Addis Ababa Day Trips

Bet Giorgis church, Lalibela
Bet Giorgis church, Lalibela © Judith Duk

Lalibela

Lalibela is one of the world's most remarkable spiritual sites and Ethiopia's greatest tourist attraction. It is home to the country's astounding rock-hewn churches and an important pilgrimage site for Ethiopia's Orthodox Christians. There are 13 functioning churches in total, all carved from a single piece of granite. The churches were carved from the top down and some lie nearly hidden in deep trenches, while others stand in open caves. Each is unique. The churches are connected by a labyrinth of tunnels and dark narrow passageways with crypts, grottos, caverns, and galleries hewn from the red rock. They were carved between the 10th and 12th centuries in a bid to create a New Jerusalem for those unable to pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The small town of Lalibela is fairly rudimental, but there is an airport, some tourist accommodation, and good restaurants. Lalibela is a quiet, mystical place with a cool and moist climate, never failing to astound its growing number of visitors. It should be noted that Lalibela and its churches are not tourist attractions, but places for worship and contemplation: visitors should be respectful when visiting and taking photographs.

John baptising Jesus
John baptising Jesus © David Bjorgen

Axum

Axum is a city in far northern Ethiopia. Its 16th-century Church of St Mary of Zion is said to house the Ark of the Covenant which visitors aren't permitted to see. Colossal stone obelisks dating back to 300 AD are remnants of the Kingdom of Aksum and are recognised as remarkable historical artefacts by UNESCO. In 2005 one such obelisk was returned to Ethiopia with great fanfare after having been looted by Italy in the early 20th century. The largest number of these impressive sculptures is in the Northern Stelae Park, and the tallest one that remains standing is King Ezana's Stele, which is over 78 feet (24m) tall and weighs 160 tonnes. Some tombs have been excavated under the giant stelae but the vast majority of this fascinating underground world has not yet been explored by archaeologists and the extent of the mysteries the obelisks guard is unknown. Axum is considered a holy city, commonly the destination of pilgrimages, which is certainly worth visiting for its historical riches. However, most visitors do not linger in the city's modern centre.

A view over Harar
A view over Harar © David Fair

Harar

Harar is a fascinating, exotic town of considerable interest to visitors willing to make the 320 mile (520km) journey east from Addis Ababa. Harar is the fourth holiest city in Islam, forbidden to outsiders until 1887 when it became part of the Ethiopian Empire. Harar boasts about 82 mosques (three from the 10th century) and 102 shrines. The city is perched on the eastern wall of the Great Rift Valley, affording it a cool climate and wonderful views of the soaring mountains to the east. The main attractions are inside the Walled City, a fascinating warren of medieval mosques, houses, and markets. Another popular attraction is the nocturnal Hyena Man, who feeds wild hyenas strips of raw meat suspended from his mouth and sticks. Brave visitors can join him. French poet Arthur Rimbaud's house is now an interesting museum in Harar, worth a visit even for those who aren't familiar with his work. Shoppers should look for the highly regarded hand-crafted silverware, and the locally brewed Harar beer. The city has been a trade hub for centuries, serving as a shopper's paradise.

Lake Tana church mural
Lake Tana church mural © David Fair

Bahir Dar

Bahir Dar is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Ethiopia. Known for its palm-lined avenues, it sits at the southern edge of Lake Tana which is the source of the Blue Nile. The town is the main base for visiting Tissisat Falls and the lake's 37 islands with their ancient churches and monasteries. Unfortunately, many of these churches deny access to women but there are exceptions. The lake is enormous and it will probably take half a day just to visit two or three of the monasteries. But the scenery is beautiful and visitors may even spot some local fishermen in traditional papyrus canoes or groups of hippo. The most beautiful of the monasteries on Lake Tana are Debre Kebran Gabriel, which dates from the 14th century, and Ura Kidane Mehret which has exceptional frescoes. The monasteries each charge their own entrance fee. The Tisissat Falls, often known as the Blue Nile Falls, are still impressive but the dam has seriously reduced the amount of water coming over the falls, which is sad. Bahir Dar also has an enormous market where visitors can trawl for local crafts and fresh produce.

Gondar churches
Gondar churches © David Fair

Gondar

Gondar is a city like no other, scattered with ancient castles and churches, magnificent mountain scenery, and a pleasantly cool climate. Situated 460 miles (748km) north of Addis Ababa, this is the next clockwise step after Bahir Dar on the official Historic Route through Ethiopia. Founded by Emperor Fasiledes around the year 1635, Gondar grew as an agricultural centre and market town. The city was the capital of Ethiopia for hundreds of years, which accounts for the abundant imperial architecture, most densely concentrated in the Royal Enclosure which contains five castles. The oldest and most architecturally interesting is the Castle of Fasiledes, which has Axumite, Portuguese, and Indian elements. Near the edge of Gondar is the Church of Debre Birhan Selassie, which was built in 1682 and contains the country's most celebrated ceiling murals. Gondar is also a natural base for treks into the Simien Mountains and many tour companies tout their services in the city. Travellers should choose carefully and get the opinion of recently returned trekkers before committing to a particular guide as quality varies. Another good excursion out of the city is the small but beautiful town of Gorgora on the northern shore of Lake Tana, about 43 miles (70km) from Gondar, where visitors will find some interesting ancient artefacts.