With no fewer than nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Ethiopia is steeped in culture. Head to pilgrimage cities like Lalibela and Aksum to learn about Ethiopian Orthodox Christian customs, or venture into the deep South to discover the unchanged tribes of the Omo River region. Bustling capital Addis Ababa also offers its fair share of modern culture. For nature lovers, the wildlife-filled Simien and Bale Mountains are the top attraction; while adventure-seekers will be unable to resist the pull of the extraordinary Danakil Depression, the hottest place on Earth. Whatever your reasons for traveling, you’ll find what you’re looking for and more in Ethiopia.
Explore the Ethiopian Capital, Addis Ababa
Centrally located Addis Ababa may not be a particularly beautiful capital, but it’s still worth at least a few days’ exploration. In addition to being Ethiopia’s cultural and commercial center, it’s also an important diplomatic and air travel hub for the wider African continent. There’s plenty to explore, with highlights including the National Museum (with its casts of world-famous hominid skeleton Lucy) and the Ethnological Museum (with its incredible collection of religious icons). Addis is also the best place in the country to sample Ethiopian cuisine. Yod Abyssinia Traditional Restaurant and Kategna Restaurant are two of the best-rated options.
Marvel at Medieval Rock-Cut Churches in Lalibela
Located in the Amhara Region of northern Ethiopia, Lalibela is a UNESCO World Heritage Site famed for its monolithic churches, which were carved out of living rock during the 12th century. According to legend, the churches were commissioned by King Lalibela and intended as a symbolic representation of Jerusalem. They became an alternative place of pilgrimage for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians after Muslim conquests prevented pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Of the 11 churches, Biete Medhani Alem is believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world.
Attend the Timkat Festival in Gondar
Gondar, the former capital of the Ethiopian Empire, is famous for its medieval castles and palaces. The best time to travel is during Timkat, a three-day celebration of the Epiphany, or baptism of Christ. During the festival, the tabot (a replica of the Ark of the Covenant) is carried from each of Gondar’s churches to the royal pool known as Fasiladas’ Bath. The processions are accompanied by thousands of white-robed pilgrims. When they reach the pool, a candlelit vigil is held. The next morning, the water is blessed and hundreds of the faithful leap in to renew their baptism vows. Timkat is celebrated every year from Jan. 18 to 20.
Uncover the Legends and Mysteries of Aksum
In the far north of the country lies Aksum, the capital of the Aksumite Empire and another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since the conversion of Emperor Ezana in the 4th century, Aksum has been an important place of pilgrimage and is the focus of several Christian legends. Amongst them is the claim that the Queen of Sheba once lived here, and that King Bazen (whose monolithic tomb is a local point of interest) was one of the Three Wise Men. The most famous rumor of all is that the Ark of the Covenant is contained within the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion—although no one is permitted to see it.
Feed Hyenas in Harar Jugol, Islam’s Fourth Holiest City
UNESCO-recognized Harar Jugol is a labyrinthine walled city in eastern Ethiopia. It’s labeled as Islam’s fourth holiest city—so it’s not surprising that its maze-like streets include no fewer than 82 mosques and 102 shrines, some of which date back to the 10th century. With its narrow alleyways, African/Islamic architecture and bustling souks, Harar Jugol is reminiscent of Moroccan imperial cities like Marrakech or Fez. One unexpected attraction makes the city unique, however. Every night, spotted hyenas venture into the city’s outskirts to be fed by a designated Hyena Man. This is an age-old tradition that tourists can also take part in.
Visit the Blue Nile Falls During the Wet Season
From Bahir Dar in northwest Ethiopia, it’s an easy day trip to the Blue Nile Falls – one of the country’s top natural wonders. Known as Tis Abay (the Great Smoke), its sees the Blue Nile plunge over a 138-foot (42-meter) precipice en route from Lake Tana to its confluence with the White Nile in Khartoum. Historically the falls measured some 1,300 feet (400 meters) in width; however, hydroelectric projects have affected the flow so that it is only really impressive at the end of the rainy season in August and September. You can view the spectacle on two different hiking routes and admission costs 50 birr per adult.
Tour Lake Tana’s Historic Orthodox Monasteries
Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, is the largest lake in Ethiopia and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. For most visitors, the main attraction is the Ethiopian Orthodox churches and monasteries that can be found on its shores and islands. Some date back as far as the 13th century and all are repositories for religious treasures, from ancient manuscripts to icons and ceremonial artifacts. One of the most sacred, Dega Estefanos, houses a 16th-century painting of the Madonna and the mummified remains of five Ethiopian emperors. Another, Ura Kidane Mihret, is famous for its beautiful frescoes. Local tours depart from Bahir Dar.
Take a Multi-Day Trek Through the Simien Mountains
Simien Mountains National Park has one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world. Expect jaw-dropping panoramas made up of verdant valleys, sheer cliffs and dizzying peaks (including the highest in Ethiopia). The best way to explore is on a multi-day trek. The longest route covers 96 miles (155 kilometers) and takes a minimum of 11 days. The most popular takes four days, departs from Buyit Ras and ends in Chenek, with stops at the majestic Jinbak Waterfall and Imet Gogo lookout. Check out Tesfa Tours for guided itineraries and keep an eye out for rare walia ibex and gelada monkeys as you go.
Look for Rare Ethiopian Wolves in Bale Mountains National Park
Although Ethiopian wolves can be found in Simien Mountains National Park, the best place to see Africa’s most endangered carnivore is in southern Bale Mountains National Park. There are approximately 400 of these coyote-sized wolves left in the wild—and more than half of them live in the Bale Mountains. In particular, the Sanetti Plateau is famous for its wolf sightings. If you are lucky enough to spot one, you will be able to identify it easily by its slender build and russet fur. The endemic mountain nyala antelope is another top spot, while birders have the opportunity to look for more than 300 bird species.
Get an Insight into Tribal Life on the Omo River
The Omo River flows from Ethiopia’s central highlands southwards across the Kenyan border. In the far south, tribal communities are cut off from the rest of the country by their extreme remoteness and the fact that dirt access roads are often impassable during the rainy season. Because of this, their customs and traditions remain largely unchanged. Young men still settle conflicts with vigilante justice, villages depend on cattle and crops for survival and women still modify their faces and bodies with scarification and lip plates. Independent travel to this untamed area of Ethiopia is almost impossible. Omo Valley Tours offers local-led expeditions.
Admire the Alien Landscapes of the Danakil Depression
Near the Eritrean border lies the Danakil Depression, the hottest place on Earth in terms of year-round average temperatures. At over 330 feet (100 meters) below sea level, it’s also one of the lowest. The landscapes here are characterized by active volcanoes, colorful salt lakes and bubbling sulphur springs—making it inhospitable, otherworldly, and also starkly beautiful. Erta Ale volcano is a top attraction thanks to its permanent and very rare molten lava lake. At Dallol and Lake Assal, you can see salt being mined using traditional methods and transported by camel caravans across the country. 4x4 tours are the only way to explore the area.
Sample Traditional Ethiopian Cuisine
Wherever your Ethiopian adventure takes you, sampling the uniquely delicious local cuisine is likely to be a highlight of your trip. Expect plenty of spice and an entirely new way of eating, as you ditch the cutlery and gather around communal dishes served on a bed of injera. This spongy, pancake-like bread is an Ethiopian staple, and you’ll use torn-off pieces to scoop up piles of fragrant stew and transfer them to your mouth using your fingers. Although meat dishes like tibs (pan-fried, sliced beef or lamb) and kitfo (raw minced beef) are popular, Ethiopian cuisine also includes plenty of vegan options in accordance with Orthodox fasting rules.