Ethiopia is like nowhere else on the planet, a beautiful country blessed with a peerless history, fabulous wildlife and some of Africa's most soulful peoples.
Ethiopia is one of Africa's most beautiful countries and its landscapes are epic in both scale and beauty. Here is a place where you can trek more than 9800ft above sea level (the Simien and Bale mountains) or visit the lowest place on the African continent, the Danakil Depression. In between, there are lush highlands and stirring deserts, vertiginous canyons and sweeping savanna, vast lakes and high plateaus. If you look hard enough, you'll also find landmarks of great significance, from the source of the Blue Nile to, again, the mesmerizingly desolate Danakil Depression, peppered with an astonishing 25% of Africa’s active volcanoes.
Ethiopia, one of the oldest countries in the world, successfully resisted European colonialism throughout the centuries – it has retained much of its cultural identity and its story is one of Africa's most fascinating. It all begins with Lucy, one of our most celebrated ancient ancestors, moves effortlessly into the realm of ancient Aksum with its oblelisks and echoes of the Queen of Sheba, and then takes on power and passion as Christianity, with mysterious echoes of Ancient Israel, takes center stage. The ancients here left behind some extraordinary monuments to faith and power which serve as focal points for so many wonderful journeys.
Ethiopia is one of Africa's most beautiful countries and its landscapes are epic in both scale and beauty. Here is a place where you can trek more than 3000m above sea level (the Simien and Bale mountains) or visit the lowest place on the African continent, the Danakil Depression. In between, there are lush highlands and stirring deserts, vertiginous canyons and sweeping savanna, vast lakes and high plateaus. If you look hard enough, you'll also find landmarks of great significance, from the source of the Blue Nile to, again, the mesmerisingly desolate Danakil Depression, peppered with an astonishing 25% of Africa’s active volcanoes.
Peoples with Proud Traditions
When it comes to culture, Ethiopia has an embarrassment of riches. There are the Surmi, Afar, Mursi, Karo, Hamer, Nuer and Anuak, whose ancient customs and traditions have remained almost entirely intact. A highlight of any trip here is witnessing one of the many festivals that are an integral part of the traditional culture, from age-old ceremonies marking rites of passage to Christian celebrations of singular passion, the impact upon those who witness such events can provide travel memories to last a lifetime.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Ethiopia.
When you think of Lalibela, you're thinking of Bet Giyorgis. Resting off on its own, St George’s Church is Lalibela’s masterpiece. Representing the apogee of the rock-hewn tradition, it's the most visually perfect church of all, a 15m-high three-tiered plinth in the shape of a Greek cross – a perfectly proportioned shape that required no internal pillars. Due to its exceptional preservation, it also lacks the obtrusive roofing seen over the other churches.
There's nowhere on earth quite like Abuna Yemata Guh. Although less impressive architecturally than most, the church is spectacularly sited within a cliff face, halfway up a sheer rock pinnacle 4km west of Megab. The first 45 minutes of the climb is mildly challenging, with a couple of tricky sheer sections requiring toehold action; guides carry ropes (Birr150) for the final push. The last two minutes require nerves of steel to make the final scramble and precarious ledge walk over a 200m drop.
No matter how you look at it, the Unesco World Heritage–listed Simien Mountains National Park 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. It’s not just the scenery (and altitude) that will leave you speechless, but also the excitement of sitting among a group of gelada monkeys or watching magnificent walia ibex joust on rock ledges.
The Gonder of yesteryear was a city of extreme brutality and immense wealth. Today the wealth and brutality are gone, but the memories linger in this amazing World Heritage site. The entire 70,000-sq-metre compound containing numerous castles and palaces has been restored with the aid of Unesco. Knowledgable, well-trained guides cost Birr200 and are well worth it.
Despite the dizzying grandeur of the numerous rock needles reaching for the stars, it’s what’s under your feet here that’s most important. Amazingly, about 90% of the field hasn’t yet been dug, so no matter where you walk, there’s a good chance there’s an undiscovered tomb with untold treasures beneath. This is part of Aksum’s appeal: the thought that fascinating finds and secrets lurk in the depths. That said, these are some of the ancient world's most striking monuments.
Set within Haile Selassie’s former palace, and surrounded by the beautiful gardens and fountains of the university’s main campus, is the enthralling Ethnological Museum. Even if you’re not a museum fan, this one is worth a bit of your time – it’s easily one of the finest museums in Africa, showing the full sweep of Ethiopia's cultural and social history across two floors.
The Blue Nile looks like a sluggish beast as it meanders out of Lake Tana, but not far out of Bahir Dar you’ll see the Nile in a very different mood. The river pours over the side of a sheer 42m-high chasm and explodes into a melange of mists and rainbows (best at 10am) before continuing on its tumultuous path to Khartoum, where it finally gets to kiss the White Nile.
Debre Damo is one of Ethiopia's most important monasteries and is thought to date back to Aksumite times and the 6th-century reign of King Gebre Meskel. The monastery’s formidable cliffs make for one of Ethiopia's most memorable experiences (for men, at least – women aren't allowed up). To reach the monastery, you'll need to scale a sheer 15m cliff; there’s a thick leather rope to help you climb and the monks will tie a second line around your torso and help pull you up.
The collection on show at the National Museum is ranked among the most important in sub-Saharan Africa, but sadly many of its exhibits are poorly labelled, lit and displayed. Far and away the highlight is the palaeontological exhibition in the basement, the home of world-famous Lucy. Her 1974 discovery in the Afar region of northwestern Ethiopia changed our understanding of human origins forever. This section is well labelled in English, so if your time is limited spend most of it here.