The Ultimate Guide to Harar, Ethiopia

Butcher feeding multiple birds camel meat in Harar, Ethiopia
Travel Rating:8.6

As one of the oldest cities in Africa, Harar’s ancient walls hold tales of centuries past, while its vibrant markets and bustling streets showcase the dynamic spirit of its people. Lose yourself in the city’s labyrinthine alleys, where age-old customs coexist with modern influences.

Adventure: 7.0
Gastronomy: 8.5
Culture: 10.0
X Factor: 8.0
Value: 9.5

Population: 152,000 (2022)

Elevation: 1,885 m (6,184 ft)

Settled: 7th century

Currency: Ethiopian Birr (Br, ብር)

Time Zone: Eastern Africa Time (EAT), UTC+3

Length of Trip: 2-5 days.

Trip Type: cultural / historical.

Our Experience: We spent 6 days in Harar to March 2020. 

Disclaimer: Before planning your trip, it’s essential to check for any travel restrictions, visa requirements, and other relevant information, as these might change over time.

Harar is ideal for:

  • Cultural enthusiasts & foodies.

The city isn’t ideal for:

  • Outdoor adventures & nightlife.

Table of Contents

Harar, Ethiopia

A Time-Honored City

Nestled amidst the rugged landscapes of eastern Ethiopia, the ancient city of Harar stands as a living testament to the nation’s illustrious history and deep-rooted cultural heritage. It exudes an air of mystery and enchantment, drawing travelers into its mystical allure.

Stepping into Harar is like stepping back in time. The city’s walls, which were erected in the 16th century, encircle a maze of narrow cobblestone streets and bustling markets. The vibrant colors of textiles and spices fill the air, and the aromatic scents of coffee and incense waft through the wind. Each corner holds secrets of the past, where echoes of bygone eras resonate through the centuries.

Harar is renowned for its unique customs and traditions. It has been a cultural crossroads for centuries, with influences from Arabian, African, and Islamic cultures blending seamlessly. The city’s 82 mosques, some of which date back to the 10th century, stand as symbols of its rich Islamic heritage. The ancient Harari people have meticulously preserved their traditions, art, and language, making Harar a living museum of cultural authenticity.

Harar, Ethiopia

An Ancient, Storied Past

As one of Ethiopia’s most historically significant cities, Harar boasts a rich and diverse past that dates back over a millennium. Located in the eastern part of the country, Harar has long been a center of trade, culture, and Islamic scholarship, making it an influential hub in the region. Its history can be traced through the rise and fall of various empires, migrations, and interactions with neighboring societies.

The origins of Harar can be traced to the early medieval period, around the 7th or 8th century, when it was established as a walled city on the eastern edge of the Ethiopian highlands. Over the centuries, Harar emerged as an important commercial and cultural center along the ancient trade routes that connected the Horn of Africa with the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. Arab traders, Islamic scholars, and pilgrims traveling to Mecca contributed to the city’s cosmopolitan character, influencing its language, architecture, and religious practices.

By the 13th century, Harar became a powerful Islamic city-state, ruled by the Sultanate of Adal. The city flourished as a center of Islamic scholarship, attracting scholars from across the Muslim world. During this period, Harar’s walls were constructed, providing protection and fortification against potential invaders. The city’s strategic location along trade routes further bolstered its importance, enabling it to play a crucial role in regional commerce.

In the 16th century, Harar faced a series of challenges from the nearby Christian Ethiopian Empire. The renowned Ethiopian Emperor Ahmed Gragn, also known as Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim Al-Ghazi, led several campaigns to capture Harar and convert its population to Christianity. After years of conflict, Gragn finally succeeded in sacking the city in 1527, causing significant damage and loss of life. However, the Christian empire’s rule over Harar was short-lived, as it was recaptured by the Muslim forces a few years later.

Harar experienced a period of relative peace and stability during the reign of Emir Nur ibn Mujahid, who ruled from 1551 to 1567. Under his rule, the city experienced a renaissance of Islamic scholarship, architecture, and culture. During this time, the famous Rimbaud House, the former residence of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, was built, adding to the city’s cultural legacy.

In the 19th century, the city became a significant trade center during the scramble for Africa by European powers. European explorers, including Richard Francis Burton and Sir Henry Morton Stanley, visited the city during this period. Harar also played a crucial role in the region’s resistance against European colonization.

In 1887, Ethiopia was unified under Emperor Menelik II, and Harar was incorporated into the Ethiopian Empire. Despite this integration, Harar retained its distinct cultural identity, with its unique language, customs, and architecture. Today, Harar stands as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized for its well-preserved Islamic cityscape, cultural heritage, and contributions to Ethiopia’s history.

Harar Travel Guide

The Best Things To Do

In Harar, every step unveils a world where history, culture, and tradition merge harmoniously, inviting travelers to immerse themselves in a tapestry of captivating experiences and unforgettable moments. Below are some of the best things to do in this ancient city:

Explore the Ancient City Walls: Wander through the labyrinthine alleys of the historic city walls, which date back to the 16th century. As you wander around, you’ll discover hidden corners, ancient gateways, and breathtaking vistas from the vantage points atop the walls.

Admire the Harari Architecture: Stroll through the old town and admire the traditional Harari houses, characterized by their unique architectural style, featuring intricate woodwork and beautiful facades adorned with geometric patterns.

Discover the Vibrant Markets: Lose yourself in the bustling markets of Harar, where a kaleidoscope of colors, aromas, and sounds converge. Experience the vibrant atmosphere while perusing local crafts, spices, and traditional clothing.

Visit the Harar Museum: Immerse yourself in the city’s rich history and cultural heritage at the Harar Museum, which houses an impressive collection of artifacts, religious manuscripts, and traditional crafts.

Enjoy a Traditional Coffee Ceremony: Partake in a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, a time-honored ritual that celebrates the country’s coffee culture. Savor the rich flavors of freshly brewed coffee, a symbol of hospitality and community.

Visit the House of Arthur Rimbaud: Explore the house where the renowned French poet Arthur Rimbaud lived during his stay in the city. Discover the history behind this literary landmark and its connection to the city’s cultural heritage.

Experience the Hyena Feeding Ritual: Witness the mesmerizing hyena feeding ritual that takes place at the city’s outskirts. Watch as the brave locals hand-feed hyenas, believed to bring good luck and protection to the community.

Harar Culinary Guide

Food Recommendations

Embarking on a culinary adventure in Harar will not only tantalize your taste buds but also offer a glimpse into the city’s unique cultural tapestry. These three dishes are just the beginning of the gastronomic journey that awaits you in this captivating Ethiopian city.

Firfir: A delectable breakfast dish that awakens the senses, Firfir is a traditional Ethiopian breakfast made with torn pieces of injera (a spongy sourdough flatbread) soaked in a flavorful berbere sauce, which is a spice blend infused with chili, garlic, ginger, and other aromatic herbs. The dish is often garnished with diced onions, tomatoes, and sometimes scrambled eggs, creating a tantalizing symphony of flavors and textures that will leave you craving more.

Shiro: A staple dish in Ethiopia, shiro is a delightful medley of diced meat, usually beef or lamb, simmered with tomatoes, onions, and an assortment of Ethiopian spices. The result is a rich and savory stew that pairs perfectly with injera. The aroma of the spices lingers in the air, enticing passersby to stop and savor this authentic Harari specialty.

Doro Wat: A dish that holds a special place in Ethiopian cuisine, Doro Wat is a sumptuous chicken stew prepared with a rich blend of berbere spice, butter, and onions. The tender chicken is simmered to perfection, absorbing the robust flavors of the sauce. Often served during special occasions, Doro Wat is a true representation of the hospitality and warmth that Harar is known for.

Harar Travel Guide

The Best Area To Stay

In our humble opinion, the best area to stay in Harar is within the historic walled city itself. By choosing accommodation within the old town, you can experience the authentic charm and ambiance of the city’s ancient streets, bustling markets, and traditional architecture. Staying inside the city walls allows easy access to the main attractions, museums, and vibrant markets, making it convenient for exploring on foot.

Additionally, the inner city offers a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in the local culture, engage with the friendly Harari people, and witness their daily way of life up close. The traditional Harari houses and narrow alleyways add to the authentic experience, creating a sense of timelessness that reflects the city’s rich history and cultural heritage.

While some modern hotels are available outside of the old town, we recommend that you opt for a guesthouse or traditional accommodation that offers a more intimate and culturally immersive stay. Overall, staying within the historic walled city of Harar ensures an unforgettable and enriching experience that’ll brings you closer to the essence of this captivating Ethiopian destination.

Harar Travel Guide

The Best Time To Visit

The best time to visit Harar is during the dry season, which typically falls between October and April. During this period, the weather is pleasant and rainfall is minimal, allowing for more comfortable exploration of the city’s ancient sites and vibrant markets. The dry season also offers excellent opportunities for outdoor activities and cultural experiences without the disruption of heavy rains.

Harar’s climate during the dry season is characterized by warm days and cool nights, making it a favorable time to wander through the city’s narrow alleys and historic landmarks. The city’s vibrant festivities, such as the Hyena Man performance and the celebration of the Harar Jugol UNESCO World Heritage Site, are often held during this time, adding to the cultural allure of the city.

While the dry season is generally the best time to visit, you should be aware that the city can get crowded during its festivals, so planning ahead and booking accommodations early is advisable. It’s also essential to pack light clothing for the warm days and a few layers for the cooler evenings. Embracing the charm of Harar during the dry season promises an enriching and unforgettable experience in this ancient city of tradition and history.

Harar Travel Tips

Getting To Harar from Addis

The best way to get to Harar from Addis Ababa is by road or air, both of which offer different travel experiences.

Road Travel: The most common and affordable option is to take a bus or private car from Addis Ababa to Harar. The journey takes approximately 8-10 hours, depending on road conditions and traffic. Buses typically depart from the city’s main bus stations, such as the Autobus Terra or Mercato, and offer various levels of comfort. Be prepared for a long and bumpy ride, as the roads in Ethiopia can be challenging, especially during the rainy season.

Domestic Flights: For a quicker and more comfortable option, you can choose to fly from Addis Ababa to Dire Dawa, which is the nearest airport to Harar. Several domestic airlines, such as Ethiopian Airlines and Ethiopian Domestic, operate daily flights between the two cities. The flight takes around 45 minutes, making it a convenient choice for travelers with limited time.

Once you reach Dire Dawa, you can take a taxi or private car to Harar, which is approximately a one-hour drive away. The road is in relatively good condition, providing a smoother journey compared to the road trip from Addis Ababa.

Whether you choose to travel by road or air, both options offer opportunities to witness the diverse landscapes of Ethiopia, from the bustling city of Addis Ababa to the charming ancient city of Harar. 

Harar Travel Guide

Where Should I Go Next?

After exploring the wonders of Harar, you have a diverse range of destinations to choose from for your further adventures in Ethiopia. Below are three compelling options:

Lalibela: Known for its iconic rock-hewn churches, Lalibela is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a must-visit destination for history and architecture enthusiasts. Marvel at the intricate craftsmanship of the 11 monolithic churches, each carved out of solid rock, creating a stunning religious complex.

Somaliland: For an off-the-beaten-path adventure, consider traveling to Somaliland, an autonomous region in the Horn of Africa. Experience the vibrant local culture, explore historic sites like the ancient town of Zeila, and visit the Laas Geel rock art, which dates back thousands of years. Somaliland offers a fascinating mix of history, landscapes, and friendly locals.

Omo Valley: Journey to the southwestern region of Ethiopia to the culturally rich Omo Valley, home to numerous indigenous tribes. Immerse yourself in the traditional customs and distinct way of life of the Hamar, Mursi, Karo, and other tribes that call this region home. The Omo Valley offers a unique opportunity to experience ancient cultural practices and witness living traditions.

Each destination offers a different perspective on Ethiopia’s rich heritage and diverse landscapes. From Lalibela’s religious wonders to the cultural immersion of the Omo Valley and the lesser-known allure of Somaliland, your journey beyond Harar promises to be an unforgettable exploration of this captivating region.

Harar, Ethiopia

Actionable Insights

Harar is a captivating and unique destination that is well worth visiting for travelers seeking an authentic Ethiopian experience. Known as the “City of Saints” and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the cityboasts a rich history, vibrant culture, and a maze of narrow, cobbled streets that lead to hidden treasures.

Harar’s ancient walls, dating back to the 16th century, enclose a bustling and picturesque old town, filled with traditional houses, colorful markets, and lively squares. The city’s unique blend of Islamic, Christian, and African traditions creates an enchanting atmosphere, where you can witness daily rituals and ceremonies that have been preserved for centuries.

Visiting Harar provides an opportunity to immerse yourself in local customs and experience the genuine warmth of its residents. The city is renowned for its welcoming hospitality, and you’ll find yourself drawn into the vibrant local life, where time seems to slow down amidst the centuries-old traditions.

From exploring the mesmerizing Harari cultural center, witnessing the famous hyena feeding ritual, to discovering the city’s rich history through its museums and landmarks, every corner of Harar has something intriguing to offer. The traditional coffee ceremonies, unique cuisine, and traditional handicrafts add to the allure of this extraordinary destination.

If you seek an off-the-beaten-path adventure, steeped in history and culture, Harar is an ideal destination to uncover the hidden gems of Ethiopia. This extraordinary city offers a journey back in time, where you can experience the authentic soul of Africa while creating memories that will last a lifetime.

Harar holds significant religious importance as the fourth holiest city of Islam. Its significance stems from its historical and cultural connections to the Islamic faith.

Harar’s status as a holy city is attributed to the presence of several sacred sites and its rich Islamic heritage. One of the most revered landmarks is the Harari Jugol, the old walled city of Harar, which is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Within the walls, you can find over 80 mosques, including the Grand Jami Mosque, a focal point for religious gatherings and Islamic teachings.

Moreover, Harar is renowned for being an early center of Islamic learning and culture in the Horn of Africa. It was a significant hub for Islamic scholarship, attracting scholars from across the region, contributing to its status as a center of religious knowledge and influence.

The city is also known for the annual celebration of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, important Islamic festivals observed by Muslims worldwide. During these times, Harar becomes even more vibrant with devout pilgrims and locals coming together to mark the occasions with prayers, feasting, and various festivities.

For Muslims, Harar holds a special place as a destination for spiritual reflection and connection to their faith. Its historical significance, religious landmarks, and cultural heritage make it a sacred and revered place for Muslims both in Ethiopia and beyond.

Harar is generally considered safe for travelers, but like any destination, it is not without risks. The city has a long history of peaceful coexistence and welcoming visitors, and incidents of serious crime against tourists are rare. However, petty theft and pickpocketing can occur in crowded areas, so it’s essential to remain vigilant and take basic precautions, such as keeping valuables secure and being aware of your surroundings.

Additionally, it’s advisable to respect local customs and traditions, as Harar is a deeply religious and culturally rich city. Dress modestly, especially when visiting mosques or religious sites, and be mindful of local sensitivities.

Unfortunately, Khat is an issue in Harar, as well as in other parts of Ethiopia. 

Khat (Catha edulis) is a stimulant plant that is widely chewed and consumed in the region. It is a part of the local culture and social fabric, with many people, particularly men, engaging in the practice daily.

it’s important to note that the excessive use of Khat can have negative effects on health, including insomnia, loss of appetite, and potential addiction. Additionally, the cultivation and trade of Khat can divert resources and affect other aspects of the economy.

For visitors to Harar, Khat chewing may be a common sight, especially in local markets and social gatherings. While it can be an interesting cultural observation, it is essential to approach the subject with sensitivity and respect for local customs and traditions.

Harar is famous for several distinctive aspects that have made it an intriguing and culturally significant destination in Ethiopia. One of its most renowned features is its status as the fourth holiest city of Islam, with a rich Islamic heritage that dates back centuries. The city is home to over 80 mosques, including the Grand Jami Mosque, which is a central hub for religious gatherings and Islamic teachings.

Another notable aspect of the city is its well-preserved historic center, known as the Harari Jugol, which is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The labyrinthine streets and traditional Harari houses within its ancient walls offer visitors a glimpse into a bygone era and a unique urban planning system that dates back to the 16th century.

Harar is also famous for its vibrant cultural scene, characterized by its colorful markets, traditional music, and unique customs. The city’s inhabitants, known as Hararis, have maintained their distinct language, customs, and traditions, which add to the city’s cultural richness and allure.

Furthermore, Harar is renowned for its centuries-old coffee culture. As one of Ethiopia’s coffee-growing regions, the city is a haven for coffee lovers, offering a chance to partake in the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, an elaborate ritual involving the roasting and brewing of fresh coffee beans.

Lastly, Harar is famous for its connection to renowned poet Arthur Rimbaud, who resided in the city during the late 19th century. His presence has left an indelible mark on Harar’s artistic and literary identity, attracting writers, scholars, and artists who are drawn to the city’s historical and creative energy.

Overall, Harar’s blend of religious significance, well-preserved history, vibrant culture, and artistic allure makes it an enchanting and distinctive destination that continues to captivate travelers from around the world.

The five gates of Harar, also known as the “Five Sheikh’s Gates,” are the main entrances to the historic walled city of Harar Jugol. Each gate is named after a prominent religious leader from the city’s history. The five gates are:

As-Summana Gate: Named after Sheikh As-Summana, this gate is located in the western part of the city.

As-Babu Gate: Named after Sheikh As-Babu, this gate is situated in the northern part of Harar.

As-Singita Gate: Named after Sheikh As-Singita, this gate is found in the eastern part of the city.

As-Awda Gate: Named after Sheikh As-Awda, this gate is located in the southeastern corner of Harar.

As-Jugol Gate: This gate is named after the entire walled city itself and serves as the main entrance to Harar.

These gates are significant landmarks in Harar’s history and play a role in the city’s cultural and architectural heritage. They are essential points of entry and exit for visitors exploring the unique and ancient city of Harar Jugol.

The historic walled city of Harar Jugol was built by the Harari people during the 16th century. It is believed that the construction of the city’s defensive walls began around the 16th century and continued over the centuries, evolving and expanding as the city grew. The Harari people, who are indigenous to the area, designed and constructed the walls using traditional building techniques and materials. 

Over time, Harar Jugol became a center of trade, culture, and Islamic learning, and its unique urban planning and architectural style reflect the rich history and heritage of the Harari people. Today, Harar Jugol is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its well-preserved historical and cultural significance.

The ideal duration of stay in Harar would largely depend on your interests and the experiences you wish to have. Harar is a city with a rich cultural and historical heritage, offering various attractions and activities to explore. For a well-rounded visit, it is recommended to stay in Harar for at least 2 to 3 days.

During this time, you can immerse yourself in the fascinating old town, explore the ancient city walls, visit historic landmarks like the Harar Jugol (a UNESCO World Heritage site), and interact with the friendly locals to understand the unique culture and traditions.

Additionally, Harar’s vibrant markets, traditional coffee ceremonies, and the famous Hyena Man performance are experiences not to be missed. If you have a keen interest in history, architecture, and local customs, you may find that extending your stay to 4 to 5 days allows for a deeper exploration of Harar’s many facets.

Travel Resources

The Harar Toolkit

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Harar's Location

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Welcome to North of Known! We’re Alan and May, a married couple who have embraced digital nomadism while calling Bangkok, Thailand, our current home base. Over the past 7 years, our shared passion for exploration and adventure has fueled our journey across the globe. Join us as we continue to embark on our nomadic adventures, sharing our insights, discoveries, and travel tales along the way.

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