If you are in Antananarivo, you’re probably on your way to somewhere else. The capital of Madagascar, at the center of the “Big Island” in the Indian Ocean, is a transit city for travelers in search of turquoise lagoons, baobab trees, and humid forests populated by lemurs. You’ll find none of these things here, but Tana, a city of nearly three million people, does offer many unexpected sights. From the majestic hillside mansions to the dynamic energy of the lower part of town, Tana is full of surprises and charm.

8:00am

The Market of Analakely

Arabe Rahezavana
Antananarivo 101

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Start the morning with an almond croissant and a cafe au lait at the bakery of the Colbert Hotel. Then, take a five-minute stroll to the market. Mangoes, papayas, bananas, lychees, passion fruit, vanilla, cinnamon—everything grows in Madagascar, an island country of varied geography and climate. A perfect day in Antananarivo includes one of its markets, where nature abounds. At the center of town, the market of Analakely welcomes you with its colored parasols and tiled roofs.

A confused friend who had just flown in once told me: “This is a land of plenty!” And maybe that’s what you’re thinking as well as you stroll through the market laden with the riches of the land. Stuck at the bottom of international rankings, Madagascar is the fifth poorest country in the world. It’s a paradox that will—and should—bother the visitor. A poor population in a resource-rich country; a cliché, if it weren’t so dramatically true.

If you look up from the market, you will see two hills surrounding the esplanade. Antananarivo is a city of layers, built from the top down. Hard to believe that a little over a century ago, this large market was merely a rice field populated by zebus.

To really understand the city you need to climb to the highest point on those hills. The Rova is an imposing palace that dominates the town and the 11 other hills surrounding it. A taxi can get you there for 10,000 ariary ($3). For a trip back in time, chose one of the many Renault 4L cars, a model that was popular in France in the 60s. Both charming and robust, some drivers call them the “Malagasy 4×4.”

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9:00am

The Rova

Lalana Ramboatiana
Antananarivo 101

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You are now 4,790 feet high. This is where Antananarivo was born, in 1610. At least this is where it was given its name, which translates to “The City of Thousand” in reference to the 1,000 soldiers placed on the hill by King Andrianjaka. This is where kings and queens reigned the Kingdom of Imerina, a territory occupied by the Merina, one of the country’s 18 official ethnicities. Little by little, the kingdom extended its domination to almost all of Madagascar until French colonization in 1896.

Walk through a large stone doorway to the massive palace of the queen, a sacred place containing royal tombstones, where traditional rites still take place today. The palace was burned down in 1995—some claim the arson was politically motivated, but no one was ever found responsible. Only the walls remain, and the roof has been rebuilt.

Enjoy the fresh air and the 360-degree view of the city and its surroundings. Looking down, you will notice green stains here and there; watercress beds and even some rice fields are still nestled in the lower part of town. Add to that the chickens that walk around everywhere and Antananarivo can sometimes feel like the countryside.

10:00am

Andohalo Plaza

Lalana Justin Rajoro
Antananarivo 101

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It’s time to start your descent. Pass the palace of Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony—the one who married three successive queens—which is now a museum, and you will arrive at Andohalo Plaza. During the week, schoolchildren in blue or red uniforms are everywhere, a visual reminder that 54 percent of the Malagasy population is under 20 years old. On Sunday, the uniforms are replaced by bright silks and leather shoes. The upper part of town is home to many churches, both Protestant and Catholic, that were built after Queen Ranavalona II converted to Christianity in 1869, 50 years after the first British missionaries arrived.

The foreign presence can also be seen in Madagascar’s architecture, an eclectic mix of Southeast Asian—where the country’s first inhabitants came from—British, and French styles. Fall in love with the charm of these large, noble brick mansions and their colonnades, sculpted balconies, and large verandahs.

Tana is evidently not an easy place to discover. One must persevere to appreciate it: climb stair after stair, traverse its neighborhoods, endure traffic, and knock on doors. But your day here will be a journey unto itself. And afterwards, you will be ready for the lemurs and lagoons that await.

At the bottom of the plaza, you will have a mysterious encounter: a tall man with a white hat, sunglasses, and a large mustache, who carries two big plastic bags full of donuts called lifu. Monsieur Hylliard is another monument of Andohalo Plaza. He has been coming here every day for the past 24 years to sell his lifu (30 Ariary, $0.01 each!) made with a secret recipe.

Continuing your descent, make a detour by the staircase that leads to the Amparibe neighborhood. Take a left after the fire hydrant and then follow the path on the right (it’s useless to give the street names, because even if there are any, no one knows them). Walk past the washhouse where the clothes drying on the grass on both sides of the path will colorfully guide your way.

11:00am

Grand Urban Hotel

Rue Lalana Tsiombikibo – 12,
Ambatovinaky, Antananarivo 101

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The temperature is rising. Take a break at Grand Hotel Urban, a new establishment that offers a different view of the adjacent hill from a large terrace. Cool down with a THB (Three Horses Beer), the most popular Malagasy beer, or with a natural juice, made by hand with seasonal fresh fruits—try soursop, mango, or passion fruit.

Walk down to the garden of Antaninarenina. Do you feel the raindrops? In November, blooming time for jacarandas, the tropical flowers release droplets of water.

12:30pm

Toko Telo

au 6, rue Jean Jaurès
Ambatomena, Antananarivo 101

Walk towards the French Embassy and pass the Air Madagascar building. Next door to this building you’ll find a blackboard that displays a list of Malagasy dishes. Enter the courtyard and climb the stairs to the second floor. There, you will find Toko Telo, a restaurant that’s halfway between a food stall whose hygiene will endanger the intestines, and a fancy restaurant. For 11,000 ariary ($3.30) get a delicious romazava, the national dish made of zebu stew with leafy greens. The pork ravintoto (made with crushed cassava leaves) is another unmissable Malagasy dish.

All the dishes are served with a large plate of white rice and red rice. The staple of Malagasy cuisine, rice is eaten three times a day by people of all backgrounds. And to rehydrate, why not order some rice water? They offer unlimited refills of ranovola (pronounced “ran’vool”). The recipe for the popular drink is simple: boil some water with the rest of the overcooked rice that sticks to the bottom of the pan, let it cool, and serve slightly warm.

2:00pm

Cafe de la Gare

Arabe Rainibertsimisaraka

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About 100 meters from Toko Telo, head to the artery of the lower part of town: the Avenue de l’Independence. It was built at the beginning of the 20th century by the French colonial administration. Today, it connects downtown’s economic poles: the Chinese quarter at the north (Behoririka), the Indian neighborhood at the west (Tsaralalana), and the large market of Analakely at the south. The avenue also holds an important place in the more recent history of the country: protesters have gathered here in front of the town hall, during the various crises that the country went through from 1972 to 2009.

Walk a few minutes to the train station, located at the end of the avenue. There are no passenger trains here: the station was transformed into a beautiful mall. Get a coffee in the garden of Café de la Gare, an island of greenery that will make you forget the capital’s asphyxiating traffic.

3:00pm

Atelier Donne Vy

Lot 026 Ankazobe Alasora
Ambohimanambola Road, 103 Antananarivo
(On the road between Mandroseza and Ambohimanambola)

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Hail a cab to Ankazobe Alasora. In this peripheral neighborhood lies the workshop of Violette and Dieudonné, blacksmiths that figure among Madagascar’s best traditional artisans. Here, sheet iron—often from old recycled cans—is struck, chiseled, waxed, and transformed into giant baobabs, candleholders or industrial-style furniture.   

The 200 people that work here are disabled, ex-cons, single mothers, or marginalized people who have nowhere else to go. Behind the workshops, a school was built along with homes for a dozen families. The non-profit project, called Atelier Donne Vy, does not receive any outside funding and survives on the sale of Malagasy products throughout the world.

Ask to be taken around the heavenly organic garden that feeds the canteen. Dieudonné will tell you about the benefits of permaculture and how he tames the natural qualities of each living organism to make the garden more fertile.

7:00pm

Citizen

Lot IC 12 rue d’Angleterre
Isoraka, Tananarive 101

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As the blinding sun starts to lower, take the road back downtown. A taxi will take you back over the Ikopa River, and through popular neighborhoods like Ambanidia. Enjoy the melancholy orange light that inundates the atmosphere; night will fall in a few minutes. To make the most of this moment, have a seat on the terrace of the Citizen. Located in the middle part of town, the restaurant overlooks the waters of Lake Anosy and faces picturesque Royal Hill.

This is a great place to have a drink and dinner. Like many high-end restaurants in Tana, the Citizen offers a sophisticated Franco-Malagasy cuisine, rich in flavors thanks to the quality and variety of local produce. Foie gras, duck, fish, everything here is delicious. The desserts combine vanilla, pineapple, and green pepper; or mango, ginger and salted butter. You will eat well for about 120,000 Ariary per person ($36).

10:00pm

La Teinturerie

Lot VC 59Q, Rue Vittori Francoise
Ampasanimalo, Antananarivo 101

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Antananarivo is a city that sleeps early, but you will not regret braving the obscurity of the poorly-lit streets. Take a taxi to La Teinturerie for one—or a few—last drinks. This quirky place is home to a contemporary art gallery, a stage, a bar, and a design store. Concerts take place every Friday; the music is good and the cocktails cheap.