Top 10 Places to Visit in Ethiopia

Ethiopia, so much more than famine or the wars with Eritrea. This is a proud nation, with a history dating back over 3000 years. It is one of the oldest Christian countries in the world and is a genuine multicultural society.

Now a rapidly growing economic powerhouse in Africa, Ethiopia has a rapidly improving literacy rate and healthcare system.

Most visits start and finish in Addis Ababa, which is well served with international flights.

You can choose to fly between the main towns, and there is a good network served by Ethiopian Airlines. But if you have the time, going the slow way is the best way to soak up the scenery, stop for a coffee, chat with the locals, and go off the beaten track.

This amazing country is slowly being discovered by intrepid tourists, but there is so much space that you currently only meet an occasional “white nose” in the larger towns.

My top 10 recommendation are given in no particular order. They are influenced by the places that I have visited, and there is definitely more to see and do!

1. Lalibela’s Rock Hewn Churches

Probably one of the most recognisable pictures of Ethiopia, these churches are actually hewn out of the volcanic rock in the 12th and 13th century, and are now World Heritage Listed. Accessible via tunnels, ramps and narrow gullies, an amazing area to get lost in. Get a local guide who takes care of all entrance fees and makes sure you get to see all aspects of this amazing place.

Bet Giyorgis

2. The amazing Stelae of Axum

These are even larger than those in Egypt, you wonder how they were put in place 2000 years ago!

King Esana Stele

And while in Axum, visit the Church of Maryam of Zion and admire the chapel behind is that is reputedly housing the one and only Arc of the Covenant. You may feel its presence!

3. Yeha Temple of the Moon

The cradle of civilisation in Africa, this is another amazing site. The quality of the build, the massive blocks fitting seamlessly together, done nearly 3000 years ago! Built as a temple of the moon, it has since also been an Orthodox church!

Temple of the Moon, 800 BCE

4. The Castles of Gondar

The Royal Enclosure contains six castles from the 17th and 18th Century when Gondar was the seat of the Ethiopian Emperor. The buildings comprise a range of styles, making them unique in their architecture. It is lovely walking around the compound and its gardens in the heart of the city.

Again, I recommend you pick up a local guide to get some of the great stories about emperors and the imperial successions. Game of Thrones fans, eat your heart out here!

Fasilides Castle, 17th century AD

5. Simien Mountains; lush scenery, waterfalls and amazing wildlife

The high country of Ethiopia is cool, green and wet. You will have to hire a guard and a guide to get into the park, but the sights are definitely worth it if you take the time to get your walking boots on.

The one and only road into the Simien Mountains

6. Lake Tana’s World Heritage Listed Monasteries

Hire a boat and guide for the day, and venture out onto Lake Tana and visit some of the island monasteries. Peaceful, quiet and contemplative, such an antithesis to our lives today!

Brightly preserves paintings of angels and saints with afros.

7. The Blue Nile Falls

If possible, plan your trip during the rainy season or when there is an outage of the hydro power plant, to see these falls in their original grandeur. It is a lovely walk, and next door to Bahir Dar.

Blue Nile Falls in the dry (15 metres high!)

8. The Blue Nile Gorge, the Ethiopian Grand Canyon

With depths of up to 1500 metres, this canyon is one of the largest in the world. It can easily be visited on a long day trip from Addis.

Blue Nile Gorge from the North

9. Meet Lucy in the National Museum

Go and visit the remains of our common ancestor and learn more about the evolution from great ape to homo sapiens. The cast of the skeleton of Lucy, our great great etc grand mother, is on display in this relatively modest museum.

She may only reach up to my waist, this full grown young adult, but there is definitely a hint of what was later to become homo sapiens.

Lucy, our ancestor (around 3.2 Million Years ago)

10. A Genuine Home Stay

If you get the opportunity, there is nothing better than experience true Ethiopian hospitality! Eating home cooked meals with the family (remember, right hand only!), and sharing in family life and celebrations.

Be the reality show in the life of these kids!

Our trip on a map

We started in Addis Ababa, and then drove to the North East and into the Rift Valley. We then climbed back up into the highlands at Dese, and continued north to Lalibela, and further North to Axum.

We got pretty close to the border with Eritrea, before heading West and then South to the Simien Mountains. We continued on to Gondar, spend some time around Lake Tana, and drove around the eastern shore of Lake Tana to Bahir Dar on the southern end of the Lake.

The last stretch was from Bahir Dar to Addis Ababa, driving across the Blue Nile Gorge. For scale, that section was 550 km and took over 12 hours to drive.

From Addis at the base of this map,
we drove anti clockwise around North Western Ethiopia

I realise that we have only covered a part of this amazing country. We did not get to the Danakil Desert where the great rift valley gets renewed every day, or the mountaintop monasteries in Tigray, or the Dinka further down south.

Many thanks to Frank and Lina, without whom this amazing trip never could have been. And to Frank for checking my blogs for accuracy!

Tips and Trip Details:

We pre-booked most of the accommodation in the main towns, especially as we wanted to celebrate Leddet in Lalibela and Timkat in Gondar.

LocationDistance (km)Driving Time (hrs)Accommodation
Addis Ababa00Family Stay
Kombolcha3857:15Sunni Side Hotel
Lalibela2556:30Panoramic View Hotel
Aksum39510:00Yeha Hotel
Gondar3427:15Goha Hotel
Gorgora631:00Port Gorgora Hotel
Gondar631:00Jantekel Hotel
Cello Mariam380:30Family Stay
Bahir Dar1822:45Grand Hotel and Kitsel Hotel
Addis Ababa55012:30Family Stay
Summary of our road trip

We travelled independently and hiring local guides where we needed to. I realise that this may not be possible for everybody. But, you can rent a car and driver from Addis Ababa, and as an alternative, there are a number of companies in Ethiopia providing small group or individual tours of the country.

There are also international companies (like Intrepid) that provide small group tours of Ethiopia.

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