Sometimes spelt Addis Abeba, Addis Ababa is a diverse and riotous capital city of well over three million people. Home to roughly 80 different nationalities, it has a multitude of distinct religious and linguistic groups.
Nestled at the foot of Mount Entoto, it was founded in the late 1800s by Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II and was later occupied by the Italians during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. Once the Italians had been ejected, Emperor Haile Selassie immediately set about rebuilding the capital and formed the Organisation of African Unity, replaced by today's African Union, which still has its headquarters in this proud African city.
Addis Ababa is home to the world-renowned early hominid, Lucy, whose skeleton is housed in the Ethiopian National Museum. The city also boasts several interesting mosques and cathedrals, Menelik's old Imperial Palace, which is the official seat of the Ethiopian government, and one of the largest open air markets in Africa which suits in the Merkato District.
The city is perfect for tourists to buy souvenirs of their stay in Ethiopia. Top of the shopping list is likely to be a pack of Ethiopian coffee beans, preferably vacuum-sealed to preserve freshness. Decorative metalwork in the form of crosses and painted religious artworks on carved wooden boards are popular too. Filigreed silver and gold jewellery are other great buys. Addis Ababa is the best place in Ethiopia to sample the local cuisine, which is inventive and flavourful.
The destination is an interesting mix of poverty and wealth, urbanisation and nature (the city is surrounded by forests and cultivated land). It is a dynamic capital and not without charm, but has its fair share of unemployment, petty crime, and poverty.
Most travellers merely pass through Addis as it is the main transport hub of the country, but this transit shouldn't be rushed. Rather, it is a good two-day tourist city, offering travellers an authentic taste of urban Africa and enough interesting attractions to make a decent sightseeing itinerary.
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.
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.