24 Hours in Antananarivo
Venturing through the urban landscape of the Eighth Continent.
Most visitors are quick to overlook Madagascar’s capital city, but Antananarivo — Tana, to the locals — is more than an inconvenient pit stop between travel to the country’s more glamorous attractions. While the towering baobab trees and sandstone formations outside the city are certainly awe-inspiring, Tana’s charming cobblestoned streets, French-influenced cuisine and vibrant nightlife are certainly worth exploring on their own.
Start your day on the terrace at Sakamanga with a strong cup of coffee and a plate of vary sosoa, a popular Malagasy breakfast dish of rice porridge and salted meat. The eclectic hotel and restaurant is an apt starting point for your adventures on what’s known as the eighth continent; the word sakamanga, which translates into “Blue Cat” in the Malagasy language, is itself a nod to the capital city’s former name, Analamanga, meaning “Blue Forest.”
Sakamanga is located near the Isoraka neighborhood, which boasts some of the liveliest nightlife in Tana. During the day though, Isoraka is just as dynamic, offering a variety of boutiques, cafés and restaurants around which to stroll. Hotely, local streetside eateries, are popular in this neighborhood as well, offering a range of contemporary Malagasy dishes — from flavorful Indian-inspired curries to oily Chinese noodles and even brittle French baguettes.
Continue to explore Madagascar’s rich, complicated history with a walkingtour of the capital’s palaces, starting at Tana’s famous Rova. As the former home of the Kingdom of Madagascar’s rulers, the Rova offers panoramic views of the city and a glimpse into the old way of life; traditional wooden homes stand proudly next to stone fiangonana (chapels) and ancient fasana (tombs). Though a tragic fire in 1995 destroyed several of the Rova’s original structures, many of the salvaged artifacts can be visited at the nearby Andafiavaratra Palace. But be prepared for a hike, as the former home of the prime minister of Madagascar is perched on Tana’s highest hilltop. Ambohitsorohitra Palace, where the presidential office is located, is also a short walk away. Though inaccessible to the public, you may steal a peek of the late-baroque style architecture from outside Ambohitsorohitra’s gates.
(If you have time to spare for a day trip, consider venturing 23 kilometers north of Tana to the Royal Hill of Ambohimanga, which is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and well worth a visit. Especially significant to the Merina people of the highlands, Ambohimanga attracts pilgrims from all over the country who pay their respects at the burial sites of former monarchs.)
A morning spent exploring the ancient fortifications of a forgotten world may understandably whet your appetite for the more tangible parts of Madagascar. Take a walk down Independence Avenue and peruse the cotton cloth, or lamba, at the Analakely Market. Lamba serve a functional purpose in Malagasy culture, worn as sarongs or tunics and used to carry children, but they also have a ceremonial significance; traditionally, the cloth is used for gift giving and in burial ceremonies. Lambahoany is the most common kind of lamba, distinguishable by its simple design featuring a ohabolana, or popular Malagasy proverb. For visitors, these cloths also make affordable and easily portable gifts.
A similar shopping option is located near Lac Anosy at the open-air market of Andravoahangy, which sells Malagasy artisanal wares, including traditional wooden sculptures and a variety of spices. For those seeking an easy, haggle-free experience, the Tana Water Front, which features a number of upscale beauty and fashion shops as well as an air-conditioned Shoprite grocery store, is also a short taxi ride away.
After wandering the steep cobblestoned hills of Tana, break for amuse-bouche and midday cocktails at KUDéTA. Omby, or zebu (humped cattle), is one the most popular meats in Madagascar, especially in the highland region neighboring Tana, which is known as cattle country — and KUDéTA is known for its dishes involving this specialty.
La Varangue is another favorite eatery among foreigners, known equally for its extensive and eclectic antique collection and its famous chocolate “explosion” dessert. The fusion of French and Malagasy cuisine, like a visit to Madagascar as a whole, can be a surprising and delightful experience.
Wind down the afternoon by perusing contemporary Malagasy art at IS’ART Galerie, the only urban art gallery of its kind in the capital, or visit a more traditional museum, such as the Museum of Art and Archeology at the University of Madagascar. Tana’s Alliance Française also hosts hiragasy (traditional Malagasy concerts) on occasion — daylong events that involve song, dance and speech performances.
After all that urban trekking, a little luxury is in order. Treat yourself to a chocolate croissant at the luxurious Colbert Patisserie. Famous for its French gateaux, or pastries, the bakery offers a delicious selection of chocolates and other sweet treats.
Freshen up at the hotel before heading out again for an exclusive Malagasy culinary experience at Chez Mariette. Dinner reservations are required in advance, and for good reason; Chef Mariette is famous in Madagascar for her unique presentation of authentic Malagasy dishes, and the service at her restaurant is unparalleled.
But if you aren’t able to make reservations at Chez Mariette in advance, head to Citizen, a recently opened upscale Malagasy restaurant that boasts an outstanding view of Lac Anosy. The restaurant also serves vegetarian adaptations of dishes, a rarity in most of the country.
For the last stop of the evening, make your way to Café de la Gare for after-dinner drinks and board games. The restaurant and bar is in the heart of Tana and is housed in a former train station (hence the name). This makes La Gare an ideal place to wind down with a glass of local Betsileo wine and live music before resting up for a long day of taxi-brousse travel ahead.
Charity Yoro is a poet and creative facilitator based in the Bay Area of California. What she misses most about Madagascar, after living in the rural highlands for over two years, is baking with real vanilla beans.