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First-time visitors to Ethiopia are generally amazed by the stunning natural beauty of a country that is also incredibly rich in 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 being the only country in Africa that wasn't colonised, having defeated and expelled the Italians after a mere five years of occupation. Ethiopia 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 beckons visitors to explore from the tops of its highlands, where mountains soar over 14,100 feet (4,300 metres), to the depths of the Danakil Depression 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 from an historical and a natural point of view. The Historic Route winds through the medieval wonders of the country, including the ancient cities of Gondar and Axum, as well as the breath-taking Lalibela churches, hewn into rock. The north also boasts the lofty Simien Mountains National Park, encompassing the fourth highest peak on the continent, and providing fantastic hiking opportunities and a variety of wildlife.
Bahar 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, and today the oldest independent nation on the continent welcomes visitors to experience its long proud history and abundance of stunning scenery.
An ancient and beautiful country, there is plenty to see and do in Ethiopia. But getting to attractions isn't always easy and visitors may find sightseeing challenging. However, many of the attractions in Ethiopia are incredibly impressive and rewarding and worth negotiating the chaos.
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. It has some lively markets and worthy attractions, including the Ethiopian National Museum which is home to Lucy, the famous early hominid fossil.
Northern Ethiopia holds the greatest attraction for visitors as one of the country's richest regions for culture, history, and natural splendour. The Historic Route has some breathtaking assets and constitutes 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. Alternatively, the city of Axum is said to contain the Ark of the Covenant, while also being the ancient capital of the Queen of Sheba and the country's holiest city.
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, with wandering animals, hollering vendors, and a 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. Often shoppers can bargain their way down to as little as 20 percent of the original asking price. Travellers should be careful of purchasing antiques and historical artefacts as, without a certificate, they may not be genuine and, even if they are, they could be confiscated at the airport. The market is enormous, chaotic, and easy to get lost in, so many travellers prefer to hire a local guide to show them around.
This museum has a varied range of exhibits displayed across three floors and covering a wide scope of 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. Visitors should check ahead of time as to whether there is a power cut scheduled because they are common in the city and it is impossible to appreciate the museum in the dark. Another great museum in Addis Ababa, ten minutes walk from the National Museum, is the Ethnological Museum inside the main university campus at Sidist Kilo. The two museums are easily combined on a morning of sightseeing.
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. 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. Travellers should attend a service (enquire for times) to experience the wonderful singing and prayerful chanting so typical of Coptic Christianity. If they do attend a service, they should be aware that the congregation stands for the duration of the service with men to the left and women to the right. Visitors must take off their shoes before entering the church. There is a small museum at the church which has some useful information and interesting displays. Visitors can also get some great views of the city by climbing the museum's tower.
Addis Ababa has a subtropical highland climate, which means the temperature stays relatively constant, hovering between 46°F (8°C) and 77°F (25°C) for most of the year. The rainy season lasts from June to September, with July and August being the wettest time of year, with around 27 days of each month receiving 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 Ethiopia and weather varies substantially depending on altitude. The lowlands are generally hot and humid, with cooler temperatures in 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 61°F (16°C), while the lowlands average about 82°F (28°C).
In Addis Ababa, which ranges from 7,218 feet to 8,530 feet (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 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. Foreign currency can be exchanged at banks and authorised hotels. Credit cards have limited usage outside of Addis Ababa, and even in the capital they are only accepted by major establishments. 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.
Foreign visitors to Ethiopia may obtain a tourist visa on arrival, if arriving at the international airports in Addis Ababa. E-visas can be obtained before departure online at www.evisa.gov.et/. Work visas are also obtainable, but requirements should be confirmed in advance. A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required to enter Ethiopia, if arriving within six days of leaving or transiting through an infected area. 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, yellow fever, meningococcus, and cholera vaccinations. Malaria is prevalent in the lowlands (below 6,562 feet/2,000m) 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. Otherwise, tipping is fairly common, but only small amounts are customary. Tourists should note that locals may expect a tip for being photographed.
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.
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 FCO 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, parts of the Gambella region and the town of Jijiga. Overland travel to Sudan or Kenya is dangerous due to armed bandits, and should only be attempted in a convoy. There is a high threat from local terrorism in the country, and, although it is not directed at foreigners, visitors need to be cautious in public places.
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).
Moreover, homosexuality is illegal in Ethiopia. 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.
English is understood by most businessmen in Addis Ababa, as well as some French and Italian. Ethiopians 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, but may vary from business to business.
The international dialling code for Ethiopia is +251. The outgoing 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 main towns. Internet services are increasing in availability.
Travellers to Ethiopia over the age of 18 years do not have to pay 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: +1 202 364 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. They can be contracted for a full day after some negotiation.
Walking is still the preferred method of transport around this city. The road names are few and 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 Addis Ababa and a full valid international licence is required and the licence from country of origin must be endorsed locally. Drivers 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 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.
There is plenty to see and do in Addis Ababa. But the journey to the attractions is frequently more interesting than 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 to hire a taxi driver for a daily fee and have him drive you 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', taking 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) and seeing the wonderful cultural artefacts in the Ethnological Museum, and 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 an important pilgrimage site for Ethiopia's Orthodox Christians. There are 13 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. The small town of Lalibela is fairly rudimental, but there is an airport, some tourist accommodation, and good restaurants. Lalibela is a quiet, mystical place with a cool and moist climate, never failing to astound its growing number of visitors. It should be noted that Lalibela and its churches are not tourist attractions, but places for worship and contemplation: visitors should be respectful when visiting and taking photographs.
Axum is a city in far northern Ethiopia. Its 16th-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 stelae but the vast majority of this fascinating underground world has not yet been explored by archaeologists and the extent of the mysteries the obelisks guard is unknown. Axum is considered a holy city, commonly the destination of pilgrimages, which is certainly worth visiting for its historical riches. However, most visitors do not linger in the city's modern centre.
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, 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. Brave visitors can join him. French poet Arthur Rimbaud's house is now an interesting museum in Harar, worth a visit even for those who aren't familiar with his work. Shoppers should look for the highly regarded hand-crafted silverware, and the locally brewed Harar beer. The city has been a trade hub for centuries, serving as a shopper's paradise.
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. But the scenery is beautiful 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. The monasteries each charge their own entrance fee. The Tisissat Falls, often known as the Blue Nile Falls, are still impressive but the dam has seriously reduced the amount of water coming over the falls, which is sad. Bahir Dar also has an enormous market where visitors can trawl for local crafts and fresh produce.
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 Fasiledes 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 five castles. The oldest and most architecturally interesting is the Castle of Fasiledes, which has Axumite, Portuguese, and Indian elements. Near the edge of Gondar is the Church of Debre Birhan Selassie, which was built in 1682 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. Travellers should choose carefully and get the opinion of recently returned trekkers before committing to a particular guide as quality varies. Another good excursion out of the city is the small but beautiful town of Gorgora on the northern shore of Lake Tana, about 43 miles (70km) from Gondar, where visitors will find some interesting ancient artefacts.
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