It’s not what Gonder (ጎንደር) is, but what Gonder was that’s so enthralling. The city lies in a bowl of hills where tall trees shelter tin-roofed stone houses, but rising above these, and standing proud through the centuries, are the walls of castles bathed in blood and painted in the pomp of royalty.
Lalibela (ላሊበላ) is history and mystery frozen in stone, its soul alive with the rites and awe of Christianity at its most ancient and unbending. No matter what you’ve heard about Lalibela, no matter how many pictures you’ve seen of its breathtaking rock-hewn churches, nothing can prepare you for the reality of seeing it for yourself.
Some people like to describe Bahir Dar (ባህር ዳር) as the Ethiopian Riviera. The moniker sounds strange, but when you pull into town and see the wide streets shaded by palm trees and sweeping views across Lake Tana’s shimmering blue waters, you’ll perhaps understand. More than a block back from the shore, however, Bahir Dar is just another busy Ethiopian city.
The rapidly expanding university city of Mekele (መቀሌ), Tigray’s capital, owes its importance to Emperor Yohannes IV, who made it his capital in the late 19th century. Though hardly anyone comes to see the town itself, there's enough here to pass the time waiting for your Danakil tour to depart or en route between Lalibela and the north.
Rock-hewn Churches of Tigray
The landscapes of northern Tigray seem to spring from some hard-bitten African fairy tale. The luminous light bathes scattered sharp peaks that rise into the sky out of a sandy, rolling semidesert. The stratified plateaus, particularly between Dugem and Megab in the Gheralta region, lead to inevitable comparisons with the USA’s desert southwest.
Simien Mountains National Park
No matter how you look at it, the Unesco World Heritage–listed Simien Mountains National Park (የሰሜን ተራሮች ብሔራዊ ፓርክ) is one of Africa’s most beautiful ranges. This massive plateau, riven with gullies and pinnacles, offers tough but immensely rewarding trekking along the ridge that falls sheer to the plains far below.
Like Aksum, unassuming, urban Adwa (አድዋ) belies its status. For Ethiopians the town holds huge significance. It was in the dramatic mountains surrounding Adwa that Emperor Menelik II inflicted the biggest defeat ever on a colonial army in Africa, thus saving Ethiopia from colonisation.
Lying 100km north of Addis Ababa is one of Ethiopia’s holiest sites. The original Debre Libanos (ደብረ ሊባኖስ) monastery was founded in the 13th century by Tekla Haimanot, a priest credited not only with the spread of Christianity in the highlands, but also the restoration of the Solomonic line of kings. Today he’s one of Ethiopia’s most revered saints.
Menz-Guassa Community Conservation Area
Truly off the beaten track, the 98-sq-km Menz-Guassa Community Conservation Area (የመንዝ-ጓሳ ማህበረሰብ የአካባቢ ጥበቃ) has one of the smallest but best-protected Afro-alpine habitats in Ethiopia. In fact, it’s been a locally managed natural resource management area since the 17th century. Trekking and village visits can be arranged, but must be booked in advance.