Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital city, sits at 4,500 ft/1,370 m in a twisting valley near the center of the island. Tana, as the city is often called, has unusual French- and Asian-inspired architecture, and winding cobblestoned streets and staircases that create a medieval impression. Attractions include the colorful daily flower market on the edge of Lake Anosy and the botanical and zoological gardens, where you can see the egg and 10-ft-/3-m-tall skeleton of the extinct elephant bird.

Antananarivo's original name was Analamanga (the blue forest). In 1610, the revered King Andrianjaka stationed 1,000 soldiers on the blue hill to defend it and renamed the city Antananarivo, meaning "City of a Thousand Warriors." The king also built a royal palace there. Sadly, the Rova (Queen's Palace) burned to the ground in 1996. Though virtually nothing remains at the site, there are nice views of the city from the hill where the palace once stood.

From Antananarivo, it's possible to make a one- or two-night excursion to Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. Day trips can also be made to the "Blue Hill" of Ambohimanga (14 mi/23 km away), where you can see an 18th-century royal palace and enjoy beautiful views overlooking terraced rice paddies; to Ambatolampy (a small, attractive town southwest of the capital—get a visitor's permit in Tana); and to Antsirabe. Plan about three nights in Antananarivo.

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