Still slightly off the radar when it comes African travel, Ethiopia is an intriguing, beautiful, multi-faceted country – both culturally and geographically. It’s ridiculously easy to fall in love with, once you visit.
So much of Ethiopia’s appeal is linked to its rich history, which reads like a fairytale filled with saints and sinners, emperors and phantoms, treasures and calamities. Ethiopia was one of the first countries to adopt Christianity, the first to discover coffee, the only one to have never been colonized, and is home to hundreds of diverse ancient tribes. The monuments, culture and people reflect this proud legacy, from the castles worthy of a fairytale, to the ancient coffee ceremonies, to the Art Deco and Italianate architecture, to the unique lip plates worn by Mursi women.
Much of this historical and cultural legacy has been preserved in Ethiopia’s numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which are some of the most impressive this side of the Great Rift Valley. From Harar to Axum, from Gondar to Lalibela, and from Tigray to Bahir Dar, you’ll find rock churches, lakeside monasteries, chilly tombs, piercing obelisks, mosque-filled cities, dramatic frescoes, and majestic palaces.
Head toward the southwestern lowlands and you’ll encounter fascinating tribes such as the Mursi, the Hamar, the Dassanech, and the Oromo. Many of these people participate in elaborate rituals surrounding the preparation and ingestion of coffee. If you are invited to such a ceremony, it is considered a great honor and should not be declined.
In the dead center of Ethiopia, the capital Addis Ababa is not to be ignored. A newer city, it may be a bit rough around the edges it may not be a hotbed of ancient monuments, but it’s home to some of the best museums, galleries, cultural and historical sites of any African city. Addis also has a happening nightlife and restaurant scene, and some classy high-end hotels.
Ethiopia’s natural attractions are no less impressive than its cultural, historical and urban ones. Its geographic diversity spans geologic phenomena such as the Danakil Depression — where active volcanoes, salt lakes and hot springs punctuate an otherworldly landscape that is one of the hottest on earth – and the cool forests of the 13,000-foot Simien mountains, where hikers revel in the majestic views and pass by troupes of gelada baboons. You’ll also find Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, and the glorious waterfall that accompanies it.
SAFETY: It is not safe to travel within 10 kilometers of the borders with Somalia, Kenya, South Sudan, Sudan and Eritrea, due to flare-ups of violence. If you go on excursions to places outside Addis, especially the Danakil desert area, the Somali region, or the Gambella region, using a tour group is recommended, as there have been instances of carjacking and highway robbery. The terrorist group Al-Shabaab has issued threats against various Ethiopian targets, so bear this in mind and consider your tolerance for risk before booking a trip.