This City Ain’t Vanilla: Inside Antananarivo, Madagascar

French architecture? Palatial estates? Rich food celebrating the blend of European and African flavors? It's all here — in Antananarivo. Read More

The Queen's Palace stands atop one of the highest points in Antananarivo. (Source: Shutterstock / Artush)

Perhaps it need not be said, but Africa is more than the sum of its contiguous countries; forgotten islands dot the waters along its expansive coast, rich with culture, history, and vibrant commercial activity. One such island, known primarily for its export of vanilla, is the island of Madagascar, docked just off the southeastern coast of the continent. At its center sits a storied city of more than two million people: the tongue-twisting Antananarivo. Let us introduce you …

The history of Antananarivo

Unlike many colonized cities across Africa, Antananarivo was a sizable capital before invaders made it to the city’s gates. Established in the early 1600s, it was built to accommodate the growing success of regional rice farming. Monarchical rule was the only government Antananarivo knew, introducing sharply segregated castes and strict laws that kept the nobles, well, nobly positioned and the lower classes (known as hova) distinctly separate.

By the early 1800s, the city enjoyed significant economic significance; King Radama I captured foreign interest in the city by opening the gates to European traders. This precipitated a period of industrial growth and reform, giving rise to countless factories, markets, and European-inspired homes.

The French, keen to capitalize on the resources and growth of Antananarivo, invaded the city in 1894. Surrender was swift; a single cannon volley into the Rova (the fortified palace compound) convinced then Queen Ranavalona II to relinquish control to French settlers. What followed was a period of “Gallicization” that saw the improvement of the city’s dated infrastructure. Cobbled streets were added throughout Antananarivo, tunnels were constructed to connect various city districts, sewer systems were added, and electrical systems were installed.

Old royalty would address the public from the historic square of Andohalo. (Source: Wikipedia)
Old royalty would address the public from the historic square of Andohalo. (Source: Wikipedia)

The French period also saw the boom of the city’s middle district (referred to at the time as “La Ville Moyenne”). This included the construction of numerous parks, city squares, avenues, and landmarks, along with dedicated commercial areas.

Post WWII, Antananarivo enjoyed even more expansion, including the building of a university, an airport, and a museum. After Madagascar declared independence in 1960, however, the city experienced infrastructure issues as its population soared to more than two million; these were slowly addressed in subsequent decades, but were hampered by ongoing political demonstrations and occasional upheaval. Recently, however, these have ebbed, making Antananarivo once again a peaceful and charactered place to visit.

Know before you land: language and currency

Antananarivo’s principal language is French, though Malagasy is also spoken. Similarly, many hotels and restaurants accept Euros but also the native Ariary. Make sure you brush up on your French before arriving, bring a simple phrase book, and acquire Euros before landing. Also, be sure to have cash on-hand as many places don’t accept credit cards.

Layout of the city

Antananarivo was originally divided based on castes and elevation. At the pinnacle of the city — where three hill ridges intersect — sits the palace. Descending down from there are the historic noble district (now considered the wealthy district), the middle district (mentioned above and known as “La Ville Moyenne”), and the lower class districts rippling out to the country.

Antananarivo is laid out in "tiers," reflecting the segregated caste system that once dominated. (Source: Shutterstock / Dudarev Mikhail)
Antananarivo is laid out in “tiers,” reflecting the segregated caste system that once dominated. (Source: Shutterstock / Dudarev Mikhail)

These days, the middle district houses many sought-after residences and buzzing businesses. It’s also the site of Analakely, the city’s commercial center and site of Antananarivo’s original market. Tourists are best served to stay away from the lower class districts, however, as they are densely populated and suffer from crime and periodic flooding.

Getting there and getting around

Antananarivo is served primarily by African airlines, notably Madagascar’s own Tsaradia. However, international airlines like Air France will fly into major European hubs then on to Antananarivo’s Ivato International Airport. Two layovers are common on these flights, unless you live in a major U.S. or European city.

Once you arrive, you can rent a car from several well-known car rental companies (Hertz and Avis, for example), grab a taxi, or take a shuttle to your hotel. Note, however, that a shuttle is shared with multiple people and will make your ride longer. For only 30,000 AR ($8) you can grab a taxi instead.

Once you arrive in the city, take a taxi to your destinations. Most places don’t have sidewalks and traffic can be bad, so avoid pedestrian woes by shelling out a few dollars for a taxi ride.

Where to stay

Hotels are relatively inexpensive in Antananarivo, so you can take your pick of big, luxe chains or opt for something more boutique and local. Our top pick, Tamboho Suites, is on the more expensive side (luxury studios start at 129 Euros or $139 per night), but is situated right in the business district and includes kitchenettes, desks, and walk-in showers. It also boasts a rooftop lounge, fitness center, and onsite European-styled restaurant.

Sakamanga offers quaint, cozy accommodations in the heart of the city. (Source: Sakamanga.com)
Sakamanga offers quaint, cozy accommodations in the heart of the city. (Source: Sakamanga.com)

For a chicer, Europe-meets-Africa feel, we recommend Sakamanga. This is located in the center of the city and prices are much more affordable, ranging from $22 Euros ($24) per night for a cozy room up to 110 Euros ($119) per night for a two-bedroom apartment with a living room and kitchen. Onsite restaurant The Saka features Malagasy and European specialties like Vanilla Chicken and Foie Gras.

Whatever hotel you choose, make sure it has air conditioning. Both days and nights get hot in Antananarivo, so you’ll want to be sure you’re comfortable.

What to do

With a deeply layered past that folds colonialism on top of native monarchical rule and rapid trade-based expansion, Antananarivo has a lot of history to showcase. To capture the best of it, we recommend visiting the palace (or Rova), various parks, and the French-influenced Ville Moyenne.

The Rova of Antananarivo, now a heritage museum, sits at the high point of the city. Centuries old, it served as the home of the city’s earliest monarchs. Over the years, buildings were added to accommodate unique royal interests or growing monarchical needs; these additions included royal tombs, a wooden palace, and a chapel. A fire in 1995 destroyed much of the Rova complex, but was restored thanks to a combination of public and private funds. Most notable is the Rova’s distinct architectural style, blending 17th-century native style with 19th-century Scottish and French architectural flair. A guide is recommended, but certainly not required, and usually involves a broader tour of the city and country.

Analakely Market brims with fresh fruits and vegetables. (Source: Shutterstock / ronemmons)
Analakely Market brims with fresh fruits and vegetables. (Source: Shutterstock / ronemmons)

Descend a ways into the middle district and you will find the Analakely Market, a vast outdoor shopping complex featuring foods of every stripe. You can certainly pick up some ingredients here (peels on only for safety) and take them back to your hotel/suite for an evening feast, but it’s also satisfying to people-watch and soak in the history; this was, after all, the city’s first market. (Fair warning, though: Pick-pocketing can be an issue, so watch your wallet/purse.)

As you move from palace to market (and as you walk around the market), take note of the architectural styles of the homes; many blend native, wood-only construction with the brick structures introduced by the French. The latter occasionally take the form of mansions in miniature, complete with expansive verandas.

For a close look at native wildlife, shift gears and head to Tsimbazaza Zoo, where a lush botanical garden pairs with lemurs, egrets, and other native species. Signage is lacking here, though, so you’re on your own to explore and examine animal life.

Keen on some arts and local culture? We recommend taking in a Malagasy opera at Institut Français Madagascar or grabbing tickets to a show at the massive Palais des Sports; musical, dance, and other high-profile acts perform here regularly.

Where to eat

Madagascar cuisine is most closely aligned with what Americans think of as Ethiopian food: simple preparations of a meat (chicken and beef are common) flanked by a slew of vegetables and a bowl of seasoned rice. Popular dishes here include foza sy hena-kisoa (stir-fried pork and crab), lasopy (a soup made with veal or beef broth and several root vegetables), and koba (rice with banana and seafood). Be sure to try at least one of these when you’re exploring the city. (Quick note, however: Drink only bottled water and, when selecting fruit or veggies from a market, only buy those with peels. This ensures safe eating.)

Chicken in creamy coconut sauce is a common dish found throughout Madagascar. (Source: Shutterstock / Fanfo)
Chicken in creamy coconut sauce is a common dish found throughout Madagascar. (Source: Shutterstock / Fanfo)

That said, there are a few restaurants we heartily recommend. For fine French dining, La Varangue is a must (always yes to the Smoked Salmon Roulade); for something similar tinged with African style, opt for a table beneath a tented ceiling at Les Trois Metis (starring a Tournedo of Zebu, or humped cow).

For something distinctly local, try Tokotelo, run by a nearby cooking school, where pork, zebu, and seafood are in abundance but where the real star is the Baobab Sorbet.

We could go on about Antananarivo, but this is a good start; for more inspiration and guidance on planning your trip, visit madagascar-tourisme.com.