One of the most beautiful, diverse and enigmatic destinations in Africa, Ethiopia has something for everyone. Looking for fantastic hiking and unique wildlife? Try hanging out with gelada monkeys in the Simien Mountains. History and spirituality? Lalibela’s churches and Gondar’s castles. Spectacular landscapes and adventure? The volcanic Danakil Depression. All of the above together? Climb to one of Tigray’s vertiginous mountaintop churches. In fact, there is so much to see it’s not easy to decide where to go and how long. Plan your trip to Northern Ethiopia with this sample itinerary, taking you from 130m below sea level in otherworldly Dallol, to 4000m and higher on the jagged peaks of the Simien Mountains.
- Exploring Addis Ababa and Ethiopian cuisine
- Hiking to the spectacular rock-hewn churches of Tigray
- Erta Ale volcano, Dallol hot springs, and salt flats in the Danakil Depression
- The evocative rock-hewn churches of Lalibela
- Wandering around historic Gondar
- Hiking in the Simien Mountains and making friends with gelada monkeys
Although the political situation is far from ideal and there is plenty of turmoil in neighboring countries, Ethiopia remains a relatively safe country for tourists. Nevertheless, always check the latest travel advisory before going. The best time to go to Ethiopia is between October and May. It is also possible to travel during the rainy season that lasts from June to September, but the wettest months, July and August, are better avoided. The scorching hot Danakil Depression can only really be visited from November to April.
Renting a car to self-drive is practically impossible, so you need to go around by public transport or private car with driver. The latter is preferable if you want to make stops on the way. More often than not, a car comes with a driver AND a guide, this doesn’t seem to make a real difference price-wise. Roads have improved a lot in recent years, but many routes still take tediously long… If you don’t have unlimited time you will want to fly to some places. Ethiopian Airlines cannily offers discounts on domestic flights if you arrive on one of their international flights, this usually turns out to be quite a good deal.
Day 1: Addis Ababa
For a bustling African capital, Addis Ababa is relatively quiet and pleasant to walk around: it’s pretty clean and safe (but beware of pickpockets), and there are actual sidewalks most of the time. Taxis are generally easy to flag down. It is not a particularly beautiful city, but there are some interesting sights.
Ethiopia is justifiably famous for its coffee, so start the day with a delicious espresso at Mokarar in the Piazza area (locals know it as Harar, it’s directly across the street from the Soramba hotel). Nearby is the St George Cathedral. Tourists need to buy an entry ticket, which includes access to a small museum, but still seems a bit too pricey. The church is supposed to be open between 9-12am and 2-5pm Tuesday to Sunday, but for some reason it was closed when we were there, so we only had a quick look around the tranquil church grounds.
Have lunch at Itegue Taitu, Ethiopia’s oldest hotel built in 1898 by empress Taitu Betul. The building is charming, although a bit run down. I wouldn’t recommend staying here, but it’s a great place to have some food or drinks (in the evening there is often live jazz music). The inexpensive vegan lunch buffet is very popular with locals, and a good, risk-free introduction to Ethiopian food. An Ethiopian meal is invariably accompanied by, and often served on, injera, a kind of fermented pancake made of tef, an indigenous cereal. You use pieces of injera in lieu of cutlery, to scoop up the various stews and curries. Dessert doesn’t really exist in Ethiopia, so finish off with another coffee at nearby Tomoca, easily the most atmospheric of Addis Ababa’s traditional cafes.
In the afternoon, explore the Ethnological Museum housed in emperor Haile Selassie’s former palace, now part of the university campus. Although not very big, the exhibition is quirky and interesting, giving nice snippets of information about Ethiopia’s peoples plus a peek at the late emperor’s rooms, which don’t look quite so luxurious to contemporary eyes. Upstairs, the exhibition of religious art and musical instruments is worth a look too.
If you have more time, consider visiting the famous fossilized remains of our 3.2 million year old ancestor Lucy in the rather stuffy National Museum (although the skeleton on show is a replica) or the Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum. Some people visit the Merkato, Addis Ababa’s central market and one of the largest in Africa, but I think the markets in smaller towns you might encounter later during your trip are more picturesque and pleasant to walk around.
Stay at a hotel in the Bole Road area, which is conveniently close to the airport and has a large choice of restaurants. We stayed at the Golden Tulip, which is an uninspiring business hotel but very comfortable, with spacious rooms and a free airport shuttle. For dinner I recommend Kategna, a modern lounge-style restaurant (there are actually two, not far from each other) serving traditional Ethiopian food which is popular with well to do locals. If you don’t know what to order just ask for a mix of meat and/or vegetarian dishes, al served on injera.
Day 2-4: Tigray
The stunning rock-hewn churches of the Tigray region are one of the hidden gems of Ethiopia. Carved from the mountains between the 8th and 15th century and often perched high on top of steep cliffs with spectacular views, they make for very rewarding hikes. Tigray’s population is predominantly Orthodox Christian, and all the churches are still in use. It feels like a biblical place, where life has pretty much remained unchanged for centuries (except for the ubiquitous mobile phones) and goats and donkeys outnumber the mostly traditionally dressed people.
From Addis Ababa, take an early flight to Mekele, Tigray’s capital. It’s about a two-hour drive from the airport to the arid but picturesque high-plateau where most of the churches are found. Most visitors stay in the small town of Hawzien, but the nearby village of Megab has what might be one of the nicest lodges in all of Ethiopia: Korkor Lodge. Charming and spacious bungalows, built in the local Tigrinya style, are scattered around a lovely garden. They all have stunning views of the Gheralta mountains. Tasty meals are included, a proper restaurant is due to open soon.
Korkor Lodge is a convenient base to explore the surrounding churches. You will still need a car with a driver and preferably also a guide to get around. I can highly recommend our guide, Gabriel, who comes from Megab and knows a lot about the area (you can reach him on +25 1914539845 or via email, if the internet works, at firstname.lastname@example.org). Because almost all of them involve rather strenuous hikes, you can count on visiting two or three churches a day. But the hiking is a pleasure in itself, with fantastic scenery and some great birdwatching. My favorite excursions were to Maryam Korkor, Abuna Yemata Guh, and Maryam Papaseit. For more info and a day-to-day description, check out my 3 day guide to Tigray’s rock-hewn churches!
Day 5-8: Danakil Depression
The Danakil Depression in the Afar region is one of the world’s hottest and most inhospitable places, but also one of the most spectacular. This desert area lying more than a 100m below sea level has a lot of volcanic activity and remarkable geological features. Here, you can wander around the fantastically colored Dallol hot springs; climb Erta Ale, an active volcano, and peer into its bubbling lava lake; and see camel caravans transport salt like they have done for thousands of years. Add to that magical sunsets over Asale salt lake, strangely sculpted salt mountains and racing through a sand desert with ostriches, and it’s a place you simply cannot miss.
You can only visit as part of an organized tour, as this region has had some security issues in the past (and present, but don’t let that put you off, this place is a highlight of any trip to Ethiopia and if you stick with the group and don’t do anything rash you will be absolutely fine). We went for a 4-day, 3-night trip with Ethio Travel and Tours (ETT). For more information about Danakil and how to visit, check out my post Danakil Depression – All you need to know!
Tours to Danakil leave from Mekele, a booming university town. You will probably spend at least a night here. There is nothing noteworthy to see, but there are a couple of good restaurants, ranging from the traditional to the trendy. Black Rose is a great example of the latter, a stylish place with an atmospheric garden, although it was a bit too quiet when we were there. They serve good Ethiopian food besides pizza and pasta. Try Geza Gerlase for classic Ethiopian meat dishes in a traditional setting, it gets the occasional tour group but is also popular with locals. There are great live performances on some evenings.
Day 9-10: Lalibela
Fly or drive to Lalibela. Flights don’t go every day, so we opted to go by car. It is a long 8-hour drive from Mekele ($50 p.p. in a private car with ETT, public transport is also possible), but the road is absolutely beautiful, passing through picturesque villages and sweeping mountain scenery. You can stop to buy delicious Tigrayan honey along the road in Addi Mesno.
Lalibela’s main draw are its evocative churches, which date from around 1200 and are carved directly out of the rocks (and are thus all below ground). If you arrive before 5pm, consider buying your entrance ticket immediately: the pricey $50 tickets that give access to all Lalibela’s churches are valid for 5 days (even though hardly anybody stays that long) and if you already have a ticket it’s possible to go and see the churches before the ticket office opens the following day at 8am. It’s also more convenient if you want to start with the southeastern cluster of churches, which is further away from the ticket office and often less busy in the morning.
We were happy to arrive at our hotel, Old Abyssinia lodge, just in time to enjoy the sunset from our room’s verandah. Old Abyssinia is located on the edge of town and only has three rooms, each in its own tukul (traditional round huts). The place is charming and quiet, with great views and lots of birdlife. Service was a little pushy, but otherwise a fantastic place to stay. We had dinner at the hotel restaurant which serves simple but very tasty local food, if you’re not staying here it’s worth coming for a meal.
After breakfast (which strangely enough was not very good and took frustratingly long to be served) we were off to discover Lalibela’s famous churches. There are many of them but they are all close together, so a day is enough to see them well. We were there just before Ethiopian Christmas (which is on January 7th) and the place was teeming with pilgrims, all traditionally dressed, which made for a very special atmosphere! If your visit does not coincide with any religious festival or event, go see the churches in the early morning, during service. You might not be allowed to enter, but you can soak up the ambience, and there will be plenty of time to see inside later.
The churches are definitely unique, and some have interesting architectural features and paintings. Unfortunately the protective roofing installed by Unesco really spoils the overall impression, especially when compared with the churches of Tigray. Lalibela is also far more touristy, although in Ethiopia that is not saying much. It is still a great experience wandering around the narrow corridors and seeing Ethiopia’s intense religious life from up close. As we had been traveling with a guide for most of our trip, we decided not to get one here, and unless you absolutely want to be able to recognize all the depicted saints, I think it’s the best way to experience the atmosphere of the place at your own pace.
The highlight was definitely Bet Giyorgis, which is set a little apart from the other churches, and crucially does not have protective roofing. I recommend keeping this church for last, also because it is most beautiful at sunset. Go a little before 5pm to be sure it’s still open.
When in Lalibela it is a must to eat at Ben Abeba, simply for the unique fantastical structure. Go for lunch or early dinner, as the views are great (you can often see lammergeiers, or bearded vultures, soaring over). Another good spot for lunch is Seven Olives, in the garden of the rather dilapidated hotel of the same name. It’s touristy but the Ethiopian food is very good and it’s a lovely place to relax between church visits.
Day 11: Gondar
The next morning, fly to Gondar. If you go by car, another day-long drive, you will need to add another day to this itinerary to do Gondar justice. A charming, verdant city, Gondar is quite different from everything you’ve seen till now. Half a day is enough to see the most important sights: the Royal Enclosure and Debre Birhan Selassie church. If you have a full day you can add a visit to Fasilidas’ Bath and Kidame Gebya market (daily 7am – 3pm).
We stayed at Lodge du Chateau, very conveniently located just in front of the Royal Enclosure. It is a cute place with a lovely rooftop terrace for breakfast and drinks and friendly service. Rooms however are basic and without charm, and the walls are so thin that you can literally hear everything. It was fine for a night but I would not stay here longer.
Upon arrival we went straight for lunch at The Four Sisters, well-known to be Gondar’s nicest restaurant. It is touristy, but the garden setting is pleasant and the Ethiopian food good. From here it’s a short walk to Debre Birhan Selassie, a beautiful 18th century church in the middle of a serene walled garden, for some reason teeming with vultures. Inside, the church is decorated with some wonderful frescos, most notably the photogenic rows of angels that cover the entire ceiling.
On the way back to the city centre, stop for a coffee break at Ethiopia Café right on the Piazza, a characterful Italian art deco cafe. Try the sprise, a mix of coffee and tea which is surprisingly good, sweet and spiced.
Spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the Royal Enclosure. This fortress-city was home to the Ethiopian emperors during the 17th and 18th centuries, you can see their castles and palaces in various stages of ruin in a pleasant, tranquil garden setting. It’s great to just wander around this fairytale place, but if you want to know more about the history you can get a guide at the entrance.
Day 12-14: Simien Mountains
After an early breakfast, leave for the Simien Mountains National Park. Again, you will need a driver and guide, or go with an organized tour. I can highly recommend our guide Tesh, he’s from the region, very professional, and speaks very good English (you can reach him on +25 1918731621 or via email email@example.com). Tesh also organizes multi-day treks.
It’s a 2-hour drive to get to the Simien, with a quick stop at the park’s head office in Debark to sign in and pick up a mandatory armed scout (this seems to be mostly to provide jobs to the local population). The landscape is nothing special up until the very end, when the view suddenly dramatically opens up before you. The Simien Mountains are a spectacular collection of jagged peaks, sheer precipices, and deep valleys, which are home to several endemic species, most famously the furry gelada monkey. This is prime hiking country, with plenty of trails (made more challenging by the altitude). It’s a popular destination, but you will still not come across more than a handful of people.
We stayed at Limalimo Lodge, probably Ethiopia’s most elegantly luxurious boutique accommodation, and sustainable to boot. Minimalist design makes the most of the stunning views, which are breathtaking even on less clear days. A stay here is really all-inclusive, with impeccable service, delicious food (the default option is European fare, but you can ask for Ethiopian cuisine) and fire-side aperitifs.
The only downside is that, while Limalimo overlooks the national park, the access road is on the other side. It takes about an hour to get to the park entrance, so if you plan on staying longer than one night and want to do a lot of hiking it might be better to move to the more centrally located, but decidedly less luxurious, Simien Lodge. Camping is another possibility, and very popular in the Simien Mountains even though it can get very cold at night. Ask Tesh about possibilities.
Upon arrival at Limalimo, Tesh took us for a hike around the area. We immediately bumped into a group of gelada monkeys. It is pretty much impossible not to see them when in the Simien, they make up huge herds of sometimes hundreds of individuals, and they are not shy at all. It’s an amazing experience to sit in the middle of a group of grooming geladas, listening to them chattering away! Around the lodge you can also find guereza monkeys, and plenty of birds including the endemic but common thick-billed raven.
We had a lovely lunch on Limalimo’s sunny patio, after which we headed into the national park for another walk and more gelada encounters. I just couldn’t get enough of these amazing creatures!
The next day we had planned a full day of hiking in the park, with a picnic lunch provided by Limalimo. Besides geladas, we saw klipspringer, Menelik’s bushbuck, and grey duiker. Unfortunately the rare walia ibex, another endemic mammal, is usually only encountered further inside the park, around Chenneck and Bwahit.
Back in Gondar, spend the night at Mayleko Lodge near the airport, ready to fly back to Addis the next morning. Mayleko is very comfortable, with guest rooms in spacious bungalows, and one of the best showers we had during our entire trip. Unfortunately the restaurant is rather overpriced.
From Addis, you can either head home or continue your travels. Two weeks in the north of Ethiopia give a good idea of what the country has to offer, but there is obviously much more to see! Consider adding a few extra days to explore the Bale Mountains, Harar or the Omo Valley. And as infrastructure improves, surely other areas will open up to tourism. I for one can’t wait to go back to this fantastic country!
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