Ethiopia will blow your mind. There’s nowhere else quite like it. Forget the images you might recall from Live Aid. The following Ethiopia itinerary will give you a sense of just how varied and amazing this country is.
It’s a vast place with staggering beauty, dramatic landscapes and ancient cultures. The birthplace of coffee and one of the cradles of humanity, Ethiopia is a land of lush forests, towering mountains and burning deserts.
** If you need a visa to visit Ethiopia, I recommend using iVisa.com. Their online visa processing service is quick, secure, and easy to use. **
Suggested Ethiopia Itinerary (4 weeks)
Ethiopia is a huge country, much of which is very mountainous. Many of the top sites in Ethiopia are a day’s drive apart so unless you take lots of internal flights (for more on this, see below), expect to spend a fair amount of time driving between places.
Fear not however – the scenery is often spectacular.
Given the distances involved, and how many amazing places there are to visit, the more time you can spend here the better. Ideally I’d recommend a month, to avoid being too rushed.
Ethiopia is a country best enjoyed slowly. There’s a lot to take in, and things don’t always run on time.
You could see several of the top sites in two weeks, but it would be quite a rush (and/or involve taking a few flights).
I’ve suggested a two week itinerary below, in case you are short on time.
For those arriving by air, the first place on most Ethiopia itineraries will be Addis Ababa.
To help you get your bearings once you arrive, I recommend taking this excellent full-day guided tour of Addis, which includes hotel pick-up and drop-off.
This fast-changing, modern capital city lies almost 2,400 metres above sea level. As such, it has a mild, almost temperate climate, despite being relatively close to the equator.
There isn’t a huge amount to see and do in Addis as a tourist, but I’d still recommend spending a day or two to orient yourself and explore what the city has to offer.
At the latter, you can see the Throne of Emperor Haile Selassie, as well as the fossilized remains of “Lucy“, an early hominid who lived in current-day Ethiopia 3.2 million years ago.
If you have time, it’s also worth visiting the beautiful Medhane Alem Cathedral. This is the largest cathedral in Ethiopia, and the second largest in all of Africa.
For restaurants, bars and nightlife, check out the upmarket Bole district.
The Hilton Addis Ababa is an excellent high-end hotel in the city. I’ve stayed here before and it was great.
How To Get Around Addis Ababa
The cheapest (and most fun) way to get around Addis is on one of the city’s ubiquitous blue and white minibus taxis. These hurtle around on set routes, usually blasting Ethiopian music at full volume out of their open windows.
Addis is also home to the first light rail system in sub-Saharan Africa. This links a number of the city’s major locations, including Meskel Square, Mexico Square, Menelik II Square and Merkato.
Addis is a relatively safe city by African standards. But beware of your belongings (as you would anywhere), as there are unfortunately more than a few pickpockets on the streets.
Bahir Dar & Lake Tana Monasteries
Driving time from Addis Ababa: 8-9 hours
Located at the southern tip of Lake Tana, Bahir Dar is the capital of the Amhara region. It’s a friendly, laid back town, and a great place to shop for handmade crafts or enjoy a traditional coffee ceremony.
In the evenings, head for one of the tej bets (or “tej houses”). Tej is a popular Ethiopian honey wine that tastes similar to mead and is served in round flasks. Several of these bars have live music and dancing. It’s a great way to experience some of the local culture.
Dotted around the shores of Lake Tana, and on some of its islands, are several monasteries. Some of these date from the 14th century and contain ancient religious artefacts and icons.
Most are still in use, and you can ask for a guided tour in exchange for a small donation.
These monasteries are beautifully peaceful and decorated with colourful paintings and tapestries that tell stories from the Bible.
It’s definitely worth a visit to at least one of these fascinating places, and you can easily combine a few in a short day trip from Bahir Dar.
How To Get To The Lake Tana Monasteries
To get to the monasteries, you have two options:
Option one: book a private guided boat trip from Bahir Dar (the easiest option).
Option two: take the ferry which plies the lake and connects some of the rural villages and communities that don’t have road access (the super-fun-but-much-more-effort option).
This ferry transports everything: people, vegetables, rafts made of bound reeds, mangoes, beer and cows. It’s a lot of fun, but not the best option if you’re on a tight schedule.
For either option, head to the waterfront and ask around.
Keep an eye out for hippos in and around the lake!
Fun fact: Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile. From here, it flows down through the Ethiopian highlands and western lowlands, into Sudan where it joins the White Nile in Khartoum before flowing on through Egypt and into the Mediterranean.
The Blue Nile Falls
Driving time from Bahir Dar: 1-1.5 hours
If you are visiting Ethiopia during or just after the wet season (i.e. between July and October), it’s definitely worth a visit to the Blue Nile Falls. While nothing like the scale of Victoria Falls or Iguazu Falls, they are still impressive to behold.
I was there in June and the falls were impressive, despite not flowing at full capacity. However, during the dry season (December to March) they are reduced to a trickle.
It’s probably not worth visiting the Blue Nile waterfalls during these months, although the surrounding scenery is still pretty.
It’s a relatively short half-day excursion from Bahir Dar, easy to get to by either bus or shared taxi.
You could (at a pinch) combine seeing the falls with a couple of the Lake Tana monasteries all in one day. But this would be a very long (and rushed) day. I wouldn’t really recommend it, unless you take a guided day trip where transport is taken care of.
There are conflicting reports of the flow of the falls (as well as the rest of the river) being affected by the new Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. It’s hard to get concrete information about this at the moment, however.
Driving time from Bahir Dar: 3-4 hours
Gondar, in the far north-west of the country, should definitely be on every Ethiopia itinerary. This attractive city used to be the capital of Ethiopia and is steeped in history.
Known as the “Camelot of Africa”, the vast 17th century Royal Enclosure castle complex is a UNESCO cultural world heritage site.
Built by the Emperor Fasilides in 1636, it has a fascinating blend of African, Arabian and European architecture and is unlike anywhere else I’ve been.
You can hire a guide from the ticket entrance who will give you lots of information about the history of this amazing place. Alternatively, take this full-day city tour of Gondar.
Nearby, Fasiladas’ Bath Timket is a large outdoor pool that has been used for baptism in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church for hundreds of years. It’s surrounded by attractively landscaped gardens and is a peaceful oasis in the centre of the city.
Another site that’s well worth a visit is the Church of Debre Birhan Selassie. One of the most beautiful churches in Ethiopia, every square inch of its colourful interior is decorated with paintings and murals depicting scenes from the Bible.
I’d recommend taking a day to explore Gondar and its fascinating sites. If you have extra time, it’s also a very pleasant place just to be. You could easily spend a second day exploring the city, checking out some of the shops, restaurants and cafes.
For a perfect sundowner drink, with a perfect panoramic view over the old city, you can’t beat the terrace bar of the Goha Hotel. It’s a relatively easy walk from the centre, or an even easier 5-minute ride in one of the many tuk-tuks that buzz around town.
If you’re looking for somewhere a little cheaper to stay in Gondar, check out the highly-rated Roseau Hotel And Spa.
The Simien Mountains
Driving time from Gondar to Debark: 2 hours
If you are a fan of hiking, the Simien Mountains National Park will definitely be a highlight of your trip to Ethiopia. This stunning mountain range has some of the most dramatic scenery in Africa.
Here you’ll also find several endemic species including the gelada monkey, walia ibex and Simien fox (also called the Ethiopian wolf).
You can arrange a guide for single or multi-day treks from either Gondar or Debark, the small town at the entrance of the national park.
Or, if you’re looking for a real challenge, this epic four-day Simien Mountains trekking adventure is very well-reviewed online.
Most of the time you’ll be trekking at altitudes above 3,000 metres, and some of the taller mountains are well over 4,000 metres. You should therefore spend at least a couple of days pre-hike acclimatising to the altitude.
And take it easier than you would in lower places – it’s easy to overdo it if you’re not used to trekking at altitude.
Also, be prepared for the weather. This is one of the few places in Africa where it snows regularly and it can get very cold, especially at night. Bring lots of warm clothes and a decent sleeping bag.
Driving time from Debark: 4-5 hours (or 6-7 hours from Gondar)
IMPORTANT: At the time of writing (January 2023), the Tigray region is not a safe destination to visit. The UK Foreign Office and various other national governments advise against travelling there at the present time. If you do still plan to visit (personally, I wouldn’t at the moment) it’s vital that you do thorough research on the current safety situation there before attempting to visit.
Hopefully, things will calm down there soon… But in the meantime:
Axum is located in the Tigray region, in the far north of the country, close to the border with Eritrea.
Once the capital of an ancient civilisation (the Axumite Empire), this is one of the oldest cities in the world. It’s also the holiest place in Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity.
This ancient city in northern Ethiopia is said to have been home to several important historical figures, including the Queen of Sheba and King Bazen (AKA Balthazar, one of the Three Wise Men — the myrrh guy).
The Church of St Mary of Zion claims to house the Ark of the Covenant (the chest containing the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments).
The Northern Stelae Field contains a number of ancient obelisks and underground tombs.
Queen Sheba’s Palace and Queen Sheba’s Bath are both interesting and worth seeing too.
I recommend hiring an official guide to teach you about these and other sites.
However, beware of unscrupulous “guides” trying to rip you off. You shouldn’t have to pay more than 700 birr for a guide for the day.
To avoid having to haggle, you can also book guided tours of Axum online in advance.
You could probably see all of the main sites in Axum in one day. But, as always, if you have the time I’d recommend taking a couple of days to explore properly at a leisurely pace.
The Danakil Depression
Driving time from Axum to Mekele (where most tours of the Danakil begin): 4-5 hours.
From Mekele, it's another 4 hours to Dalol.
Running along Ethiopia’s northern border with Eritrea, the Danakil depression is a scorching, inhospitable place.
With temperatures regularly exceeding 50 degrees celsius, and at 125 metres below sea level, it’s one of the hottest, lowest, and driest places on Earth.
So, you may be asking, why visit?
In short, the Danakil is unlike anywhere else on the planet. It’s otherworldly, beautiful and awe-inspiring. Think bubbling hot springs, active volcanoes, nomadic salt traders, colourful rock formations and vast salt lakes.
There’s even a lake of boiling lava. Coming here, it’s easy to feel like you’ve landed in the middle of a sci-fi movie.
Unfortunately, due to local political tensions, you need to hire an armed escort to visit this bizarre, unique place. Most tours start in, and can be arranged from, Mekele.
I’d recommend booking a three-day tour, if you have the time. It’s a big place with lots to see.
Make sure you book onto a tour that visits the Erta Ale volcano and lava lake, the hot springs and sulphur fields at Dallol, and the Asale salt fields. There are several companies offering these tours, but Arre Tours is widely considered to be the best.
The main downside to visiting the Danakil is the cost. A three-day tour with a decent company will cost you at least USD 500. Not ideal for those on a tight budget.
If you can afford this expense though, it’s a really incredible place to visit. It’s unlike anywhere else on Earth and definitely worth including in your Ethiopia itinerary.
Driving time from Mekele: 7-8 hours
Probably the best known destination in the country, Lalibela should be a firm feature in every Ethiopia itinerary.
The 11 churches at Lalibela are, quite simply, incredible. Often described as the “Petra of Ethiopia”, Lalibela is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and for good reason.
Built in the 13th century, each church has been carved straight out of (and into) the surrounding rock. Some are over 10 metres tall, and most are connected by a maze of subterranean passageways and tunnels.
If these churches were constructed today, it would be an amazing architectural feat. The fact that they were built over 900 years ago, with hammers and chisels, is almost unbelievable.
Bete Giyorgis (the Church of Saint George), built in the shape of a cross, is the most well known of the rock-hewn churches at Lalibela.
But the other 10 are equally impressive, and there are countless hermit caves and catacombs dotted throughout the tunnels and passageways.
Inside, the churches are decorated with religious artefacts, colourful paintings and tapestries. Each church has a guardian priest, who will happily show you around, in exchange for a small donation.
It’s a hugely atmospheric place, especially at sunrise and sunset. You’ll often see processions of pilgrims and other worshippers, dressed in traditional white robes, slowly processing through the church complexes.
It’s easy to get lost wandering through the countless twisting tunnels. But that’s part of the magic of it. Medieval chanting echoes through the tunnels, and the smell of frankincense hangs in the air.
Whether or not you are a “spiritual” person, it’s hard not to feel something special in the air here. There’s a buzz, something old and deeply meaningful. It’s hard to describe.
Turning a corner, passing a group of pilgrims deep in prayer, dressed in flowing white gowns, it’s easy to forget that you are still in the 21st century. Cliche as it may sound, it really does feel like you have stepped (a very long way) back in time.
I recommend taking a couple of days to really experience this incredible place properly.
You could hire a guide or join a group tour on the first day to show you around and teach you about the history and significance of the various sites.
And then, take a second day by yourself to explore and fully immerse yourself.
Driving time from Lalibela: 15-16 hours. (I suggest spreading this journey over two days, spending the night in Awash or another town along the way.)
If you don't fancy this much driving, you can fly from Lalibela to Dire Dawa (via Addis), and take one of the frequent buses from Dire Dawa to Harar (1.5-2 hours).
In the far east of the country, Harar feels very different to the rest of Ethiopia. Founded over 1,000 years ago, this ancient walled city is sometimes referred to as the “Mecca of Africa”.
Harar is certainly one of the oldest Islamic cities in Africa, and it is known (at least in Ethiopia) as the “fourth holy city” of Islam. The old city contains more than 80 mosques, beautifully preserved Islamic architecture and bustling marketplaces.
Wandering through the winding cobblestoned alleyways, you get the sense that things haven’t changed much here for hundreds of years.
Harar has long been an important city, strategically placed at the crossroads between Africa and the Middle East. It’s only 400 kilometres from here to Yemen and the Arabian peninsula, and has been home to merchants, artisans and scholars for hundreds of years.
Today, many people in Harar still work in traditional industries including book binding, weaving and basket making.
It’s a warm, friendly place. As you explore the tiny backstreets, people will often smile and greet you. Some may even invite you into their homes for a cup of coffee or tea.
And then there's the hyenas...
Another unique (and awesome) feature of Harar is the large number of spotted hyenas living in and around the city.
To prevent these hyenas from attacking and eating the residents’ livestock, the people of Harar feed them instead. Each evening, the “Hyena Man” takes a large basket of meat to the Fallana Gate, on the edge of the old city.
Before long, several pairs of yellow eyes appear out of the darkness as the hyenas approach.
The Hyena Man then feeds them pieces of meat hand-to-mouth. If you pay him a few bucks, you can have a go too. He might even encourage these large, wild carnivorous animals to climb on top of you to get to the meat…
To find the Hyena Man, head to the Fallana Gate at sunset.
This is definitely an awesome experience, but I’d make sure you don’t have any other food in your pockets/bag… I’m not aware of any tourists having ever been attacked. But please remember that these are wild hyenas.
They are potentially dangerous and don’t always act predictably. Proceed at your own risk.
But, seriously though, it is cool 🙂
Suggested Ethiopia Itinerary (2-3 weeks)
You can still see a decent amount of the country in 2-3 weeks, but you will need to move faster. Consider spending fewer nights in each place, flying some of the longer distances, and/or skipping a few places altogether.
One possible 2 week Ethiopia itinerary could be:
- FLY Addis > Bahir Dar
- DRIVE Bahir Dar > Gondar
- DRIVE/FLY Gondar > Lalibela
- FLY Lalibela > Axum
- FLY Axum > Addis
- TRAIN*/FLY Addis > Dire Dawa (for Harar)
- TRAIN/FLY Dire Dawa > Addis
That’s a lot of flying though…
You could also consider skipping Harar, which would save you two flights.
But Harar is awesome…
Essentially, the more time you are able to spend in this fascinating and beautiful country the better.
* I’ve never taken the train from Addis to Dire Dawa, but have heard that it is a viable option. It’s the train which runs between Addis and Djibouti. For more info, head over to the Man in Seat 61.
Accommodation: Hotels & Guesthouses in Ethiopia
You’ll find a wide range of hotels and guesthouses in Ethiopia, ranging from extremely basic budget hotels to luxury resorts.
For those travelling on a particularly tight budget, camping is possible in many rural places. You could also stay in one of the local homestays, which are often advertised in areas that receive more tourism.
If you’re looking for more high-end accommodation, there are several luxurious hotels and resorts located in Addis Ababa and other cities around the country.
Check on Booking.com to see what’s available in the places you want to visit.
You can also use this handy search feature:
Getting Around Ethiopia: Transport Options
When it comes to getting around Ethiopia, you have a few options.
Ethiopia has a fairly good public bus network which you can use to travel between most major towns and cities. This is generally the cheapest (but slowest) way to get around the country.
I’ve taken several long-distance buses in Ethiopia and they were all much more comfortable than I’d expected them to be. You can usually book tickets in advance from the bus station in whichever place you’re in.
Several long-distance bus companies operate modern, sleek air-conditioned coaches. I’ve found that Selam Bus Line has some of the nicest vehicles, and I’d recommend going with them if you can.
Be aware that Ethiopian bus timetables can be a little fluid, and you should build in plenty of time for the inevitable delays and holdups.
Hire a car
It is theoretically possible to hire a car in Ethiopia and drive yourself around. However, you’ll have to deal with a lot of admin, hassle, and bureaucracy.
Firstly, Ethiopia does not recognise International Driving Permits. Depending on what country you’re from, you might be able to obtain a temporary Ethiopian driving permit from the police in Addis.
However, you’ll need to provide legally certified copies of your home driving license for this, and the whole process can take several days. Unless you’ve got a lot of time on your hands, hiring your own car and driving yourself might not be the best option.
Hire a car with a private driver
For most people, a better option is to pay for a private driver to take you around.
This is one of the most expensive ways to get around the country, although it does give you maximum flexibility to decide where and when you want to go.
You’ll be able to stop off wherever you want and the whole experience should be much more straightforward and hassle-free.
Expect to pay around USD 120 per day for a decent 4×4 with an English-speaking driver. If you’re travelling in a larger group or have lots of luggage, minivans can be arranged for around USD 150 per day.
For budget travellers, it is usually possible to pick up an old beat-up 2×4 car with a driver for around USD 60. However, your driver will most likely not speak much/any English so communicating with them will be tricky.
If you’re really pressed for time, taking a domestic flight is the quickest and most convenient way to get around Ethiopia.
Ethiopian Airlines runs services between most major cities and prices are usually fairly reasonable. Click here to compare the best prices and to book.
However, by flying you will miss out on seeing much of the country’s spectacular scenery, and stopping off at various interesting places along the way. I’d only recommend taking internal flights if you really have to.
If you want to visit Ethiopia and see the incredible places described in this post, but don’t want to have to bother with the hassle and logistics of organising your trip independently, you could always join a guided tour.
There are many different tours to choose from. Some are short day trips with guides, others are multi-day (or even multi-week) trips where all of your transport and accommodation is taken care of. It’s up to you what style of trip appeals to you most.
You can browse through and book some of the most high-rated Ethiopia tours on Viator.
Or, take a look at some of these options:
Getting To Ethiopia
Unless you’re travelling overland, the chances are you’ll need to fly into Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport. Both Turkish Airlines and Ethiopian Airlines often offer good-value fares to Addis. I’ve flown with both and they’re decent.
I always recommend using Aviasales to search for cheap flights to Ethiopia.
To get from the airport to the city centre, either take a taxi (agree on the price in advance – 300 Birr is fair) or book a private transfer to take you to your hotel.
How To Get Visas For Ethiopia
Most travellers need a visa to visit Ethiopia.
Citizens of a large number of countries can apply for an Ethiopian eVisa in advance, which speeds up the process considerably and avoids the need to visit any embassies or consulates in person.
** I always use, and strongly recommend, iVisa.com. Their online visa processing service is quick, secure, and easy to use, and makes the whole visa application process very straightforward. **
Best Time To Visit Ethiopia
Ethiopia is close to the equator and has distinct wet and dry seasons.
The best time to visit Ethiopia is during the dry season, from October to February.
It will be sunny and warm during the daytime, and pleasantly cooler at night, especially in highland areas. You shouldn’t have to contend with much (if any) rain if you come during these months.
If you do decide to travel to Ethiopia in the rainy season (especially between June and August), you should be prepared for heavy rain showers most days, which can cause flooding.
It’s usually hotter and more humid during these months too. This can make most activities much less pleasant, so I’d recommend coming in the dry season if possible.
What Food To Try In Ethiopia (I LOVE Ethiopian Food!)
Ethiopian food is unique and really delicious, and dishes are often flavoured with a distinctive mix of herbs and spices.
Berbere is a traditional Ethiopian spice powder made from many different ingredients, including chilli, garlic, ginger, paprika, cardamom, cumin, fenugreek, and black pepper.
Most meals are served with injera, a sort of lemony bubbly fermented flatbread-crossed-with-a-pancake. It has an unusual flavour and texture, but I really like it.
A traditional Ethiopian meal consists of a giant disk of injera laid out on a circular plate, with various stews, lentil dishes, and colourful piles of vegetables laid out on top.
People typically eat with their right hand, using the injera to pick up food and mop up sauces. If you’d prefer to use cutlery, you can usually ask for this, although I recommend eating with your hands for the most authentic experience.
Some of my favourite Ethiopian dishes include:
- tibs (slices of beef or lamb pan-fried in butter, onion, and garlic)
- doro wat (a rich, spicy chicken stew)
- gomen (garlic-infused minced spinach)
- shiro (a spicy puree made from chickpeas)
- kik alicha (a simple split pea stew)
FAQs, Other Practical Tips & Info For Visiting Ethiopia
Here are answers to some commonly-asked questions about travelling to Ethiopia.
Can I pay using credit cards in Ethiopia?
Ethiopia is still, on the whole, largely a cash-based society. You can usually pay with card in smarter hotels and restaurants, especially in the capital city. However, in smaller, more remote places, you’ll probably need cash.
Cash in Ethiopia
The currency of Ethiopia is the Birr (ETB). Notes come in denominations of 10, 50, 100, and 200 Birr. There are coins for 1 Birr, 50, 25, and 10 santims (decimals of 1 Birr).
At the time of writing, 1 USD equals roughly 54 Birr. See here for the latest exchange rates.
How should I dress when visiting Ethiopia?
Most Ethiopian people dress conservatively. I’d recommend doing the same for your Ethiopia trip, especially outside of Addis Ababa.
Loose, breathable cotton trousers or long-ish shorts and t-shirts are fine and will help you stay comfortable and avoid receiving strange looks.
To go inside churches and other places of worship, you’ll need to cover your arms and legs, and women should cover their hair. You may also be expected to remove your shoes before entering (ask if it’s unclear).
What's a sensible daily budget for visiting Ethiopia?
Like many other African countries, Ethiopia can be a surprisingly expensive place to visit.
Food tends to be quite cheap in Ethiopia, with a meal for two from a local restaurant or street stall costing under 5 USD.
Accommodation costs depend largely on the types of places you want to stay at. I’ve stayed at some very grim hotels in Ethiopia for less than 10 USD per night, but I wouldn’t recommend it. A mid-range hotel is likely to set you back around 40-60 USD per night.
Your largest expense will likely be transport, especially if you hire a car with a driver (see above). Taking the bus is a good option for budget travellers.
Overall, if you’re happy to take the bus, eat in local places, stay in mid-range hotels and guesthouses, and do a few modestly-priced activities, I’d budget for spending roughly 100 USD per person per day.
If you want a luxurious trip, you can expect to pay several times this per day all-in.
What language is spoken in Ethiopia?
The official language of Ethiopia is Amharic, although there are various other regional languages spoken throughout the country, including Oromo, Tigrinya, and Somali.
English is widely spoken in many areas, especially by younger people.
Is it safe to travel to Ethiopia in 2023?
The short answer is: it depends on where you want to go.
Between November 2020 and November 2022, a violent and bloody civil war was fought between the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. During much of this time, large areas of the country were not safe to visit.
Following the end of this awful war, much of Ethiopia is now considered safe to visit again. However, as of January 2023, most foreign governments still advise against visiting the Tigray region (and a few others).
It’s important always to check on the current safety situation in the area(s) of Ethiopia you want to visit, before attempting to go there. I recommend reading and following the advice of the UK Foreign Office and/or the equivalent body in your home country.
Final Thoughts On This Ethiopia Travel Itinerary
I hope this suggested Ethiopia itinerary has been informative and has inspired you to visit one of my favourite countries in the world.
I know this post only scratches the surface of what Ethiopia has to offer. In truth, you could spend months travelling around this amazing place.
However, these are just some of my suggested highlights. If there’s anywhere you think I have unjustifiably left off this list, please let me know in the comments!