• Travel
  • Volunteer and Adventure

Discovering the Capital of Madagascar

Article by GVI


Posted: March 16, 2023

Antananarivo is the capital of, and largest city in, the beautiful island nation of Madagascar. Located in the eastern portion of the country, Antananarivo has a population of almost 1.7 million and serves as an important political, economic, cultural and educational centre. The city is affectionately known by locals as Tana, and has had a long and rich history which is reflected in its many attractions. Read on to learn more about what you can expect from your visit to the captivating capital of Madagascar.

History and Background

Antananarivo has a rich and complex history that dates back centuries. The Merina kingdom, a dominant ethnic group in Madagascar, established the city as their capital in the 17th century. Under the Merina rule, Antananarivo flourished as a centre of trade, agriculture, and crafts. The Merina built many impressive structures, including the Rova of Antananarivo, which served as the royal palace and was a symbol of their power and wealth.

In the 19th century, Antananarivo became an important Sultanate and was influenced by various cultures, including Arabian, Indian and European. During this time, the city developed a unique blend of cultural influences that is still visible today in its architecture, food, and customs.

The French colonised Madagascar in 1895 and established Antananarivo as the capital of the French colony. The French influence is still evident in many parts of the city, including the French-style buildings and the wide boulevards that were constructed during the colonial era.

Madagascar gained independence from France in 1960, and Antananarivo became the capital of the newly-formed independent state. Today, Antananarivo is a bustling city that serves as the economic and cultural centre of Madagascar, with many historical sites that document its fascinating past.

Languages spoken

Antananarivo is infused with rich culture and customs that have evolved over centuries and this can be seen in its cuisine, religion, music and language. While most Malagasy people speak both Malagasy (the official language) and French (the language taught most in schools), English is also widely understood. 


Tana is home to many sights and landmarks perfect for exploring. One of the most impressive is the Rova of Antananarivo, a former palace of the Merina people which sits atop a hill in the city centre. It is now a national monument that houses a number of interesting artefacts. Other attractions in the area include Andasibe-Mantadia National Park with its vast rainforests, Avenue of the Baobabs with its mesmerising tree-lined streets, and Ambohimanga Hill with its fascinating culture.
Antananarivo is a great destination for outdoor enthusiasts with a range of activities to choose from. Hiking is a popular option with the city surrounded by lush hills and valleys that offer stunning views of the surrounding landscapes. There are many trails in and around the city, such as the trail to Ambohimanga Hill, which provides a glimpse into the rich history of the Merina people.

Mountain biking is another popular outdoor activity in Antananarivo, with a range of challenging routes available for adventurous riders. Local tour operators offer guided tours that take you through scenic trails and local communities, providing an immersive experience of the local culture.

Bird watching is a unique experience in Antananarivo, with over 100 species of birds to spot in the city and its surroundings. The Andasibe-Mantadia National Park is a great spot for bird watching with the chance to spot a wide variety of species, including the Madagascar pitta, blue coua and red-fronted coua.

Rice paddy field scenery near Antananarivo, Antananarivo Province, Eastern Madagascar


Getting around Antananarivo is relatively easy, but it’s important to be aware of the traffic and road conditions. Taxis and tuk-tuks are widely available, and they are a popular and inexpensive way to travel around the city. 

Another option is to use public transportation, such as buses and minivans, which are affordable but can be crowded and uncomfortable. Walking is also a great way to explore the city, especially in the historic areas where many attractions are located. However, it’s important to be aware of your surroundings and avoid walking alone at night.

What to Eat

Antananarivo is a food lover’s paradise with a vibrant culinary scene that reflects the city’s diverse cultural influences. One of the must-try dishes in Antananarivo is romazava, a hearty beef stew made with various local greens, tomatoes, and garlic. Another popular dish is ravitoto, a flavorful pork stew cooked with cassava leaves and served with rice. 

Street food is also a big part of the local food culture, with vendors selling grilled meats and fried snacks – like mofo baolina, which are delicious fried balls of dough typically filled with ground meat or vegetables. 

To satisfy your sweet tooth, try koba, a sticky rice cake filled with peanuts, coconut, and honey. Finally, don’t leave Antananarivo without trying the local rum, which is often served with fresh lime and sugar. 

Safety Tips

Travelling to a new country can be intimidating at times but taking a few simple precautions can ensure that your visit runs smoothly. It is important to be aware that there are areas of Antananarivo that are considered unsafe so it is best to stick to the tourist areas and always keep your belongings close by or locked away securely in a safe when not using them. Finally, it is wise to always research the local culture before visiting a new country, so you understand what is acceptable behaviour.

One example of a custom in Madagascar that tourists should be aware of is the tradition of “fady,” which are taboos or restrictions that are enforced in certain communities. These taboos can relate to a wide range of things, from food and clothing to behaviour and actions. For example, it may be taboo to eat certain types of meat or to enter certain areas of a village without permission. It’s important to ask locals or tour guides about any fady in the area you’re visiting and to respect them accordingly. Additionally, it’s important to dress modestly when visiting religious sites or attending cultural events, and to remove your shoes before entering someone’s home or a sacred space.

If you’re interested in more than just tourism and want to make a difference during your visit, consider joining GVI’s volunteering programs in Madagascar. GVI offers a range of volunteer opportunities in the country, from teaching English to conserving the unique biodiversity of Madagascar’s forests. Not only will you have a meaningful experience, but you’ll also have the chance to experience the full beauty of Madagascar and its people.

what’s up next?
Raja Ampat: Indonesia’s Diving Paradise

Discover Raja Ampat, Indonesia's diving paradise in the Coral Triangle. Explore rich marine life, pristine waters and unique dive sites like Misool and Cape Kri.

You might also like these articles

Adaptations of Desert Wildlife in the Namib
Read the article
Wildlife Conservation
Los Brasiles: Nicaragua’s Best-Kept Secret
Read the article
Volunteer and Adventure
From Gaudí to Picasso: Barcelona’s Artistic Icons
Read the article
Volunteer and Adventure
Discover the Magic of South Africa’s Whale Coast
Read the article
Volunteer and Adventure
Exploring the Marine Life Around Naifaru Island
Read the article
Volunteer and Adventure
Taste the Tropics: A Food Lover’s Guide to Bocas del Toro
Read the article
Volunteer and Adventure
Nepal’s Traditional Food: A Culinary Journey through the Himalayas
Read the article
Discovering the Best Beach Towns of Costa Rica: A Guide to Surf, Sand, and Sun
Read the article
Bioluminescence in Costa Rica: A Natural Wonder to Behold
Read the article