First-time visitors to Ethiopia are generally amazed by thestunning natural beauty of a country that is also incredibly richin culture and history. The striking diversity of landscapes,ancient traditions, and people leave a lasting impression tochallenge the misleading stereotype of a land stricken by years ofdrought and famine.
Ethiopia can boast being the only country in Africa that wasn'tcolonised, having defeated and expelled the Italians after a merefive years of occupation. Ethiopia has emerged into the present dayas a fiercely independent and proud country, and one in which Islamand Christianity coexist in relative harmony.
Brimming with contrasts and extremes, Ethiopia beckons visitorsto explore from the tops of its highlands, where mountains soarover 14,100 feet (4,300 metres), to the depths of the DanakilDepression situated below sea level.
Discovering Abyssinian culture and traditions that date backover 3,000 years is incredibly exciting and it is possible toexperience ancient Islamic folklore, as well as the fascinatingrituals and sacred ceremonies of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
The capital, Addis Ababa (meaning 'New Flower' in Amharic) ishome to the more modern problems of urban migration. Addis Ababacan be a difficult place to navigate, but anyone with a desire tolearn more about Ethiopian culture would be remiss not to spendmore time in this complex city.
The north of Ethiopia is the most attractive region from anhistorical and a natural point of view. The Historic Route windsthrough the medieval wonders of the country, including the ancientcities of Gondar and Axum, as well as the breath-taking Lalibelachurches, hewn into rock. The north also boasts the lofty SimienMountains National Park, encompassing the fourth highest peak onthe continent, and providing fantastic hiking opportunities and avariety of wildlife.
Bahar Dar, situated on Lake Tana, is popular as a base fromwhich to explore the intriguing monasteries built on the manyislands scattered about the lake, as well as the Blue Nile Falls,which are arguably the most impressive falls in North Africa.
The south of Ethiopia, on the other hand, is the heartland ofsome of the surviving tribal cultures, with villagers living muchas they have for centuries. There are fewer awe-inspiring ancientsites and the game reserves and tribal enclaves draw adventuroustravellers.
Ethiopia was once overlooked as a tourist destination, but thecountry's unique attractions are taking pride of place in northeastAfrica, and today the oldest independent nation on the continentwelcomes visitors to experience its long proud history andabundance of stunning scenery.
An ancient and beautiful country, there is plenty tosee and do in Ethiopia. But getting to attractions isn't alwayseasy and visitors may find sightseeing challenging. However, manyof the attractions in Ethiopia are incredibly impressive andrewarding and worth negotiating the chaos.
Most tourists travel to the colourful capital ofAddis Ababa to start their exploration. It's worth spending atleast a day here to experience the vibe of this enormous Africancity. It has some lively markets and worthy attractions, includingthe Ethiopian National Museum which is home to Lucy, the famousearly hominid fossil.
Northern Ethiopia holds the greatest attraction forvisitors as one of the country's richest regions for culture,history, and natural splendour. The Historic Route has somebreathtaking assets and constitutes a fairly well-beaten trail onwhich travellers can feel safe.
With more castles, palaces, and churches than anyother city in Africa, the medieval city of Gondar is a wondrousplace. Alternatively, the city of Axum is said to contain the Arkof the Covenant, while also being the ancient capital of the Queenof Sheba and the country's holiest city.
The ancient city of Harar, fourth holiest city in theworld for Islam, boasts 82 mosques within its fortified walls. ButEthiopia's top attractions are undoubtedly the 13th-centuryrock-hewn churches of Lalibela. They are among the most incrediblemanmade structures in the world, revered and renowned amongEthiopians and foreigners alike and the venue for some of the mostfamous religious festivals in Ethiopia. Having taken at least 24years to complete, the astounding churches are believed to havebeen created with the help of angels.
The Mercato is one of the largest outdoor markets inAfrica and Addis Ababa's most colourful sight. Ideal for souvenirs,there are tailors, spice merchants, and purveyors of just aboutevery commodity under the sun, including wonderful Ethiopiancoffee. Mercato is memorable but not for the faint hearted, withwandering animals, hollering vendors, and a riot of colour, aromas,and sensations. The spice market is particularly interesting withits exotic colours and smells. The Mercato is a pick-pocketinghotspot so visitors should be careful with their valuables. It'sbest to wear a money belt under clothes rather than keeping cash inan accessible place. Shoppers should bargain hard as prices areenormously flexible and foreigners are routinely charged three tofour times the going rate. Often shoppers can bargain their waydown to as little as 20 percent of the original asking price.Travellers should be careful of purchasing antiques and historicalartefacts as, without a certificate, they may not be genuine and,even if they are, they could be confiscated at the airport. Themarket is enormous, chaotic, and easy to get lost in, so manytravellers prefer to hire a local guide to show them around.
This museum has a varied range of exhibits displayedacross three floors and covering a wide scope of Ethiopian historyfrom the prehistoric to the contemporary. The museum is notworld-class in terms of its facilities or exhibition space, but itdoes contain some genuinely fascinating artefacts and givesvisitors a good historical overview of Ethiopia. The most famousexhibit is the replica statue of Lucy, thought to be the oldesthominid skeleton ever found and estimated to be 3.18 million yearsold. Lucy was discovered in 1974 and named for the Beatles song.The fragile original skeleton is in the vaults of the building.Also of interest is the selection of celebrated Ethiopian artworksfrom Axum, Lalibella, and the Tana Monasteries, as well as relicsfrom Haile Selassie's reign. Visitors should check ahead of time asto whether there is a power cut scheduled because they are commonin the city and it is impossible to appreciate the museum in thedark. Another great museum in Addis Ababa, ten minutes walk fromthe National Museum, is the Ethnological Museum inside the mainuniversity campus at Sidist Kilo. The two museums are easilycombined on a morning of sightseeing.
St George's Cathedral was founded by the greatEmperor Menelik to commemorate his 1896 victory over the invadingItalian army. A relic of St George was carried into battle by theEthiopians and the emperor built the cathedral to pay tribute tothe saint that ensured his victory. The cathedral is a holy placeof pilgrimage for Rastafarians. It has a traditional Ethiopiandesign and octagonal shape and the outer walls of the building arecovered in wonderful artwork and mosaics, including work by AfewerkTekle. Inside, beautiful stained glass windows enhance the sacredatmosphere. In 1930, the church hosted the coronation of EmperorHaile Selassie and he and Empress Menen are two of the famousEthiopians buried here. Travellers should attend a service (enquirefor times) to experience the wonderful singing and prayerfulchanting so typical of Coptic Christianity. If they do attend aservice, they should be aware that the congregation stands for theduration of the service with men to the left and women to theright. Visitors must take off their shoes before entering thechurch. There is a small museum at the church which has some usefulinformation and interesting displays. Visitors can also get somegreat views of the city by climbing the museum's tower.
Addis Ababa has a subtropical highland climate, which means thetemperature stays relatively constant, hovering between 46°F (8°C)and 77°F (25°C) for most of the year. The rainy season lasts fromJune to September, with July and August being the wettest time ofyear, with around 27 days of each month receiving significantrainfall. These are also the coolest months. The best time to visitAddis Ababa is from October to February, when the temperatures arewarm and the days are sunny.
Ethiopia is in the tropical zone lying between theequator and the Tropic of Cancer. There are three different climatezones in Ethiopia and weather varies substantially depending onaltitude. The lowlands are generally hot and humid, with coolertemperatures in the Ethiopian Highlands.
Although the low-lying areas are tropical in climatedue to the proximity to the equator, the mountainous regions canget chilly and the climate is more alpine. The average annualtemperature in the highlands is about 61°F (16°C), while thelowlands average about 82°F (28°C).
In Addis Ababa, which ranges from 7,218 feet to 8,530feet (2,200m to 2,600m), the maximum average temperature is 79°F(26°C) and minimum 39°F (4°C). May is the hottest month and Augustis the coolest.
There are two rainy seasons in Ethiopia: a short,mild one between February and April, and a more intense rainyseason from mid-June to mid-September. Although travel is easilypossible during the spring rainy season, it is generally avoidedduring the far wetter summer period as road travel can becomedifficult. Visitors should be aware that Ethiopia can get rainyear-round and that rainfall, like everything else, is dependent onregion.
The best time to visit Ethiopia is in the dry seasonbetween mid-October and March, but travellers should be sure tocheck out the climate for the particular region they want toexplore before making a decision.
The official currency is the Ethiopian Birr (ETB), which isdivided into 100 cents. Foreign currency can be exchanged at banksand authorised hotels. Credit cards have limited usage outside ofAddis Ababa, and even in the capital they are only accepted bymajor establishments. Visitors should carry hard currency withthem, preferably in US dollars. ATMs are sparse, but banks areusually open every day except Sundays from 8am to 11am and 1pm till4pm.
Amharic is the official language, although over 80 locallanguages are also spoken. English and Arabic are widely spoken aswell as some French and Italian.
Electrical current is 220 volts, 50Hz. Two-pin plugsare used. Even in Addis Ababa, electricity supply is irregular andblackouts are common.
US citizens must have a passport that is valid upon arrival inEthiopia. A visa is required and can be obtained online or onarrival in the country for those travelling as tourists andarriving at Addis Ababa.
British citizens require a passport that is valid upon arrivalin Ethiopia. A visa is required, and can be obtained online or onarrival in the country for those travelling as tourists andarriving at one of the main airports. Holders of British passportswith endorsements other than 'British Citizen' should check withthe embassy to confirm their entry requirements.
Canadian citizens must have a passport that is valid uponarrival in Ethiopia. A visa is required, and can be obtained onarrival in the country for those travelling as tourists andarriving at Addis Ababa.
Australian citizens must have a passport that is valid uponarrival in Ethiopia. A visa is required, and can be obtained onlineor on arrival in the country for those travelling as tourists andarriving at Addis Ababa.
South African citizens must have a passport that is valid uponarrival in Ethiopia. A visa is required, and can be obtained onlineor on arrival in the country for those travelling as tourists andarriving at Addis Ababa.
Irish citizens must have a passport that is valid upon arrivalin Ethiopia. A visa is required, and can be obtained online or onarrival in the country for those travelling as tourists andarriving at Addis Ababa.
US citizens must have a passport that is valid upon arrival inEthiopia. A visa is required and can be obtained online or onarrival in the country for those travelling as tourists andarriving at Addis Ababa.
New Zealand citizens must have a passport that is valid uponarrival in Ethiopia. A visa is required, and can be obtained onlineon arrival in the country for those travelling as tourists andarriving at Addis Ababa.
Foreign visitors to Ethiopia may obtain a tourist visa onarrival, if arriving at the international airports in Addis Ababa.E-visas can be obtained before departure online atwww.evisa.gov.et/. Work visas are also obtainable, but requirementsshould be confirmed in advance. A yellow fever vaccinationcertificate is required to enter Ethiopia, if arriving within sixdays of leaving or transiting through an infected area. It ishighly recommended that travellers' passports have at least sixmonths' validity remaining after the intended date of departurefrom their travel destination. Immigration officials often applydifferent rules to those stated by travel agents and officialsources.
Travellers to Ethiopia are recommended to havehepatitis A, hepatitis B, yellow fever, meningococcus, and choleravaccinations. Malaria is prevalent in the lowlands (below 6,562feet/2,000m) and altitude sickness may affect travellers to thehighland areas, including Addis Ababa.
Bilharzia is present in many of the lakes in Ethiopiaand travellers are advised to drink boiled or bottled water, aswaterborne diseases are prevalent. A rabies vaccination isrecommended for anyone who will be spending a lot of time inwilderness areas or around animals, and a polio booster isrecommended for adults who had the vaccine as children.
Medical facilities are poor outside of Addis Ababa,while in the capital, hospitals are available but medical suppliesare erratic. Visitors should bring their own regular medicationswith them and arrange comprehensive travel insurance.
Tourist hotels and restaurants usually add a 10 percent servicecharge to the bill. Otherwise, tipping is fairly common, but onlysmall amounts are customary. Tourists should note that locals mayexpect a tip for being photographed.
The vast majority of trips to Ethiopia are trouble free, butsafety precautions are recommended. Visitors are cautioned to avoidall public demonstrations and large crowds, particularly in AddisAbaba, and to keep a low profile in public places. Valuables shouldnot be displayed.
Most of Ethiopia can be explored in relative safety, but thereare travel warnings in place for some areas and travellers areadvised to check travel warnings on reputable government websitesbefore planning their itineraries. Caution should generally beexercised in all border areas and the British FCO advises againstall travel to within six miles (10km) of the borders with Eritrea,Sudan, South Sudan and Kenya, though there are a few exceptions tothis rule made for prime tourist hotspots and main roads.
Travel warnings are also in place for parts of the Somaliregion, parts of the Danakil desert, parts of the Gambella regionand the town of Jijiga. Overland travel to Sudan or Kenya isdangerous due to armed bandits, and should only be attempted in aconvoy. There is a high threat from local terrorism in the country,and, although it is not directed at foreigners, visitors need to becautious in public places.
Flooding often affects Ethiopia between June and September eachyear, with flash floods sometimes killing hundreds of people inlow-lying areas.
The Ethiopian Highlands are mainly Orthodox Christian andrestaurants do not serve meat dishes on Wednesdays, Fridays, andduring Lent. The Ethiopian calendar, which is similar to the Juliancalendar, consists of 13 months (12 months of 30 days, and athirteenth month of five or six days).
Moreover, homosexuality is illegal in Ethiopia. Shoes should beremoved before entering mosques and churches. Photographs shouldnot be taken of military buildings and airports, and permissionshould be asked before photographing religious festivals andpeople.
Etiquette is very important in Ethiopia, both socially and inbusiness. Formal attire is expected of men and women. Greetings arevery important and the shaking of hands is the norm for firstmeetings. Ethiopians like to establish good relations with oneanother and personal relationships are the cornerstone ofbusiness.
English is understood by most businessmen in Addis Ababa, aswell as some French and Italian. Ethiopians respect their elders,so visitors should show the same courtesy. Business hours aregenerally 8.30am to 5.30pm Monday to Friday, with an hour taken atlunch, but may vary from business to business.
The international dialling code for Ethiopia is +251. Theoutgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g.0027 for South Africa). The area code for Addis Ababa is (0)1.Telephone, fax and postal facilities are available in most maintowns. Internet services are increasing in availability.
Travellers to Ethiopia over the age of 18 years do not have topay customs duty on 400 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 250g of tobacco;2 litre of alcoholic beverages; 2 bottles or 600ml of perfume.
Ethiopian Tourism Organization: http://www.ethiopia.travel/
Embassy of Ethiopia, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 3641200.
Embassy of Ethiopia, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 75897212.
Embassy of Ethiopia, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 565 6637.
Embassy of Ethiopia, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 3464067.
Embassy of Ethiopia, Canberra, Australia (also responsible forNew Zealand): +61 2 6295 9984.
Embassy of Ethiopia, Dublin, Ireland: +353 1 678 7062.
United States Embassy, Addis Ababa: +251 1 130 6000.
British Embassy, Addis Ababa: +251 11 617 0100.
Canadian Embassy, Addis Ababa: +251 11 317 0000.
South African Embassy, Addis Ababa: +251 11 371 1002.
Australian Embassy, Addis Ababa: +251 11 667 2678.
Irish Embassy, Addis Ababa: +251 1 518 0500.
A large and efficient network of blue and whiteminibuses covers the city of Addis Ababa. These minibuses are easyto hail from the side of the road, though it is worth having anEthiopian guide along if it is a tourist's first time using thesetaxis. Small blue taxis are more expensive. Negotiation is the normand foreigners often have to press quite hard to get a bargain.They can be contracted for a full day after some negotiation.
Walking is still the preferred method of transportaround this city. The road names are few and often don't match theones written on maps, so it is best to navigate by using landmarks.Churchill Avenue is the main thoroughfare and shopping street inAddis Ababa.
Car hire can be organised through internationalagencies in Addis Ababa and a full valid international licence isrequired and the licence from country of origin must be endorsedlocally. Drivers must be a minimum of 18 years old. It is a goodidea to hire a car and a driver if visitors plan to travelextensively.
Vehicle travel outside the city after dark can berisky. Autobus Terra, near Mercato, is where most of the nationalbuses arrive and depart and is the main bus terminal. The onlyworking railway line runs between Addis Ababa and Djibouti, viaDire Dawa and Harar. Travellers should be prepared for occasionaldelays. The Ethiopian ride-hailing app, ZayRide, is anotheroption.
There is plenty to see and do in Addis Ababa. But thejourney to the attractions is frequently more interesting than thesights themselves. This is particularly the case should visitorschoose to walk the city and navigate their way to the main museumsand buildings.
It's a good idea to hire a taxi driver for a dailyfee and have him drive you around. Those who choose to rely on mapsand GPS should note that roads frequently change names. Travellersshould be aware of scams that involve 'cultural shows', takingplace in backstreet venues. If visitors do wish to see traditionaldancing and music, they should simply dine at any decent andreputable restaurant where such attractions are provided free.
As for mainstream attractions in Addis Ababa,travellers shouldn't miss paying Lucy a visit at the NationalMuseum, doing a bit of shopping at the Merkato (one of the largestmarkets in Africa) and seeing the wonderful cultural artefacts inthe Ethnological Museum, and relics of the city's past in the AddisAbaba Museum.
It's also worth keeping their eyes open for thenumerous concrete Soviet statues and buildings that dot the city.There is a good tourist information booth off Meskel Square iftourists need some impartial advice or want a reliable tourguide.
Lalibela is one of the world's most remarkablespiritual sites and Ethiopia's greatest tourist attraction. It ishome to the country's astounding rock-hewn churches and animportant pilgrimage site for Ethiopia's Orthodox Christians. Thereare 13 functioning churches in total, all carved from a singlepiece of granite. The churches were carved from the top down andsome lie nearly hidden in deep trenches, while others stand in opencaves. Each is unique. The churches are connected by a labyrinth oftunnels and dark narrow passageways with crypts, grottos, caverns,and galleries hewn from the red rock. They were carved between the10th and 12th centuries in a bid to create a New Jerusalem forthose unable to pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The small town ofLalibela is fairly rudimental, but there is an airport, sometourist accommodation, and good restaurants. Lalibela is a quiet,mystical place with a cool and moist climate, never failing toastound its growing number of visitors. It should be noted thatLalibela and its churches are not tourist attractions, but placesfor worship and contemplation: visitors should be respectful whenvisiting and taking photographs.
Axum is a city in far northern Ethiopia. Its16th-century Church of St Mary of Zion is said to house the Ark ofthe Covenant which visitors aren't permitted to see. Colossal stoneobelisks dating back to 300 AD are remnants of the Kingdom of Aksumand are recognised as remarkable historical artefacts by UNESCO. In2005 one such obelisk was returned to Ethiopia with great fanfareafter having been looted by Italy in the early 20th century. Thelargest number of these impressive sculptures is in the NorthernStelae Park, and the tallest one that remains standing is KingEzana's Stele, which is over 78 feet (24m) tall and weighs 160tonnes. Some tombs have been excavated under the giant stelae butthe vast majority of this fascinating underground world has not yetbeen explored by archaeologists and the extent of the mysteries theobelisks guard is unknown. Axum is considered a holy city, commonlythe destination of pilgrimages, which is certainly worth visitingfor its historical riches. However, most visitors do not linger inthe city's modern centre.
Harar is a fascinating, exotic town of considerableinterest to visitors willing to make the 320 mile (520km) journeyeast from Addis Ababa. Harar is the fourth holiest city in Islam,forbidden to outsiders until 1887 when it became part of theEthiopian Empire. Harar boasts about 82 mosques (three from the10th century) and 102 shrines. The city is perched on the easternwall of the Great Rift Valley, affording it a cool climate andwonderful views of the soaring mountains to the east. The mainattractions are inside the Walled City, a fascinating warren ofmedieval mosques, houses, and markets. Another popular attractionis the nocturnal Hyena Man, who feeds wild hyenas strips of rawmeat suspended from his mouth and sticks. Brave visitors can joinhim. French poet Arthur Rimbaud's house is now an interestingmuseum in Harar, worth a visit even for those who aren't familiarwith his work. Shoppers should look for the highly regardedhand-crafted silverware, and the locally brewed Harar beer. Thecity has been a trade hub for centuries, serving as a shopper'sparadise.
Bahir Dar is one of the most popular touristdestinations in Ethiopia. Known for its palm-lined avenues, it sitsat the southern edge of Lake Tana which is the source of the BlueNile. The town is the main base for visiting Tissisat Falls and thelake's 37 islands with their ancient churches and monasteries.Unfortunately, many of these churches deny access to women butthere are exceptions. The lake is enormous and it will probablytake half a day just to visit two or three of the monasteries. Butthe scenery is beautiful and visitors may even spot some localfishermen in traditional papyrus canoes or groups of hippo. Themost beautiful of the monasteries on Lake Tana are Debre KebranGabriel, which dates from the 14th century, and Ura Kidane Mehretwhich has exceptional frescoes. The monasteries each charge theirown entrance fee. The Tisissat Falls, often known as the Blue NileFalls, are still impressive but the dam has seriously reduced theamount of water coming over the falls, which is sad. Bahir Dar alsohas an enormous market where visitors can trawl for local craftsand fresh produce.
Gondar is a city like no other, scattered withancient castles and churches, magnificent mountain scenery, and apleasantly cool climate. Situated 460 miles (748km) north of AddisAbaba, this is the next clockwise step after Bahir Dar on theofficial Historic Route through Ethiopia. Founded by EmperorFasiledes around the year 1635, Gondar grew as an agriculturalcentre and market town. The city was the capital of Ethiopia forhundreds of years, which accounts for the abundant imperialarchitecture, most densely concentrated in the Royal Enclosurewhich contains five castles. The oldest and most architecturallyinteresting is the Castle of Fasiledes, which has Axumite,Portuguese, and Indian elements. Near the edge of Gondar is theChurch of Debre Birhan Selassie, which was built in 1682 andcontains the country's most celebrated ceiling murals. Gondar isalso a natural base for treks into the Simien Mountains and manytour companies tout their services in the city. Travellers shouldchoose carefully and get the opinion of recently returned trekkersbefore committing to a particular guide as quality varies. Anothergood excursion out of the city is the small but beautiful town ofGorgora on the northern shore of Lake Tana, about 43 miles (70km)from Gondar, where visitors will find some interesting ancientartefacts.