Antananarivo Budget Travel

About Antananarivo, capital of Madagascar

Discover the lively and unique capital city of Madagascar, Antananarivo!

Also known as Tana, its French colonial shorthand name, Antananarivo is a cultural microcosm of Madagascar. Tana, like Madagascar itself, is an unusual blend of eastern, western and African influences. This uniquely Madagascan city is full of contrasts, featuring rice paddies and steep hills, as well as cobbled streets, churches, colonial buildings and old palaces.

Antananarivo, formerly Tananarive, is the largest city in Madagascar and serves as the country's administrative, communications, and commercial centre.

Where is Antananarivo located?

Antananarivo is located on a plateau in the middle of Madagascar island length-wise, and some 145 km (90 mi) from the east coast.

The city covers 12 steep hills along a narrow ridge, about 4 km (2 mi) long, from north to south. Tana is at an altitude of about 1275 m (4183 ft), rising above vast rice plantations to the west. The surrounding urban area of the city is called Antananarivo-Renivohitra, meaning "Antananarivo-Mother Hill" or "Antananarivo-Capital" and is the Analamanga Region's capital.

Tana lies west-southwest of Toamasina, the main seaport of Madagascar, and the two are connected by railway.

Things to Do in Antananarivo - Tana Attractions

Although the city has numerous restaurants, open-air markets, art galleries, coffee shops and historical sights, Antananarivo is not specifically geared towards tourists and features basic tourism infrastructure. Here are some of the attractions of the city:

  • Zoma (now Main) Market
  • Lemur Park
  • Ambohimanga Palace
  • Tsimbazaza Zoo
  • Museum of Art and Archaeology
  • Crocodile Farm
  • Madagascar Exotic Butterfly Farm
  • Queens Palace Ruins (Rova)
  • Prime Minister's Palace (Andafiavaratra)

There are also several bars and nightclubs in the city, but be sure to take taxis at night as walking is not safe.

Antananarivo Today

When visiting Madagascar most travellers arrive and depart from the capital, because it hosts the main international airport of the country.

Today the population of the city is over 1.4 million people, making it a busy and sometimes chaotic place where pollution can be a problem. In Antananarivo, industries include food production, tobacco, and textiles.

Antananarivo features numerous interesting sights including churches, a mosque, the zoo and lots of bustling markets, called Zomas. It is advisable to take a guided tour of the city, especially if you can't speak French, to avoid possible harassment and petty crime. There is considerable poverty in the city, as well as neglected infrastructure, in sharp contrast to the western style cafes, restaurants and modern shops.

The capital covers a rocky ridge of hills with steep stone steps connecting the various levels and leading to the central Independence Square.

Today the architecture of Antananarivo's buildings is a mix of new office blocks, old wooden houses and colonial French buildings.  

History of Antananarivo

For Southern Africa, Antananarivo is quite unique in terms of having become a major city before colonial rule.

The city was founded in its strategic hilltop location in the early 1600's by the revered King Andrianjaka. The name Antananarivo means "the City of a Thousand" referring to the 1000 soldiers apparently assigned to protect the city, during the reign of King Andrianjaka.

Antananarivo was the major village of the Hova chiefs for many years, growing steadily in size.

In 1793 Antananarivo became the capital of the Merina kings, making it capital of nearly the entire island of Madagascar. The royal residence of the monarchs was soon established at the Rova of Antananarivo.

The buildings in the city itself were built out of wood or rushes in traditional Malagasy architectural style until 1869, as well as featuring some relatively large timber palaces. The palaces are situated at the top of the middle part of the ridge, with the largest palace being the most conspicuous landmark in the city.

In the early 19th century stone and brick were introduced in the city, by British missionaries, including James Cameron. Since then, Antananarivo has been rebuilt incorporating numerous European styled buildings. These include the royal palaces, the former houses of the prime minister and nobles and the French residency, as well as the cathedrals and stone churches.

In 1895, the French took control of the city and built many new buildings and roads, expanding it considerably. In 1960 Madagascar gained independence from the French, after which the pace of growth increased rapidly.

When to go to Antananarivo

Antananarivo is known for its mild climate, despite its location in a tropical climatic zone given its high altitude - 1300 to 1400m (4265 to 4593 ft) above sea level.

The rainy season in Antananarivo is between November and April, when the city receives nearly all of its yearly rainfall - 1400 mm (55.1 in).

In the dry season (between May and October) the days are generally mild and sunny, and the nights are chilly to cold.

The city is classified as having a subtropical highland climate with temperate conditions. Daily and monthly temperature variations are relatively small in Tana, ranging from 22.2 °C (72.0 °F) mean to 15.3 °C (59.5 °F). Antananarivo rarely sees frost, but in more elevated parts of Madagascar frost is more common.

Antananarivo City Areas

Antananarivo is split into three levels linked by steep stone stairways crawling with pedestrians. 

The first level is where downtown, an ancient swamp, is located and the middle level, an administrative and business area known as “Plateau du Colbert” is next.

The upper level is where old town, “La Haute Ville”, is located.  The upper town level features traditional red-earth brick houses, old churches and several palaces (Queen's palace, ancient Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony palace, ancient Justice palace). This residential area is largely inhabited by historically noble families and is tranquil in comparison to downtown Tana. The upper level offers lovely views over the city and surrounding paddies below.

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Google Map of Antananarivo

Use the Google map to explore Antananarivo. Feel free to Print the Street Map when you're ready.

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