Asmara, Eritrea

Photo: John Beso / CC BY-SA (

There’s an Art Deco city in Africa. Pretty surprising, right? Its futurist buildings—featuring long, horizontal lines—look as though they’re moving. Its modernist structures are made of concrete, glass, and steel. Its rationalist designs are perfectly symmetrical. Most of this architecture was built between 1935-1941. These Italian investments earned it the nickname La Piccola Roma (Little Rome). This urban core is so well-preserved—especially for a country with decades of unrest—that UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site a few years ago. Yet few people know about, much less visit, Asmara.

Asmara is the capital of Eritrea. The small country lies in the Horn of Africa. It’s bordered by Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. The Italians arrived in the late 19th-century. They quickly expanded their foothold in the region, and Asmara was named the capital of Italian Eritrea in 1900. But it was Benito Mussolini’s rise to power that truly changed the city. Italian architects covered Asmara with more than 400 Art Deco buildings. Boulevards were widened and lined with palm trees. Piazzas were surrounded by cafes, coffee shops, and cinemas. Plus, within just three years, Italians outnumbered Eritreans in their own city.

Then World War II began. Italy lost its hold over Eritrea. The Brits took over. The former colony was eventually placed under Ethiopian rule. A long war, a one-party state, and an atrocious human rights record followed. Eritrea became known as Africa’s Hermit Kingdom. But Asmara remained practically untouched.

Asmara sits on the Kebessa Plateau at the edge of the Eritrean Highlands and Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley. At more than 7,500 feet above sea level, it’s the sixth-highest capital in the world. The city is surrounded by rocky but fertile land. Its cool climate certainly helps. It’s a place where Christians and Muslims have coincided peacefully for years. Plus you can get a damn good espresso. Add all those Art Deco buildings—they’re a dream for architecture buffs—for a city that’s bound to start attracting more visitors soon. Now is your chance to see it before everyone else realizes that there’s an untouched gem near the Red Sea.


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