Addis Ababa: Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa and the second-oldest official Christian nation in the world, and its capital city of Addis Ababa features some excellent museums exploring these topics. The Ethnographical Museum has an impressive array of religious crosses, triptychs and murals. Its primary exhibits encompass local crafts, regions and people. This museum is an ideal place to begin to understand Ethiopia’s rich ethnic diversity. It also features former Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie’s bedroom. The National Museum is home to one of the most the famous archeological finds – Lucy, a 3.1-million-year-old skeleton from the Great African Rift Valley, discovered in 1974 by Donald Johnson. The museum exhibits also detail Ethiopia as the ‘Cradle of Mankind’. The historic room displays finery worn in the wars, including crowns, weapons and pictures of wartime heroes and kings. Addis Ababa is also the capital of the African Union. Once the largest Ethiopian Orthodox cathedral, the Holy Trinity Cathedral was constructed to celebrate country’s liberation from Italian occupation after World War II. Merkato is the largest open-air market in Africa, encompassing several square miles and employs some 13,000 people in 7,100 businesses. It is mostly agricultural products including Ethiopia’s famous coffee.
Axum: Axum was the first capital of the Kingdom of Aksum, and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in Africa. It was a naval and trading power that ruled the region from about 400 BCE into the 10th century. It has long been known for its cathedral of St. Mary Zion, where, legend says, the original Ark of Covenant is housed. Axum, long a site of pilgrimage, is considered the holiest city in Ethiopia. The Queen of Sheba’s Palace is believed to be the oldest building in Axum. The site contains the remains of what was once a massive palace with finely mortared stonewalls, deep foundations and its own impressive drainage system. Several standing monolithic stelae made of single pieces of granite are found here. In 1980, UNESCO added Axum’s archaeological sites to its World Heritage Sites List for to their historic value.
Bahir Dar: Bahir Dar is home to Lake Tana, the largest highland lake in Ethiopia and the source of the Blue Nile. The city is known for its wide avenues lined with palm trees and flowers. In 2002, it was awarded the UNESCO Cities for Peace Prize for “addressing the challenges of rapid urbanization.” The local papyrus tankwa that sail the lake bear a striking resemblance to the boats of ancient Egypt. The Blue Nile Falls (Tis Issat) is located about 30 km/18.6 mi. to the south. Now, the amount of water running through the falls has been reduced and regulated, since the construction of a hydroelectric power dam. Nevertheless, the Blue Nile Falls is still one of the main sights of Bahir Dar, especially during the rainy season when the water level rises. The city holds a small daily market and an extensive weekly market.
Bale Mountains: The mountain range in the Oromia Region of southeast Ethiopia is part of the Ethiopian Highlands, and includes Tullu Demtu, the second highest mountain in the country at 4,377 m/14,360 ft. Bale Mountains National Park features wild alpine scenery that is relatively easy to explore. The mountains of Ethiopia are the primary global strongholds for the rarest canid in the world – the endangered Ethiopian wolf, a handsome red-and-white canid found here on the Sanetti Plateau. The park also contains the Harenna Forest, south of the mountains, which remain largely unexplored. Lions, leopards and various types of antelope are found here. In addition, the park presents great trekking opportunities. The Juniper-Hagenia forests of the Simien and Bale Mountains are a forest type found only in Ethiopia, and lie between 2,500 and 3,300 m/8,202 and 10,827 ft., mostly on the northern slopes. The alpine moorland of the Saneti Plateau’s vegetation broken by heather plants and stands of giant lobelia that grow up to six m/20 ft. high. One of the most common and distinctive plants in the Bale region is the red-hot poker, an aloe that is identified by its pretty, orange spear-shaped flowers.
Dire Dawa: The city is near the border with Somaliland and Somalia. It sits on the eastern edge of the East African Rift Valley, 48 km/30 mi. northwest of Harar at the intersection of roads from Addis Ababa, Harar, and Djibouti. In the medieval era, it was exclusively settled by Dir, a major Somali tribe. Later, the Oromos gained access to the land and established settlements. Dire Dawa became a caravan center that developed as the main outlet for Harar trade after 1904, when it became the terminus of the railroad from the port of Djibouti. Surrounded by dusty plains and low-slung hills, the city today is an unusual international blend of Arab, French, Italian and Greek architecture. Divided by the seasonal Dechatu Wadi, which is usually dry, Dire Dawa consists of two settlements. Northwest of the wadi is the European-influenced, newer part of town, Kezira, which has a Coptic church and a royal palace. East is the old town of Megala, which has a distinctly Muslim feel with lively markets that stay open at night. Haggling is carried on in a mix of voices – Amharic, Oromiffa, Somali and Arabic. Within the old quarter are a mosque and a large Muslim cemetery. The city’s colorful shops and tree-lined thoroughfares offer travelers a relaxed atmosphere. The city has railway workshops, textile and cement factories, and coffee- and meat-canning plants and trades in coffee and hides. Nearby are caves decorated with prehistoric paintings.
Gondar: Gondar, “the Camelot of Africa,” is known for its medieval castles and churches. It was founded by Emperor Fasiladas in 1636 as the royal capital of Ethiopia. For several centuries, Ethiopia had various temporary capitals, but the emperor saw a need for a permanent for growth and stability. When Fasiladas died in 1667, Gondar was the largest and most important city in the empire. It retained its position as the capital for more two centuries, although its role was diminished by the late 18th century. The Royal Enclosure or Fasil Gibbi encompasses the castles of various Gondarene emperors. Also here are the Fasiladas Palace and the Quskuam Church, believed to have been the home of explorer James Bruce in the 1770s. A short drive from the town center is the bath of King Fasilides, which takes center stage during the Timkat or Epiphany Festival. Debre Berhane Selassie Church features remarkable murals on the walls and ceiling. The angels’ faces on the ceiling became a common motif in Ethiopian design.
Harar: Harar was first settled in 1216. For centuries, it has served as a major commercial center, linked by the trade routes with the rest of Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and, via its ports, to the world beyond. Harar Jugol, the old walled city, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for cultural heritage. Sometimes known as the “City of Saints,” it is “considered ‘the fourth holy city’ of Islam,” according to UNESCO. Harar is home to 102 shrines and 110 mosques, three of which date from the 10th and 12th centuries, most within the walled city. The old city was once the capital of Hararghe, and continues as the capital of the modern Harari region of Ethiopia. It is perched on a hilltop in the eastern extension of the Ethiopian Highlands. The old town is centered around Feres Magala Square. Notable buildings include Medhane Alem Cathedral, house of Ras Mekonnen, house of Arthur Rimbaud, the 16th-century Jami Mosque and historic Great Five Gates of Harar. Probably the most unusual happening Harar is known for is the long-standing practice of Harar men feeding meat by hand, and even mouth to mouth, to wild spotted hyenas. It has evolved since about the 1960s and is impressive to witness. The Kondudo or “W” mountain is where an ancient population of feral horses live. In 2008, a scientific mission began efforts to conserve these endangered horses.
Lalibela: Known as the “New Jerusalem,” Lalibela is famous for its rock-hewn churches that date from the 7th to 13th centuries. But its historical roots date to the time of the Apostles. The focus are the rock-hewn churches, divided into two groups, with each church carved from a single piece of rock to symbolize spirituality and humility. The first group of churches, a group of six lie in rock cradles, one behind the other: Bet Golgotha, Bet Mika-el, Bet Mariam, Bet Meskel, Bet Danaghel and Bet Medhane Alem. Bet Medhane Alem, the largest, is built like a Greek temple. In a corner are three empty graves symbolically dug for biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Bet Giyorgis, possibly the most elegant and majestic of all the Lalibela churches, lies somewhat isolated in the southwest part of the village on a sloping rock terrace. It can only be reached through a tunnel. About 40 km/25 mi. outside of town is the cave church of Yemrehane Christos, built by the king of the same name before the reign of King Lalibela. The church is constructed inside a cave, in Axumite style, similar to the church at Debre Damo, with alternating levels of wood and stone. A group of four churches is located south of the Jordan River: Bet Emanuel, Bet Mercuiros, Bet Abba Libanos and Bet Gabriel-Rufa’el. Bet Emanuel’s elaborate exterior is praised by art historians.
Omo Valley: This unique region in Southern Ethiopia in the Great Rift Valley features a wide variety of people and animals. Indeed, the area is known for its cultural diversity. The tribes in the towns and villages of the lower Omo Valley include Arbore, Ari, Bena, Bodi, Bumi, Daasanech (Geleb), Dorze, Hamer (Hamar), Kara (Karo), Konso, Kwegu (Muguji), Mursi, Tsemay and Turkana. The earliest known discovery of homo sapien fossil fragments were found here. The lower Omo Valley and Lake Turkana, on the border with Kenya, have both been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Omo River is a vital resource to the people and wildlife in Southern Ethiopia, and travels through the valley, emptying into Lake Turkana. In 2006, work began on the Gibe III dam, the third such project, which when fully operational will block part of the Omo River, which many believe will seriously impact the ecosystem, tribes and animals of the valley.
Simien Mountain National Park: Simien Mountain National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and presents perhaps the most dramatic scenery in Africa. It is even older than the Great Rift Valley. It rose from lava outpourings between 40 and 25 million years ago during the Oligocene period. Here, you can see the endemic Gelada or bleeding-heart baboon, the lion monkey, the Walia ibex, the Semein or Ethiopian wolf, the rarest canid in the world, and rock hyrax. The Simien Mountains have several rare and endemic species and a high level of diversity due to the combination of high altitudes and isolation. Endemic birds include the thick billed raven, black headed siskin, wattled ibis, white billed starling and white backed black tit, Lammergeyers and the impressive bearded vulture. The park is known for its Afro-Alpine flora, meadows and grasslands punctuated by giant lobelia and flowering red-hot pokers. The vegetation is mixed with African alpine forests, wilderness forests and alpine vegetation.
Best Time to Go
The climate of Ethiopia varies greatly according to altitude. In general, the climate is temperate in the highlands and hot in the lowlands. The major part of the country consists of high plateau, about which gives the country its moderate climate with minor seasonal variation. The mean minimum during the coldest season is 6˚C/43˚F while the mean maximum rarely exceeds 26˚C/79˚F. Temperature variations in the lowlands are greater. The desert heat and Red Sea Coastal areas are extreme, with occasional highs of 60˚C/140˚F. In Addis, the average remains around 15˚C/59˚F throughout the year. You need to take precautions to protect yourself for the intensity of the equatorial sun with a hat, sunscreen and sun glasses. June, July, August and September bring heavy rainfall in most of the country. The average annual precipitation in the country during the major rainy season is 39 inches. While the northeast and eastern plains receive less than 19 inches, Addis Ababa receives close to 49 inches of rainfall.
Day 1: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
The capital of Ethiopia is home to the largest open market in Africa and the impressive Grand Anwar Mosque, the largest mosque in the country, built during the time of the Italian occupation.
Day 2: Addis Ababa / Bahir Dar
Lake Tana, the largest highland lake in Ethiopia, is the source of the Blue Nile, and the distinctive papyrus tankwa that sail the lake bear a striking resemblance to the boats of ancient Egypt.
Day 3: Bahir Dar / Simien Mountains National Park
The magnificent Simien Mountain National Park presents perhaps the most dramatic scenery in Africa with great volcanic plugs that formed some 40 million years ago.
Day 4: Simien Mountains National Park
This UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to the bleeding-heart baboon, the lion monkey, the Walia ibex, and the rarest canid in the world - the Ethiopian wolf. The park is also known for Afro-Alpine flora, including giant lobelia and flowering red-hot pokers.
Day 5: Simien Mountains National Park / Gondar
Gondar, “the Camelot of Africa,” is famous for its remarkable medieval castles and churches.
Day 6: Gondar / Axum
Axum is known for its cathedral of St. Mary Zion, where, as legend has it, the original Ark of Covenant is housed; and the remains of Queen of Sheba’s Palace is believed to be the oldest building in Axum.
Day 7: Axum / Lalibela
Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches were constructed between the 7th and 13th centuries, with each carved from a single section of rock to symbolize spirituality and humility.
Day 8: Lalibela
The UNESCO World Heritage Site encompasses of 11 churches in four groups in what is also known as “new Jerusalem.”
Day 9: Lalibela / Addis Ababa
Addis Ababa reflects the nation’s mosaic of people with more than 80 languages, different lifestyles, costumes and cultural variations.
Day 10: Addis Ababa / Depart
Custom Tour Options
Bale Mountains (3 days)
In southeast Ethiopia, the mountains are part of the Ethiopian Highlands, and include Bale Mountains National Park, with its wild alpine scenery. The mountains are the primary global stronghold for the rarest canid in the world – the endangered Ethiopian wolf. The mountains also offer memorable trekking opportunities.
Dire Dawa (3 days)
On Ethiopia’s east near the border with Somaliland and Somalia, this ancient city offers an unusual international blend of Arab, French, Italian and Greek architecture. The city presents a pleasant relaxed atmosphere and has a mosque, a large Muslim cemetery and a Coptic church.
Harar (3 days)
Since 1216, Harar has been inhabited and is, today, home to 102 shrines and 110 mosques. The old walled city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the most unusual activities is the Harari men, who continue a long-standing tradition of feeding meat by hand to wild spotted hyenas.
Omo Valley (6-8 days)
This is unique region in Southern Ethiopia in the Great Rift Valley is recognized for the variety of people. Indeed, the area’s culture and diversity are represented by more a dozen tribes inhabiting the towns and villages of the lower Omo Valley.
$750-$2500 per person, per day. Land only, double occupancy.