Since its establishment in the 19th century, Addis Ababa (አዲስ አበባ) has always seemed like a magical portal, a gateway to another world. For the rural masses of Ethiopia it was, and is, a city whose streets are paved in gold; for a foreign visitor, the gateway of Addis Ababa is at the verge of an ancient and mystical world.
Southern Ethiopia is a canvas ripped in two. Its landscape is being torn apart by the Great Rift Valley, leaving a trail of lakes where you can go see crocodiles, hippos and birds – or just drink in the scenery from your hotel. Move east and the Bale Mountains offer rewarding treks across a plateau amid Afro-alpine plants and rare wildlife.
World Heritage–listed Harar (ሐረር) is a place apart. With its 368 alleyways squeezed into just 1 sq km, it’s more reminiscent of Fez in Morocco than any other city in the Horn. Its countless mosques and shrines, animated markets, crumbling walls and charming people will make you feel as if you’ve floated right out of the 21st century.
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.
Western Ethiopia is undisturbed and seldom visited, and while its towns are nothing special, it’s one of the most beautiful regions in Ethiopia. Rainforests and coffee plantations share the landscape with savannah grasslands, wildlife-rich swamps and high plateaus carpeted in fields of tef (an indigenous grass cultivated as a cereal, the base for making injera).
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 fourth-most populous city in Ethiopia, Dire Dawa (ድሬ ዳዋ) usually elicits strong reactions. Its colourful storefronts, tree-lined streets, neat squares and foreign influence (look for Arab, French, Italian and Greek styles in some of the architecture and design) are a refreshing change from the filthy disorder and lack of character in most Ethiopian towns.
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.
Bordered by verdant mountains and home to two of Ethiopia’s largest Rift Valley lakes, this city is more than a convenient overnight stop on the southern circuit. With Nechisar National Park and the highland Dorze villages on its doorstep, it deserves to be a destination on its own. Arba Minch (አርባ ምንጭ) is actually two cities in one.