Is Ethiopia worth visiting? If you asked that you must be considering a trip to what can only be described as one of the most enthralling, most immersive, most historically rich, and culturally diverse nations on the planet. So, the short answer: Yes! Ethiopia most certainly is worth visiting!
This guide aims to take that a little further. It will dive into the vast and amazing backcountry of this ancient land, to seek out gelada baboons, dust-billowing canyons that can rival Colorado, and rustic villages inhabited by tribes that have been there for millennia. You’ll get a feel for the tasty foods and the strong coffees that await here, along with a hint at the sort of mystical festivals and haunting religious sites that abound.
There’s a whole load to get through, but we’ve given it a good shot. We’ve whittled our selection down to nine key points, all of which showcase something special about this East African jewel. You better dust down the passport…
Table of Contents
Ethiopian cuisine is a joy for the taste buds
The Ethiopian kitchen fuses influences from all over the globe. It brings in spices from East Asia across the Indian Ocean. It’s got the earthiness and rusticity of nomad cooking courtesy of the Maghreb and Berber peoples to the north. And there are even touches of Italian food left over from the age of European colonization in this part of East Africa.
The result? A taste-bud-tingling medley of stews and curries and plant dishes that you won’t forget in a hurry. Some of the things you simply must try are the injera flatbreads made with fermented wheat, the wot casserole in curry spice, and the pan-fried beef and lamb bits known as tibs.
Remember that Ethiopian eating traditions are overwhelmingly communal. It’s not common to have your own plate in these parts. Things are typically served on sharing platters on big, central tables for everyone to take what they like while chatting and mingling.
The coffee – some say Ethiopia invented the stuff!
Coffee production started in Ethiopia way back in the 9th century. It’s said to have begun with a mythical goatherder known as Kaldi around 850 AD, who found the first berry plants on the highland of the Kaffa region and found that they gave a bit of a buzz when brewed and drunk.
Fast forward over a thousand years and coffee remains big business in Ethiopia. Very big business. Buffs consider this the place to go hunting for the world’s top arabica coffee beans. What’s more, the country is officially the 7th-lareest producer of coffee on the globe (a whopping total of 260,000 metric tonnes no less). But it’s really all about quality over quantity…
You’ll see that when you hit the local plantations. There are tours that can whisk you to the altitudinous farms of Sidamo, a region known for its overly aromatic beans thanks to the rich terrior of the soils close to the Rift Valley. Others will go to Limu, where the growing lands reach 6,000 feet and the coffees belie hints of spice, sugar, and tanginess.
Hiking holidays in the Ethiopian Highlands
Okay, so Ethiopia might not have the glistening white-sand beaches of its nearby East African compadres – Kenya, Tanzania. However, this landlocked country does cover some of the most dramatic mountain terrain on the whole continent. And that makes it a doozy for travelers who come with the boots and the walking poles in tow…
Yep, there are hiking opportunities galore in these parts. We’d say the Simien Mountains probably top the bill. They’re a strange land of rock-ribbed summits that top out at over 4,500 meters above sea level, all formed by the expulsion of basaltic lava flows from a pre-historic volcano. Treks there will take you to nomad goatherder villages and let you see gelada baboons and hardy ibex in the wild.
The region of the Siemens is also home to the highest peak in the country. Cue Ras Dashen. At a lung-busting 14,927 feet above sea level, it’s no walk in the park. The best trekking packages will build proper acclimatization into a multi-day itinerary, whilst also showcasing the wonderful shark-fin peaks and canyons that abound in the surrounding region.
Is Ethiopia worth visiting for a classic African safari? Well…the truth is that Ethiopia is just on the edge of where you’d most associate with elephant-spotting game drives and the iconic African Big Five of game. That said, there’s something special about Ethiopian safaris in that they aren’t your run-off-the-mill sort of expedition…
Instead of wildebeest and lion packs scouring the savannah, this is a place to come and see strange gelada baboons scrambling over the rocky ridges of the Simien Mountains; to pick up the trail of the uber-rare African wild dog and watch them hunt in packs; to witness highland maestros like the ibex and lone Ethiopian wolves.
The Ethiopian people
The locals are what breathe life and energy into Ethiopia. You’ll feel that firsthand when you touch down in Addis Ababa, the big and boisterous capital. Home to over three million, it’s among the largest cities in East Africa and has grand palaces next to spice-plumed bazaars.
One of the most fascinating places for getting stuck into the rich human history of Ethiopia is the Omo Valley. It’s still inhabited by a whopping eight separate tribal groups. However, archaeological finds have revealed that there have actually been people in these parts for a mind-boggling 2.5 million years – although they weren’t the homo sapiens of today!
There are now all sorts of guided tours that can take visitors to the region that’s considered by many scientists to be the cradle of the human race. They typically last anything from a week to 18 days and whisk you out to the intriguing villages of the Benna tribe near the Kenyan border. You can even book a stay in a traditional Ethiopian round-thatched hut by choosing the Dorze Lodge in Arba Minch – one of the gateways to the Omo.
Ethiopia is brimming with enthralling history
While the modern state of Ethiopia didn’t really take shape until the end of the Second World War, the story of this vast nation goes back way further than that. In fact, there’s evidence that this land was one of the very first places where the human race made its home – paleontologists have discovered remains, bone fragments, and tools that can place the first hominids here some 4.2 million years ago!
And there’s some fantastic stuff to see from the relatively modern age, too! Take the striking churches of Lalibela. They were entirely carved from red volcanic stone sometime between 1189 AD and 1227 AD. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, they reveal an amazingly intricate architectural tradition of monolithic construction, along with the deep religiosity of the age-old Ethiopian Orthodox church.
You can also hop over to the region of Gondar. It was one the epicenter of the Abyssinian Empire and still has loads of relics from that golden age of Ethiopian history. They include the crenulated castle structures of the Fasil Ghebbi and the eye-wateringly wonderful Debre Birhan Selassie church – just look at those kaleidoscopically frescoed ceilings and carved apses!
Waterfalls and lakes
Scratch that image of a dry and dusty sub-Saharan Africa. Large parts of Ethiopia are no such thing. There are big rivers cascading down from the soaring highland regions here that form massive lakes and even gushing waterfalls, some even enough to rival the biggest cataracts on the planet.
Why not start with a jaunt to the largest of the lot: The Blue Nile Falls. Located on the Blue Nile River a little south and east of the town of Bahir Dar, they can spread to a whopping 400 meters across when the rainy season is in full flow. If you manage to make it to Ethiopia for the Kiremt (the long monsoon), then there’s some dramatic viewing to be done on the banks opposite, as the H2O crashes over a series of bluffs to a misty pool below.
Then come the lakes. Tana is one of the favorites. At 52 miles long and 41 miles across, it’s also the largest in the country. Look for it between the copper-colored bluffs of the Ethiopian Highlands in the north. Around the sides are a couple of rustic villages inhabited by fishing folk. But there are also luxury lodges where you can honeymoon with the sunsets across the water as the backdrop.
Ethiopian festivals and events
Any culture vultures wondering is Ethiopia worth visiting should be sure to check out the diverse array of festivals that pepper the calendar in this corner of East Africa. There are all sorts, from meditative religious holidays to colorful blowouts and processions that turn the streets of Addis Ababa into a veritable carnival.
The most important dates on Ethiopia’s yearly calendar include the Epiphany, which is known locally as the Timkat Festival. It’s centered on the ancient town of Axum, the onetime hub of the Aksumite Empire and now a UNESCO site. Pilgrims of all ages are drawn there to get close to the relic of the Arc of the Covenant. Many will wear traditional white garbs splashed with the vibrant green, yellow, and reds of the Ethiopian flag.
Another festival that’s worthy of note is the annual Meskel. That’s a celebration of the rediscovery of the cross that Jesus was crucified on by Roman Empress Helena back in the 4th century. The events include a huge feast on the sprawling plaza of Meskel Square in the capital of Addis Ababa, along with a raging bonfire that’s lit later on in the evening.
Is Ethiopia worth visiting for the cities alone? The truth is that the towns and the urban areas aren’t what usually hit the headlines in this country. Travel brochure editors tend to prefer shots of the craggy Simien Mountains or the age-old tribal settlements of the Omo Valley. But there’s a lot to be said for the more built-up parts of the nation too, you know…
Harar is a particularly special example. It’s considered one of the holiest cities in Islam and has long been a trading hub on the caravan routes across the Horn of Africa, the Sahara, and the Maghreb. The core of it all is a maze-like mass of winding streets that go this way and that, hemmed in by dirt-stained cottages painted in a light blue to keep off the heat. You can get lost there, hopping the cafes where men chew kat and the strange spice bazaars where hawkers tout vanilla and cumin.
Addis Ababa is also somewhere the city slickers might want to explore before heading for the Ethiopian backcountry. It’s a buzzing mass of a metropolis that rarely sleeps. It’s also home to the national museum and some of the best food markets around.
So, is Ethiopia worth visiting?
Ethiopia 100% is worth visiting. For many travelers this is one of the last remaining frontiers of Africa. It’s not yet dominated by mass tourism, and it’s got rugged, raw, and untrodden regions that are beset by soaring mountains and gurgling waterfalls. Scientists have already shown that human ancestors have been living in the area for millions of years, and you can trace those early roots all the way through to the development of modern Ethiopia. On top of the nature and the history comes fantastic food and some of the best coffee of anywhere on the globe. What are you waiting for?