10 Top Things to Do in Ethiopia

Ethiopia's beautiful landscape
Ethiopia's beautiful landscape | © Richard Stupart / Flickr
Photo of Serkalem Tafesse
18 June 2018

Not many countries manage to impress their visitors in a way that Ethiopia does. The country’s breathtaking natural beauty, diverse culture, soulful people, delicious cuisine, and endemic wildlife are perfect for the traveler looking for different experiences. Here are the top must-see places in Ethiopia for both the budget packer and luxury traveler.

Marvel at the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela

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Bete Giyorgis church
Bete Giyorgis church in Lalibela | Bete Giyorgis church in Lalibela

Dubbed the “New Jerusalem,” Lalibela town in the Northern part of Ethiopia, is a place of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians. The town is home to 11 ancient monolithic churches carved entirely out of a single rock with hammers and chisels. Standing at 40 feet high, Bete Giorgis (Saint George’s), is the most impressive of these churches with a roof that has the shape of a cross. Bete Medhani Alem church which you can find across the main road from St. George, is the largest monolithic church in the world. King Lalibela is credited for these spectacular buildings which have been registered by UNESCO as world heritages.

Feel the heat at the Danakil Depression

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Danakil Depression
The colorful landscape of Dallol in the Danakil Depression | The colorful landscape of Dallol in the Danakil Depression

The Northeastern part of Ethiopia is home to the hottest place on Earth, where daytime temperatures soar to sweltering 50°C in Summer. In the heart of the depression lies a place called Dallol that features salt mines and magnificent multicolored landscapes that give you the impression of a carefully painted art book. The Danakil depression is also home to one of the world’s oldest active volcano called Erta Ale to mean a smoking mountain in the local language. After looking at the bubbling lava from the volcano and the unbearable heat, you can see why the Afar people in the area call this place the gateway to hell.

Be on top of the world at Semien Mountains National Park

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Simien Mountains
The Simien Mountains National Park | The Simien Mountains National Park

Ideal for travelers seeking a trekking experience, the Semien Mountains, also called the Roof of Africa, have cliffs that tower as high as 1,500 meters. Ras Dashen, the highest point in Ethiopia, is also found here. Home to the endemic Semien Fox, the Ethiopian Wolf, the Walia Ibex, and the Gelada Baboon, these mountains live up to your expectations of a UNESCO world heritage site. The jagged mountains also boast three endemic plant species and 180 bird species of which five are indigenous. The endangered Lammergeyer, a vulture with a wing of 2 metres and with a different diet of bone marrow, also roams the skies of this part of Ethiopia.

Feed hyenas at the historic town of Harar Jegol

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Walled city of Harar
Women selling fruit outside the walls of Harar, Ethiopia | Women selling fruit outside the walls of Harar, Ethiopia

Complementing its title as the fourth holiest city of Islam, the city of Harar in the Eastern part of Ethiopia is home to 82 mosques, three of which date from the 10th century, and 102 shrines. The city, a UNESCO world heritage site, is enclosed by a wall built in the 13th and 16th century. The wall that stands four meters tall with five entry gates was built to protect the city from an ongoing war at the time. While you are in Harar, you can visit a hyena feeding ritual that has been practiced for half a century and even feed some of them yourself.

Travel back in time at Lake Tana monasteries

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Lake Tana
Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia | Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia

The centuries-old island monasteries around Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia, are fascinating to explore. A visit to the monasteries will give you an insight into the historical treasures of Ethiopia such as the mummified remains of the country’s previous emperors in Daga Istifanos, one of which is the founder of Gondar, King Fasiledes and close to 200 ancient religious books in Kibran Gebriel. Debre Marima, established over 900 years ago, is the closest monastery to Bahir dar city where the boats set off from. This particular monastery is surrounded by the Blue Nile and Lake Tana. Be aware that some island monasteries are either for males and females only.

Immerse in nature at Bale Mountains National Park

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Mount Nyala
Found in the Bale Mountains, Mountain nyala are endemic to Ethiopia | Found in the Bale Mountains, Mountain nyala are endemic to Ethiopia

Located in the Southeastern Ethiopia, the Bale Mountains National Park is home to Ethiopia’s endemic animals such as the Mountain Nyala, Semien Fox, Giant mole-rats and Menelik’s bushbuck. The Semien Fox, unique to Ethiopia, is world’s rarest canid. The park has five distinct and unique habitats, one of which is the beautiful Sanetti Pleateau. The Harenna Forest in the park is known to possess over 160 spectacular bird species including the Blue-winged Goose and Rouget’s Rail which can only be seen in Ethiopia. A visit to the park will offer you the loveliest mountain scenery in Africa.

Have a royal day at the Gondar castles

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Gondar castles
One of the magnificent castles in Gondar, Ethiopia | One of the magnificent castles in Gondar, Ethiopia

Palaces, castles and churches with astonishing structures, a visit to the Gondar city in the Northern Ethiopia, will guarantee you have a royal day. Founded by King Fasiledes in the seventeenth century, Gondar has been the capital of Ethiopia for almost 200 years. The emperor’s castle, a two-story structure, is built of hewn brown basalt stones held together with mortar and has panoramic views of Lake Tana. You should also visit Mentewab’s Castle and the Palaces of Emperor Iyasus and Dawit. Famous for mural paintings on the ceiling, Debre Birhan Selassie or ‘Light of the Trinity’ church is also worth a visit. From here, you can easily head to the Semien Mountains National Park.

Admire nature’s creations at Sof Omar caves

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Sof Omar Cave
The Sof Omar Cave, the longest cave system in Africa | The Sof Omar Cave, the longest cave system in Africa
Sof Omar, the longest cave in Ethiopia at a little over 15 kilometers and formed by the Weib River, is where you can admire nature’s unique architecture skills. With 40 main entrances and exits, it’s also the longest cave system in Africa. This underground cavern is located in the Southeastern Ethiopia. It’s a sacred place to Islam named after Shiek Sof Omar who used the cave as a mosque along with his followers in the 12th century. The breathtakingly beautiful cavern which features stones as high as 20 meters can be explored on foot with local guides.

Soak up the unique culture of the Omo valley tribes

Archaeological site
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Karo tribes
Karo tribes in the Omo Valley | Karo tribes in the Omo Valley

Untouched by the outside world, the tribes of the Omo valley with chalk painted bodies and unique attires are some of Africa’s most traditional tribes. Residing in the South-western Ethiopia, these tribes have ancient cultural practices such as the cattle jumping ritual of the Hamer tribe which turns a boy into a man. The area is also known for its contribution to paleontology. In 1980, the Lower Omo Valley was registered by UNESCO as a world heritage site after discoveries of human skeletons that have lived over 3 million years ago. While you are here, you can also visit the Omo River.

Feel nostalgic at Axum obelisks

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Axum obelisk
The longest standing obelisk in Axum, Ethiopia | © Serkalem Tafesse

The impressive monuments in Axum, a city in the Northern Ethiopia, stand witness to the greatness of the ancient Aksumite kingdom in the 6th and 7th centuries AD. Monolithic obelisks, royal tombs and palace ruins are some of the things you will visit in Axum. Intricately carved out of stone, the largest standing obelisk is over 23 meters high. A similar obelisk, which is 33 meters long lies where it fell. According to UNESCO which dubbed this place a world heritage site, this is potentially “the largest monolithic stele that ancient human beings ever attempted to erect”. While you are in the city, make sure to visit the Axum Tsion church which is believed to be the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.

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