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Get to know Antananarivo

By Corinne Homer

When setting off to the forested island of Madagascar, you’re almost certain to land in Antananarivo, the country’s travel hub and thriving capital. With its streets packed with sellers, roaring cars and market revellers, it’s often passed through in as short a time as possible. That’s not entirely unwarranted - the famous lemurs and baobab trees of the island are doubtlessly worth rushing to - but this city has plenty of charm if one is to slow down and learn more of its relatively unknown past. Knowing the historical makeup of Madagascar unlocks a new appreciation of life in Antananarivo - or ‘Tana’, as it’s known by locals - and you’re likely to spend at least a day here on any Madagascan trip. So unpack this important city of history, and read on.

Andohalo Cathedral, Antananarivo Madagascar

Remnants of a Royal history

Madagascar has a relatively short period of human occupancy, with Antananarivo having been the centre of Malagasy power for only 300 years. The city was first inhabited by a community of Vazimba, the ‘original’ occupants of the island; followed by the Merina people, whose king, Andrianjaka, took over in the early 1600s. According to oral history, Andrianjaka used 1,000 soldiers to seize his new kingdom, giving Antananarivo - ‘the City of a Thousand’ - its name. The success of Andrianjaka and the line of sovereigns that succeeded him meant the city was one of the only capitals in southern Africa to be well developed before colonial rule. In fact, the arrival of French colonists in 1894 ended a reign of three successive queens, the last of which was Ranavalona III.

Despite, or perhaps because of, her much-opposed exile by the French, Ranavalona III became a well-loved figure in Europe; known for her resilience, love of crafts, fine clothes and popularity in high society. She eventually died without ever being allowed to return to her home of Madagascar, though her body is housed at UNESCO-protected burial site Ambohimanga, one of a handful of the city’s fascinating royal grounds.

Ambohimanga burial ground Madagascar

The compelling history behind the Kingdom of Imerina makes the former royal complexes unmissable when visiting Tana. The Rova of Antananarivo dominates the city skyline on what was the highest hill in the city, continually expanded and restyled according to the tastes of three centuries of monarchs. This unique palace complex has been badly fire-damaged in previous years, but is finally being protected and restored. Nearby, Andafiavaratra Palace was the home of 19th century Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony, while downhill from the palaces, Andahalo Square still stands as the former location of royal public addresses.

Rova of Antananarivo

The Mada way

Due to the combined influence of various settlers, Madagascar is an island built on cultural fusion. There were Austronesian explorers who boated over from Borneo, Bantu migrants from East Africa, a number of ethnic communities that settled over the centuries, and of course, European colonists. As a result, Malagasy culture is vibrant, distinct and multi-faceted. Modern-day Antananarivo well represents the country’s 18 ethnic groups, as well as European, Chinese, Indian and more.

To dive into local life at the deep end, take a walk around one of the open-air markets, such as the well-loved Marche Artisanal de La Digue, or Analakey Market; a giant mass of stalls with local goods that spill out onto the streets. Everything from vanilla, spices, beans, wooden handicrafts and jewellery is available here. Be prepared to haggle, and bring a local guide if possible as English isn’t always widely spoken.

Market goods in Madagascar

As you walk the aesthetically steep alleyways, admire the hodge-podge of red and white houses which cover Tana’s sloped hills. These traditional Malagasy homes, often consisting of one storey and a sloped thatched roof, underwent constant evolution during the colonial period; inspired by the gradually European-styled homes of the aristocracy.

Historic Antananarivo, Madagascar

For some downtime with a dose of culture, there are a handful of green spaces in the city; Jardin d’Andolaho is a small garden which shows hira gasy (folk performances) every Sunday throughout winter, while there are plans for Jardin d’Ambohijatovo to display outdoor shows for locals and tourists alike.

Choice cuisine

If you want memorable food in Madagascar, Tana is the place. The fusion of Malagasy culture is well reflected in their food, and there is a pleasing amount of variety - from tasty local fare to impressive menus of Michelin-star quality. Charmingly quirky La Varangue leads the way in gourmet cuisine; offering the likes of zebu steak, duck with cranberry and saffron risotto, all artfully prepared by Malagasy chef, Lalaina Ravelomanana. For a conversely low-key dining experience try Chantaco. This cheerful lunch spot looks deceptively plain from the outside but really draws the locals with its Malagasy-Chinese dishes. There’s delectable Creole meals on offer at cosy Chez Sucett’s, another reasonably priced local gem. For a cake or croissant akin to Parisian fare, or for some truffle souvenirs, pick up a sweet treat at Colbert Patisserie.

Zebu steak dish, Madagascar

Tips for travel in Antananarivo 

Like any capital, travellers must err on the side of caution when exploring Antananarivo. Pickpocketing is common and foreigners are targeted, especially in markets and airports, so be aware of your belongings and don’t have your valuables on show. Begging is also prolific, particularly from children. The best thing is to politely decline or ignore their advances to avoid encouraging this behaviour. Having a local guide with you will be infinitely helpful when visiting local haunts - both for breaking down language barriers and getting insider knowledge. The majority of Antananarivo’s highlights are situated outside of the centre, so having a driver could also save you a lot of hassle.

Make it happen

To give Madagascar’s capital a whirl, include it in a tailor-made tour. You can send a direct enquiry to our local experts or check out our destination pages. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.