The Top 10 Things to do in Ethiopia
How many countries are there in Africa? 54. And with so many things to do in Ethiopia, Ethiopia may be the most epic destination of all 54! It’s nothing short of amazing, which is why ideally you need 2 weeks in Ethiopia for a proper Ethiopia Itinerary. It has a magnificent cultural heritage, 9 sites of which are included in the UNESCO world heritage list.
The rocky mountains, lakes, rivers and diverse grassland ecosystem account for Ethiopia’s uniqueness. Ethiopia’s historic sites and tourist attractions are wide-ranging from natural stunning beauty to some of the most awesome man-made religious sights imaginable.
So Why Visit Ethiopia?
Found in East Africa, it’s super easy to get to. And, relative to the rest of Africa, it’s quite cheap to fly to due to Ethiopian Airlines being one of the top 3 airlines on the continent (along with Kenya, and Royal Maroc). Also, it’s quite cheap which is always a plus! Although, having said that, if you want to experience any kind of luxury comfort in Ethiopia, the prices rise quickly! But if you want to travel independently, it can be really affordable
The main reasons to visit Ethiopia though? It’s home to some serious bucket list items, so make sure you plan your Ethiopia Itinerary properly. Feeding hyenas in Harar. Visiting the ‘hottest place on earth’ in the Danakil Depression. Visiting the tribes in the Omo valley. Checking out where Rastafarianism began. Hiking the Simien mountains. And the ‘8th wonder of the world‘, the churches of Lalibela.
All-in-all, if you want a true adventure holiday, Ethiopia is top 5 in the world. So with that, let me share with you guys the best things to do in Ethiopia.
The Top 10 Things to do in Ethiopia
Number 1 of things to do in Ethiopia, without any doubt in my mind. It’s tough to get to, kinda pricey, seriously uncomfortable but the experience of a lifetime. The Danakil Depression is officially the hottest place on earth (with taking the average across the calendar year). It’s also the second-lowest place on earth (and the lowest point on the African continent), second only to where you can visit the Dead Sea in Israel/Jordan.
The Danakil depression shares the Eritrean border on the east of the Tigrian highlands in the North East of Ethiopia. It is an impressive area of geological fascination, a place dotted with active volcanoes, hot springs, lava lake, salted basins and above all lunar landscapes. It is a vast unpopulated region that lies below the sea level. When you visit, you also get to see salt flat, salt mines, active lava lakes. It’s immense.
The Churches of Lalibela
UNBELIEVABLE! Why this is not one of the new wonders of the world, I’ll never know but it should be. It is a medieval settlement that lies perched in the midst of an extensive rock church complex. There are 11 incredible rock-hewn monolithic churches which were built by King Lalibela way back in the late 12th or early 13th century.
The structures are noted for their artistic splendor and each of the buildings has distinctive architectural designs. The curches are actually dug into the ground, and St George’s cross has become its most famous of all sites – truly, truly breathtaking. This needs to feature on everybody’s bucket list, it’s that good.
It is an ancient holy city which dates back to about 1520., and the oldest Islamic city in the Continent of Africa. The city is famed for its ancient buildings and impressive city walls. Harar has approximately 99 mosques and it oozes old school islamic culture. The real highlight in Harar is the ‘wild’ hyenas though.
At dusk, you can see the local men attracting wild hyenas in the city. For generations these hyenas have scavenged within the city walls at night, through this they have become ‘friendly’ with a group of men who feed them and allow you to feed them, a very scary experience but one that will keep Ethiopia in your memory for a long time to come.
The Great Rift Valley
The Rift Valley is endowed with numerous hot springs, beautiful lakes, and a plethora of crazy, African wildlife. The passage has a chain of seven lakes and each of the seven lakes has unique features of its own. For animal lovers, the Rift valley is paradise – the place is crawling with African wildlife.
The hot springs here are highly recognized for their therapeutic purposes, and people come from all over the country to bathe in them – make sure you join them at some point throughout your time here!
It’s located in the South West of the country, so it’s best paired with visiting the tribes in the Omo area.
The Blue Nile Falls
For sure one of the top things to do in Ethiopia is the Blue Nile Falls, found along the origin of the Nilethe longest river in Africa. It is locally known as Tis Isat, is 400m wide and 45m deep. When the waterfalls into a gorge, it creates the most spectacular view, a sight to rival Niagara falls even – the Blue Nile Falls.
From Bahar Dar, the Blue Nile falls takes around 90 minutes to reach – you can take a local bus and then trek another 30 mins or so, but it’s well worth the effort. This place is very cool. It should be a lot more famous!
Trek the Simien Mountains
The most beautiful trekking in all of Ethiopia is found in the Simien mountains. It’s easiest to travel to from Gondar, and if you’ve booked it online, Gondar is most likely where the trekking with start and finish.
We did 2 Days/1 night, which unless you’re a hard-core trekker, I thought was pretty perfect. Beware, it gets chilly up there! Also, if you’re lucky not only will you get spectacular views, you’ll also be inundated with baboons EVERYWHERE! It was a fun trip.
If you’re a keen hiker, don’t miss out on Ras Dashen, at 4553m it’s Ethiopia’s highest peak, with epic views and plenty of baboons to boot!
Visit the Tribes of the Omo Valley
The Omo Valley is the Africa you dreamed of as a child. Warm, friendly tribes, amazing landscapes. And an opportunity to camp within the villages. It need to be organised in advance, and online (although even 1 or 2 days in advance is fine).
Normally you fly down from Addis Ababa, and then do multi-night, driven tour from village to village. 2 or 3 nights is standard. Prepare to have your mind blown, it’s a real privilege to see these people in their natural flow.
Check out the home of Rastafarianism at Shasehmane
A bit of travel trivia for you! Do you know the colours of the Jamaican flag? And the colours that Rasta’s wear, and the colour that Bob Marley would proudly showcase? It all stems from the Ethiopian national colours. Why? Because it is in Ethiopia where Rastafarianism was born!
It’s 250km south of Addis, so it’s best done as a 2D/1N trip (but possible as a SUPER long day trip), and Shashamane is home to countless, genuine Rastafarians.
Get lost in Lake Tana’s Monasteries, and chill in Ethiopia’s prettiest city of Bahir Dar
If you were offered a chance to live in Ethiopia, Bahir Dar would probably be your choice of place to live. It’s sites pretty, manned by Lake Tana to the east, home to lovely coffee shops, leafy boulevards and some nice hotels too.
As a tourist, the main attraction is the Blue Nile falls, listed above, and of course the monasteries on Lake Tana itself. The best way to organise is is to go to the docks of the Lake and ask a boat captain to take you to the main 2 or 3 monasteries. Unless you’re a history buff, that’ll be enough. It can get a little repetitive after the second!
And don’t miss a few beers at the Checheho Cultural Dance Club at night, it’s amazing!
Nope, not the one from Lord of the Rings. This Gondar is home to another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Walled City of Fasil Ghebbi, dating back to the 12th centure. Even if you’re not a history buff, much like you might as well visit the monasteries in Lake Tana, as you’ll bein Bahir Dar for the epic Blue Nile falls, same for Gondar.
You should come here as the hop-off spot for trekking the Simien Mountains, so you might as well check out the history of the city, and it’s well worth it.
The short version of 10 Things to see in Ethiopia
TL/DR? Here’s the short version of things to see in Ethiopia!
- Danakil Depression
- Blue Niles Falls
- Simien Mountains
- Rift Valley
- Ras Dashen
- Tribes of Omo Valley
- Bahir Dar & Lake Tana Monasteries
Planning your Ethiopia Itinerary
I planned an Ethiopian Itinerary just last year, for my non-profit company Mudita Adventures, where we renovated a school and then travelled after. And it’s was a nightmare to plan when our time was short! We had 9 or 10 days in Ethiopia after our charity project was finished, plus an option to extend by a couple of days in the end. Here’s what I planned with 10 to 14 days in Ethiopia:
10-14 days in Ethiopia:
- Day 1: Meet in Addis
- 2: Fly to Lalibela
- 3: Lalibela
- 4: Connect to Bahir Dar
- 5: Blue Nile Falls and Lake Tana Monasteries
- 6: Connect to Gondar
- 7: Gondar castles
- 8: Trek to Simien Mountains and camp in the mountains
- 9; Trek in the Simien, and transfer back to Gondar
- 10: Half the group went home, the other half connected to Axum
- 11: Axum castles and connect to Mekele
- 12: Danakil Depression Tour
- 13: Danakil Depression Tour
- 14: Danakil Depression Tour, and back to Mekele
- Day 15: FINISH (connect back to Addis Ababa).
So, even with 2 weeks, it means you miss out on the Hyenas of Harar, the tribes of the Omo Valley, the Rift Valley and Shashamane. You can do the latter 3 all in an additional 5-7 days. But Harar is quite awkward as it’s near the Somalian border. If you’re super keen for it, the easiest way would be to fly from Addis to Harar, explore the city and visit the Hyena man, then fly back to Addis the following day.
So if you want to do the main 10 things to do in Ethiopia, how long do you need? I guess you could just about get away with 3 weeks. But only if you plan it well! 25 days would be more comfortable.
Final thoughts on things to do in Ethiopia?
Planning an Ethiopia Itinerary is tough as you can see above, especially if you don’t have much time. The main sights are in one pocket in Western Ethiopia, another pocket in Southern Ethiopia, then you have 2 of the main things to see in Ethiopia in the Danakil Depression and Harar randomly in the very north, and then extreme North East! So it’s a case of priorities what you want to see, or spending more time here in Ethiopia.
For me, the best thing is the Danakil Depression. But if you’ve never been to any country in Africa, then the tribes of the Omo valley would be a big win. And then there is the feeding of hyenas in Harar, where else can you do that?! So, you see the quandary! Anyway, enjoy planning your Ethiopia Itinerary, and enjoy your time when you finally make it here. It’s a beauty. Oh, and don’t spend much time in Addis Ababa, it is not a lovely city. Believe me there. Just use it to fly into, sleep in an airport hotel if you have to. I wouldn’t even bother with a city tour. It’s pretty grim.
For further insight into backpacking in Ethiopia, regarding costs etc, check this out on my other Ethiopian article.
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