Voya’s guide to the overlooked capital of Madagascar.
Many people book a night or two in Madagascar on arrival, using it as a stepping stone onto wildlife adventures or beach holidays. However, the capital has a wealth of history and culture, which makes it an important stop for any travel itinerary. Antananarivo was founded in 1625, but was captured by the French and therefore has a mix of African and French influences to its architecture and culture. This is a city which begs to be explored on foot so you can take in the colourful mix of buildings surrounded by shady jacaranda trees. Start in the historical district, south of Tana, and explore the hidden wonders of this hilly city.
The market of Ambalavao is open Wednesdays and Thursdays and is the place where locals go to socialise as well as buy fresh produce. It is a place where the cows (zebus) wander through the stalls, waiting to be sold. As well as fresh food, it is a place where you can find jewellery, pottery, and embroidery which make great souvenirs or gifts. Ambositra is another popular market which is open every Saturday. These markets focus more on handicrafts. If you are only in Antananarivo for a short time, and can’t make the markets, then Independence Avenue is the main shopping hub. It is a great place to buy beautiful fabrics, jewellery, and handicrafts along a wide, colonial avenue. There are also plenty of cafes and restaurants along the street so you can grab a quick bite to eat.
The nightlife of Antananarivo is a lot of fun. The city has many dancehalls where a mix of local and English speaking music is played until the early hours of the morning. The dancehalls, of course, have a large dancefloor, but they also have quiet little recesses for people to relax with a drink when they need a break from the dancing. Cocktails in most of these places are very reasonable in price.
Antananarivo is an old city, full of interesting historical monuments to explore. Before the French conquest, this was the seat of Madagascan royalty, and there are a number of palaces which remain standing today. The most popular is the recently restored Rova of Antananarivo because of its panoramic views of the city. However, there is also the Presidential Palace or Ambohitsorohitra Palace, which is a gorgeous rococo building which was built for French generals after they captured the city. Today it is a symbolic building, rather than the home of the President, and is open for tours.
Fifteen minutes from the city centre is perhaps one of the biggest attractions in Antananarivo, Tsimbazaza Park, which is a green oasis of exotic and native plants and home to many animals. While exploring the park, you will be able to see the traditional housing of different ethnic groups and information about a now extinct species of bird. Take a picnic so you can spend hours enjoying the beautiful lakes, informative exhibits, and watch the cheeky lemurs. Keep your eyes peeled to see if you can see any of the chameleons that live here as well. The name Tsimbazaza loosely translates to “children are forbidden,” however, that rule has been lifted, and the park is a popular outing for local families.
The best time to visit Antananarivo is between March and May and August and December when there is little rainfall, and the weather is warm. Between May and August, this area of Madagascar is very rainy and can sometimes even experience cyclones.
The official languages spoken in Madagascar are Malagasy and French. Everyone you come across will speak those two languages. However, English is widely spoken due to the popularity of English speaking movies and music and the popularity with English speaking tourists.
VOYA’S FAVOURITE PLACES TO VISIT INCLUDE
The Rova of Antananarivo or Royal Palace is on a hill overlooking the whole city. It is worth a trip for the view alone, but the palace is a beautiful example of 1600 Madagascan architecture. New rooms and wings were added with each new royal. The Rova was almost completely burnt down in 1995, but with the help of foreign investors, was able to restore it to its former glory by 2010.
If you are interested in seeing the wildlife of Madagascar, the Special Reserve of Andasibe is well worth a visit. It is two to four hours outside of Antananarivo, depending on traffic, but is one of the best places in this area to see lemurs, primates, exotic birds, and chameleons. It also has an impressive amount of native plant species which form the habitat and playing grounds of the animals.
VOYA’S FAVOURITE PLACES TO STAY INCLUDE
The Sunny Garden is a gorgeous colonial-style hotel that is perfect for couples wanting a romantic atmosphere. It has king beds in each of the rooms, and some of the bathrooms have a jacuzzi. The courtyard is a paradisical public area with a huge pool and chairs. There are a fitness centre and restaurant on site too.
Hotel Meva Guesthouse is another colonial-style hotel; this one is a little more peaceful and a family-run business. The hotel gardens are very green and home to rabbits and turtles. Guests are welcome to use the kitchen at this hotel, or there are plenty of nice restaurants within walking distance.
VOYA’S FAVOURITE DISHES TO TRY
Madagascan cuisine is a mix of Malay and African food, usually based on rice and meat. The food is extremely flavourful and can also feature more exotic meat like antelope. Romazava is a popular dish of braised beef served in a sauce of tomato, garlic, ginger, and mixed greens. The flavours work well together, and the meat is very tender.
Tilapia à la Malagasy is a fish stewed in a flavourful sauce of ginger, tomatoes, watercress, onions, and herbs. It is very tender and absolutely delicious.