The north of Ethiopia holds some of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. Learn more about the historical and natural attractions of this country below.
Bahir Dar & Lake Tana
Bahir Dar literally translates to “sea shore” in the local language of Amharic, which is a fitting title for this relaxed town that opens up to the sacred waters of Bahir Dar. Locals traverse the lake in papyrus tankwa boats, constructed in the same manner as in ancient times. However, it is the monasteries hidden on the shores and many islands of Lake Tana that tell the true history of Ethiopia’s largest body of water.
The monasteries of Lake Tana contain a myriad of church treasures including colorful religious paintings, crowns and crosses of gold and silver and even the mummified remains of former Ethiopian emperors.
Lake Tana also serves as the source for the Blue Nile River that departs here for its long journey to the Mediterranean Sea. Not far from Bahir Dar, the river’s waters spill over to the rocks below, producing refreshing mists and glimmering rainbows that seem to be a permanent fixture in the landscape. A walk in the area around the Blue Nile Falls provides glimpses of the local bird and wildlife, as well as to the villagers who call this place home.
With its empowering 17th-century castles, Gondar has rightfully earned the name of “Africa’s Camelot.” Gondar was established as the capital of Ethiopia in 1636 by Emperor Fasilidas, and it thrived as capital until the late 19th century. Its collection of castles, erected by various emperors throughout the ages is a testament to Gondar’s prosperity.
The well-known Debre Birhan Selassie church sits on a hill above the city, with beautifully painted walls recounting many stories in religious history. Look up to see the cherubs smiling down on you from the most famous ceiling in Ethiopia.
Gondar is a popular place to visit during the Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of Timket, or Epiphany, when the Bath of Fasilidas is filled with water as the faithful renew their baptismal vows.
The many ancient tombs, castles, stelae and other historical artifacts found in Axum give proof to the fact that this humble city was once home to a great civilization. In fact, the Axumite Empire was one of the most technologically advanced civilizations of its time, from the 1st century BC to the 7th century AD. Guests wandering amongst their history will marvel at the remains of their greatness.
The most famous historical figure that called Axum home was the illustrious Queen of Sheba, known in Ethiopia as Makeda. According to Ethiopian legend, when the Queen of Sheba traveled to Israel to meet with King Solomon, she bore him a son, who then became the first Emperor of Ethiopia – Menelik I. As the story continues, Menelik later visited his father in Israel and brought the coveted Ark of the Covenant back to Ethiopia on his return.
Axum claims to hold the Ark of the Covenant still today in a specially-dedicated chapel on the compound of the St. Mary of Zion church, where it is carefully guarded by a single chosen monk.
The towering granite stelae have become the iconic face of Axum. Ethiopia’s recent victory in securing the return from Italy of the largest stele ever erected at Axum has made this site ever so more impressive.
Lalibela has been a place of pilgrimage since it was built nearly 1000 years ago. Still today, this holy city brings thousands of faithful Ethiopians and tourists from all over the world to wonder at the unimaginable feat of King Lalibela and his people, who carved these 11 churches from the bedrock using only crude hand tools.
As with much of Ethiopia, Lalibela is not without its own legend. As the story goes, when Lalibela was a baby he was found surrounded by a swarm of bees, said to prophesy his sovereignty. Later in life his jealous brother, King Harbay, poisoned Lalibela, putting him into a deep sleep. It was in this sleep that Lalibela was taken to heaven, where God instructed him to build the churches seen today. After awaking from the sleep, his remorseful brother abdicated the crown to Lalibela, who immediately set upon building the churches, carved from the bedrock. The churches were built so quickly, it is said, because the angels continued the work at night.
The most impressive of these structures is Bet Giyorgis, created in honor of the patron saint of Ethiopia, St. George. It is said that the hoof print of George’s horse can still be seen in the compound today.
Lalibela remains an important place for religious celebrations. Ethiopian Christmas, on January 7th, draws scores of visitors for this holy day. Timket, or Epiphany, shortly after on January 19th is the biggest celebration at Lalibela, where the tabot (replica of the Ark of the Covenant) is removed from each church and brought to a central location for overnight. In the morning, water is blessed and sprinkled on the faithful gatherers, renewing their baptismal vows.
The Simien Mountains are the only natural UNESCO World Heritage Site found in Ethiopia. The dramatic mountainous landscapes and jagged peaks are home to many of the rare species that are endemic to Ethiopia. The Gelada baboon, known as the “bleeding heart” baboon due to the red patch of skin on its breast, is found in large numbers and a sighting is virtually guaranteed.
The endemic Ethiopian wolf is also present, though in much smaller numbers (it is more prominent in the southern Bale Mountains). Also endemic to Ethiopia, the walia ibex, a type of wild goat, can be seen frolicking over the rocky terrain.
Visits to the Simien Mountains, whether for a casual day tour or week-long treks are certain to inspire awe in every soul that graces these lands.
The Danakil Depression
The Danakil Depression, with its other-worldly landscapes, offers a rewarding experience for those who venture out. This is the land of the Afar nomads, who trek over barren lands with their camel caravans transporting blocks of salt mined from large salt flats for sale in the larger towns.
Dallol is the lowest point on the African continent at 116m below sea level. It’s a beautiful site to see with its sulfurous springs providing colorful crystalline formations.
The area is also home to 40% of Africa’s volcanoes, the most famous being Erta Ale. To avoid the daytime heat, hikes are done at night or early morning, reaching the peak in time to see the permanent lava lake inside the volcano while the sun peeks over the horizon – definitely a highlight of any trip!
Because of the remoteness of this area, tours are done full-expedition style, with no detail overlooked to provide a memorable visit to this fascinating yet remote corner of the world.