OVERVIEW

On most maps, Ethiopia is definitely part of Africa – but not to Ethiopians. Perhaps because of their unique culture and history, the people of this East African country see themselves as quite distinct from their neighbors. The truth is, though, that Ethiopia is different, and you’ll begin to notice this the moment you arrive: the language, writing, food, and calendar are all very different from anywhere else.

Ethiopia is full of wonders, from the tribal cultures of the Omo Valley to the rare and unusual animals in the Semien Mountains. It is, however, Ethiopia’s cultural sites that are likely to make the biggest impression on you. Religion is an important driving force in Ethiopian society and has inspired some of their greatest achievements. Ethiopia is Africa as you’ve never seen it, and richly rewards explorers.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Spot rare and unusual animals in the Semien Mountains, including the Ethiopian Wolf (Africa’s rarest carnivore) and the incredibly sure-footed Walia Ibex.
  • Explore the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, a remarkable destination, and one that has to be seen to be believed.
  • Visit the Omo Valley to witness the lifestyles of their indigenous peoples.
  • Descend upon Danakil Depression, an otherworldly landscape composed of salt lakes and hot springs with vivid shades of yellow and green.
  • If you happen to be in Addis Ababa in late September, the smoke and fires of the Meskel Festival are unmissable.
Gateway city: Addis Ababa
Best time to travel: October through June (or September to January for festival)

ETHIOPIA TOURS

The itineraries displayed below highlight some of the best circuits and destinations in Ethiopia. These will give you an idea of what is possible and can be further customized to suit your individual travel styles and budget. Connect with one of our Ethiopia travel experts for a complimentary trip consultation.

CLICK HERE TO CONNECT WITH AN ETHIOPIA TRAVEL EXPERT

ADDIS ABABA

The “new flower”, Ethiopia’s capital, was founded by Emperor Menelik II in the late 19th Century. Today, the city is a fascinating blend of influences that reflect Ethiopia’s proud traditions. This proudly independent nation has carefully guarded its traditional music, food, and beliefs. You don’t have to look far between the concrete structures to find coffee shops and restaurants serving superb Ethiopian cuisine. Like many other aspects of life in Ethiopia, it’s quite different from what you might expect to be served anywhere else in Africa.

LALIBELA

Even by the standards of Ethiopia, Lalibela is a remarkable destination and one that has to be seen to be believed. As fascinating as it is for tourists, the town holds immense significance for the deeply religious Ethiopian people. The main drawcard is the cluster of rock-hewn churches which take visitors by surprise. That’s because their roofs are level with the surface of the rocky outcrop from which they were excavated. The resident priests will tell you that the churches were created overnight by angels; the theories of archaeologists are no less remarkable. They believe that each church was created by digging a deep trench to isolate a monolith, which was then hollowed out to create the interior of the church. The cool, dark interiors have all the features you would associate with a regular church, including remarkable religious artworks. One of the churches houses the sacred Lalibela Cross, a unique gold artifact weighing 15lb.

GONDAR

Once the seat of the emperors of Ethiopia, Gondar has fabulous ruins that hint at what this city must once have been and make for a fascinating day of exploration. The remarkably intact castles and defensive walls dominate a city of trees and stone-roofed houses. In their day, they were the setting for battles and intrigues as rival dynasties fought and schemed. The most famous monument is the Fasil Ghebbi or Royal Enclosure. Stories swirl about its imposing battlements, and this UNESCO World Heritage Site is often referred to as the “Camelot of Africa.” As well as forts, you can visit the remains of banqueting halls and libraries – this was not merely a military base, but the cultural center of a thriving civilization. Gondar is also the starting off point for visiting the impressive Semien Mountains.

SEMIEN MOUNTAINS

This range of mountains in northern Ethiopia is a misty, magical alpine wonderland. Grassy plateaus are separated by steep valleys and overshadow by soaring, jagged peaks, the tallest of which these reach a height of almost 15,000ft. This remarkable upland habitat is home to some equally amazing wildlife including the Walia ibex – an antelope with a head for heights and an unerring grip on even the steepest rock faces – and the Ethiopian wolf, a rarely seen species that is believed to be Africa’s rarest predator. The most iconic species however is the unique Gelada baboon. Due to its habit of sitting down to pluck tufts of grass to feed on, it has evolved bare red patches of skin on its chest with which to signal to other baboons. They are quite unfazed by the presence of humans; wandering amongst a troop of peacefully grazing Gelada can feel like you’ve stepped into a frame from a Gary Larson cartoon.

OMO VALLEY

The remote Omo Valley in south-western Ethiopia is effectively a country within a country. The people who live here are culturally and ethnically distinct from their fellow Ethiopians and largely maintain a traditional tribal lifestyle. Tribes such as the Hamar and Mursi have lived here for centuries, and little has changed in that time. They rely on the waters of the Omo River (which ultimately flows into Lake Turkana, the Jade Sea) to sustain their livelihoods. Although the Omo Valley can seem like an inhospitable landscape, the people who live here have learned to coexist in harmony with their surroundings. The routine of their lives is broken up by traditional ceremonies relating to life’s key milestones, including marriage and coming of age. These ceremonies often involve body art and ancient rituals like bull jumping. Visiting the Omo Valley is a wonderful opportunity to witness the lifestyles of these indigenous peoples.

LAKE TANA

After years of speculation by early European explorers, Lake Tana in northern Ethiopia was eventually proved to be the source of the Blue Nile (which joins with the White Nile before flowing through Egypt). This shallow lake varies in size throughout the year, depending on seasonal rainfall. It’s a haven for waterbirds, with over 200 species having been recorded here, including the iconic great white pelican. Lake Tana also has immense cultural significance: its surface is dotted with islands, many of which host religious communities living in monasteries. These islands have long been a safe place to store some of Ethiopia’s priceless treasures, and the bodies of a number of emperors are buried on different islands. A visit to Lake Tana lets you experience both the natural history and the fascinating culture of Ethiopia, a country like no other in Africa.

AXUM

Like Gondar, Axum – a small town in the very far north of Ethiopia – was once the center of a mighty empire. The wealth and prestige of the Aksum kingdom would be only a memory, were it not for the monuments they left behind. The most famous of these are the carved stone “stele” or obelisks, some of which are up to 80 feet tall and were erected some 1700 years ago to commemorate important people and events. The most impressive obelisk is a monster weighing an estimated 575 tons. It lies in pieces, having fallen and shattered during construction. Bearing in mind that the architects and builders had no access to machinery, the fact that they would even attempt something this ambitious says a lot about their confidence and their level of technical skill. Today, these obelisks have become symbolic of Ethiopia itself.

DANAKIL DEPRESSION

Perhaps the closest you can get to the surface of another planet without leaving the Earth, the Danakil is a truly otherworldly place. One of the hottest and driest places in the world, the Danakil lies some 400ft below sea level. It’s a surreal landscape of salt lakes and hot springs colored vivid shades of yellow and green by the primitive microorganisms in the water. The harsh beauty of the Danakil is just one reason for heading there; many scientists believe that conditions here could give clues as to how life itself began. The remains of one of our earliest ancestors, the hominid known as Lucy, were found in the Danakil, suggesting that our species may also have its origins in this unlikely spot. For a landscape that looks great on Instagram, but with a history dating back millions of years, the Danakil is unsurpassed.

HARAR

In eastern Ethiopia, the town of Harar is something of an anomaly. It has the look and feel of a Swahili coastal town (like Lamu or Stone Town) but is nowhere near the sea. This walled settlement is a treasure trove of traditional Islamic architecture, with intricately decorated niches and wooden balconies. It’s believed that this is where the coffee plant was first domesticated, and it’s also where the gunrunner and poet, Arthur Rimbaud, lived for a few years of his short, but eventful life. At night, Spotted hyenas roam the streets, attracted in part by the nightly performance of the “hyena man of Harar”, who feeds them scraps of meat using a stick clenched between his teeth. Harar is a city steeped in history, and simply wandering through its narrow winding streets is the best way to soak up its unique ambiance before enjoying a cup of traditional Ethiopian coffee in the place where our love affair with caffeine began.