Antananarivo, the capital city of Madagascar, is often overlooked as a travel destination, but it’s a hidden gem teeming with unique experiences. From its bustling markets to its historical sites, the city offers a blend of urban and natural attractions that captivate every visitor.
While many people associate Madagascar with its exotic wildlife and pristine beaches, Antananarivo—or Tana, as locals affectionately call it—provides its own set of thrilling activities. This city is not just a gateway to Madagascar’s famous national parks; it’s a destination worth exploring in its own right. Here are 10 activities in Antananarivo that will make your trip unforgettable.
1. Explore the Rova of Antananarivo
The Rova of Antananarivo is a royal palace complex that offers a glimpse into Madagascar’s rich history. Perched on the highest hill in the city, the Rova was the center of the Merina Kingdom and serves as a symbol of the nation’s cultural heritage. The complex consists of multiple buildings, including the Queen’s Palace, which was tragically damaged by fire but is currently under restoration.
Visiting the Rova is like stepping back in time. The panoramic views of the city from the hilltop are absolutely stunning, providing a perfect backdrop for understanding the historical significance of the site. The complex also houses a museum where you can learn about the Merina Kingdom and the history of Madagascar.
2. Wander Through Analakely Market
The markets of Tana are not to be missed. They provide an authentic experience and a chance to immerse yourself in local commerce and culture. Analakely Market is the heartbeat of Antananarivo, a bustling hub where you can experience the local culture firsthand. From fresh produce to handmade crafts, the market is a treasure trove of authentic Malagasy items. The vibrant colors and aromatic spices fill the air, making it an experience for all your senses.
The interactions between vendors and customers, the array of goods on display, and the overall atmosphere make Analakely Market a must-visit spot for anyone interested in the local way of life. Bargaining is expected, so practice your negotiation skills as you shop. Don’t be shy to try out some basic French or Malagasy as you make deals.
For an even more adventurous market, head to Petite Vitesse. Located in a crowded neighborhood, this outdoor market explodes with activity. You’ll have to brave the muddy pathways as you explore the tightly packed stalls.
3. Take a Boat Ride on Lake Anosy
Lake Anosy is an artificial lake in the southern part of the city, known for its scenic beauty and the iconic “Soarano” railway station nearby. A boat ride on this lake offers a different perspective of Antananarivo, away from the hustle and bustle of city life. The lake is surrounded by jacaranda trees, which bloom into a sea of purple flowers during October and November. Lac Anosy is an oasis of calm within the bustling capital.
Walk the path that loops the lake while taking in the glassy waters and misty island view. Sit and contemplate Madagascar’s sacred past as locals picnic nearby. On the south shores stands the French-built College of Saint Michael, one of Madagascar’s first schools. The beautiful late 19th-century buildings now house a teacher training college. Peek through the gates for a glimpse of the grand architecture and shady courtyards.
4. Visit Ambohimanga Hill
Ambohimanga Hill is another historical site that is considered the birthplace of the Merina Kingdom. Located about 24 km from the city center, this UNESCO World Heritage site is a complex of royal palaces and tombs. The site is surrounded by a defensive wall made of egg whites and soil, showcasing the ingenuity of ancient Malagasy architecture.
The hill itself is a sacred place, often referred to as the “Blue Hill” due to its spiritual significance. The lush forests surrounding the site are home to various species of flora and fauna, making it a perfect spot for nature walks. The tranquility and historical richness of Ambohimanga Hill make it a must-visit for anyone interested in Malagasy culture.
5. Take a Food Tour of Tana
Malagasy cuisine takes influences from Southeast Asia, China, India, and France. The result is a unique fusion that’s both distinctly Malagasy and cosmopolitan. What better way to sample it than by taking a dedicated food tour? Eating in Antananarivo is not just about the food; it’s an immersive cultural experience. Many restaurants feature live music and dance performances, allowing you to enjoy the local arts while indulging in delicious cuisine.
Antananarivo offers a plethora of dining options where you can savor traditional Malagasy cuisine. Dishes like “Romazava,” a meat and greens stew, and “Akoho sy Voanio,” a chicken and coconut milk curry, showcase the island’s unique blend of flavors. The use of vanilla, cloves, and other spices adds a distinctive touch to the local dishes.
6. Visit Lemurs’ Park
While Madagascar is famous for its unique wildlife, you don’t have to leave the city to see some of its most iconic creatures. Lemurs’ Park, located just outside Antananarivo, is a private reserve where you can observe nine species of lemurs in a natural setting. The park aims to educate visitors about these fascinating animals and the importance of conservation.
The experience is both educational and entertaining, as the lemurs are quite playful and not shy around humans. The park also has a botanical garden featuring native Malagasy plants, adding another layer to your understanding of Madagascar’s unique biodiversity.
7. Shop the Saturday Magic Market
No trip to Tana is complete without a visit to the eccentric Saturday Magic Market. Every weekend, the main avenue of Avenue de l’Independance transforms into a vibrant bazaar packed with fortune-tellers, healers, and herbalists.
For a small fee, you can have your fortune told by a vazaha gasy, a traditional astrologer. Or browse the countless stalls overflowing with medicinal plants, dried chameleons, and fetish charms. Look out for the rare vahiny be, a talisman made of exotic wood that brings good luck.
The Saturday Magic Market offers a glimpse into the mystical side of Malagasy culture. Locals visit to have their fortunes told and procure talismans. Even if you don’t believe in the occult properties, it’s an exotic slice of local life. Come with an open mind and prepare to be transported to a different realm.
8. Go Rock Climbing at Andringitra National Park
For the more adventurous, a trip to Andringitra National Park offers an adrenaline-pumping experience. Located a few hours from Antananarivo, the park is a haven for rock climbing enthusiasts. The granite cliffs and diverse terrains provide varying levels of difficulty, suitable for both beginners and experts.
The park is not just a climbing destination; it’s a biodiversity hotspot. Home to various species of lemurs, birds, and plants, Andringitra offers a unique blend of adventure and nature. The panoramic views from the cliffs are breathtaking, making the climb a rewarding experience in more ways than one.
9. Attend a Traditional Malagasy Music Performance
Music is an integral part of Malagasy culture, and attending a live performance is a great way to immerse yourself in local traditions. From the fast-paced rhythms of “Salegy” to the soulful melodies of “Valiha,” the musical styles are as diverse as the island itself. Many venues in Antananarivo host live music events, featuring both traditional instruments and modern adaptations.
These performances are more than just entertainment; they’re a celebration of Malagasy identity. The music often tells stories of the island’s history, folklore, and daily life, making it a captivating experience even if you don’t understand the lyrics. The energy and passion of the musicians are infectious, making it a memorable night out in the city.
10. Explore Tsimbazaza Zoo
Tsimbazaza Zoo is not your typical zoo; it’s a research institution committed to the conservation of Madagascar’s unique wildlife. Located in the heart of the city, the zoo features a range of endemic species, including lemurs, chameleons, and fossas. The zoo aims to educate visitors about the importance of conservation and the threats facing these animals.
The zoo also has a botanical garden and a small museum, providing a comprehensive overview of Madagascar’s biodiversity. It’s an educational experience that appeals to both children and adults, making it a perfect family outing. The well-maintained paths and informative displays make Tsimbazaza Zoo a worthwhile visit for anyone interested in wildlife conservation.
Antananarivo is a city that defies expectations, offering a rich array of activities that go beyond the usual tourist attractions. From its historical landmarks to its vibrant markets, the city provides a diverse set of experiences that allow you to engage with Malagasy culture on multiple levels. It’s a destination that invites you to explore, learn, and most importantly, enjoy the unique offerings of Madagascar’s capital.
While many travelers use Antananarivo as a mere stopover on their way to Madagascar’s beaches and national parks, those who take the time to explore the city find themselves pleasantly surprised. The activities listed here are just a starting point; the real adventure begins when you step out and discover what this fascinating city has to offer. So the next time you find yourself in Madagascar, don’t just pass through Antananarivo—stay awhile and uncover the adventures that lie within.