Often incorrectly presumed by outsiders to be a tract of featureless desert, Ethiopia is in reality one of the wettest, most fertile and most beautiful countries in Africa. The "Land of 13 Months of Sunshine" is a profoundly underrated travel destination. This is a land of awe-inspiring beauty, cultural treasures, and a tapestry of ancient history. Here is our pick for the best things to do in Ethiopia.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide books - your essential guide for visiting the world.
1. Addis Ababa: Ethiopia's capital
Set at an elevation of 2355m in Ethiopia’s fertile central highlands, Addis Ababa is both the nation’s capital and its largest city. As the main point of arrival for international travellers, it’s also the hub from which the overwhelming majority of visitors explore the rest of the country, whether by road or air.
Fortunately, in most respects, visiting Addis Ababa is one of the best things to do in Ethiopia for an introduction to the country. The climate is agreeably temperate, hotels and restaurants are plentiful, and areas such as the Mercato and Piazza boast a compelling urban vibrancy. There are also enough worthwhile museums and other landmarks to keep new arrivals busy for a day or two.
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2. Local culture in South Omo
South Omo is a vast semi-arid region flanking the lower Omo River before it flows across the border into Kenya’s Lake Turkana. In contrast to the Christian and Islamic cultures of the highlands, this area is home to some of the continent’s most staunchly traditional animist ethnic groups.
The region is scattered with small villages and isolated family homesteads, but the focal point of community life is those larger villages that host weekly markets. Market days are when the villages are at their busiest and when locals tend to be least self-conscious in their dealings with outsiders, so try to tailor your itinerary around them.
3. The obelisks of Aksum
Aksum (also spelt Axum) stands at the epicentre of Ethiopian history. Most dedicated students of Ethiopian history regard this oldest and holiest of towns as the most rewarding stop along the northern historic circuit. However, many casual visitors may dismiss it as dull in comparison to Lalibela or Gondar.
Nonetheless, Aksum is studded with some extraordinary antiquities. Here you'll find the tallest stelae (obelisks) ever erected by the ancients and engraved trilingual tablets dating to the time of Christ. All of them can be hugely rewarding when approached with realistic expectations.
4. Simien Mountains National Park
Located 100km north of Gondar, the Simien Mountains form Africa's fifth-largest massif. This mountain range is home to over a dozen impressive peaks that surpass the 4000m mark. The most notable among them is Ras Dajen — at 4,500 meters tall, this summit is the tallest point in Ethiopia.
The western part of the range has been protected in the Simien Mountains National Park since 1969, and the entire massif was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
A trip here is also one of the best things to do in Ethiopia for trekking, partly due to its proximity to Gondar. It is best traversed by an all-weather road that leads east from the gateway village of Debark all the way through the national park to near the base of Ras Dejen.
5. Harar — UNESCO world heritage site
Flanked by the arid Rift Valley to the north and Somali badlands to the southeast, Ethiopia’s bountiful eastern highlands are famed for their production of high-quality coffee, khat and other foodstuffs. Historically, the region’s most important settlement is the Islamic citadel of Harar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Harar is also renowned for the architectural and cultural integrity of its walled old town, as well as the legendary “hyena men” who operate on its outskirts. Most travellers fly in or take a bus directly from Dire Dawa to Harar. However, those with private transport can break up the journey at Awash National Park, whose memorable volcanic landscapes are worth a visit.
6. The temples of Lalibela
The smallest of the three former capitals that form the nucleus of Ethiopia’s historic circuit, a visit to Lalibela is one of the best things to do in Ethiopia. Lalibela’s churches were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, and indisputably represent the apex of an Ethiopian temple excavating tradition.
The most remarkable thing about these churches is that they are not primarily museum pieces or archaeological sites, but living, breathing places of worship that have remained in active use since their excavation more than eight hundred years ago. Lalibela is also known for its Christmas celebrations.
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7. Rift Valley Lakes
The Great Rift Valley is the planet's largest terrestrial geographical feature. It stretches across 6000km from western Arabia to the Lower Zambezi region of Mozambique. The seven natural lakes that stud Ethiopia’s southern Rift Valley form prime birdwatching and chill-out territory.
About 15km south of Lake Ziway, rust-coloured Lake Langano is the most developed of Ethiopia’s Rift Valley lakes in touristic terms. This is largely because it is reputedly the only one without bilharzia, and thus claimed to be safe for swimming.
The lake’s shores are lined with more than half a dozen resorts. The majority of which are aimed primarily at a hedonistic Addis Ababa weekender crowd rather than at international visitors seeking a rustic getaway or a wildlife fix.
8. The old capital city of Gondar
The city of Gondar lies at a temperate elevation of around 2200m in the fertile hills that separate Lake Tana from the loftier Simien Mountains. This was the capital of Ethiopia for more than two centuries prior to the foundation of Addis Ababa. Significantly larger than either Aksum or Lalibela, it is often referred to as the “Camelot of Africa”, thanks to the impressive collection of European and Indian-influenced stone castles.
The central Fasil Ghebbi, or Royal Enclosure, which includes six such castles, is the city’s main focal point. Other important sites include the beautifully painted suburban church of Debre Birhan Selassie and the more remote, haunting Kuskuam complex, founded by the Empress Mentewab in 1730.
9. Blue Nile Falls or "Smoking Water"
Blue Nile Falls – known locally as Tis Isat (“Smoking Water”) – are one of Ethiopia’s most compelling natural phenomena. The falls consist of four separate streams that plunge up to 45m over a formation of solidified lava. Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s most famous waterfall has become a rather capricious phenomenon in recent years, thanks to the opening of a hydroelectric plant.
At times the cascade is reduced to a mere trickle, though between late July and early October – the height of the rainy season – the falls remain reliably spectacular. Even when the water is low, however, the hike to the falls makes for a pleasant excursion and can be particularly rewarding for birdwatchers.
10. Lake Tana — Ethiopia's largest body of water
Situated in the heart of the historic Amhara Region, Lake Tana is Ethiopia’s largest body of water, and the principal source of the Blue Nile. It's azure waters are fringed by lush tropical vegetation.
Serviced by the attractive lakeshore port of Bahir Dar, which also doubles as the regional capital, the lake is also an important tourist hub. A visit here is one of the best things to do in Ethiopia. Discover here rich birdlife, a wealth of historic island monasteries and the Blue Nile Falls.
11. A trip to Bale Mountains — one of the best things to do in Ethiopia for hikers
Extending across 2200 square kilometres of dramatic highlands, Bale Mountains National Park is one of the country’s most alluring destinations for hikers, wildlife enthusiasts and birdwatchers. It protects a variety of niche habitats. This includes afro-alpine moorland, afro-montane forest, and grassy highland meadows that explode into floral colour during the rainy season.
The park is an important watershed, and its upper slopes supported glacial activity until two thousand years ago and still receive the occasional snowfall. It’s also home to a remarkable 82 mammal species and the main stronghold of several endemics. This includes the Ethiopian wolf, mountain nyala and (rare) Bale monkey. Some 280 species of birds have been recorded here, including sixteen endemic to Ethiopia and Eritrea.
12. Danakil Depression — the hottest place on the planet
The Ethiopian Highlands lie mostly above an elevation of 2000m, and form the most extensive montane region in Africa. At the other end of the spectrum, the Danakil Depression, which dips to 116m below sea level, is one of the lowest (and hottest) points on Earth.
The Danakil Depression, an arid and sparsely populated region, encompasses an astonishing geographical phenomenon. Its lowest point, plunging to an astonishing 116 meters below sea level, holds the distinction of being widely recognized as the hottest place on Earth. Daytime temperatures consistently soar above 50°C, creating an extreme environment unlike any other.
Within the Danakil Depression, you'll encounter captivating features such as the magnificent lava pool nestled within the Erta Ale Volcano. Additionally, the region is adorned with salt lakes, including Asale and Afrera, which have been a source of mining for the Afar people for countless millennia.
13. Bleeding heart monkeys (aka Gelada Baboons)
Characteristic of the highlands north of Addis Ababa, the gelada (Thercopithecus gelada) is a baboon-like monkey unique among primates in that it subsists almost entirely on grass. It is also regarded as the most sociable of African primates. They are often moving around in troops of several hundred individuals, with a social structure whose complexity is matched only by that of humans.
While female geladas are quite unremarkable in appearance, the male is a thoroughly impressive creature. This is thanks to its bulky build, flowing golden mane, and bright red “bleeding heart” chest patch.
14. The permanently active Erta Ale Volcano
Erta Ale is a permanently active shield volcano located in the Afar region of north-eastern Ethiopia. It is known for its permanent lava lake and is one of the most active volcanoes in the world.
The summit of Erta Ale volcano is about 613 metres above sea level. It consists of two overlapping lava calderas that have been filled with recent lava flows. The internal caldera, where the lava lake is located, is about 1.6 kilometres in diameter.
15. The atmospheric Tigray Churches
Ethiopia’s main concentration of rock-hewn churches – more than a hundred individual sanctuaries – lies in the northeastern part of the Tigray Region. Many of these are highly atmospheric, timeworn edifices. Their compact candlelit interiors, often decorated with ancient ecclesiastic art, are soaked in spirituality.
Tigray’s rock-cut churches mostly predate those in Lalibela. The oral tradition dates the oldest excavations to the fourth century, while academic opinion inclines more towards the tenth – yet all but a dozen remained unknown much beyond their immediate parishes until the 1960s.
Ethiopia captivates with its diverse landscapes, ancient history, and vibrant culture. Feel inspired? Check out our Rough Guides books and start planning your perfect trip.
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