Ethiopia travel guide

2 minute summary

The timeshift is perhaps the first indication that you have arrived somewhere very, very different – but it is not the last. The senses are bombarded with “otherness” in Ethiopia, from the sight of the strange, calligraphic script to the eerie sound of Orthodox chants mixing with Islamic calls to prayer, and the fiery flavoured stews served atop giant, sour pancakes. Despite a few, brief years of Italian occupation, Ethiopia is the only country in Africa never to have been fully colonised – yet it doesn’t even feel fully African, thanks to its strong Middle Eastern ties.
As you traverse from North to South, past the sunken rock-hewn churches of one of the world’s oldest Christian nations, through the verdant, lake-splashed Rift Valley, glimpsing the strange, endemic wildlife of the highlands, reaching the clay and ochre-smeared tribes of the Omo Valley – Ethiopia’s uniqueness is inescapable and overwhelming. Our Ethiopia travel guide leads you along the ancient trails of this little understood nation.

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Harar Rift Valley Endemic wildlife Ethiopian music


Islam’s fourth holiest city covers just a single square kilometre in eastern Ethiopia, a walled citadel with over 80 mosques and 360 labyrinthine alleyways dating back up to a thousand years. The elegant Islamic architecture, colourful robes and ancient markets seemed to have altered little since then. One of Harar’s main draws is the feeding of the hyenas – a nightly ritual which deters the predators from attacking livestock.

Rift Valley

Africa’s Great Rift Valley rips a great scar through the middle of Ethiopia, where lakes have bubbled up and forests have sprung from the ground. The warmth and humidity are a welcome break from the harsh highlands, and journeys up and down the valley reveal a variety of cultures and traditions, where life revolves around market days, traditional ceremonies, farming and weaving – all scarcely touched by tourism.

Endemic wildlife

It is possible to see lion, buffalo, hippo and zebra in Ethiopia – but those after a traditional East African safari experience will be disappointed. What Ethiopia does best is uniqueness – and this extends to its fauna. Gelada baboons, Ethiopian wolves, mountain nyalas and even the comical, big-headed mole rat can all be found roaming the isolated highlands – rare, fascinating and totally unique to Ethiopia.

Ethiopian music

Local musicians and influences from the diaspora have created a strangely seductive blend of African rhythms, Middle Eastern melodies and traditional Ethiopian folk sounds fused with jazz – the krar being the most distinctive instrument. You’ll hear plenty of it on the car radio – but if you can get to a cultural show in Addis, you’ll see the madly energetic dance that accompanies it.


Lalibela Simien Mountains Ethiopian culture Local guides


These 11 rock-hewn churches – up to 13m high – were created in the 13th century, and are the closest thing Ethiopia has to a “big” tourist attraction. They were freed entirely from the rock with just hammers and chisels – complete with elaborate windows, columns and roofs. Lalibela remains very much a living cultural site; 1,000 of its 10,000 residents are priests, and the churches are the focal points for ceremonies, vigils and processions.

Simien Mountains

The jagged peaks and deep gorges of this mist-shrouded national park are home to Ethiopia’s most striking wildlife: gelada baboons, Walia ibex and lammergeyer vultures. Millions of years of erosion has created a jaw-dropping landscape, recognised by UNESCO. Surreal Afro-Alpine cling to the steep slopes, over 3,600m high. Single or multi-day treks with local guides offer an insight into life on the “roof of Africa”.

Ethiopian culture

A trip to the Omo Valley is to discover the Africa of old, of warrior tribes and pastoralists, or body adornments and blood-drinking hunters. But to go beyond the tourist shows, stay in a community tukul in Konso or Dorze, visit the colourful markets of the north, join a frankincense-scented coffee ceremony and trek the highlands with a village guide.

Local guides

Using a local guide doesn’t just mean someone from Ethiopia; in a country with dozens of languages, cultural traditions, varied religions and local festivals, you really need a new guide in each place you visit. In Lalibela, local guides know the history of the churches by heart, while in the Omo Valley they can chat to the tribes to avoid cultural conflicts and encourage interaction.


Addis Ababa Blue Nile Falls Band Aid Living with a tribe

Addis Ababa

Africa’s highest capital is a largely modern city – but not in a good way. It is filled with blocky, half-finished buildings, chaotic traffic and the sounds of construction. If you’re passing through, though, don’t despair; on arrival, the National Museum provides a fantastic historical introduction to Ethiopia – dating back 3.2 million years, and before departure the Merkato and craft stalls are great places to spend your last birr.

Blue Nile Falls

Search for images of the Blue Nile Falls, and you’ll see a stunning, smaller version of cascading greats such as Victoria Falls or Iguazu. So visitors to the falls today may be confused to encounter a muddy trickle. The damming of the river for a hydroelectric plant now cuts off the flow most days; rumour has it that it’s left to flow on weekends, but this doesn’t seem reliable.

Band Aid

1984-85 saw one of the worst famines in Ethiopian history, and news footage shocked the world. But while money raised through initiatives such as Band Aid helped Ethiopians, 30 years on the lingering images – and lyrics – don’t. Ethiopia is huge, most of it is not desert, and “rain and rivers” do, actually, flow across its valleys, hills and forests. Ethiopians would love the rest of the world to finally realise this.

Living with a tribe

The tribes of the Omo Valley are fascinating, but interacting with the daily tide of visitors is, for them a day job. You can’t expect to stay in a local village or join a local festivity any more than you would in any other country – these people have livestock to tend to and lives to lead, and for the most part, they’d like to keep some aspects of their lives private from camera-wielding tourists.

Food, shopping & people

Travel like a local on your Ethiopia vacation

Eating & drinking in Ethiopia

Ethiopian meals are based on a large, spongy pancake called injera. This serves as plate, food and cutlery – you tear bits off to eat the stews (wot) served on top. Always eat with your right hand!

Coffee originated in Ethiopia. It’s strong, delicious, brewed on the street over coals – and guaranteed to leave you quivering for several hours afterwards. It’s often served with popcorn.

Two days a week are “fasting” – when only vegan food is served. The other days compensate with plenty of meat – including raw chunks or minced beef (kitfo). Eat at your peril…

Ethiopian days are measured from sunrise to sunset – so sunrise at 6am is actually 12am in Ethiopia. 

People & language

Ethiopia is a surprisingly vast country – with a large and diverse population. While Amharic – which has its own alphabet – is the official language, Oromo is more widely spoken as a first language, and there are in fact over 80 languages spoken around the country – some with just a few thousand speakers. Most Ethiopians are deeply religious (Orthodox Christian or Muslim) and this has a large influence on daily life and customs.

Amharic is fiendish. “Thank you” is pronounced ammasay-ge-ne-lo”. If that’s too much to remember, “ishi” – meaning “ok” can also be an informal “thanks”.

The language has 33 main alphabets – each with seven variations, giving it over 250 letters.

Gifts & shopping

Scarves and throws hand woven from high quality cotton are a shopper’s favourite. The most traditional designs are white edged with bright colours.

Woven baskets and injera platters can be found across the country.

Pick up some super strong Ethiopian coffee – and complete the look back home with some little hand painted coffee cups.

Fast facts

The Rastafarian movement was named after Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie – formerly Prince Ras Tafari. He donated a region of Ethiopia to those wishing to return to Africa.

How much does it cost?

Large glass of fresh fruit juice: 40p
Five-day pass to Lalibela: £32.50
Ethiopian visa on arrival at the
airport: £32 for one month
Cup of Ethiopian coffee: 19p
Half a kilo of coffee beans: £1.15
Injera with wot stews: 85p

A brief history of Ethiopia

Ethiopia's past can be traced back further than most, starting with the skeleton of one of the world’s oldest homonids, “Lucy”. In Ethiopia her name is “Dinkinesh” – meaning “you are marvellous”; she rests today in Addis Ababa’s National Museum of Ethiopia – along with a reconstruction of what she would have looked like when alive. Read more ▼
Photo credits: [Village homestay: Rod Waddington] [Harar: Rod Waddington] [Rift Valley: Paul Pedone] [Endemic wildlife: Indrik myneur] [Ethiopian music: Rod Waddington] [Lalibela: A.Davey] [Simien Mountains: Rod Waddington] [Ethiopian culture : Vicki Brown] [Local guides: Andrea Goetzke] [Addis Ababa: David Stanley] [Blue Nile Falls: Martijn.Munneke] [Band Aid: Markus Newman/Ecallow] [Living with a tribe: Rod Waddington] [injera platter: Edsel Little] [making a basket: Rod Waddington] [: ] [coffee: Jayson Leow]
Written by Vicki Brown
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Photo credits: [Page banner: Marc Veraart]
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