Ethiopia – what to do and see

Ethiopia, referred to as the “Land of Origins”, is located in northeast Africa or in the horn of Africa, as the area is popularly known.

With rich religious and civilisation history, the country offers some of the best cultural trips for those intending to learn about ancient African history. You will get to know about the unique culture of the Omo valley indigenous communities, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the castles of Gondar and the massive monolithic pillars and the Ark of the Covenant of God in Aksum.

Unique Ethiopia

In addition to fascinating history, Ethiopia contains rich biodiversity including over 800 species of birds and 320 mammal species, 31 of which are endemic. These include the Ethiopian wolf (the only wolf specie in Africa) in the Bale Mountains, Gelada monkeys and Walia Ibex in the Simien Mountains national parks.

Ethiopia’s endangered species are found nowhere else on the continent, making for a one-of-a-kind wildlife safari. This safari is available for booking through the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority (EWCA), which manages over 15 national parks or through a tour operator and guide.

Ethiopia’s protected areas have some of the stunning landscapes in the world including Bale and Simien mountains, Rafu rock pillars, Arte Ale volcano, the Blue Nile River and waterfalls and Sof Omar caves, and Danakali depression. Ethiopia is also known as the birthplace of coffee, making it one of the finest culinary destinations for coffee enthusiasts, and vegetarians.  A must-try Ethiopian local dish is Injera, a flat spongy-like bread prepared from fermented teff flour, is a specialty of the Amharic people. 

Location and Geography

Ethiopia is situated in the Horn of Africa and covers 1,104,300 (426,373 sq.miles) of which nearly 45% is covered by the Ethiopian highlands. It is a landlocked nation located above the equator and below the tropic of cancer, bordered to the north east by Danakil desert (136,956, to the south by Kenya, to the north by Eritrea, to the north west by Sudan, to the west by South Sudan, and to the east by Somalia.

The Eastern Rift valley from northeast to southwest divides the country into the western and eastern highlands. In between there’s Lake Tana, the largest freshwater body and source of the Blue Nile River and waterfalls. The western Ethiopian highlands are in the northern regions including Tigray and Amhara. Mount Ras Dejen, 4,620m (15,157ft) the tallest peak in Ethiopia is in Simien mountains national park.

The eastern highlands on the other hand includes Mount Batu (4,307m), the 7th tallest peak and the Bale mountains national park. This is Ethiopia’s most fertile region and much of the country’s coffee is produced from there including the Manyate coffee village which offers an opportunity to experience wild coffee, honey, arts and culture of the Oromo, one of the largest ethnic tribes in the country.   

People and culture

The current population of Ethiopia is 120.3 million people (2021) and there are over 90 tribes, the largest of which is the Oromo (34.4%), followed by the Amhara (27%). The cultural diversity of Ethiopia is reflected with 5 official local languages spoken including Oromo, Amharic, Afar, Tigrinya and Somali.

However, English is also widely spoken in the tourism, and agriculture industries. Given that the country wasn’t colonized except for the Italian occupation from 1935 to 1941, the culture has remained to some degree local. Some indigenous tribes, such as the Mursi in the Omo valley, where women are famous for having embedded plates in their mouth, the Hamer, known for their stunning seashell made necklaces, and the forest dwelling Surma tribe, still live traditional lifestyles as they did many centuries ago.

Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, which is practiced by more than 65% of the people, is thought to have originated during the ancient Kingdom of Aksum between 100 and 940 AD, before any foreign contact with Africa. The Timkat festival is a national public holiday that commemorates Christ Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist and revolves around bathing in water pools in important religious sites including the rock-hewn Lalibela churches. The official currency is the Ethiopian Birr, though the US dollar is widely used. 

Time and calendar in Ethiopia

Ethiopian time and date follow the coptic calendar also known as the Alexander calendar, which has 13 months of the year. Visitors should consider whether the travel time is Ethiopian or western time. The Ethiopian calendar is also 7 to 8 years behind the western Gregorian calendar and 2023 is actually 2015 in Ethiopia. 

Safety and security

The country is divided into 11 regions including the Amhara, Tigray, Afar, and Benishangul Gumuz in northern, the Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR), Gambella, and Southern Nations in the south west, Oromia and Harari in the central and Somali and Dire Dawa in the east. Addis Ababa capital city lies in central Oromia region.

All the regions are safe to visit according to the UK latest travel advisory. However, travellers are encouraged to get up-to-date information given that not all places might be safe to visit, especially for solo travellers. Booking trips to Ethiopia is available through the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority (EWCA) or genuine tour operator. The northern region of Tigray experienced armed conflict in 2020 but ended in 2022 with a peace agreement signed between the government and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Fighting ceased and domestic travel resumed within the region. However, areas close to the borders with Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia should be visited with a tour operator.

Besides the conflicts, there are other challenges facing the country including poverty. According to the World Bank (WB), Ethiopia is still a low-income nation. This means that a large percentage of people may be living in poverty, particularly those who have been displaced or lost their homes as a result of the conflicts. Poaching for elephants in Ethiopia is also a big challenge for conservation of wildlife. Therefore, tourism as one of the major economic sectors has potential to foster conservation as well as alleviate poverty among the communities living adjacent to the national parks. 

Best time to visit Ethiopia 

You can visit Ethiopia anytime of the year depending on the purpose of your visit. Those intending to visit historical sites and national parks, the best time to come for safari is the dry season from October to January. Due to strong sunshine, it is a good season to go hiking and camping in the northern highlands, which include Siemens, and Bale mountains national parks. Birding and wildlife viewing is also excellent in Abijatta Shalla and Awash national parks in the central Oromia region. The dry season is also the busiest time of year, so you can anticipate crowds of tourists at the historical sites in Addis Ababa capital city, Gondar, Askum, Bahir Dar, Lake Tana, and Blue Nile Falls. 

There are three wet seasons in Ethiopia including Kiremt, Bega, and Belg. Kiremt is the primary rainy season, lasting from late May to mid-September. There is a brief wet season in February and March, and little rains are experienced almost every day. The south western Ethiopian mountains receive up to 2,000 mm of rainfall annually. The southern Omo valley receives little precipitation, up to 300mm annually, and can be explored for cultural encounters with the Mursi and Hamer tribes during the rainy season. Traveling during the rainy season has its advantages because the scenery is lush and wildflowers are in bloom in September.

Ethiopia’s climate and weather slightly vary from area to region as a result of the country’s varied topography. The northern and central highlands have a tropical climate with daytime temperature ranging from 11  °C to 20 °C degrees (52°F – 64°F). The coldest months, October and December, can see nighttime temperatures in the high-altitude Semien and Bale mountain ranges drop from -4 °C to -8 °C. The southern and rift valley lakes are hot and dry. But, the hottest region of Ethiopia is the Danakil depression in the north east where temperatures can reach up to 35 °C to 40 °C. 

How to get to Ethiopia

The main point of entry is Bole international airport (ADD) located in Addis Ababa capital city. Ethiopian Airways, the national carrier, offers flights to over 115 cities in 68 destinations around the world. The airport can handle up to 6.5 million traffic of both international and domestic passengers. There are 2 lounges including the Cloud 9 lounge available for business class and the Ethiopian Airlines Platinum and Star Alliance Gold Lounge for members only. Additionally, there are 18 additional airports in each of the country’s 9 regions, making domestic air travel simple.

Requirements for entering Ethiopia

  • A passport that is valid for six months after you enter the country. 
  • Current passport-sized picture.
  • The single-entry tourist visa for Ethiopia cost $82 valid for 30-days.
  • The single-entry tourist visa valid for 90 days cost $202.
  • Visa processing is 3 days from the date of application through immigration and citizenship service.

Destinations to visit in Ethiopia

To plan your Ethiopian safari easily, the tourist attractions to visit can be grouped into regions including the historic northern circuit, the rift valley and Bale mountains, the Danakil depression, Addis Ababa capital city and the Omo valley. In particular, the northern Ethiopia circuit includes 1 protected area which is Simien mountains national park, Addis Ababa and other ancient cities of Lalibela, Askum, Gondar, Bahir Dar, Lake Tana and Blue Nile waterfalls. 

To the south of Addis Ababa lies the Bale mountains national park and the surrounding 7 rift valley lakes including Abijjata Shalla national park, lake Ziway, Langano, Awassa, and Chamo. These lakes offer excellent bird watching in addition to game viewing, and boat rides.

The Danakil depression in the northernmost part offers an opportunity to see unique geological features including the active volcano Mt. Arta Ale, salt beds and desert lakes and gardens.

The Omo valley in the south has some of the best rural tourism villages where you will meet Ethiopia’s most indigenous tribes such as the Mursi.

Addis Ababa capital city

With a height of 2,450 meters above sea level, Addis Ababa capital is the fourth-highest city in the world. La Paz, Bolivia, has the highest elevation, followed by Quito, Ecuador. Addis Ababa was established in 1886 by Emperor Menlik II, who constructed a palace for his royal family close to the hot springs.

The name Addis Ababa, which means “New Flower”, was given by the empress Taitu. Modern concrete buildings were constructed during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, which lasted from 1934 to 1941. The economic development of the city took shape from there and today, Addis Ababa is home to the African Union Headquarters of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

You can take a sightseeing tour of Addis Ababa including a hike to the summit of Mount Entoto for a better view of Addis Ababa. Those intending to spend more time in Addis Ababa can explore the Ethiopian national museum. There you will find one of the oldest human fossils discovered in Ethiopia in 1974 including the 3.5 million years old Lucy.

Explore the history of modern Ethiopia and important people who impacted the lives of many at the Holy Trinity Cathedral (Emperor Haile Selassie’s burial ground) and Menelik’s Mausoleum. You will learn about the historic victory of Emperor Menelik II against Italian forces at the battle of Adwa. There are texts, clothing, artwork, clerical garb, royal regalia, and antique thrones inside the buildings with ecclesiastical music playing. Those intending to go shopping in Addis Ababa can visit Merkato, a large open market for souvenirs, electronics, beddings, food and spices. 

Bahir Dar 

Bahir Dar, the capital city Amhara region and third-largest town in Ethiopia, is situated 600 km (11-hour drive) north of Addis Ababa.  The city is located on the shores of Lake Tana, which is the source of the Blue Nile Falls, making it one of the most beautiful places to visit for keen photographers. Visiting Bahir Dar, provides visitors the chance to take a boat tour on Lake Tana, visit the Blue Nile Falls, and explore the island’s historic monasteries that date back to the city’s founding in the 14th century.

Lake Tana and the Blue Nile falls

The largest freshwater lake in Ethiopia is Lake Tana, which is 90 km long, 65 km wide and has a surface area of 695,885 hectares. It is the source of the Blue Nile waterfalls located 38 km below the lake along the Blue Nile, a major tributary of the Nile River.

The local Amharic name for the Blue Nile falls is Tis Abay, which translates as “smoke of fire” in English. When the river’s water level is high, the 45-meter-tall Blue Nile Falls spread out to a width of 400 meters. The lake has a diverse wetland ecosystem with 4 types of marshes ranging from papyrus, palustrine, riverine, lacustrine and agriculture flooded wetlands.

Lake Tana is a Ramsar site and an Important Bird Area (IBA) with 217 species of birds recorded including palearctic migratory species such as the ruff (philomachus pugnax), common crane, and black-tailed godwit. There are 37 islands on Lake Tana of which 27 have been inhabited continuously since the 13th century. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians built several monasteries and churches including Tana Qirkos monastery, the oldest.

There’s a museum containing historic records indicating the Tewahedo church hymns as composed by St. Yared, a pioneer of music notation in Ancient Ethiopia kingdom. Deq, the largest island on Lake Tana is 37 km (3-hour boat ride) north of Bahir Dar town and contains the Narga Selassie, the most beautiful monastery on lake Tana. Blue Nile Falls is 31 km (one hour’s drive) south-east of Bahir Dar city, making it a convenient day trip destination.

The royal city of Gondar

Situated in Amhara region northern highlands, Gondar was once the capital city of Ethiopia between 1632 – 1855. The city is home to over 20 castles, royal palaces and 30 churches built since the 17th century by several emperors including king Fasiledes, who founded the city and resisted external influence on the early African writing and speech as more groups of Arabs and Europeans moved into Upper Egypt (present day Sudan) below the first cataract. 


Askum (Axum) town was a religious centre of the ancient northern Ethiopian empire, which consisted of several semi-autonomous kingdoms. For those intending to see evidence of the first African civilization despite several attempts to destroy it, Askum is a must visit during your Ethiopia tour. The town is found in the Tigray region bordering the Red sea about 1,165 km (17-hour drive) north of Addis Ababa capital city. You can reach there by air through Emperor Yohannes IV airport. 

The emperor who ruled Ethiopia from 1872 – 1889 is famous for having built a magnificent Atse palace in Mekele and also laid the foundation for real brotherhood and unity among the Africans. The key attractions in Axum town are the massive monolithic pillars including the King Ezana’s Obelisk of Axum which dates to 300 CE.

Standing at a height of 34 meters, it’s said that it was the tallest pillar, before it was cut into pieces and looted by Italy. However, it was returned in 2005, re-erected in 2008 and inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list. The city also offers opportunities to see Ethiopian literary works including the biblical Ark of the Covenant that God commanded Moses in the book of Exodus after liberating Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Ethiopian Orthodox christians consider Axum as a Holy City with the Ark records kept there in the Yeha Temple known as the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. Whilst in Axum, 

Lalibela churches

Lalibela, which was once the capital of the northern Ethiopian empire in the 12th century, has over 11 spectacular interconnected rock-carved churches. Built by King Lalibela with intention to turn Ethiopia into the New Jerusalem, the Lalibela churches now attract over 100,000 pilgrims of both Ethiopian and other Orthodox Christians from across the world People walk barefoot from St. George, the largest of the 11 churches to to celebrate Genna which is the Christmas holiday happening in January.

The work it took men to dig 12 meters (40 feet) underneath the hard rocks was inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list in 1978. It took 23 years to complete the work thereby creating safe and holy places of worship. The black Ethiopian empire at the time was under extreme external influence from Arabs. The churches were built underground, making it difficult to recognize from a distance. 

Manyete wild coffee village

The rich fertile soils of the Ethiopian highlands support Arabic coffee growing with over 15 million people involved in production, the coffee industry contributes over $350 million which is over 30% of the country’s total annual exports.

Folklore and historical records from the National Museum of Ethiopia, which date to the early 19th century, claim that an Amharic child who was caring for some goats in the Bale mountains national park observed that his goats were eating a certain bush that he himself also consumed. Fortunately, he discovered that the fruit was aesthetically beautiful and energizing, and that is how Arabic coffee was discovered. The village of Manyete, which is just outside the park, provides a chance to experience wild coffee with practical activities like picking and roasting coffee.

National parks in Ethiopia 

Ethiopia has 15 national parks with diverse ecosystems such as Afro-alpine montane dry forest habitats in the Ethiopian highlands, scrub, lowland tropical forests, wetlands, desert and semi-desert habitats. These ecosystems are rich in biodiversity including over 800 bird species and 320 mammal species, 31 of which are endemic, such as the Ethiopian wolf ( the only wolf wolf specie in Africa) in the Bale Mountains, mountain Nyala, Swayne’s hartebeest, Gelada monkeys and Walia Ibex in the Simien Mountains national parks.

Ethiopia’s endangered species are found nowhere else on the continent, making for a one-of-a-kind wildlife safari available for booking through the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority (EWCA), which manages the protected areas, or through a tour operator and guide. 

Simien mountains national park

Simien mountains national park is the largest protected area in north east Ethiopia, covering 2,150 (830 sq.Miles). The park is 780 km (13-hour drive) north east of Addis Ababa capital city and 113 km (2-hour drive) north of Gondar city. The park’s entrance gate is 11 km (6 miles) north of Debarq town (100 km north of Gondar), where tours to the park begin at the park headquarters.

The protected area was established in 1969 and is on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites. The park’s spectacular feature is Mount Ras Dejen (4,533 meters (14,872 feet), Ethiopia’s highest peak and the fourth tallest in Africa. Mt. Ras Dejen is a dormant volcano stretching for 180 km and contains spectacular geological features including the 60 km long Biuat (4,437m) escarpment in the west and the 35 km northern cliff, deep gorges and lowland valleys, making it a must-visit gem in Africa. There are rural tourism villages of the Amharic people who refer to Ras Dajen as “ a chess table of gods’ ‘ due to the unique physiological features.   

Flora and fauna

The vegetation in Simien mountains national park consists of the rare Afro Alpine grasslands and shrubs that occur above 3,000m. This ecosystem has unique high altitude cliffs and semi evergreen shrubs, a favorite grazing grounds for the endemic Walia ibex (capra walie) including Solanum sessilistellantum, strawflowers (xerochrysum bracteatum), St. John’s Wort (hypericum calycinum) and tussock grasseses.

The flora of Simien also includes extensive coniferous forests with unique endangered wild fruit tree species such as the African redwood (hagenia abyssinica), juniper (juniperus procera), Suan teak wood, Olea Africana (olea europaea), and Hagenia abyssinica among others. These trees produce fruits and flowers that attract birds and are also used for local medicine. Simien Mountains national park is recognized by UNESCO as an Afroalpine Center of Plant Diversity. 

As such, the protected area is rich in biodiversity including over 20 mammal species of which most are endemic including Gelada monkeys, Ethiopian wolf and Walia Ibex (mountain goat). Other species include golden cat, klipspringer, Hamadryas and Anubis baboos. The park is also an Important Bird Area (IBA) of the Eastern Afromontane ecosystem. There are over 130 species of birds of which 16 are Ethiopian highland endemics including endangered lammergeyer, Abbyssinia catbird, spot-breasted lapwing, Ethiopian siskin, Ankober serin, Abyssinian longclaw and somali starling.  

The best time to visit the park if you want to go mountain climbing, bird watching, or spot some wildlife is during the dry season, which runs from October to the end of March. The greatest months for nature and landscapes are September and December.

Bale Mountains national parks

Bale Mountains National Park (BMNP), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located in the Oromia region 400 km (8-hour drive) to the southeast of Addis Ababa capital city. The park can be reached by air through Goba (Robe) airport, which is a 2-hour drive from the park visitor center.

The protected area covers 2,220 km² (820 Sq.Miles) and protects Mount Tullu Dimtuu, the country’s second-tallest peak at 4,377 m (14,360 feet). It forms the western portion of the Bale-Arsi massif in the south-eastern Ethiopian highlands. Bale is one of the most beautiful national parks with five vegetation zones including the harena forests (1,700m – 2,200m), erica moorlands and tree heather, juniper woodlands, gaysay grasslands (3,000- 3,500m) and afroalpine meadows (3,600m- 4377m). 

The protected area contains rich biodiversity including 78 mammal species and 310 birds. Among the numerous wildlife species that live in the Bale highlands include over 150 of the 400 Ethiopian wolf population, mountain Nyala, spotted hyena, grey duiker, Menelik’s bushbuck, and warthogs.

There are also endemic primate species such as the Bale monkeys among others such as colobus monkeys, and olive baboons. A variety of rare endemic reptiles are also present including two species of chameleon which include the Bale mountains two-horned and heather chameleons. There are also 8 Ethiopian endemic rodent species including the endangered high-altitude Giant African mole rat.  

Among the 310 birds of Bale mountains national park 18 are Ethiopian highland endemics including the black-headed siskin, Abbyssinian catbird, yellow-fronted parrot, blue-winged goose, Abyssinian longclaw, and spot-breasted plover. 

The major activities are wildlife viewing and climbing Mount Tullu Dimtuu. In addition, the park offers a wide range of day treks including Fishing, Manyete coffee Village tour, walks in the natural forest, honey harvesting with the locals.

Abijatta Shalla national park

Abijatta Shalla national park is in the Oromia region 200 km (3-hour drive) south of Addis Ababa capital city. You can also reach by air through Hawassa airport, which is 49 km away from the park. The protected area covers 887 of which half of it contains two alkaline lakes including Lake Abijata and Lak Shall.

A volcanic caldera called Mount Fike (2,075m) separates the two lakes and offers a spectacular lookout of the park. The lakes mark the beginning of the Great East African rift valley lake system. Lake Abijatta, 10 miles long and 9 miles wide, is the shallowest at only 14 feet deep. Between October and February, large flocks of both lesser and larger flamingos are drawn to its abundant green algae. In contrast, Lake Shala is 266 m deep and features sulfur hot springs that have natural medicinal effects.

The park is well known for bird watching.with over 400 species of birds including palearctic and African migrants such as Basra reed warbler, eastern imperial eagle (aquila heliaca), pallid harrier, and black-winged pratincole. Other common species include great cormorants, dunlin, bee-eaters, both Somalia and common ostriches, barbets, great white pelicans, Abbysnian black-headed orioles, and wattled Ibis.

The rest of the park’s area contains semi-arid savanna grasslands dotted with red and umbrella thorn acacia trees, sycamore fig trees, and egyptian balsams or bedenas. These habitats surround the lakes and provide home to 76 mammal species of which the most common are antelope species such as greater kudus, Grant’s gazelles, dik-dik, Bohor reedbuck, oribi, Klipspringers. There are also spotted hyenas, caracals, olive baboons, and warthogs. 

Omo valley cultural experience

Omo valley is located in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Religion (SNNPR) in south west Ethiopia. The area’s most notable physical landmark is the Omo River, 644 km (400 sq. miles), which flows from the Shewa highlands and empties into Lake Turkan.

Omo valley is inhabited by over 8 indigenous tribes including the Mursi, Arbore, Bana, Nyangatom, Hamar, Karo, Surma (Suri), and Dassanech making it one of the best rural tourism villages in the world. Given that the majority of them are semi-nomadic pastoralists and keep cattle and goats, the Omo river is essential to their way of living.

The river flows through Omo and Mago national parks rich in biodiversity including zebras, lions, hyenas, cheetahs, African painted dogs, zebras, greater and lesser Kudus and a variety of birds. Tribes that live on the edge of the river such as the Dassanech hunt crocodiles, warthogs, ostriches and cheetahs with spears and wear their teeth, hides and feathers for their ritual ceremonies.

These tribes have amazing traditional practices, such as the martial art of Donga stick combat among the Suri, the wearing of lip plates by Mursi women, bull jumping among the Hamer, and the drinking blood of cows among the Surma.

As such, Omo valley offers the remoteness of rural Africa. There are those that live further from the river and traditionally graze their livestock and also grow beans, maize, and sorghum. Production of crops relies heavily on the annual flooding of the Omo river.

However, with the development of Gibe III hydro-electric dam in 2006 led to reduction in the annual flooding of the river. The Omo and Mago national parks were gazetted into protected areas. This kind of development is challenging as much of ancestral lands is being converted for other land uses including cultivation of sugarcane and biofuels. Nevertheless, most tribes in the Omo valley are keen at preserving their ways of life especially in the Konso Cultural Landscape, which was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1980.