From afar, Madagascar’s capital city resembles a lovely Mediterranean town nestled in the undulating landscape, its red clay houses and imposing churches clustered idyllically along its 12 sacred hills. Once inside, however, the bustling and sometimes chaotic atmosphere of the country’s largest metropolis brandishes itself with an endless sea of vehicles and people flooding the streets and stalls set up on each corner, spilling out onto the thoroughfare to sell any merchandise conceivable, live or manufactured. With its brightly colored crowds, lively commercialism, and colonial architecture, Antananarivo—affectionately known as “Tana” to the locals—serves as the economic and cultural heart of Madagascar and provides an eccentric yet representative first taste of the unique experience ahead throughout the rest of the country.

Founded in the 17th century by King Andrianjaka, Antananarivo was the capital of the Hova chiefs until the Imerina kings captured it in 1794. Their century-long dominion is best witnessed in the many palaces freckling the hillside, the Ambohimanga Palace being the most popular and prestigious. Tana is also famous for its “zoma” market, once considered the largest market in the world. Today, the market is split up into multiple smaller arcades around the city, but an entire day is still not long enough to discover their many marvels, semi-precious stones, leather bags, wood carvings, woven items, and handmade embroideries among them.

Outside of Antananarivo, the commotion gives way to tranquil rice paddies and diverse national parks, many of which are within easy striking distance by car. One of the most visited destinations near the capital is Ansirabe, an agricultural and industrial epicenter attractive to locals and visitors alike for its beer production, pousse-pousse, and therapeutic thermal springs. Conceived in the late 1800s by Norwegian missionaries as a simple health retreat, the secret town eventually transformed into a chic spa getaway for wealthy French colonists needing an escape from Tana’s frenzy. These days, Ansirabe is an elegant city with first class hotels and a quality handicraft culture. It is also the pousse-pousse (rickshaw) capital of Madagascar—there is seemingly one for every person in Antananarivo so don’t be afraid to hop on board as you hunt for the perfect artisan find or soothing thermal soak.