Ethiopia Itinerary: An Epic Road Trip Like No Other

Ethiopia-itinerary-roadtrip

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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.

Ethiopia-itinerary-road-trip-awesome-view

** 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.

Addis Ababa

If you are arriving by air, the first place on any Ethiopia itinerary will be Addis Ababa.

Bole-Addis-Ababa-roundabout

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.

Highlights include the Merkato (the largest open-air market in Africa), and the National Museum of Ethiopia.  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.

Addis-Ababa-minibus-taxis

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.

Ethiopia-itinerary-Bahir-Dar-monastery

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.

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700 year old artefacts...
Lake-Tana-monastery
...and some amazing architecture

How To Get To The Lake Tana Monasteries

To get to the monasteries, you have two options:  

Option one:  organise 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 communities that don’t have road access (the awesome-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!

lake-tana-ferry
Travelling in cattle class

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.  

blue-nile-falls

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 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, so I wouldn’t recommend it.

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.

Gondar

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.

Ethiopia-itinerary-gondar-castle

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.

The Simien Mountains

Driving time from Gondar to Debark: 2 hours

If you are a fan of hiking, the Simien Mountains 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).

Ethiopia-itinerary-simien-mountains

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.

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. 

Axum

Driving time from Debark: 4-5 hours (or 6-7 hours from Gondar)

In the far north of the country, close to the border with Eritrea, lies Axum.  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.

Ethiopian-orthodox-priest

This ancient city 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.  I recommend hiring an official guide to teach you about these and other sites.  But 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.

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?

Danakil-depression-mineral-formations

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 – ETT Tours is a good one.

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 definitely worth including it in your Ethiopia itinerary.

Lalibela

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.

Ethiopia-itinerary-lalibela-st-george-church
Bete Giyorgis

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.

Lalibela-Bete-Giyorgis
Lalibela-stone-doorway

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.

Lalibela-priests
Inside-lalibela-church

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.

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A structure has been built to protect this church from being damaged by the elements
Lalibela-priest
Guardian priest

I recommend taking a couple of days to really experience this incredible place properly.  You could hire a guide 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.

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Harar

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).

Harar-Ethiopia-large-tree

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-Ethiopia-lady-with-goats
Harar-Ethiopia-laundry-drying

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.

Harar-Ethiopia-street

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…

Hyenas-in-harar-feeding

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 🙂

Harar-Ethiopia-tyre-in-yard

(If you have an extra week, and want to head even further off the beaten track, it’s easy to get from Harar to Somaliland.  This self-declared state is another fascinating place to explore.)  

(Alternatively, why not add a trip to Kenya onto your time in East Africa?)

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:

  1. FLY Addis > Bahir Dar
  2. DRIVE Bahir Dar > Gondar
  3. DRIVE/FLY Gondar > Lalibela
  4. FLY Lalibela > Axum
  5. FLY Axum > Addis
  6. TRAIN*/FLY Addis > Dire Dawa (for Harar)
  7. TRAIN/FLY Dire Dawa > Addis
That’s a lot of flying though… You could also consider skipping Harar, which would save you two flights.   Harar is awesome though… 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.

I hope this suggested Ethiopia itinerary has been informative and has inspired you to visit what is 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!

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2 Comments

  1. Paul Tiffany

    A very mouthwatering introduction to Ethiopia. 🙂

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