The impression Asmara evokes at first sight is one that mesmerizes visitors with its charm—a “jewel of Africa” perched at nearly 2400 meters above sea level on the Eritrean plateau. On July 7, 2017, Asmara was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its modernist and rationalist architecture, realized during the Italian occupation. Filtered through Italian artistic sensitivity, Asmara embraced practically all styles of the early 20th century, making it the quintessential Modernist city in Africa. It became a blank canvas where Italian architects from the Fascist era could design a utopian city, free from the constraints of their homeland. A place where they could experiment with various architectural trends prevailing in Europe during the early decades of the last century. Asmara boasts the world’s highest concentration of some of the most advanced architecture of the 1930s.
Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2017, with its fantastic colonial architecture, lively coffee ritual, vibrant colors, and enticing aromas that make it a “jewel of Africa” perched at nearly 2400 meters above sea level on the Eritrean plateau, it is one of the 20 new places recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was chosen because it “represents probably the most significant and intact concentration of modernist architecture in the world” and is undoubtedly the primary attraction for traveling to Eritrea. Every step in Asmara unveils a treasure trove of architectural marvels. The Cinema Impero, an Art Deco masterpiece, evokes a sense of cinematic grandeur. The Fiat Tagliero Building, an engineering wonder, appears as though an airplane is about to take flight from its roof. The Enda Mariam Cathedral, a symbol of faith and resilience, stands tall with its intricate façade. These are just a few examples of the diverse architectural wonders that grace Asmara’s skyline.
Asmara was designed by Italian architects in the 1930s, during the period of Eritrea’s greatest development as an Italian colony. Mussolini dreamed of transforming Asmara into the capital of the African Empire of Italy and sought to turn the city, which he called “Little Rome,” into a cutting-edge urban utopia, complete with cafes and tree-lined boulevards. As the capital of the country, Asmara still bears a clear imprint of the Italian colonial period in its buildings and art. However, beyond its remarkable architectural works and perpetually blooming gardens, this city is profoundly marked by the influence Italians left in the habits of its inhabitants.
When the Italians built Asmara, they did so with the elegance and style for which they were historically renowned. Influenced by the beauty of the landscape and the desert’s light, they created an enchanting, international and modern city, meticulously planned and constructed, functional, and immensely delightful. Nestled in the cool highland plateau, Asmara resembles a Mediterranean city of the 1930s. Broad streets lined with palm trees are flanked by marble-clad buildings adorned with mosaics, while charming alleys lead to serene squares where cafes, bars, restaurants, and shops thrive. Parks with fountains and gardens burst with colors from bougainvillea, jacaranda, and jasmine. Visiting Asmara is a journey back in time, to a past that we have studied in history books and seen in documentaries on television—an adventurous and fascinating era.
Catholic Cathedral of Santa Maria – A Marvel of Lombard Romanesque Architecture
Consecrated in 1923, it is considered one of the most beautiful examples of Lombard Romanesque churches outside Italy. The interior of the cathedral is magnificent: the altar is made of Carrara marble, while the baptistery, confessionals, and pulpit are crafted from Italian walnut wood. The interior is entirely decorated with frescoes. The church’s Gothic bell tower dominates the city and serves as a landmark on Harnet Avenue, the main street. It is one of the most important monuments in the city. Climbing the bell tower, where eight bells reside, unveils a breathtaking panoramic view of the surrounding landscape. As the melodious sound of the bells resonates, it intertwines harmoniously with the calls to prayer from muezzins echoing through the minarets’ loudspeakers and the heartfelt prayers of Orthodox monks. This beautiful symphony testifies to the multi-religious atmosphere characteristic of great oriental cities and exemplifies the religious tolerance embraced in Eritrea.
Whether you are a lover of history, architecture or spirituality, the Catholic Cathedral of Santa Maria offers a profound and unforgettable journey. Prepare to be captivated by the splendour of Lombard Romanesque artistry and the peaceful coexistence of different faiths in the vibrant city of Eritrea. A visit to the magnificent cathedral is a testament to the profound beauty and cultural richness that awaits you in this fascinating country.
Discover the enigmatic Coptic cathedral of Nda Mariam: A fascinating fusion of Italian and Eritrean architecture
Built in 1938 during the Italian occupation, this church dominates the city as it sits on top of a hill. It’s a fascinating blend of Italian and Eritrean architecture. The entrance chapel has a square floor plan crowned by a cylindrical drum decorated with images of saints, and its roof, an intriguing conical design with sloping eaves, adds to the cathedral’s unique charm. On either side you’ll find two inviting sections of wooden porch, supported by finely crafted wooden beams. At the back, a remarkable panelled wall features exquisite wooden friezes, skilfully carved in the revered Axumite style. Inside, the painted wooden arcosolium, a treasure saved from the old primitive church, is of particular historical importance.
The church, designed by the architect E. Gallo in 1920, was built on the site of the ancient one and is preceded by two square towers used as sacristy and storeroom. From the square in front of the Cathedral, an enchanting view unfolds before your eyes: the revered Coptic crosses, the majestic minaret of the Great Mosque and the timeless bell tower of the Catholic Cathedral. This captivating panorama embodies the religious harmony and cultural heritage of Eritrea.
The Nda Mariam Coptic Cathedral is a masterpiece that attracts visitors with its unique architectural elements that showcase the exquisite fusion of two different cultures. Embark on a journey into this enigmatic cathedral where history, art and faith intertwine to leave a lasting impression on your heart and soul. As you explore this treasured site, you’ll undoubtedly be captivated by the rich cultural heritage that graces the vibrant landscape of Eritrea.
Discover the iconic Fiat Tagliero: Asmara’s most famous modernist landmark
The Fiat Tagliero petrol station is an architectural marvel in Asmara that captures the essence of modernist brilliance. Inaugurated in 1938, this impressive concrete structure, which resembles an aircraft ready for take-off, is a sight to behold. Consisting of a central tower housing an office and a shop, and two striking 16-metre long concrete wings, the Fiat Tagliero exudes a sense of grandeur and innovation.
Fiat entrusted the visionary engineer Giuseppe Pettazzi, an ardent follower of the Futurist movement, with the task of bringing this masterpiece to life. With a great deal of creative freedom, Pettazzi eagerly designed a building that would realise his visionary theories. The result was nothing short of breathtaking and won the praise of critics the world over. The London Telegraph hailed it as “probably the most beautiful petrol station in the world and one of the world’s finest examples of Futurism”.
The Fiat Tagliero, designed in the full Futurist style, shows the avant-garde spirit of its architect. Inspired by the sleek lines of an aeroplane, Pettazzi designed a structure that defied conventional norms. An extraordinary feat of engineering, the cantilevered concrete wings, with a remarkable total span of thirty metres, effortlessly support themselves and provide shelter below. At the outset, the local authorities were concerned about the structural integrity of the building. As a precaution, Giuseppe Pettazzi included wooden columns in the original plans to support the wings. However, Pettazzi’s unwavering belief in his design prevailed and he insisted that the pillars be removed for the inauguration. The surprising result was that the cantilevered wings remained firmly in place, a testament to Pettazzi’s ingenuity.
More than just a petrol station, the Fiat Tagliero is a symbol of architectural ingenuity and creative vision. As you explore Asmara, be sure to stop and admire this iconic modernist landmark, a treasure that showcases the city’s rich heritage and artistic prowess. Witness the fusion of innovation and artistry in this unique structure, a true gem of Eritrea’s architectural heritage.
Discover the timeless beauty of Cinema Impero – a marvel of Art Deco architecture in Asmara.
Immerse yourself in the captivating world of Cinema Impero, a stunning Art Deco masterpiece nestled in the heart of Asmara. Designed by the talented Mario Messina, this architectural gem is a living testament to history, with its original furnishings still intact and in use today. A true symbol of grandeur, Cinema Impero holds the distinction of being the largest cinema in Asmara, a testament to the grandeur of the Italian colonial era in Eritrea.
Its name pays homage to the momentous proclamation of the Italian Empire by Benito Mussolini after the conquest of Ethiopia. Today, Cinema Impero remains an iconic landmark and is considered by experts to be one of the most extraordinary examples of Art Deco architecture in the world. In the vibrant city of Asmara, it stands side by side with the famous Palazzo Fiat Tagliero and other captivating Italian colonial buildings, including the majestic Palazzo Presidenziale and the grand Municipio.
When you enter this historic cinema, prepare to be transported back in time. Vintage posters adorn the walls, while the auditorium features intricate decorations and stucco depicting graceful dance scenes, swaying palms and lush foliage. The carefully arranged wooden seats on the gently sloping floor, complemented by decorative pilasters adorned with majestic lion heads, create an atmosphere of pure immersion.
The vision of architect Mario Messina shines through at Cinema Impero, as the architectural integrity of the building has been lovingly preserved since its original construction. Much of the equipment and seating are authentic originals, a true window into the past and a testament to the commitment to preserving heritage.
On arrival, you will be enchanted by the sight of forty-five circular lights adorning the façade, the words ‘Cinema Impero’ illuminated in vertical splendour, warmly inviting you to share in the magic of this extraordinary Art Deco wonder.
Cinema Impero gracefully carries the spirit of a bygone era, inviting visitors to revel in the timeless allure of Art Deco splendour. Whether you are a history buff, architecture enthusiast or simply seeking an exceptional cultural experience, Cinema Impero promises an unforgettable journey through time in the vibrant heart of Asmara, Eritrea’s enchanting capital. Embark on this adventure and let the beauty of Cinema Impero transport you to an era of unparalleled elegance and charm.
Discover the enchanting Asmara Opera Theatre – A historical architectural marvel
Experience the magic of the Asmara Opera Theatre, a true architectural masterpiece designed by the visionary Odoardo Cavagnari in 1919 and proudly inaugurated in 1920. Located in the heart of Asmara’s chic twentieth-century district, this iconic theatre has been lovingly restored and expanded by celebrated architects Aldo Vitaliti and Pietro del Fabbro, retaining its timeless charm.
The Teatro dell’Opera boasts a remarkable symmetrical façade that skilfully blends the timeless beauty of Romanesque and Renaissance styles. Its awe-inspiring portico, adorned with seven graceful Roman arches and supported by elegant Ionic columns, will leave you spellbound. Step inside and you’ll be greeted by a delightful gallery, accessible through charming arched doors that lead to the upper floor. The exterior of the theatre is a sight to behold, surrounded by meticulously landscaped gardens, decorative flower beds and an exquisite cement fountain in the shape of a shell.
Inside, the theatre comfortably accommodates approximately 750 guests, with seating on the parterre, two rows of Palco boxes and an elevated gallery. Admire the magnificent vaulted ceiling, meticulously decorated with an exquisite Art Nouveau fresco by the renowned artist Francesco Saverio Fresa. The mesmerising circular motif depicts graceful dancing women and majestic peacocks, adding a touch of enchantment to your experience.
During its golden era, the Teatro dell’Opera was proud to host illustrious companies such as Renato Rascel and Renato Carosone, who captivated audiences with their enchanting performances. Immerse yourself in the rich history and enduring fascination of the Asmara Opera Theatre, a must-see for architecture lovers and performing arts enthusiasts alike. It is always an unforgettable journey through time and culture at this iconic venue.
Khulafa al-Rashidun Mosque: The Great Mosque of Asmara – A majestic landmark
Discover the grandeur of the Khulafa al-Rashidun Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque of Asmara. Located on Harnet Avenue, this magnificent religious edifice is the largest mosque in the entire city and is a significant part of the capital’s architectural landscape.
The mosque’s rich history dates back to 1906, when the first version, accompanied by an octagonal minaret, was built in a secluded area near the Orthodox Church. Over time, as the city expanded and simple stone houses adorned the surrounding area, the mosque became an integral part of Asmara’s urban fabric and the centrepiece of architect Odoardo Cavagnari’s 1913 city plan.
In the late 1930s, a transformative architectural endeavour was launched by Guido Ferrazza. This visionary project led to the demolition of the original mosque around 1937, paving the way for the construction of the awe-inspiring Grand Mosque. Completed in 1938, the new mosque is an example of the fusion of rationalist, classical and Islamic elements, showcasing Ferrazza’s masterful design.
The mosque’s façade exudes symmetry, accentuated by a striking minaret rising on one side, resembling a fluted Roman column above Islamic domes and arches. Its commanding presence graces all corners of the city, complemented by two balconies in Italian rococo or late baroque style.
Inside, the mihrab, decorated with elegant mosaics and Carrara marble columns, points the way to Mecca. The interior reflects Ferrazza’s unmistakable style, as evidenced by the majestic black flagstone square and the bustling market complex that surrounds the mosque. Experience the timeless appeal of the Khulafa al-Rashidun Mosque, an architectural marvel that holds a special place in Asmara’s history and spiritual heritage. Immerse yourself in the magnificence of this landmark, a testament to cultural diversity and architectural splendour.
Experience the charm of the Asmara Synagogue – a fascinating historical landmark
The beautiful Asmara Synagogue, located on a side street off the city’s main avenue, is a religious masterpiece built by the Asmarina Jewish community in 1905. Protected by an intricately decorated wrought-iron gate inspired by Jewish religious motifs, the interplay of the dark gate against the clear indigo sky creates a mesmerising visual contrast.
The symmetrical façade has a central rose window and two side niches. One niche displays the Menorah, the iconic seven-branched Jewish candelabrum, while the other depicts the revered Torah, the table of Jewish law.
Step inside the historic complex and you’ll discover not only a place of worship, but also a cemetery with some 150 graves and a school. Next to the synagogue, two rooms house an extensive collection of photographs and documents that tell the fascinating story of the Jewish community of Asmarina.
The Asmara Synagogue, which once held between 60 and 150 worshippers, was the heart of a vibrant Jewish community of around 500 people until the 1950s. Over time, with the establishment of the State of Israel, many families began to emigrate. In 1975, during the Derg regime, the synagogue lost its religious function when the last 100 Jews, along with the last rabbi of the Eritrean Jewish community, left the country.
Built by Jewish migrants from the free port of Aden in Yemen, the synagogue’s legacy continued to evolve. Decades later, around a hundred more people sought refuge on the Eritrean plateau, fleeing Nazi and fascist persecution in Europe.
In recognition of its cultural and historical significance, UNESCO has included the Asmara Synagogue, along with other remarkable buildings in Asmara, in the prestigious World Heritage Site ‘Asmara: A Modernist City of Africa’. Immerse yourself in the rich tapestry of cultural heritage and history that the Asmara Synagogue proudly represents.
Caravanserai of Asmara – Experience the vibrant craftsmanship
Discover the captivating charm of the Caravanserai of Medeber, one of Asmara‘s most impressive destinations. Originally conceived as an 18th century marketplace for the caravan trade, this historic gem flourished during the Italian occupation and has since evolved into a bustling hub of diverse activities. Today it boasts a vibrant marketplace, an innovative workshop, a vibrant forge, a skilled carpentry workshop and an ingenious factory where artisans masterfully create a wide range of handicraft treasures, from delicious food to intricate mechanics and creative up-cycling of discarded materials.
Step into this enchanting corner and you’ll be greeted by a hive of productive energy. Young artisans are deftly shaping a variety of objects, cleverly repurposing scrap metal, old tyres and more, revealing a world of ingenuity. Amidst the tantalising aroma of red chilli peppers and the rhythmic symphony of hammers hitting metal, sparks dance along the pathways where skilled welders and tyre artisans work, leaving visitors mesmerised and in awe. The atmosphere is both dynamic and mesmerising, providing an unforgettable experience.
Venture through the Caravanserai‘s corridors, enveloped in clouds of red dust, and prepare to discover hidden treasures at every turn. Engage in delightful conversations, even in Italian, with blacksmiths, craftsmen, tailors and merchants selling vintage radios, bicycles and rare spare parts you won’t find anywhere else. You’ll see Muslim women in a myriad of colourful garments and veils, and graceful Coptic women in elegant long white dresses, grinding berberè with mechanical mills, weaving another vibrant thread into the tapestry of life in Medeber.
With every step you take, the Caravanserai radiates an extraordinary energy, enveloping you in an invigorating sensation throughout your visit. This vibrant destination celebrates the rich diversity of Eritrea‘s ethnic groups, making it an unmissable and enriching experience. Witness the vibrant craftsmanship and immerse yourself in the captivating essence of the Asmara Caravanserai. It’s a must-see destination that offers a vibrant and colourful reflection of Eritrea’s dynamic culture and heritage.
Imperial Palace – A historic gem on Liberation Avenue
The Imperial Palace, formerly known as the Governor’s Palace, is a remarkable historic building on Liberation Avenue. This iconic building now serves as the Government Palace and, until a few years ago, housed the National Museum. Conceived in 1897 by Ferdinando Martini, the first Italian civilian governor of Eritrea, it was intended to be the governor’s palace. The Italian government wanted to create an imposing structure in Asmara (the capital of Eritrea, replacing Massaua) from which Italian governors could demonstrate the Kingdom of Italy’s dedication to its “first-born colony”, as Eritrea was called.
To fulfill this vision, the Palazzo was built in a neoclassical style, which somewhat resembles the features of the White House. Its interior was decorated with fine Italian marble and exquisite furniture imported from Italy and France. The main hall had a typical Renaissance staircase leading to the proposed second floor. The grand entrance doors were specially crafted from Brazilian wood. With its majestic frontispiece supported by Corinthian columns and spacious interiors, it is considered one of the most beautiful neoclassical buildings in Africa. The exquisitely manicured gardens, both inside and out, add to its enchanting appeal. The history and splendour of the Imperial Palace, a captivating architectural masterpiece on Liberation Avenue, showcases the grandeur of Italian design and testifies to the timeless elegance of this neoclassical gem, a testament to Eritrea’s rich cultural heritage.
Discover Eritrea’s National Museum – a fascinating glimpse into ancient civilisations
Entering the fascinating world of Eritrea’s National Museum is like watching history unfold before your eyes, a veritable treasure trove of archaeological artefacts from the ancient civilisations that once flourished in this remarkable country. Conveniently located on Maryam Gmbi Street, this museum offers a stimulating anthropological journey as you explore relics from the past. Enjoy the presence of the remarkable small sphinx of Kohaito, be enthralled by the majestic Axumite steles with ancient Ge’ez inscriptions, and marvel at the precious 3rd century coins discovered in Dancalia with symbols that once represented the god Alemkah, later replaced by Christian emblems.
This exceptional museum proudly displays an extensive collection of artefacts, art and traditional clothing, each meticulously representing the diversity of Eritrea’s nine ethnic groups. Immerse yourself in the country’s rich cultural heritage and gain a deep understanding of its historical roots.
Visitors are encouraged to discover hidden treasures from the Axumite era, explore palaeozoic and palaeoanthropological discoveries from Dancalia, admire ancient tombstones from the enigmatic Dahlak Islands and marvel at the intricate Sabean materials and inscriptions. The museum offers a curated selection of traditional and contemporary artworks, providing a captivating experience for all who explore its wonders.
This is a must-see destination for those passionate about archaeology, art and heritage.