Asmara (pop. 514,000) was only a string of small villages before the Italians arrived in 1897 and made it the colony's capital. When they left in 1941, the city had been transformed into a little piece of Italy—from the wide palm-lined avenues sprinkled with cafes to the lines of bikes zipping along the streets. Fortunately, Asmara was spared the war damage that destroyed much of Massawa, the country's other major historic city.

Asmara offers most of the amenities of any large city in developed countries. It's beautiful, safe and clean. Buildings, including hotels, are being renovated, and shops are full of Western goods. Visit the lively central market and the national museum. For a glimpse of the region's vibrant version of Christianity, stops by the towering Catholic cathedral (you can climb the bell tower) and Inda Mariam, the city's main Eritrean Orthodox church. There is also an interesting mosque, Khulasa El Rashidin.

Asmara sponsors many festivals throughout the year, including Festival Eritrea (late August-early September), during which the country's nine ethnic groups put on dances and shows. It's a great way to compare the dress and cultures of the various groups. Eritrean Independence Day (24 May) inspires huge parades and all-night partying in the streets.

And even when there's no special event going on, the evening stroll feels festive as Asmarinos get dressed up and walk along Liberation Avenue in a big, informal social gathering. It's a great time to do some people-watching, especially on Sunday when everyone wears their fanciest clothes.

Asmara has a handful of discos that stay open until the wee morning hours on Friday and Saturday, with dancing, drinking and socializing. There are many restaurants scattered around the city, serving both Eritrean and Italian dishes. (Ask around to find the better ones.) For a change of pace, Asmara also has an old Italian-built bowling alley—the pins are still set by hand.

The best way to see the countryside outside Asmara is to drive to Massawa: This scenic road corkscrews from Asmara's high plateau through cool, green mountains and valleys, finally reaching the parched hills of the Red Sea coast. The adventurous can make this trip by bicycle: Bike shops in Asmara will rent bicycles, but make sure the brakes are in good condition. The roads are wide and paved, and there are plenty of towns along the way where you can get food and water. Be careful of the camels trotting across the road when you get to sea level. 75 mi/120 km southwest of Massawa.

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