Djibouti City is evolving at a fast pace, and there’s a palpable sense of change in the air. Today’s city is vastly different from the battered French outpost to which it was reduced in the 1980s and 1990s.
Thanks to its geostrategic importance and its busy port, Djibouti City has been transformed from a sleepy capital to a thriving place.
In recent years, increasing waves of foreign investment have sparked a number of building projects. Yet under its veneer of urban bustle, the city remains a down-to-earth place, with jarring cultural and social combinations.
Traditionally robed Afar tribesmen, stalwart GIs, sensuous Somali ladies and frazzled businessmen with the latest mobile phones stuck to their ear all jostle side by side.
Djibouti City boasts good infrastructure, including hotels, bars (a note for those who’ve just come from Somaliland: yes, they’re licensed), clubs and restaurants it’s the place in the Horn of Africa to treat yourself to a fine meal. Sure, it lacks stand- out sights, and its architecture doesn’t have much to turn your head, but stick around this engaging city long enough and you might fall prey to its unexpected charms. It’s also the obvious place to organise forays into the fantastic hinterland, or boat excursions.
The centre can be divided into two quarters: the European Quarter laid out on a grid system to the north, and the African Quarter, which spills out to the south. Most of the following sights can be reached on foot.
The focal point of the European Quarter is Place du 27 Juin 1977 (Place Ménélik). With its whitewashed houses and Moorish arcades, this vast square is a strange mix of the Arab and the European. It’s lined with cafes, bars, restaurants and shops.
The European Quarter is connected to the Plateau du Serpent to the north by the Blvd de la République, along which many of the principal administrative buildings can be found.
In this area you’ll also find a smattering of enticing religious buildings, including the eye-catching cathedral, In a street running parallel to Blvd de la République, Église Éthiopienne Orthodoxe Tewahido St Gabriel du Soleil (Orthodox church), which is popular with the Ethiopian community, is well worth a peek.
The vast Place Mahmoud Harbi is dominated by the minaret of the great Hamoudi Mosque, Djibouti City’s most iconic building. Eastward, the chaotic Quartier 1 is a criss-cross of alleyways where stalls and shops are lined cheek by jowl. Spreading along Blvd de Bender are the stalls of Les Caisses market. ). Crammed with every type of souvenir from woodcarv- ings to clothing, it’s a colourful place for soaking up the atmosphere.
In the early evening, the walk along the causeway northwest of the centre makes a very pleasant stroll. The Moorish-inspired presidential palace (not open to the public) marks one end, the harbour of L’Escale, the other. The little marina is home to a variety of boats, from the traditional and picturesque Arab dhows to the simple local fishing skiffs and ferries to Tadjoura and Obock.
Further north, running almost parallel to L’Escale, is the city’s port proper, access to which is restricted. From the marina, you can see the imposing cranes and cargo boats.
Plateau du Serpent & Îlot du Héron
These adjoining neighbourhoods north of the centre are residential areas where you’ll find many of the foreign embassies and residences, as well as lavish villas and Djibouti’s swankiest hotels.
For a capital that’s surrounded by water, Djibouti City is not well endowed with beaches. The only decent stretch of sand is at the Djibouti Palace Kempinski, but there’s an entrance fee of DFr3000, and swimming is not that tempting, with shallow waters and a profusion of algae.
There’s also a postage-stamp-sized beach at the Sheraton Djibouti Hotel ). For a dip, your best bet is to use the pools at both hotels (DFr2000 at the Djibouti Palace Kempinski; no charge at the Sheraton).
Diving, kitesurfing, whale-shark spotting and hiking can all be organised from Djibouti City.
Most diving takes place off the islands of Maskali and Moucha in the Gulf of Tadjoura, Where you will find a variety of dive sites for all levels. There’s also a handful of spectacular sites scattered along the shoreline of the Bay of Ghoubbet, furthest west. You’ll find two professional dive centres staffed with qualified instructors who speak English.
Dolphin (DIVING & SNORKELLING): This is well-organised dive shop offers a full menu of underwater adventures, including introductory dives, day trips to Moucha Island and the Bay of Ghoubbet (from DFr17,700), snorkelling trips and certification courses. From November to March, Dolphin also operates a live-aboard dive boat that schedules regular trips around the Gulf of Tadjoura.
Le Lagon Bleu (DIVING & SNORKELLING), the main office is based at Djibouti Palace Kempinski but the dive centre is on Moucha Island.
The steady winds that buff the Gulf of Tadjoura make but don’t be put off; it’s also a great place to learn. For beginners, Île de la Tortue, near the international airport, is a hot favourite, with shallow waters and more manageable breezes (about 15 knots).
Djibouti Kitesurf (KITESURFING), Chat with Dante Kourallos to get hooked up with the how-to. Tuition and courses for all levels can be arranged, as well as a half-day ‘discovery’ session (DFr20,000, minimum of six people). For experienced kitesurfers, two-to three-day excursions to the Bay of Ghoubbet can be arranged between October and May (from DFr50,000, minimum 12 people).
The Bay of Ghoubbet, at the western end of the Gulf of Tadjoura, is one of the most dependable locations in the world to swim alongside a massive whale shark (Rhincodon typus), the world’s largest fish. The peak season runs from November to January. There are between two and 10 individuals, close to the shore, and it’s very easy to snorkel with these graceful creatures.
This activity has exploded in recent years, and plenty of unprofessional operators can arrange trips. It’s better to stick to Lagon Bleu or Dolphin; at least these two operators are more ecologically sensitive and follow protocols. Give the sharks a berth of at least 4m. Touching is an absolute no-no. A full-day excursion costs from DFr14,000.