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First-time visitors will relish Ethiopia's stunning natural beauty, as well as its incredibly rich culture and history. The striking diversity of landscapes, ancient traditions and people leave a lasting impression to challenge the misleading stereotype of a land stricken by years of drought and famine.
Ethiopia can boast to being the only country in Africa that wasn't colonised, having defeated and expelled the Italians after a mere five years of occupation. It has emerged into the present day as a fiercely independent and proud country, and one in which Islam and Christianity coexist in relative harmony.
Brimming with contrasts and extremes, Ethiopia's attractions range from the tops of its highlands, where mountains soar over 14,100 feet (4,300 metres), to the depths of the Danakil Depression, which is situated below sea level. Discovering Abyssinian culture and traditions that date back over 3,000 years is incredibly exciting and it is possible to experience ancient Islamic folklore, as well as the fascinating rituals and sacred ceremonies of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
The capital, Addis Ababa (meaning 'New Flower' in Amharic) is home to the more modern problems of urban migration. Addis Ababa can be a difficult place to navigate, but anyone with a desire to learn more about Ethiopian culture would be remiss not to spend more time in this complex city.
The north of Ethiopia is the most attractive region for anyone interested in history or natural beauty. The Historic Route winds through the medieval wonders of the country, including the ancient cities of Gondar and Axum, and the breath-taking Lalibela churches, which were carved out of rock. The north also boasts the lofty Simien Mountains National Park, where visitors will find the fourth highest peak on the continent, fantastic hiking opportunities and a variety of wildlife.
Bahir Dar, situated on Lake Tana, is popular as a base from which to explore the intriguing monasteries built on the many islands 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 of some of the surviving tribal cultures, with villagers living much as they have for centuries. There are fewer awe-inspiring ancient sites and the game reserves and tribal enclaves draw adventurous travellers.
Ethiopia was once overlooked as a tourist destination, but the country's unique attractions are taking pride of place in northeast Africa. Today the oldest independent nation on the continent welcomes visitors to experience its long proud history and abundance of stunning scenery.
There is plenty to see and do in the ancient country of Ethiopia, but getting to attractions isn't always easy. However, many of the attractions are incredibly impressive and it's worth negotiating the chaos for a sight of them.
Most tourists travel to the colourful capital of Addis Ababa to start their exploration. It's worth spending at least a day here to experience the vibe of this enormous African city, with its lively markets and fascinating attractions, such as the Ethiopian National Museum, which is home to Lucy, the famous early hominid fossil.
Northern Ethiopia holds the greatest attraction for visitors, as it's one of the country's richest regions for culture, history, and natural splendour. The Historic Route has some breathtaking assets and is a fairly well-beaten trail on which travellers can feel safe.
With more castles, palaces, and churches than any other city in Africa, the medieval city of Gondar is a wondrous place. Not to be outdone, the city of Axum is said to contain the Ark of the Covenant, as well as the ancient capital of the Queen of Sheba.
The ancient city of Harar, fourth holiest city in the world for Islam, boasts 82 mosques within its fortified walls, but Ethiopia's top attractions are undoubtedly the 13th-century rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. They are among the most incredible manmade structures in the world, revered and renowned among Ethiopians and foreigners alike, and the venue for some of the most famous religious festivals in Ethiopia. Having taken at least 24 years to complete, the astounding churches are believed to have been created with the help of angels.
The Mercato is one of the largest outdoor markets in Africa and Addis Ababa's most colourful sight. Ideal for souvenirs, there are tailors, spice merchants, and purveyors of just about every commodity under the sun, including wonderful Ethiopian coffee. Mercato is memorable but not for the faint hearted, given its wandering animals, hollering vendors, and riot of colour, aromas, and sensations. The spice market is particularly interesting, with its exotic colours and smells. The Mercato is a pick-pocketing hotspot so visitors should be careful with their valuables. It's best to wear a money belt under clothes rather than keeping cash in an accessible place. Shoppers should bargain hard as prices are enormously flexible and foreigners are routinely charged three to four times the going rate.
This museum displays a varied range of exhibits across three floors, and they cover Ethiopian history from the prehistoric to the contemporary. The museum is not world-class in terms of its facilities or exhibition space, but it does contain some genuinely fascinating artefacts and gives visitors a good historical overview of Ethiopia. The most famous exhibit is the replica statue of Lucy, thought to be the oldest hominid skeleton ever found and estimated to be 3.18 million years old. 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 artworks from Axum, Lalibella, and the Tana Monasteries, as well as relics from Haile Selassie's reign.
St George's Cathedral was founded by the great Emperor Menelik to commemorate his 1896 victory over the invading Italian army. A relic of St George was carried into battle by the Ethiopians and the emperor built the cathedral to pay tribute to the saint that ensured his victory. The cathedral is a holy place of pilgrimage for Rastafarians. It has a traditional Ethiopian design and octagonal shape, and the outer walls of the building are covered in wonderful artwork and mosaics, including work by Afewerk Tekle, one of Ethiopia's most celebrated artists. Inside, beautiful stained-glass windows enhance the sacred atmosphere. In 1930, the church hosted the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie and he and Empress Menen are two of the famous Ethiopians buried here.
Addis Ababa has a subtropical highland climate, which means the temperature stays relatively constant, hovering between 46F (8C) and 77F (25C) for most of the year. The rainy season lasts from June to September, with July and August being the wettest time of year, when each month receives around 27 days of significant rainfall. These are also the coolest months. The best time to visit Addis Ababa is from October to February, when the temperatures are warm and the days are sunny.
Ethiopia is in the tropical zone lying between the equator and the Tropic of Cancer. There are three different climate zones in the country and weather varies substantially depending on altitude. The lowlands are generally hot and humid, while cooler temperatures characterise the Ethiopian Highlands.
Although the low-lying areas are tropical in climate due to the proximity to the equator, the mountainous regions can get chilly and the climate is more alpine. The average annual temperature in the highlands is about 61F (16C), while the lowlands average about 82F (28C).
In Addis Ababa, which ranges from 7,218 feet to 8,530 feet (2,200m to 2,600m), the maximum average temperature is 79F (26C) and the minimum is 39F (4C). May is the hottest month and August is the coolest.
There are two rainy seasons in Ethiopia: a short, mild one between February and April, and a more intense rainy season from mid-June to mid-September. Although travel is easily possible during the spring rainy season, it is generally avoided during the far wetter summer period, as road travel can become difficult. Visitors should be aware that Ethiopia can get rain year-round and that rainfall, like everything else, is dependent on region.
The best time to visit Ethiopia is in the dry season between mid-October and March, but travellers should be sure to check out the climate for the particular region they want to explore before making a decision.
The official currency is the Ethiopian birr (ETB), which is divided into 100 cents, and foreign currency can be exchanged at banks and authorised hotels. Only major establishments accept credit cards in Addis Ababa, and credit cards have even more limited usage outside the capital. Visitors should carry hard currency with them, preferably in US dollars. ATMs are sparse, but banks are usually open every day except Sundays from 8am to 11am and 1pm till 4pm.
Amharic is the official language, although over 80 local languages are also spoken. English and Arabic are widely spoken as well as some French and Italian.
Electrical current is 220 volts, 50Hz. Two-pin plugs are used. Even in Addis Ababa, electricity supply is irregular and blackouts are common.
US nationals: US citizens must have a passport that is valid upon arrival in Ethiopia. A visa is required and can be obtained online or on arrival in the country for those travelling as tourists and arriving at Addis Ababa.
UK nationals: British citizens require a passport that is valid upon arrival in Ethiopia. A visa is required, and can be obtained online or on arrival in the country for those travelling as tourists and arriving at one of the main airports. Holders of British passports with endorsements other than 'British Citizen' should check with the embassy to confirm their entry requirements.
CA nationals: Canadian citizens must have a passport that is valid upon arrival in Ethiopia. A visa is required, and can be obtained on arrival in the country for those travelling as tourists and arriving at Addis Ababa.
AU nationals: Australian citizens must have a passport that is valid upon arrival in Ethiopia. A visa is required, and can be obtained online or on arrival in the country for those travelling as tourists and arriving at Addis Ababa.
ZA nationals: South African citizens must have a passport that is valid upon arrival in Ethiopia. A visa is required, and can be obtained online or on arrival in the country for those travelling as tourists and arriving at Addis Ababa.
IR nationals: Irish citizens must have a passport that is valid upon arrival in Ethiopia. A visa is required, and can be obtained online or on arrival in the country for those travelling as tourists and arriving at Addis Ababa.
NZ nationals: New Zealand citizens must have a passport that is valid upon arrival in Ethiopia. A visa is required, and can be obtained online on arrival in the country for those travelling as tourists and arriving at Addis Ababa.
All visitors must obtain an eVisa or get a visa from the Ethiopian Embassy closest to their place of legal residence before travelling. E-visas can be obtained before departure online at www.evisa.gov.et/. A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required to enter Ethiopia if visitors are arriving from a country with a risk of yellow fever transmission or have transited through an airport of a country where yellow fever occurs. It is highly recommended that travellers' passports have at least six months' validity remaining after the intended date of departure from their travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
Travellers to Ethiopia are recommended to have hepatitis A, hepatitis B, meningococcus, and cholera vaccinations. There is a risk of yellow fever in Ethiopia, and proof of vaccination is required if visitors are arriving from a country with a risk of yellow fever transmission or have transited through an airport of a country where yellow fever occurs.
Malaria is prevalent in the lowlands and altitude sickness may affect travellers to the highland areas, including Addis Ababa. Bilharzia is present in many of the lakes in Ethiopia and travellers are advised to drink boiled or bottled water, as waterborne diseases are prevalent. A rabies vaccination is recommended for anyone who will be spending a lot of time in wilderness areas or around animals, and a polio booster is recommended 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 supplies are erratic. Visitors should bring their own regular medications with them and arrange comprehensive travel insurance.
Tourist hotels and restaurants usually add a 10 percent service charge to the bill, but tipping is still fairly common, though only small amounts are customary.
The vast majority of trips to Ethiopia are trouble free, but safety precautions are recommended. Visitors are cautioned to avoid all public demonstrations and large crowds, particularly in Addis Ababa, and to keep a low profile in public places. Valuables should not be displayed, as petty theft is a concern, and visitors should only use buses or taxis from the airport that have been organised by their hotel or travel company.
Most of Ethiopia can be explored in relative safety, but there are travel warnings in place for some areas, and travellers are advised to check travel warnings on reputable government websites before planning their itineraries. Caution should generally be exercised in all border areas and the British FCDO advises against all travel to within six miles (10km) of the borders with Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan and Kenya, though there are a few exceptions to this rule made for prime tourist hotspots and main roads.
Travel warnings are also in place for parts of the Somali region, parts of the Danakil desert, and parts of the Gambella region. Overland travel to Sudan or Kenya is dangerous due to armed bandits, and should only be attempted in a convoy.
Flooding often affects Ethiopia between June and September each year, with flash floods sometimes killing hundreds of people in low-lying areas.
The Ethiopian Highlands are mainly Orthodox Christian and restaurants do not serve meat dishes on Wednesdays, Fridays, and during Lent. The Ethiopian calendar, which is similar to the Julian calendar, consists of 13 months (12 months of 30 days, and a thirteenth month of five or six days). Homosexuality is illegal in Ethiopia, and carry penalties of between 1 and 15 years imprisonment. Shoes should be removed before entering mosques and churches; photographs should not be taken of military buildings and airports, and permission should be asked before photographing religious festivals and people.
Etiquette is very important in Ethiopia, both socially and in business. Formal attire is expected of men and women; greetings are very important and the shaking of hands is the norm for first meetings. Ethiopians like to establish good relations with one another and personal relationships are the cornerstone of business.
Businessmen in Addis Ababa understand some English, and perhaps some French and Italian. Ethiopians also respect their elders, so visitors should show the same courtesy. Business hours are generally 8.30am to 5.30pm Monday to Friday, with an hour taken at lunch, though this may vary from business to business.
The international dialling code for Ethiopia is +251 and the outgoing code is 00, followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0027 for South Africa). Internet services are increasingly available and travellers can purchase prepaid SIM cards for unlocked phones.
Travellers to Ethiopia over the age of 18 years do not have to pay customs duty on 400 cigarettes or 250g of tobacco; 2 litre of alcoholic beverages; 2 bottles or 600ml of perfume.
Ethiopian Tourism Organisation: www.ethiopia.travel/
Embassy of Ethiopia, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 364 1200.
Embassy of Ethiopia, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7589 7212.
Embassy of Ethiopia, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 565 6637.
Embassy of Ethiopia, Canberra, Australia (also responsible for New Zealand): +61 2 6295 9984.
Embassy of Ethiopia, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 346 4067.
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.
Australian Embassy, Addis Ababa: +251 11 667 2678.
South African Embassy, Addis Ababa: +251 11 371 1002.
Irish Embassy, Addis Ababa: +251 1 518 0500.
New Zealand Embassy, Addis Ababa: +251 11 515 1269.
A large and efficient network of blue and white minibuses covers the city of Addis Ababa. These minibuses are easy to hail from the side of the road, though it is worth having an Ethiopian guide along if it is a tourist's first time using these taxis. Small blue taxis are more expensive. Negotiation is the norm and foreigners often have to press quite hard to get a bargain. These taxis can be contracted for a full day after some negotiation.
There aren't many road names and they often don't match the ones written on maps, so it is best to navigate by using landmarks. Churchill Avenue is the main thoroughfare and shopping street in Addis Ababa.
Car hire can be organised through international agencies in the city, and a fully valid international licence is required. The licence from a traveller's country of origin must also be endorsed locally and the driver must be a minimum of 18 years old. It is a good idea to hire a car and a driver if visitors plan to travel extensively. Vehicle travel outside the city after dark can be risky.
Autobus Terra, near Mercato, is where most of the national buses arrive and depart and it is the main bus terminal. The only working railway line runs between Addis Ababa and Djibouti, via Dire Dawa and Harar. Travellers should be prepared for occasional delays. The Ethiopian ride-hailing app, ZayRide, is another option; walking is still the preferred method of transport around the city.
There is plenty to see and do in Addis Ababa, and the journey to the attractions is frequently as interesting as the sights themselves. This is particularly the case should visitors choose to walk the city and navigate their way to the main museums and buildings.
It's a good idea for visitors to hire a taxi driver for a daily fee and have him drive them around. Those who choose to rely on maps and GPS should note that roads frequently change names. Travellers should be aware of scams that involve 'cultural shows' that take place in backstreet venues. If visitors do wish to see traditional dancing and music, they should simply dine at any decent and reputable restaurant where such attractions are provided free.
As for mainstream attractions in Addis Ababa, travellers shouldn't miss paying Lucy a visit at the National Museum, doing a bit of shopping at the Merkato (one of the largest markets in Africa), seeing the wonderful cultural artefacts in the Ethnological Museum, and studying relics of the city's past in the Addis Ababa Museum.
It's also worth keeping their eyes open for the numerous concrete Soviet statues and buildings that dot the city. There is a good tourist information booth off Meskel Square if tourists need some impartial advice or want a reliable tour guide.
Lalibela is one of the world's most remarkable spiritual sites and Ethiopia's greatest tourist attraction. It is home to the country's astounding rock-hewn churches and is an important pilgrimage site for Ethiopia's Orthodox Christians. There are 11 functioning churches in total, all carved from a single piece of granite. The churches were carved from the top down and some lie nearly hidden in deep trenches, while others stand in open caves. Each is unique. The churches are connected by a labyrinth of tunnels and dark narrow passageways with crypts, grottos, caverns, and galleries hewn from the red rock. They were carved between the 10th and 12th centuries in a bid to create a New Jerusalem for those unable to pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Axum is a city in far northern Ethiopia. Its 17th-century Church of St Mary of Zion is said to house the Ark of the Covenant, which visitors aren't permitted to see. Colossal stone obelisks dating back to 300 AD are remnants of the Kingdom of Aksum and are recognised as remarkable historical artefacts by UNESCO. In 2005 one such obelisk was returned to Ethiopia with great fanfare after having been looted by Italy in the early 20th century. The largest number of these impressive sculptures is in the Northern Stelae Park, and the tallest one that remains standing is King Ezana's Stele, which is over 78 feet (24m) tall and weighs 160 tonnes. Some tombs have been excavated under the giant stele, but archaeologists have not yet explored the vast majority of this fascinating underground world, and the extent of the mysteries the obelisks guard is unknown.
Harar is a fascinating, exotic town of considerable interest to visitors willing to make the 320-mile (520km) journey east from Addis Ababa. Harar is the fourth holiest city in Islam and was forbidden to outsiders until 1887, when it became part of the Ethiopian Empire. Harar boasts about 82 mosques (three from the 10th century) and 102 shrines. The city is perched on the eastern wall of the Great Rift Valley, affording it a cool climate and wonderful views of the soaring mountains to the east. The main attractions are inside the Walled City, a fascinating warren of medieval mosques, houses, and markets. Another popular attraction is the nocturnal Hyena Man, who feeds wild hyenas strips of raw meat suspended from his mouth and sticks.
Bahir Dar is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Ethiopia. Known for its palm-lined avenues, it sits at the southern edge of Lake Tana, which is the source of the Blue Nile. The town is the main base for visiting Tissisat Falls and the lake's 37 islands with their ancient churches and monasteries. Unfortunately, many of these churches deny access to women but there are exceptions. The lake is enormous and it will probably take half a day just to visit two or three of the monasteries. The scenery is beautiful, though, and visitors may even spot some local fishermen in traditional papyrus canoes or groups of hippo. The most beautiful of the monasteries on Lake Tana are Debre Kebran Gabriel, which dates from the 14th century, and Ura Kidane Mehret, which has exceptional frescoes.
Gondar is a city like no other, scattered with ancient castles and churches, magnificent mountain scenery, and a pleasantly cool climate. Situated 460 miles (748km) north of Addis Ababa, this is the next clockwise step after Bahir Dar on the official Historic Route through Ethiopia. Founded by Emperor Fasilides around the year 1635, Gondar grew as an agricultural centre and market town. The city was the capital of Ethiopia for hundreds of years, which accounts for the abundant imperial architecture, most densely concentrated in the Royal Enclosure, which contains numerous castles. The oldest and most architecturally interesting is the Castle of Fasilides, which has Axumite, Portuguese, and Indian elements. Near the edge of Gondar is the Church of Debre Birhan Selassie, which was built in the 17th century and contains the country's most celebrated ceiling murals. Gondar is also a natural base for treks into the Simien Mountains and many tour companies tout their services in the city.
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