All international flights land at the capital, Addis Ababa, which lies right in the centre of Ethiopia and forms the hub of the internal transport network, ensuring that most visitors spend some time there. Fortunately, Addis Ababa is a thoroughly enjoyable city to experience, whether you are cruising the markets, sampling the nightlife or taking in its historical churches and the fascinating National Museum.
The vast size of Ethiopia (and nature of its domestic transport networks) means that the country is usually explored in the form of one or more loops by road or air out of Addis Ababa. The most popular of these is the northern historical circuit, which has four acknowledged high points. First of these is Bahir Dar and the scenic Lake Tana region, with its ancient island monasteries. Not far to the north, the former capital of Gondar is best known for its European-influenced castles and painted churches. Predating these by several centuries, the towering stelae and ruined palaces that stud the ancient city of Aksum transport the visitor deep into Ethiopia’s fascinating past. Last – but far from least – are the astonishing medieval rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, still active places of worship and widely agreed to be the most arresting of all Ethiopia’s sights.
Although historic sightseeing predominates, the northern circuit also offers some scintillating natural phenomena, from the Blue Nile Falls – magnificent in the rainy season – to the hiker-friendly Simien Mountains National Park, with its rugged peaks and remarkable endemic wildlife. For those seeking a more off-the-beaten-track experience, the dozens of isolated rock-hewn churches scattered throughout the remote cliffs of northeast Tigrai remain an undersubscribed delight if you’re willing to put the time and effort into reaching them.
History takes a back seat to nature in southern Ethiopia, which is bisected by a scenic stretch of the Rift Valley that’s spangled with beautiful, bird-rich lakes. The little-visited highlands rising to the east of the Rift are capped by the Bale Mountains, protected in a national park whose varied habitats – embracing tussocked Afro-alpine moorlands, green grassy meadows, dense bamboo thickets and misty evergreen forests – protect the country’s most diverse selection of endemic mammals and birds.
Where the northern highlands are dominated by a few closely related Ethiopian Orthodox ethnic groups, Ethiopia’s full cultural and religious diversity is on show in the south and east. The walled citadel of Harar in the southeastern highlands is among the most ancient and holy of Islamic cities. Most compelling of all in cultural terms is the South Omo region, which lies in the remote southwest, close to the border with Kenya, and supports at least a dozen different tribes whose ethnic and linguistic diversity is as breathtaking as their proudly defiant adherence to their own pagan traditions.