Ethiopia isn’t a great shopping destination in any conventional sense. True, you can buy pretty much anything you want in Addis Ababa if you look hard enough, but elsewhere you’ll find that grocery stores tend to stock a limited selection of goods aimed mostly at the local market, while more specialist shops are very thin on the ground.
From a visitor’s perspective, the best buys for local souvenirs include local handicrafts, including religious icons such as handheld Ethiopian crosses, hand-weaved cotton gabbi and shamma cloths and scarves, more idiosyncratic items such as goatskin injera-holders as well as paintings, carvings and the like. Coffee, whether in ground or whole-bean form, is also an easily transportable gift. Good handicraft stalls or stores are easily found in all the main tourist centres, but you can also do your shopping in the market, which is more fun but might also require more refined bargaining skills. Shopping for books, maps, travel gear or other more specialist items is best done in Addis Ababa.
No visit to Ethiopia would be complete without a foray into one of its many local markets. Vibrant, colourful and defiantly resistant to westernized mall culture, these local markets still form the economic and, arguably, social mainstay of Ethiopian village and small-town life, providing an opportunity for subsistence farmers and local artisans to sell, buy or trade goods and wares, and for old friends, new neighbours and relatives to catch up on all the local news and gossip. To a lesser degree, the larger and more chaotic markets found in all Ethiopian towns and cities perform a similar role, by forming a meeting and trading point that attracts day-tripping villagers from miles around. Most villages and smaller towns in Ethiopia have a specific market day, and are pretty inactive the rest of the week. Larger towns and cities usually hold a daily market but many still have one semi-official market day when activity intensifies. Among the best urban markets in Ethiopia are those in Bahir Dar, Aksum and Mekele, though for sheer range of goods on sale, nothing beats the vast sprawling Mercato in Addis Ababa. More rural highlights include the culturally diverse Monday livestock market at Bati, east of Kombolcha, and the many village markets scattered around South Omo.
Made with everything from plain wood to priceless gold, the ornate Christian crosses characteristic of Ethiopia are not only the country’s most widely displayed religious icons, but also – in smaller, hand-held form – perhaps the most popular souvenirs with tourists. Ethiopian crosses come in several different styles, the best known being named after Lalibela, Aksum and Gondar, the cities from which the design derives. On the whole, they are far more elaborately decorated and intricately worked than any cross associated with other Christian denominations – many larger crosses boast complex lattices of curves and lines symbolizing the nature of eternity or the intertwined divine and human facets of Jesus’s nature. The most elaborate adorn the roofs or exteriors of many churches, and treasuries of heavy old gold and silver crosses are stashed away in many of the north’s more historic churches.
For souvenirs, the small and relatively unadorned wooden crosses that many locals wear around their neck can easily be bought at any handicraft stall or market as can the small- to medium-sized metal crosses whose square bases fit snugly into the hand.