Ethiopia is often overlooked as a tourist destination, and the natural beauty of this contrasting country will amaze the first time visitor. From the rugged mountains to open savannah, lakes and rivers there is never a shortage of things to see and do. Home to 14 wildlife reserves and with over 800 species of birds identified make Ethiopia the perfect destination for birders and wildlife enthusiasts combined.
Steeped in history, it is believed that Ethiopia is one of the oldest locations of human life known to scientists with the earliest known modern human bones being found in South-western Ethiopia. There are a number of areas offering old churches, monasteries and medieval castles which hold the mystery of times gone by.
The distinctive Rift Valley consists of volcanic lakes, astounding birdlife, boundless escarpments and stunning views. The Blue Nile Falls, known as the Tis Isat Falls, rank as one of the greatest natural spectacles in Africa.
Below are a few of the many tourist attractions on offer in Ethiopia:
The Blue Nile Falls (Tis Isat Falls)
The Blue Nile Falls, commonly known as the Tis Isat Falls, meaning “smoking water”, is rated as one of the greatest falls in Africa. It is situated on the upper course of the river, about 30 km downstream from the town of Bahir Dar and Lake Tana. From Lake Tana, the Blue Nile flows from Ethiopia to meet the White Nile in Khartoum to form the great river that gives life to Egypt and the Sudan.
Being a major tourist attraction for visitors to Ethiopia, there are a number of tours on offer to go and experience the falls. The locals tend to sell food, drinks, curios and walking sticks at the falls as a form of income.
The Blue Nile Falls are home to many different types of wildlife that can only be found in Ethiopia, as well as a large variety of plant life only endemic to that specific area.
Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile and is the largest lake in Ethiopia, comprising 37 islands that are scattered around the lake, all offering something to see, including churches and monasteries that date back to the 13th century.
The most interesting and frequently visited islands are: Birgida Mariam, Dega Estefanous, Dek, Narga, Tana Cherkos, Mitsele Fasiledes, Kebran and Debre Maryam.
Lake Tana offers one of the best excursions in Ethiopia as you sail or cruise on the waters, taking in the prolific birdlife that abounds the shores. The whole of the Lake Tana region and the Blue Nile Gorge have a wide variety of both endemic and visiting birds and bird lovers will not want to miss Fasilidas Island, which is renowned as a vital wetland.
The Sof Omar Cave
Sof Omar is one of the most spectacular and extensive underground cave systems in the world and visitors are bound to be left breathless by its sheer beauty. This natural phenomenon was formed by the Wabi River as it changed its course, carving out new channels through the limestone foothills.
These days the cave is marked as an important Islamic Shrine, aptly named after the saintly Sheikh Sof Omar who took refuge in the caves many centuries ago, giving it a religious history ranging over thousands of years.
Expect to see pillars of stone, flying buttresses, fluted archways and tall open vaults. The “Chamber of Columns”, consisting of colossal limestone pillars, is one of the main highlights when visiting the cave.
The only living creatures inhabiting the cave are bats, fish and crustaceans , but the surrounding countryside has an abundance of dik-dik and kudu, serval cat, rock hyrax, giant tortoises, snakes, lizards, and more than fifty species of birds.
The Rift Valley
Forming part of the East African Great Rift Valley, the Ethiopian section of the Rift Valley comprises of numerous hot springs, a chain of seven lakes, a pleasant climate and a variety of wildlife. The seven lakes consist of Lakes Zeway, Shala, Abyata, Langano, Awassa, Chmao and Abaya, most of which are suitable and safe for swimming and other water sports. Should you be a keen birder then a visit to Lakes Abiata and Shalla are a must.
The most popular for tourists, Lake Langano, has developed into a large resort offering good camping facilities, excellent hotels and chalet bungalows situated along its bays, fronting sandy beaches perfect for swimming, sailing, water skiing and wind surfing.
The rest of the lakes are home to wildlife species such as Great White Pelicans, Flamingos, a variety of birdlife, hippos, crocodiles and many fish species.
The natural hot springs that are found in The Rift Valley are valued for their therapeutic purposes due to their chemical contents, although they are not fully utilised at present.
The Simien Mountain National Park (North Gondar Zone)
Home to the highest point in Ethiopia and the fourth highest point on the continent of Africa, the Simien Mountain National Park consists of jagged mountain peaks, deep valleys and sharp cliffs offering spectacular landscapes.
The park is also home to some extremely rare animals such as the Gelada baboon, the Ethiopian Wolf and the Walia ibex, a goat found nowhere else in the world and after which the park was primarily created to protect. Over 50 species of birds have been reported in the Simien Mountains.
Although Simien is situated not too far from the equator, snow and ice appear on the highest points and night temperatures often fall below zero.
Today the Simien region is surrounded by old cultural centres such as Aksum, where over 100 hand-carved stone monoliths can be found, and Lalibela and Gonder, where curious 15th-century churches and palaces still stand.
The Awash National Park
Situated 211kms east of Addis Ababa, the Awash National Park is rated as one of the finest reserves in Ethiopia. The park takes its name from the Awash River which marks the park’s southern boundary and is home to the Awash Falls which is a sight not to be missed when visiting the park.
Home to the dormant Fantale Volcano in the south, and pools of natural hot springs in the north, the reserve consists of arid and semi-arid woodland sand savannah, with riverine forests found along the Awash River.
Over 400 species of birds have been recorded in the park and wildlife viewing is good, offering sightings of Oryx, Soemmerring's gazelle, wild pig, waterbuck, Dik-dik, zebra, baboons, kudus, the giant tortoise, hippo, reedbuck, aardvark, caracal, klipspringer, hyrax and the black and white Colobus monkey. Cheetah, serval, leopard and lion are also around but sightings are quite rare as they are generally not as easy to spot.
The Castles of Gondar and other monuments (Gondar)
Found 748kms from the capital city of Addis Ababa you will find the historical city of Gondar, aptly named the “Camelot of Africa” as it is famous for its many medieval castles, churches and picturesque ruins. The most famous buildings in the city lie in the Royal enclosure and include the oldest of the castles which was designed by Fasilidas and is still in such a good state that you can climb the stairs to the roof and admire the incredible view over the city.
The castles are now a UNESCO world heritage site, and despite numerous battles, natural disasters, and the Italian occupation of Gondar during the Second World War, much of the original structure has been kept intact.
The modern city of Gondar is also a popular tourist destination for its main piazza which features shops, a cinema and other public buildings in a simplified Italian style still distinctively of the period, despite later changes. Villas and flats in the nearby quarter that once housed occupation officials and colonists are also of interest.
The Omo National Park
One of the most beautiful national parks in Ethiopia, its 4068 km of wilderness bordered by the Omo river, is home to an amazing range of wildlife. 306 species of birds have been identified here, while large herds of eland, some buffalo, elephants, giraffe, cheetah, lion, leopard, Burchell’s zebra are not uncommon.
Rafting on the River Omo
The park is not easily accessible, as the current means of access is via Omorate and the ferry to the north bank of the river. The park HQ is 75 km from Kibish settlement. However, a new airstrip is available close to the HQ and a pleasant campsite on the Mui River – plans are in hand for further major improvements.
The Mago National Park
Covering an area of 2162 km on the banks of the Omo River, the Mago National Park is relatively undeveloped for tourists. The broad grasslands teem with herds of buffalo, giraffe, elephants and kudu, while sometimes it is possible to find lions, leopards and Burchell’s zebra. The abundant bird life here is typical of dry grasslands and river banks.
Gambala National Park
In these areas many interesting species of animals and birds can often be seen by the visitor. According to the wild life information office, Dowsett Forbs has identified 813 species of birds, 596 residents and 224 regular seasonal migrants in Ethiopia.
The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela (North Wollo Zone)
Lalibela, 642 kilometres from Addis Ababa, is internationally-renowned for its rock-hewn churches which are sometimes called the "Eighth Wonder of the World". Physically prised from the rock in which they stand, these monolithic churches were originally thought to have been built in the 12th century during the reign of King Lalibela, but some have been dated back to the 10th century. There are eleven churches, assembled in three groupings:
The Northern Group: Bete Medhane Alem, home to the Lalibela Cross and believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world. It is linked to Bete Maryam (possibly the oldest of the churches), Bete Golgotha (known for its arts and said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela), the Selassie Chapel and the Tomb of Adam.
The Western Group: Bete Giyorgis, said to be the most finely executed and best preserved church.
The Eastern Group: Bete Amanuel , Bete Merkorios, Bete Abba Libanos and Bete Gabriel-Rufael.
Further afield lie the monastery of Ashetan Maryam and Yimrehane Kristos church.
Axum historical and archaeological sites, central Tigray (Tigray Region)
Axum historical and archaeological sites, central Tigray (Tigray Region) Rightly famous for its obelisks, Axum was the capital of the Axumite kingdom – once one of the four kingdoms of the world. It was also home to the Queen of Sheba whose ruined palace and bathing pool can still be found in and near the town.
Click here to view our travel advice for Ethiopia
For further information, pricing, and details regarding itineraries please click here
Please note this Itinerary can be tailor-made to suit your needs and be combined with any of the neighbouring country Itineraries