The word is out - Ethiopia has hidden depths and soaring heights.
If you like to blaze a trail then a holiday to Ethiopia is for you. Many potential visitors don't realise what a treasure trove of cultural and natural wonders is waiting in this East African gem of a destination. Think serrated peaks over 4,000 metres high, sheer cliffs patrolled by wheeling lammergeiers, green and fertile valleys, and ancient churches chipped out of the bedrock. Not only is Ethiopia a relatively unknown and undiscovered destination, it is also one with a rich patchwork of rituals and customs, ethnicities and languages, mountains and lakes, flora and fauna. This is a richly rewarding place to travel, packed with breathtaking monuments created by both man and nature.
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Top things to do in Ethiopia
There are many wonderful experiences to be had in this lesser-travelled African gem. For further inspiration take a look at the trip ideas put together by our trusted local experts, but in the meantime here are our top things to do in Ethiopia.
In the footsteps of pilgrims
Lalibela is extraordinary. As the hub of devotional activity among orthodox Christians it’s a place with a deeply spiritual atmosphere, especially around the major Christian festivals. Legend has it that an ancient king followed instructions from heaven to construct churches by chipping them out of the tufa, and today the result is a hauntingly beautiful series of courtyards containing these 12th century rock-hewn places of worship. They number 13 in total and they are the fulcrum of Christian life in Ethiopia.
Grab your boots for some seriously scenic trekking in the Ethiopian highlands, where soaring cliffs enclose deep green gorges, roaming troupes of gelada baboons comb the grasses for food and 300 plus species of birds make their homes. Two of the best areas for hikes are the Bale and Simien national parks, both of which offer magnificent scenery, challenging trails and the chance to spot rare endemic species such as the Ethiopian wolf, the Walia ibex and the lammergeier vulture.
Experience the tribal culture of Omo valley
A pocket of animist tribes remains in the lower valley of the Omo river in the south of Ethiopia. Many of the tribes in this region maintain strong traditions of body adornment such as the Mursi tribe’s lip plates and Surma tribe’s body paint and elaborate costumes. Sensitivity to the implications of tourism among these self sufficient and remote people is paramount, and our handpicked partners take a responsible approach.
Laze around the lakes of the Rift Valley
The colossal Rift Valley is one of the world's largest geographical features running through many East African countries, including Ethiopia. Its string of large freshwater lakes offers lots of opportunities for gentle leisure. Lake Ziway is a haven of peaceful islands, prolific birdlife and frolicking hippos. The most interesting of the islands is Tulu Gudo, crowned by a monastery which is said to have been home to the Ark of the Covenant. Next of the lakes is Langano, a favourite location for weekend escapes from the capital and a fun place to wind down for a couple of days. Awassa Lake is known for its eponymous town where the early mornings see a surge of activity around the renowned fish market, a great place to soak up the atmosphere.
Lesser-known things to do in Ethiopia
While there are many well-known things to do in Ethiopia, what about the lesser-known highlights? Our local experts have shared some of their top tips for where to go and what to do if you fancy a bit of an alternative Ethiopian adventure.
Step out of East Africa for a moment and immerse yourself in a medina straight out of Arabia. Known as the fourth holy city of Islam, Harar has a profusion of mosques scattered throughout the walled old town. Various sources attest to different numbers, but most agree that there are somewhere near one hundred. The narrow lanes and painted adobe walls of the old town are strongly reminiscent of other ancient towns in the Muslim world, and quite different from anything else you’ll see in Ethiopia.
Visit the source of the Nile
Ethiopia’s Blue Nile River is one of the main tributaries of the Nile and supplies the lion’s share of its waters. The lazy path of the Blue Nile as it weaves its way down from Lake Tana in the North accelerates when it reaches Bahir Dar. Here its waters rush off a 43 metre chasm in a thunderous cascade of rainbows and mists, which then tumble on to Khartoum in Sudan where they merge with the White Nile.
Celebrate the bean
Ethiopian coffee is some of the best in the world, and drinking coffee is deeply ingrained in the culture of Ethiopia, playing a huge role in social gatherings when the unique “coffee ceremony” is performed. The coffee ceremony starts with green coffee beans, which are washed and then roasted over a fire. The roasted, smoking beans are passed around to ensure the guests savour the pleasing aroma. The beans are then ground and boiled with water. Three rounds of coffee are served in small cups while incense is burned over the fire. It’s an intricate and fascinating affair, so do accept an invitation.
Visit the ‘Camelot of Africa’
The Northern city of Gondar sits at an elevation of 2,200m in the fertile hills below the Simien Mountains. It was once the capital of Ethiopia for two centuries before Addis Ababa was established. The city’s collection of impressive 15th Century stone castles has earned it the nickname ‘Camelot’ because of the marked European influence of their architecture.
When is the best time to go to Ethiopia?
The best time to visit Ethiopia is generally October to May, as the wettest months are June to September, but temperatures remain pretty steady year round. In the lowlands the climate is pleasantly warm (although can be humid) for most of the year, but if you plan to travel around, take altitude into consideration. If your travel plans involve time at various elevations, you will need to pack for all eventualities.
Interesting facts about Ethiopia
Ethiopia is a fascinating country. But did you know any of our top three facts about it?
- With nine UNESCO world heritage sites, Ethiopia has more than any other African nation.
- Coffee beans are produced by the coffea arabica plant which originates from Ethiopia. Legend states that a 9th Century goat herder realised the possibilities of the coffee bean after his flock ate some and became suddenly energised.
- Christianity was has been followed in Ethiopia since the 4th century, making it one of the world's oldest Christian nations.
Insider tips from our local experts
Being local, our experts have an extensive knowledge of the secrets to experiencing the 'real' Ethiopia. Here are a few of their top tips - ask them for other recommendations when you enquire to ensure you have the most in-depth experience whilst on holiday!
What day is it?
The Julian calendar is in operation in Ethiopia, which means dates are different and there are 13 months in a year. Take care to double check equivalent dates if you aim to arrange your visit around a festival or event.
Vegetarians are well catered for in Ethiopia, partly because of the religious ritual of regularly avoiding meat, and partly because Ethiopian cuisine involves lots of fabulous vegetable dishes.
A word on etiquette…
Ethiopia is a relatively conservative country and public displays of affection will likely embarrass your hosts. It is polite to refrain from holding hands and kissing in public.
What to read before you go to Ethiopia
If you're looking for something to get you in the mood before you set off on your travels to Ethiopia, we've gathered a list of our favourite books to inspire you.
'Beneath The Lions’ Gaze' by Maaza Mengiste
A heartrending and tragic tale set during the initial years of Ethiopia’s bloody civil war (1974-1991), this powerful and poetic novel centres on the fortunes of one family caught up in the turmoil.
'In Ethiopia with a Mule' by Dervla Murphy
Inspired by childhood stories of the Queen of Sheba, prolific adventurer Murphy (against official advice) set off to explore the remote corners of 1960s Ethiopia. This is a highly entertaining account of her adventures.
'Cutting for Stone' by Abraham Verghese
Written by Ethiopian born Indian-American, Abraham Verghese, this beautiful and engaging epic novel spans continents (much like its author).
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