Addis Ababa

Addis Ababa

Sprawling across the southern slopes of the Entoto Hills, Addis Ababa (pop: constantly growing but estimated at 5 million), is Africa’s 4th largest city and its diplomatic center. For many visitors, the capital is the gateway to an ancient and mystical world of one of the world’s oldest Christian nations.

Before departing on the Historic Route of Ethiopia to explore the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela or giant stelae of Axum, it is well-worth spending a day or two in Addis Ababa exploring cultural highlights like the National and Ethnological museums as well as the many churches scattered across the city. The bustling capital is also the best place to experience the famously delicious Ethiopian cuisine and unparalleled coffee culture.

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The Historic Route

The Historic Route

Many who experience Ethiopia for the first time do so along the well-trodden Historic Route. This fascinating tour highlights the ancient history, culture and natural resources of the country and takes the traveler back in time to explore the spectacular castles of Gondar, the ancient ruins of Axum, the architectural wonders of Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches, the island monasteries of Lake Tana and the imposing vistas of the beautiful Simien Mountain range. 

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Gondar

Gondar

Gondar is a highlight not to be missed on your journey along the Historic Route. Nestled in the foothills of Simien National Park, the royal and ancient historical city of Gondar was once the seat of Ethiopian emperors. The numerous castles and palaces that remain within the walls of the Royal Enclosure (also known as Fasil Ghebbi) are a testament to the royal capital’s former splendor. This 70,000-sq meter UNESCO World Heritage site is easily accessible for visitors and a wonderful place to navigate on foot.

A popular stop along the way is Fasiledes' Palace, which is the oldest and arguably the most impressive building in the Royal Enclosure. With its domed towers the castle seems to have jumped straight off the pages of a fairytale.

Another well-visited site in Gondar is the large rectangular pool known as Fasiledes' Bath, where religious ceremonies still take place today. Once a year, during the Timkat festival, the pool is filled with blessed water and devotees are invited to swim and frolic in the pool in a ceremonial replication of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River.

Finally, one of Ethiopia’s most beautiful churches, Debre Berhan Selassie, with its painted ceilings, is also a must-see.

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Lalibela

Lalibela

Steeped in history and ancient Christianity the iconic monolithic rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are an architectural wonder. Situated in the mountainous region in northern Ethiopia are eleven churches that have been meticulously carved out of rock, some from the top down like subterranean monoliths, and others chiseled into cliff faces.

The most iconic and visually stunning of the churches is Bet Giyorgis. The 15-meter high structure is carved out of rock, excavated externally and internally into the shape of a Greek cross. It is worth visiting Bet Giyorgis several times, once in the early morning to witness mass being carried out, and once at sunset.

Scholars date the churches back to King Lalibela’s reign (1181-1221) and today it is one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities, attracting pilgrims of the Ethiopian Orthodox faith. It was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978.

The most exciting time to visit Lalibela is during one of the annual festivals. Spending a night vigil during one of the big religious festivals like Ledet (Ethiopian Christmas) or Timkat (Epiphany), watching hundreds of white-robed pilgrims proceed in and out of the churches is a remarkable sight.

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Axum

Axum

The ruins of the ancient city of Axum, near the country’s northern border, are a testament to the city’s former historical and political significance. Lying in the heart of ancient Ethiopia, the ruins are remnants of a time when the Kingdom of Axum was one of the most powerful empires in the world, equal to Rome and Persia.

The site, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980, is a treasure trove for those who truly appreciate archeology. The remaining ruins, which date from between the 1st and 13th century A.D., include enormous stelae, monolithic obelisks, royal tombs, monasteries and the ruins of ancient palaces.

Axum is also famous for being the last resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, which according to legend was given to Queen Sheba by King Solomon. For followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox faith, Axum is thus regarded as the holiest city in the country and every year thousands of devotees will make a pilgrimage to see this sacred artifact.

For foreign visitors, the main attraction is the giant stelae which were erected by the Aksumite in the pre-Christian times, presumably for religious purposes. One of these granite structures, the Great Stelae, is the biggest monolith in the world, measuring over 33 meters. It fell over sometime in the 4th century and remains in pieces on the ground.

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Bahir Dar

Bahir Dar

Located on the southern shore of Lake Tana, the city of Bahir Dar is a popular tourist destination in Ethiopia and the starting point of several points of interest in the area, like the famous island monasteries and the Blue Nile falls.

The scenic lake, the palm-tree-lined streets and the favorable climate makes it a popular destination for domestic tourists who describe it as the Ethiopian Riviera.

While in Bahir Dar, join the bustle of the lively markets showcasing colorful woven cloth, beautifully crafted baskets and delicious coffee. There are also a variety of handicraft and weaving centers that are well-worth the visit.

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Lake Tana

Lake Tana

Lake Tana forms the main reservoir for the Blue Nile river and is the largest lake in Ethiopia. Hiring a boat from Bahir Dar, on the southern side of the lake, visitors can take a scenic trip to see the dramatic Blue Nile falls and visit some of the thirty-seven islands scattered across the lake. Twenty of these are home to churches and monasteries dating back to the 14th century, many of which are decorated with beautiful paintings and house historically and culturally significant treasures.

Kebran Gabriel, for instance, is well known for its library of almost 200 old books, and Daga Istafanos is the resting place of the mummified remains of five former emperors of Ethiopia, Fasiledes, the founder of Gondar, being one of them.

Surrounded by a forest of coffee trees, Ura Kidane Mehret with its magnificent frescos is regarded as the most beautiful of the churches. It is located on Zegge Peninsula, a one-hour boat ride from Bahir Dar.

In some of these monasteries, women are not allowed to enter. To avoid disappointment, it is best to familiarize oneself with the traditions and rules of the monasteries before visiting.

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Debark

Debark

Debark is a frontier town in northern Ethiopia along the highway between Gondar and Axum. It is best known for being a gateway to Simien Mountain National Park. With the park’s headquarters located in the town, it is the start of every trekking excursion. The town itself is rather charming with various street markets offering last minute supplies for trekkers heading up to the network of trails in the Simien mountain range.

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Simien Mountains

Simien Mountains

The Simien Mountain range is a rugged and remote chain of mountains stretching across northern Ethiopia. Home to Ethiopia’s tallest mountain, Ras Dashen (4,543 meters), the region is known for its unique and spectacularly wild landscape with breathtaking views of deep ravines and gorges, soaring rock spires and lush plateaus populated with wild flowers.

The high-altitude landscapes are home to exotic wildlife unique to the area, such as the ibex species, the Gelada baboon, several birds of prey and the extremely rare Ethiopian wolf, which has an estimated population of 50 in the Simien Mountains (out of 400 in the entire country). The rareness of the species residing in the Simien Mountains led to the formation of the National Park and its listing as a World Heritage site in 1978.

The best way to explore the rich and diverse flora of the Simien Mountains, and spotting its wildlife, is by foot. Plodding along steep valley trails and up towering peaks makes for a memorable, yet challenging adventure.

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Mekele

Mekele

The university city of Mekele is the capital of Tigray, the northern most region in Ethiopia. The city owes its significance to once having been the country’s capital under the reign of emperor Yohannes IV. Today Mekele is a starting point for tours to the Danakil Depression and excursions to the many rock-hewn churches dotted along the high-desert landscape of northern Tigray.

Among the sites to see in the city itself is the stone palace which was once inhabited by emperor Yohannes IV. It has since been converted to an interesting museum.

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Gheralta Mountains

Gheralta Mountains

Raising from the Hawzien plains in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia are the sheer cliffs and vertical spires of the Gheralta Mountains. Perched high and hidden in the folds of these stunning mountains are some of the country’s least visited rock-hewn cave churches, some of which are over 1,000 years old.

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Danakil Depression

Danakil Depression

The Sun scorches the cracked earth, a wavering mirage confuses the eye, and dry air and dust suck the moisture from your mouth and eyes. Ethiopia's Danakil Depression is one of the hottest, driest and lowest places on the planet. The area is located in the Afar Region of north-east Ethiopia near the border with Eritrea. 

The Danakil Depression is the northern part of the Afar Triangle, a geological depression caused by the Afar Triple Junction: a place where three tectonic plates join.

Walking around the area you feel like you are on another planet. There are volcanoes with bubbling lava lakes, multi-coloured hydrothermal fields, and great salt pans that dazzle the eyes. 

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Debre Damo

Debre Damo

The old adage that it is the journey and not the destination that matters certainly holds true for Debre Damo. Set on a flat-topped mountain in northern Ethiopia at an elevation of 2,216 meters, is a monastery dating from the 6th century. The only way to reach the site is by climbing a 15-metre rock face with the aid of a leather rope that has been lowered down from the top by a helpful monk.

Having made that rather arduous ascent visitors are rewarded with panoramic views of the Tigray highlands and an opportunity to explore the monastery and its famous treasures, among them a collection of some of the country’s oldest illuminated manuscripts.

Debre Damo is known for being the home of the earliest existing church building in Ethiopia that is still in its original style, dating back to the 10th or 11th century. Thanks to extensive restorations during the mid 20th century the church is in good condition while retaining its ancient character. Don’t miss the beams and ceiling inside the church which have been decorated with carved wooden panels depicting Ethiopian wild animals.

The mountain and its formidable cliffs are unfortunately off limits for the entire female species. Not even female animals are allowed on the mountain and the climbing rope is made of ox-leather rather than cow!

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Harar

Harar

One of the most memorable sites in Eastern Ethiopia is the world heritage-listed city of Harar. Settled by Arabian immigrants in the 10th century, Harar grew into an important trading center connecting Africa, India and the Middle East. In contrast to a predominantly orthodox Christian nation, Harar is thought to be one of the oldest Islamic cities in East Africa and a gateway to the spread of Islam to the Horn. Over the centuries the city has managed to retain its traditions and Muslim cultural heritage.

The best way to explore the city is by getting lost in the 368 narrow alleyways that make up Harar. In this 1 square kilometer colorful maze visitors can explore lively markets and historic buildings. The highlight of the city is the old walled town known as Jugal. Surrounded by a 5-metre-high wall the ancient city is home to mosques, over 100 shrines and tombs and around 2000 traditional houses, painted in different colors. As the sun sets, head over to the city walls to witness Harar’s most curious tradition: the ritual feeding of hyenas!

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Awash National Park

Awash National Park

Owing to its proximity to Addis Ababa (half-day drive), the Awash National Park is one of the most visited parks in Ethiopia. The park spans 765 square kilometers of acacia woodlands, grassland and volcanic landscapes.

Its location on a major north-southern migratory route has resulted in an abundant birdlife. More than 460 species are known to have been recorded, among them the extremely rare yellow-throated seedeater and somber rock chat, both found only in and near Awash.

The plains to the south are excellent for viewing larger fauna. Soemmering’s gazelles and oryx frequent the grassy plains while waterbucks and baboons can be seen in the bushy river areas. Lions, leopards, caracals, servals and wildcats are known to reside in the park but tend to be elusive to the visitors’ eyes.

Further south, the Awash River gorge displays dramatic waterfalls. In the far north of the park, nestled amid groves of palm trees, lie the Filwoha Hot Springs. Visitors can take a dip in the turquois pools with temperatures reaching as high as 45 °C. Toward the west, the main feature of the park, the dormant volcano Fantale (2007 meters), makes for an amazing trek.

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Omo Valley

Omo Valley

The Lower Omo Valley, located in south-western Ethiopia, is a truly unique part of the world known for its diverse ecosystems and rich tribal culture. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its geological significance, a drive through this region will be one of changing beauty, from dry, open savannah plains and grasslands to volcanic outcrops and highland forests. 

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Tribes

Tribes

The Omo Valley is an anthropologists dream destination. Scattered around Africa’s Great Rift Valley, in one of the most isolated and inhospitable regions in Ethiopia, are some of the last real tribes in Africa. For centuries the indigenous tribes (roughly 200,000 peoples in total) lived lives completely cut off from modern society, surviving off the land according to age-old traditions and customs. In recent time, however, development and modernity has slowly found its way south and there is now a web of asphalted roads connecting previously isolated villages and warriors are increasingly trading in their spears for mobile phones.

For a while longer though, a trip to this southern region of Ethiopia will give a fascinating glimpse into the rich cultural heritage and tribal traditions of the peoples of Omo Valley, from ceremonial rites of passage like the Hamer’s bull jumping ceremony, to the Karo’s stunning body adornment practices.

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Lake Langano

Lake Langano

Lake Langano is one of a series of crater lakes scattered along the Ethiopian Rift Valley. Its proximity to the capital (200 kilometers south of Addis and a 3-hour drive) and the many holiday resorts dotted around the lake has made it a popular destination with tourists and a weekend retreat for urbanites.

Owing to its bilharzia free status, swimming and water sports is a popular pastime on the lake. The mineral rich soil at the bottom of the lake has given Langano its characteristic copper color and fueled a belief that the water has special healing properties.

The serene podocarpus and fig tree forests of Langano nature reserve spans the eastern shore of the lake and provides a lush shelter to monkeys, baboons, warthogs and a variety of birds who dwell there. The area can easily be explored by foot or on horseback.

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Hawassa

Hawassa

Idyllically situated on the eastern shore of lake Hawassa, the smallest of the Great Rift Valley crater lakes, lies the city of the same name. While the city of Hawassa boasts no major sights of its own, the city attracts city dwellers keen to swap concrete jungles for scenic lake views, lush hilly backdrops and modern resorts.

Visitors enjoy strolling or cycling along the lakeshore paths, visiting the lively fish market or sampling the daily catch of tilapia from the many rustic restaurants along the lake. The lake is easily accessible by boat and bird watching excursions can be arrange as well as trips out to see the hippos at Black Water (Tikur Wuha).

The gold domed St Gabriel Church is especially interesting to explore during one of the festivals; Timkat (January 19), Meskel (September 27) or the Feast of Gabriel (July 27 and December 27) when the space is dominated by lively processions.

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Yirga Alem

Yirga Alem

One hour drive south of Hawassa, amidst forested hills of wild coffee trees and enset plantations, lies the town Yirga Alem. While the town itself is rather undistinguished, it is known by travelers as offering one of the best accommodation options in the country – Aregash Lodge. The lodge provides a comfortable base for travelers on the southern circuit en route to the Yabelo Wildlife Sanctuary and the imposing Bale mountains to the west.

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Bale Mountains

Bale Mountains

For trekkers, nature enthusiasts and bird and wildlife watchers, the Bale Mountains National Park (2,200 square kilometers) is a hidden treasure. Few visitors make it to the remote Bale mountain range, relative to the more accessible Simien Mountains in the north. Those who do embark on the 6-hour drive from Addis Ababa are rewarded with rugged landscapes complete with alpine lakes, deep gorges, plunging waterfalls, dense and damp forests and arid wind-swept plateaus.

The main draw of the park is the abundant wildlife with 300 species of bird and 78 known mammal species, including the endemic Nyala antelopes, Menelik bushbucks and the Ethiopian wolf which is the world’s rarest canid. Despites its rarity visitors are almost always guaranteed a sighting.

The most popular way of exploring Bale Mountains National Park is by foot. There are plenty of trekking opportunities in the park ranging from one to seven days and the trails are not too demanding, following well-trodden paths at altitude ranges between 2,800-4,300 meters, with frequent sighting of bird and wildlife.

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Wondo Genet

Wondo Genet

Once a recreational get-away for the royal family, the resort town of Wondo Genet is best known for its hot springs and surrounding lush forests. The name Wondo Genet aptly translates to Green Heaven, in reference to the rich woodlands, wildlife, birdlife and water sources in the area.

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Dinsho

Dinsho

The rural village of Dinsho in south-central Ethiopia is the gateway for excursions to Bale Mountains National Park with the park headquarters located in the town.

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Arba Minch

Arba Minch

Bordered by the lush mountains of the Great Rift Valley and home to two of Ethiopia’s largest Rift Valley lakes, Arba Minch is a lovely stop on the southern circuit. The university town is known for its abundance of tropical fruits, excellent fish market and for being the gateway to Nechisar National Park. The park spans the narrow and mountainous stretch of land (referred to as “the Bridge of God”) that separates Lake Chamo in the south from lake Abaya in the north. The park is ranked as one of the most scenic in East Africa, notable for its diverse terrestrial habitats ranging from open savannah and acacia woodland to thick bush and shoreline forests.

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Lake Chamo

Lake Chamo

Lake Chamo is located in the mountainous and verdant landscapes of Ethiopia’s Rift Valley, just south of Lake Abaya and the city of Arba Minch. The lake’s northern shores lie in Nechisar National Park contributing to the stunning panoramic views of open savannah plains and soaring mountain ranges.

Besides wildlife like catfish, Nile perch and some hippos, the main showstopper at Chamo Lake is the large population of Nile Crocodiles. Visitors can get a close look at these impressive reptiles (some measure over 6 meters long!) on a boat trip (2-3 hours) to Crocodile Market, a stretch of sand where the crocodiles like to bask in the warm sun.

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Yabelo

Yabelo

The small town of Yabelo in southern Ethiopia is the capital of the Borana people. Travelers rarely visit the town itself but use it as a base for excursions to Borana National Park - Yabelo Wildlife Sanctuary. Originally created to protect Ethiopia’s endemic Swayne’s hartebeest, the 2,496 square kilometer wildlife sanctuary now draws keen birders hoping to catch a glimpse of the rare Stresemann’s bushcrow and white-tailed swallow, both endemic to the country and only to be found within a few kilometer radius of Yabelo. 

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Shashemene

Shashemene

In a crossroads town in southern Ethiopia, deep in the stunning Rift Valley, lies a little slice of Jamaica. Here dreadlocked Rastafarian repatriates have created a spiritual community on land that was granted by the last emperor of Ethiopia in 1948. Today it is a place of pilgrimage for Rastafarians from far and wide who regard it as the Rastafari capital of Africa. For visitors interested in the Rastafarian culture, Shashemene is a convenient stop on the road south between Langano Lake to Hawassa.

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Key Afer

Key Afer

Key Afer is a fairly modern village situated on top of a mountain plateau on the Konso-Jinka road. It is famous for having one of the best weekly markets in the area running every Thursday. The colorful market attracts neighboring tribes like the Banna and Tsemay who sell tribe jewelry, skins and beautifully decorated gourds. While browsing the different craft stalls visitors can observe the unique headdresses, body paint and traditional dress of the local tribes.

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Turmi

Turmi

This market town in south-western Ethiopia is home to the Hamer tribe and well-known for its traditional dances and gravity defying Jumping of the Bulls ceremony. The weekly Monday market is attended by many of the Hamer villages in the region and attracts its fair share of transiting tourists. Turmi is a convenient base from which to arrange day trips to Omorate.

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Jinka

Jinka

Located in the hills near Mago National Park is Jinka, the biggest town in the region and well-known for its lively Saturday markets attracting various tribes like the Ari, Banna and Mursi. Besides being a convenient base for visiting the Mursi villages, the town also houses an Ethnographic Museum with an interesting exhibition on the various cultures and ways of life of the people living in and around Omo Valley. Combine a visit to the museum with an afternoon walk through the village to observe the daily life of the Ari people who live there.

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Omorate

Omorate

The small town of Omorate sits on the eastern banks of Omo River, near the border to Kenya. The highlight of the town is visiting the Dassanech villages located just across the river and accessed by dug-out canoes. The town has been described as one of the hottest and dustiest in the region, why many elect to visit in the mornings on a day trip out of Turmi (1 hour drive away).

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