Sitting landlocked on the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is blessed with incredible natural beauty and abundant rare wildlife. It has also nurtured its own diverse cultures and protected its tribal heritage.
All of which means this beautiful country is packed with opportunities to make lifelong memories and enjoy experiences that will take your breath away.
The climate is conducive to exploration and adventures any month of the year, though keep in mind that in the summer the North Eastern area of Ethiopia is officially the hottest place on the planet! Daytime temperatures can reach a mighty 50 degrees C.
One of the joys of holidays on ‘the road less travelled’ is the chance to immerse yourself in all that your destination has to offer. This is certainly true when visiting Ethiopia, where the colourful environment and warm local welcome make this ‘once in a lifetime trip’ something you will yearn to repeat.
In the most remote and awe-inspiring places, it’s easy to understand why legend suggests the Ark of the Covenant is hidden somewhere in its unforgettable landscape.
1. View mighty monoliths at Axum
Spending time exploring Axum is highly recommended for anyone travelling to this archaeologically rich African nation.
It’s the perfect place to explore ancient castles, palaces and churches echoing with centuries of history. The huge monoliths (stelae) are elaborate tombstones for glorious rulers in Ethiopia’s past. The largest (Remhai’s stele) is an incredible feat of ancient engineering, and would have stood 33m high, weighing 500 tons, when first erected!
2. Spot an Ethiopian Wolf in the Bale Mountains
No list of things to do in Ethiopia can fail to acknowledge the country’s bounteous wildlife, including opportunities to get ‘up close and personal’ with endangered species.
A visit to the Sanetti Plateau in the Bale Mountains National Park provides the best chance of seeing an Ethiopian wolf, whose numbers have dwindled to around 500 in the wild. The area is also home to equally endangered black-maned lions, Honey Badgers and various species of monkeys. Keep your eyes out for Bleeding Heart Monkeys (the gelada baboon).
Exploring the Bale Mountains involves a 200-mile drive from the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. To say it’s worth it is a vast understatement. The journey sweeps you past the lakes of the Rift Valley, authentic African villages buzzing with Tuk-Tuks and lush bamboo forests.
3. Take a boat trip on Lake Tana
If your bucket list involves meditating in ancient monasteries, this is a must-do.
Tana is the largest lake in Ethiopia and leads on to the Blue Nile, a vastly important water source for the entire country. A boat trip on the lake could take you to 20 monastic churches, many dating back to the 14th century.
One of the most popular is the Ura Kidane Mihret Monastery. It can be found on the lush Zege Peninsula, and the building’s glorious decorations are memorising and unforgettable.
4. Trek to the Erta Ale Volcano
Of course, Mother Nature has provided her own breath-taking things to do in Ethiopia, including backdrops for the best hiking and climbing holidays on the African continent.
A trek to the Erta Ale volcano is moderately challenging, though keep in mind the need for local guides (this is an active volcano) and make proper preparation to face those year-round high temperatures and summer heat peaks in this part of Ethiopia.
5. Visit the Danakil Depression
Another adventure expedition in Ethiopia is to trek this geological depression. It’s where the earth is impacted by the divergence of three tectonic plates. In its simplest sense, it provides a chance to stand where ancient volcanic activities tore Asia from Africa! Which is why visiting the Danakil Depression is sometimes referred to as seeing the “cradle of humanity”.
6. See Harar’s Hyena Man in action
This is a far more contemporary offering. Who is the Harar Hyena Man? He’s a local character in the Eastern city of Harar, who calls nightly to attract these wild creatures. He then feeds the hyenas, to the joy of fascinated onlookers.
Harar is a fabulous place to visit, famed for its iconic walls and gates, the maze of alleys, and traditional African homes including colourful hanging baskets.
7. Explore the castles of Gonder
Another popular place to visit in Ethiopia, Gonder offers a chance to explore wonderfully preserved 17th-century African buildings. The early morning offers the best views of the castles, palaces and other monuments; a lasting legacy of Ethiopia’s opulent but brutal past.
Not surprisingly, this is a Unesco world heritage site. Be sure to include the oldest and most impressive building – Fasiladas’ Palace – on your tour of Gonder.
8. Discover the rock-hewn churches of Tigray
In Northernmost Ethiopia, explore more of this African nation’s incredible architecture and archaeological significance.
The monolithic churches of Ethiopia’s Gheralta Mountains have been carved in some of the remotest parts of the Tigray region, and include the extraordinary and much-photographed church of St. George (Bet Giorgis).
It’s a strenuous trek but rewarded by one of the most spiritually satisfying things to do in Ethiopia. This rugged landscape is ‘jaw-dropping’, whichever way you look at it.
9. Trek the Simien Mountains National Park
Another great option for visitors looking for adventures in Ethiopia is the Simien Mountains, which are on Unesco’s danger list due to environmental peril.
The Greek poet Homer referred to them as “chess pieces of the gods”. Imagine an eye-popping array of deep ravines and gorges, bordered by mighty pinnacles and rock spires. The alpine plants and superb wildlife make the Simien Mountains an unmissed feature of Ethiopia.
10. Explore the Omo Valley
To immerse yourself in cultural diversity and African heritage, spending time around the Omo Valley is one of the best things to do in Ethiopia.
Tribal traditions are strong here. The indigenous people are warm, welcoming and accepting of visitor curiosity despite their remoteness and a fierce adherence to an ageless way of life.
Visit local markets to trade, camp by outlying villages and sit by riverbanks or around campfires as tribespeople dance, drum and celebrate their unique African stories.
11. Visit a jazz bar in Addis
A very different but equally beguiling way to soak up the African music scene is to visit a jazz bar in the nation’s bustling and multifaceted capital.
There’s a superb choice of nightlife in Addis Ababa, but the unique blending of Ethiopian folk music, mysticism and jazz into ‘Ethio-Jazz’ is the highlight for many visitors. Enjoy the laid back atmosphere and delicious local cuisine, as well as traditional Ethiopian dancing, in the many thriving jazz bars in Addis.