Must see attractions in Northern Ethiopia

  • Top ChoiceSights in Lalibela

    Bet Giyorgis

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Rock-hewn Churches of Tigray

    Abuna Yemata Guh

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Northern Ethiopia

    Simien Mountains National Park

    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.

  • Sights in Gonder

    Royal Enclosure

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Aksum

    Northern Stelae Field

    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.

  • Sights in Northern Ethiopia

    Blue Nile Falls (Tis Abay)

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Northern Ethiopia

    Debre Damo

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Gonder

    Debre Berhan Selassie

    Welcome to one of Ethiopia's most beautiful churches. Appealing as it is on the outside with its stone walls, arched doors and two-tiered thatch roof, it's the inner sanctuary of Debre Berhan Selassie, with its glorious frescos, that really shines. But it was very nearly destroyed like most of Gonder’s other churches. When the marauding Sudanese dervishes showed up outside the church gates in the 1880s, a giant swarm of bees surged out of the compound, chasing the invaders away.

  • Sights in Lalibela

    Bet Merkorios

    Reached via a series of trenches and tunnels (one is long, narrow and pitch-black) that starts from Bet Gabriel-Rufael, this church may have started as something altogether different. The discovery of ankle shackles among other objects has led scholars to believe it may have served as the town’s prison, or house of justice.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Lalibela

    Bet Medhane Alem

    Resembling a massive Greek temple more than a traditional Ethiopian church, Bet Medhane Alem is impressive for its size and majesty. Said to be the largest rock-hewn church in the world, it measures 33.5m by 23.5m and is more than 11.5m high. Some scholars have suggested it may have been a copy in rock of the original St Mary of Zion church in Aksum.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Lalibela

    Bet Amanuel

    Free-standing and monolithic, Bet Amanuel is Lalibela’s most finely carved church. Some have suggested it was the royal family’s private chapel. It perfectly replicates the style of Aksumite buildings, with its projecting and recessed walls mimicking alternating layers of wood and stone seen at places such as Yemrehanna Kristos and Debre Damo. The most striking feature of the interior is the double Aksumite frieze atop the nave.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Lalibela

    Yemrehanna Kristos

    Despite Yemrehanna Kristos being one of Ethiopia’s best-preserved late-Aksumite buildings, few people reward themselves with a visit. And a reward it is. The church is different because it’s built rather than excavated. Seeing the stepped exterior facade, created from alternating wood and stone layers, you’ll understand why so many of Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches look like they do. And knowing that Yemrehanna Kristos may predate Lalibela’s churches by up to 80 years, you have before you a virtual blueprint of greatness.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Lalibela

    Bet Maryam

    Connected to Bet Medhane Alem by a tunnel is a large courtyard containing three churches. The first, Bet Maryam, is small, yet designed and decorated to an exceptionally high standard. It’s also the only church with porches extending off it. Dedicated to the Virgin (who’s particularly venerated in Ethiopia), this is the most popular church among pilgrims. Some believe it may have been the first built in Lalibela.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Lake Tana & its Monasteries

    Ura Kidane Meret

    The Zege Peninsula’s largest and most famous monastery is hardly the most attractive on the outside, but its maqdas (inner sanctuary) is beautifully painted and it holds an important collection of 14th- to 20th-century crosses and crowns that will one day be displayed in a big new museum. Outside its gate is the private Zeghie Satekela Museum, with a collection of household items displayed in a 300-year-old home. The monastery is a 20-minute walk from the landing.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Lake Tana & its Monasteries

    Narga Selassie

    Set in the middle of the lake on Dek Island, Narga Selassie is peaceful, atmospheric and little visited. Built in the mid-18th century, it has a Gonderian influence and the fine original paintings include a portrait of Mentewab and there’s also a bas-relief of James Bruce (smoking his pipe) at the main entrance. It’s three hours by boat and a two-minute walk from the landing.

  • Sights in Debre Libanos

    Debre Libanos Monastery

    Although no trace of the 13th-century monastery remains (a casualty of the Muslim–Christian Wars), the modern site is impressively set beneath a waterfall-rich cliff (many of the monks live in caves up there) on the edge of the large Jemma River Gorge and is a peaceful place to wander. The present church was built in 1961 by Haile Selassie, against the wishes of the local priests, after hearing a prophesy that a new church would ensure a long reign.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Aksum

    Abba Pentalewon

    High above Aksum, on top of a tall, narrow peak, is Abba Pentalewon monastery. Tradition states it was built by Abba Pentalewon, one of the Nine Saints and a man who is said to have prayed nonstop for 40 years, and that this is where King Kaleb retired to after abdicating his throne. The views, the monastery itself and the treasures are all worth the climb, although women may feel a little short-changed by the experience.

  • Sights in Aksum

    Gobodura Hill

    A site known as Wuchate Golo is one of Aksum's four ancient quarries, the birthplace of the famous stelae. Several stelae (all unmarked) were almost completely freed from the rock, but then abandoned. Just as interesting is the Lioness of Gobodura (የጎቦዱራዋ እንስት አንበሳ). It was here that the Archangel Mikael fought a tremendous battle with a fierce lioness. The fight ended when the saint hurled the beast into a massive boulder with such force that its outline is still visible.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Rock-hewn Churches of Tigray

    Mikael Debre Selam

    This church or ‘church within a church’ has an exceptional brown-and-white, Aksumite-style facade fronting its inner rock-hewn section. The bright, modern paintings at the front and its beautiful carved arch add an odd but interesting contrast. The setting is lovely and it’s one of our favourites. The 45-minute, one-way climb is strenuous but otherwise not difficult.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Aksum

    Ark of the Covenant Chapel

    In between the old and new St Mary of Zion churches is the real reason for most people’s devotion: a tiny, carefully guarded chapel that houses what most Ethiopians believe is the legendary Ark of the Covenant. Don’t think you can take a peek: just one specially chosen guardian has access to the Ark, and even he is not allowed to look at it.