The Highlands | The North | The East | The South | The West

What to see in Antananarivo

Most of Madagascar's travellers tend to enter the country through the capital's airport and also most of them tend to spend as less time as possible in this apparently unappealing city. However, the big city does have something to offer for those who decide to stay a little longer. Madagascar's capital is divided into three different levels, which are linked by really crowded stairways leading to the upper city boroughs, which are full of traditional red-earth brick houses.  Basically, we can differentiate between the downtown (ancient swamp), the some intermediate level (known as “Plateau du Colbert” and located in the middle of the cliffs, and the old city in upper town (“La Haute ville”), where Palaces (Queen's palace, ancient Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony palace, ancient Justice palace), cathedrals and the residential area of (mostly) ancient noblemen families are located. From here, visitors enjoy a nice perspective of the city below far away from the hassle of downtown.

  • The upper town
The Rova
The Queen Palace, also called Manjakamiadana, was destroyed almost completely by a fire in 1995 leaving only the stone walls of the building. The official investigation concluded (too quickly for the opinions of many) an accident as the cause of the disaster. The palace belongs to a complex of further seven monuments, which originally occupied the royal palace complex, also called Rova, which is translated as "Fort" which lays at an altitude of 200 m on the highest hill of the city, the Analamanga hill  (translated “blue forest”). 
Antananarivo Rova
The Rova after the fire

The original structure was made of wood but was later given its characteristic silhouette in 1869 when Queen Ranavalona II commissioned French architect James Cameron to encase the palace in stone. Situated on the top of a hill or a rock, its privileged position assured an ideal defence and observation post and permitted to entrench in case of an attack.

Until the end of the monarchy, the tombs of the sovereigns were built within the Rova. As of November 2007, 30% of the financing necessary for the reconstruction of the Rova had been collected. In early January 2006, Phase 1 of the Rova's reconstruction commenced and aims to refurbish the stone facade of the Manjakamiadana and restore the palace's interior, or "lapa hazo". While the original interior of the Manjakamiadana was built of wood, due to durability concerns and a lack of hard woods, concrete is being used to reconstruct the structure. According to project supervisors, Phase 1 of reconstruction should be finished by May 2008.

20% of artefacts, documents that the premises used to contain could be saved from the flames and are now exhibited at Andafiavaratra Palace, the ancient Prime Minister Palace. The palace was built from prerogative of Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony (19th cent.), a man from plebean family who served as a Prime Minister of three Queens for 32 years. This palace was reconstructed after it was torn down in 1976.

The Rova place also offers 360° view of Tana and its 12 sacred hills. It is also an excellent spot to chat with locals that go there to see the reconstruction works of the arsoned buildings.

The upper boroughs
Andafiavaratra Palace in
the historic Andohalo borough  
© Madagascar Travel Guide
The historic boroughs around the Rova are Andohalo and Ankadibevava on the West and Ambohimitsimbina and Ambohipotsy on the East. On the south and north flanks of the Rova a 100 m high cliff makes access almost impossible. The nice panoramic views on downtown, the picturesque ambience of the noblemen residence area, with both well-kept traditional houses, the colonial houses, palaces, cathedrals, the charm of the narrow, curved, upslope cobblestoned streets and ensemble of cute traditional Malagasy houses built entirely of wood make the unforgettable ambiance of this borough.

This luxury residential borough Andohalo between the upper and the lower towns was the point where  broad flights of steps connecting places too steep for the formation of carriage roads joined. Andohalo became soon a handsome place with walks and terraces, flower-beds and trees. A small park was laid out near the residency, and the planting of trees and the formation of gardens in various parts of the city gave it a bright and attractive appearance.

The square of Andohalo (now Kianja Repoblika Malagasy), which image is dominated by the Anglican Cathedral of Saint-Laurent (1889) and the oldest school of the city (1822) was in the past one of the most colourful of the city. On the same square we also find the Catholic Church, which is also the biggest church in the country. There is a long history of rivalry between Catholics and Protestants in Madagascar. Christianity was first brought to the island by the protestant London Missionary Society in the 18th Century. Then the arrival of Catholic missionaries heralded the move towards Madagascar becoming a French colony. Until the 1960s, both churches urged their followers not to marry members of rival congregations But such competition appeared to have dwindled.

On the Justin-Rajoro Street we find the House of Jean Laborde, former Premier Minister, and now home to the radio studios of Alliance française. It also shelters art exhibitions. Back from his exile in 1861, Jean Laborde, appointed as the consulate of France, had this house built, finished in 1862. The concession of Jean Laborde overhangs the district of Mahamasina that was then a field of military operations.

On the eastern part of the Andohalo Square a path leads to the Ambavahadimitafo Gate, the only of the seven city gates which is still maintained.

On the Ravelojaona Street we find the Andafiavaratra or Prime Minister´s Palace. This former residence of Rainilaiarivony (who married three Queens), built by William Pool in 1872, has been painstakingly restored and now houses the few precious items that were saved from the Rova fire. After 1895 the palace converted into military dwellings, a court, the Academy of Arts, the headquarters of the president of the Republic (1958 – 1972) and finally of the Prime Minister (1972-1975).

The ancient Palace of Justice in Avaradrova (or "North of the fort") is featured by its 16 neoclassic columns. The place is also called Ambatondrafandrana, which means the “stones of Rafandrana” honouring the first three kings of Antananarivo. The imposing building was built in 1881 replacing a sacred stone on which the kings gave their speech at a time when the place served as a court. The crossed arrows on its front represent the royal justice.

Other interesting places nearby are the Temple of Ambohipotsy built by the British architect William Pool in 1863 right where Christian Malagasy were executed during the reign of Ranavalona 1st.

The Temple of Ampahamarinana on the western side of the Rova overhanging the Mahamasina, was built in memory of the fourteen Christian martyrs who were hanged at the same spot on 29th March 1849.

Half way to the Rova we find the Ambohimanoro Cathedral, an Anglican church built by the Norwegian engineer Alfred Anker between 1882 and 1889.

Antananarivo cathedral
 Tana´s Cathedral  
     © Madagascar Travel Guide

The way along the Rova passes through two belvederes. From the first one visitors can enjoy a wonderful view of the whole town, from Anosibe to Besarety. On the second one there is a orientation table which helps tourists identifying the sacred hills of the city. Viewing sunset from this point, when sun is setting and orange, red, yellow light warms up the facades of those houses clinging on the cliff and above will definitely grant you memorable moments.

On the North eastern part of the Rova we find the Avenue of the Royal Trees, which were planted by a monarch and symbolize the power of the noblesse. Ironically the deep roots of these trees menace the grounds of the main building, but digging them out would be a terrible sacrilege.

In the borough Isoraka there is an archeological museum Musée de l'Art et de Archéologie (17 rue du Docteur-Villette, open from 8 am till 13:30 pm and from 14 pm to 17:30 pm, gratis entrance), which hosts interesting changing exhibitions about the history and culture of the country.

Descending the multiple staircases towards the lower town in Isotry tourists can admire the mausoleum of the Prime Minister Rainiharo, which also houses the mortal rests of Raharo and Rainilaiarivony, who were both prime ministers too (the first one of king Radama II and Rasoherina, the second one of the three last Malgache queens). The mausoleum was built by Laborde between 1846 and 1854 and features some interesting elements of Indian architecture.

  • Downtown

The borough of Analakely (small forest) is the core of Antananarivo, which spreads from the building of the main train station along the Independence Avenue to the old market place in the downtown, known as the zoma, which was held every Friday till its abolishment in 1993. The old Analakely-Zoma was conceived by many travellers to be one of the biggest open air markets worldwide. Today the zoma is reduced to a few places around the market-pavilions whilst the traditional Friday markets have been displaced to different points scattered through the city.
View on Tana's downtown 
© Madagascar Travel Guide

The Avenue de l´Indépendence is a broad shopping mile flanked by charming and imposing buildings designed by Cantalou in the 30´s which now host a not less broad cast of shops and boutiques and the main offices of Air Madagascar and Air France. Midway down the Avenue is the new City Hall, with a somewhat misplaced fenced-in park with fountains illuminated by colored lights in front. At the upper end you have the market, and at the other end of the road we encounter the main train station, the “Gare de Soarano” designed by Fouchard (1908-1910), where trains to Toamasina, Ambatondrazaka and Antsirabe used to leave from. The building is beautifully well kept, and now contains a few expensive shops, a brand new information centre and office for the National Parks Madagascar. To one side is a very nice restaurant, serving good food in a nicely decorated atmosphere. If the weather is nice, you can sit outside in the garden, and when its cold, there's a fireplace inside. A nice escape from the noise and fumes in the city center. Occasionally there are concerts and shows. On the west side of the station we find the very popular among the Indian community Tsaralalana borough, where some renowned clubs are located. Right opposite this borough, many Chinese businessmen have settled down in the so called Behoririka borough, at the shore of a small lake.

Next to the station we find the square Place de l'Indépendance, a beautiful garden with a plaque in the centre which commemorates the retrieval of the sovereignity. This square also leads us to the Ranavalona Ière, a staircase full with crafters leading to the upper town.

A little further away an ochre building made of stone and bricks catches our attention. It is the State Palace of Ambohitsorohitra, designed by Jully in 1890 in a Renassaince style. This imposing building lodged in the past the French embassy and it accommodates at the present the offices of the presidency.

  • Other interesting places to visit

Lake Anosy, surrounded by shading jacaranda trees that flourish in November into a deep purple explosion, is a vestige of the marsh that once extended at the foot of the Analamanga hill. While James Cameron redesigned the contours of the water (currently heart-shaped), Radama installed a powder keg on the central island, which Jean Laborde substituted years after by a summer palace for king Ranavalona I. The pleasure pavilions have been thereafter replaced by a monument called the "black" Angel, created by Barberis and decorated by Perrin (1927), which commemorates the Malagasy soldiers perished during World War I. 

To the west of the lake stretches the modern administrative neighbourhood of Ampefiloha.

In southeastern shore of the Anosy lake we find the two  sports complexes of Mahamasina. The most recent one, built by  Chinese, was inaugurated in 1997. The other one hosts for decades sporting events, concerts and political meetings. Initially, Radama I let the old rice fields been paved to allow field maneuvers for its troops here. The vast esplanade hosted the crowning ceremonies of Radama II and the Queen Ranavalona II and III. This is also the place where General de Gaulle restored the Malagasy sovereignty in 1958 and the president Tsiranana proclaimed independence in 1960. Mahamasina is also the district of the musicians, the place where new Indian ocean sounds are born.

Mouse lemur
Mouse lemur in Tsimbazaza Park
© Alfonso Gutiérrez
Tsimbazaza Park
Rue Fernand-Kasanga
Open from 10 am to 17 pm (closed on Mondays) 
Entrance: 6,000 Ar

This large and hilly park south west of the capital includes a zoo, with its arboretum, a museum of Paleontology and an ethnology museum. The visit of this complex is a good introduction before leaving to explore the different regions of the country. The botanical gardens are organized around a lake covered with water lilies with purple flowers and water hyacinths. The glasshouse in the northern part of the park is home to the most Malagasy ferns, such as the Cyathea (15 m high), as well as to endemic orchids and other spectacular flowers.

The zoologic parc called Pyguargue is dedicated above all to the native fauna. Lemurs (twenty-one of the thirty-five species and subspecies listed in Madagascar are represented), as well as a wide variety of birds and many reptiles are homed here.

The Museum of Paleontology hosts a fine collection of the Malagasy butterflies. The section of paleontology itself starts with the reconstruction of a dinosaur spine and an exhibition of fossilized bones from various parts of the country. It also exposes skeletons of subfossiles dating from the Quaternary period, including the pygmy hippopotamus and the aepyornis, giant bird of 3 m high which could weigh up to 500 kg.

The Museum of Ethnology introduces the Malagasy culture through items of daily use: mats and hats, mortars made of wood or stone used to crush rice, traditional amulets and necklaces, protective spell beads, bracelets of invincibility. A complete section is devoted to explain the complex art of hairdressing. Woodcarving also deserves special mention as it is a highly symbolic art

Guided city tours

The first place any visitor should call at should be the local tourist information (“La Maison du Tourisme de Madagascar”) in Antaninarenina, close to the Colbert Hotel. They sell here a short but very worthy little guide called “Cheminements touristiques et Culturels d’Antananarivo” featuring seven possible walks in Tana (from 1 hour to a half a day tour).

A recommended tour operator is

Tany Mena Tours 
Immeuble Rarihasina, Analakely - BP 443
101 Antananarivo 
Tél: + 261 20 22 326 27 / Fax: 20 22 312 21
Web: www.tanymenatours.com
This agency organises walks and day trips led by historians and anthropologists some of them are English-speaking. Contact them to enquire prices.