One of the earliest cradles of Christianity (and widely considered the original birthplace of coffee), Ethiopia has an ancient heritage that still lives on today.
This East African nation is packed with interesting landmarks and attractions, a variety of endemic animals, rich cultural festivals, and, of course, delicious coffee. So much so that travelers may have a difficult time narrowing down all the different areas they’d like to explore.
EXPLORE ETHIOPIAN HISTORY
1. Attend the Timket Festival
The Timket Festival (which is also known as the Epiphany Festival), held annually in mid-January in Lalibela, celebrates and honors the anniversary of the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan.
Timket spans three days and begins with an opening procession led by priests holding replicas of the Tabot—the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments, which is an extremely sacred element of Orthodox Christianity.
The next two days of rejoicing include a sunrise mass baptism ceremony, uplifting music from church choirs and bands, drum dancing, and numerous parades.
2. Explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Lalibela
Lalibela's 11 medieval churches, which were carved from rock, are some of the earliest churches in the Christian religion.
Lalibela, known as Ethiopia's “New Jerusalem” and a place of pilgrimage, is located in the Lasta mountains. This was the first capital of Ethiopia, which itself was the very first country to proclaim Christianity as the state religion.
The churches are all connected to each other by tunnels or passages. Biete Medhani Alem (also known as Savior Church) is the largest church in the complex at 38 feet tall, and is the world's largest monolithic rock-hewn church.
Biete Maryam is a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and features windows which represent the Holy Trinity and the crucifixion of Jesus, as well as historic frescoes.
3. Visit the Ethnological Museum in Addis Ababa
As you travel to Ethiopia, take some time to explore the Institute of Ethiopian Studies Ethnographic Museum. It’s located in the former palace of long-ruling Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, on the campus of Addis Ababa University.
The museum explores the range of Ethiopia's 80+ indigenous ethnic/cultural groups, the lifecycle of events in the lives of Ethiopians, religion, food, nature, culture, and history.
There are over 13,000 artifacts here, some of which date back to the early Aksumite period. Exhibits include art, musical instruments, clothing, weapons, photographs, Imperial furnishings, manuscripts, and an excellent collection of Ethiopian stamps.
SEE ETHIOPIAN WILDLIFE
4. Birdwatching in Simien Mountains National Park
Located in northern Ethiopia, the gorgeous Simien Mountains National park is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The dynamic landscape features tall mountain peaks (including the highest point in Ethiopia, Ras Dejen), spiky precipices, and both gorges and valleys.
The park is part of the Afroalpine Centre of Plant Diversity and the Eastern Afromontane biodiversity hotspot. It’s home to many types of endemic wildlife, including the endangered Walia ibex and Ethiopian wolf, the Gelada (a.k.a. bleeding heart baboon), and five small mammal species and six bird species.
Of course, the park is also home to many creatures that aren’t endemic to Ethiopia, including more than 400 species of birds and 21 species of mammals.
5. Photograph Rare Animals in Bale Mountains National Park
Located in southeastern Ethiopia, Bale Mountains National Park overlooks the Ethiopian highlands. The main topographical feature is Mt. Dimtu, the second highest peak in the country.
This region's beauty is surreal, encompassing volcanic outpourings, glacial valleys, grooved rocks, and lichen-draped woodlands. But animals reign supreme here: the park is home to 26% of Ethiopia's endemic species, including 100% of Ethiopia's endemic giant mole rat population.
Of particular note is the area’s delicious honey, which is garnered from bees visiting the fragrant blossoms of endemic trees. Their hives, which are hung high to keep out of reach of honey badgers, are truly a sight to see.
ETHIOPIAN LAKES & WATERFALLS
6. Cruise Lake Tana
Take a cruise on Lake Tana, Ethiopia's largest lake and the main source of the Blue Nile. Lake Tana is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve due to its importance in the local ecosystem and great biodiversity.
It’s also an Important Bird Area due to its vast wetlands. The lake is home to 67 species of fish, 70% of which are endemic. There have been over 217 bird species recorded here, including many migrant water birds.
The lake was formed via volcanic activity over 5 million years ago. Within it, there are many islands—the count varies from 10 to 45, about half of which house monasteries.
The monasteries include Tana Qirqos (which held the original Ark of the Covenant before being relocated to Axum), Dega Estefanos (where the mummified remains of former emperors, dating from the 1200s, reside), Azwa Maryam Monastery, and the extremely colorful Betre Maryam Church.
7. Swim in Blue Nile Falls
Known locally as Tis Abay (smoking water), the Blue Nile Falls are 328 feet wide and plunge over 150 feet on the river’s path to Khartoum, where it meets the White Nile.
Located about 30 kilometers downstream from Lake Tana, the falls have been instrumental in creating many endemic species in the lake.
You can walk over a suspension bridge and down to the base of the falls and, during certain times of the year, swim in the falls’ basin or actually walk behind the falls.
8. Explore Gondar’s Castles
Gondar was once the country’s capital and base of Ethiopian emperors. As a result, it’s home to so many medieval castles (as well as 44 churches), the impressive complex has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The fortress called Fasil Ghebbi (the Royal Enclosure) includes the most famous buildings in Gondar, including many castles, a palace, stables, a library, and several churches. No wonder Gondar is called “the Camelot of Africa”!
9. Shop in Addis Ababa’s Local Markets
If you travel to Ethiopia, shop where the locals do. Shiro Meda market is well known as the city's largest garment market for traditional Ethiopian clothing and textiles.
Merkato is one of the largest open-air markets on the African continent (it goes on for miles!). You'll be able to purchase just about anything, including exceptional locally-grown coffee, as well as the clay coffee brewing vessel known as a jebena.
10. Sample the World’s Best Coffee
Ethiopia is generally considered the birthplace of coffee, and their coffee is widely ranked among the best coffee in the world.
Whether you want to learn more about growing the crop on the coffee trail or experiencing a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony (from roasting the beans to drinking it), this is the place to do it.
Famous coffee areas in Ethiopia include the eponymous Kaffaa, Harar, Guji, Sidamo, Bale (where it grows wild in Bale Mountains National Park), Jimma, and Yirgacheffe. –Jessie Voigts
BIO: Jessie Voigts has a Ph.D. in International Education, has lived and worked in Japan and London, and traveled all around the world. She’s published eight books about travel and intercultural learning (including guides to Cambodia and Vietnam), with more on the way. Jessie is constantly looking for ways to increase intercultural understanding and is passionate about sharing the world through her website, Wandering Educators.