering East Africa and exploring one of Africa’s most interesting capitals: Djibouti City, also known as the Paris of Africa.
A melting pot in the Horn of Africa
My first stop in Djibouti City was the European Quarter, a weird mix of French colonial houses and Moorish architecture. Wandering around this area felt like getting lost in an abandoned French village. Gorgeous, yet broken down classic structures painted in light colours surrounded the main square, while a couple of pâtisseries displayed signs offering fresh orange juice and croissants for breakfast.
And while the highlight of the European Quarter is the central square, Place du 27 Juin 1977, walking around the whole district means getting lost in history and experience the Arab and European influences Djibouti City had over the past decades. This is also the perfect place to get some food during the day, as well enjoy a cold beer at night.
INSIDE INFO: While luxury hotels like Kempinski or Sheraton are located in the district of Heron, I found the European Quarter as the best area to find inexpensive and nice accommodation. Furthermore, take into consideration that many hotels will ask for a certificate of marriage if you are planning to stay with someone from the opposite sex in the same room.
South of the European Quarter is located the African Quarter. This is consider the center of the action and the soul of Djibouti City. Street vendors offering fruits, clothes, or any other possible unnecessary accessory dragged me to see their products, while the crisscross of alleys made me feel I was lost in an urban labyrinth.
This is also the area where the Central Market is located. It is one of the largest markets in the city (Still, very small compared to the ones you see in Somaliland or Ethiopia), and a great place to find local souvenirs, as well great food from the region.
A city with many activities to offer
Most people come to Djibouti City just to do business or to stay overnight before heading to the highlands of the country. During my stay in this capital, I didn’t see another tourist exploring its markets or tasting the local restaurants. However, I think Djibouti City offers a unique mix of cultures that prevailed through decades and makes this city very dynamic and vibrant.
The Hamoudi Mosque, the Turkish Mosque and the presidential palace are outstanding places for a quick visit, while the corniche next to Rue de Venice and Rue de Geneve offer excellent spots to taste the local fish, grab a cold drink and enjoy the view of the harbour.
Djibouti City’s famous beaches, Heron Beach and La Siesta Plage, are unfortunately quite dirty and not the beach experience you want to have. Therefore, if you really want to get into the water without leaving Djibouti City, a hotel with a pool would be the best choice.
Unlike what you expect from a calm and quiet city, nights in Djibouti City are exciting. The bars of corniche area open their doors for locals and visitors and with a wonderful atmosphere and great weather at night, there is probably not a better place in the city to grab a drink, eat some dinner, listen music and smoke some shisha. Other bars in the European Quarter are good for a cold beer and a bite. However, the coastal vibe you would expect from a city next to the sea is not as palpable as in the corniche.
NOTE: One of the most popular spots for tourists is the Kempinski Hotel. Here, military members living in Djibouti, business men, as well tourists purchase day passes for the swimming pool area or stay overnight for drinks at the bar. While this is probably the only place in Djibouti City with proper western standards in service and quality, there is not much difference in being there or at any other beach hotel in the world. The beauty of Djibouti City was for me hidden in its alleys and not in their fancy hotels.
Getaways and day trips from Djibouti City
To be honest, Djibouti City is not the place to stay longer than a week. The country has way too much to offer and while the city offers a fresh experience for any traveler exploring East Africa, the real beauty of this tiny country is located far away from the urban areas.
These are some of the best places to explore from Djibouti City on a day trip:
Due to its isolated location, Lac Abbe is rather a place for a 2-day trip from Djibouti City. However, going to Lac Abbe is worth it no matter how long you stay. This is in my opinion one of the places you HAVE to visit if you come to Djibouti, and while tours can be quite pricey, this wonder of nature will leave you speechless.
Its dotted limestone chimneys standing as high as 50 meters transport you to some kind of lunar landscape that makes you forget for a moment that you are on planet earth.
Don’t be confused by its Caribbean lookalike views, Lac Assal is one of the most inhospitable places on earth and one of the most incredible places you can visit as a traveler. Lac Assal is located 150 meters below sea level. It is the third lowest point on earth and the saltiest one outside Antartica.
Day tours to Lac Assal can be easily arrange in Djibouti City and they are not as expensive as going to Lac Abbe. Many travelers even combine Lac Abbe and Lac Assal in a 3-day/2-nights tour.
For those looking for a proper beach experience, Moucha Island is probably the place to go. This tiny island located 20 minutes from Djibouti City is a very popular getaway for foreigners living in Djibouti.
Here you won’t only find the most beautiful beach of Djibouti, but also a nice spot to do snorkeling, diving or sea kayaking.
NOTE: The best way to arrange tours spontaneously, compare local prices and even negotiate the final price is by visiting the National Tourism Office at the European Square. They provide a full travel guide for Djibouti City and its surroundings, information about which tours are available, which regions are accessible and even get you directly in contact with the tour operator.
Djibouti City in a nutshell
Where to eat: The popular Chez Hamdani restaurant located in the African Quarter is always a good choice. This is the place to go for the famous Yemeni fish. However, don’t expect a fancy place, as there are no menus. You simply choose your fish of preference from an open freezer and get your hands dirty enjoying the meal.
Where to drink: Sixteen Eleven Kitch’n is where the fun is at night. This beach bar is located next to the harbour and offers a fresh atmosphere full tasty drinks, great music and shisha. It is a very popular spot for young Djiboutians and a fantastic place to experience how locals enjoy a Friday night.
Where to sleep: With prices over 200 EUR a night, the Kempinski and Sheraton hotels are way too overpriced and while hotels in Djibouti City rarely go under 80 EUR a night, hotels in traditional buildings like Auberge le Heron offer a classic vibe in the middle of this vibrant city.
Where to buy something traditional: Several shops at the European Quarter offer traditional East African souvenirs. However, a popular present to take home could a stone from Lac Assal. These can be sold directly at Lac Assal or at some shops in the city center.
Djibouti is a mix of cultures. It has some sections that made me feel in Europe, others that made me feel in Morocco or Tunisia. At the same time, it is a place in its own and a good 3-4 day stop if you are exploring East Africa. The expensive prices of the country scare travelers. However, this is a place like no other and missing it, would be missing a unique side in Africa.