Since 2015, Ethiopia has been cited as a must-travel destination by international media ranging from BBC to CNN to National Geographic. It is the birthplace of coffee, the origin of the world’s first human ancestor Lucy, and the supposed site of the Ark of the Covenant.
The only country in Africa to have never been colonized is also the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion. It was the religion of the Axumite Kingdom, once the most powerful state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia from the 1st to 8th centuries AD. Today, Ethiopians remain a religious people, with Christianity and Islam co-existing side by side in respect and harmony. The crime rate is low, limited to petty thievery. It is unheard of for female travelers to be subjected to any inappropriateness.
Travel Tips & Practicalities
How to get there: Ethiopian Airlines offers direct flights from Chicago and Washington D.C. to Addis Ababa (approximately 13++ hours), and from Newark, with a stopover at Lomé in Togo (approximately 16++ hours). Alternatively, Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines and Egypt Air also fly to Addis Ababa from major cities in the US, with stopovers. You can check out flight deals from your home airport here.
Apply for an e-visa at least three days before your date of arrival: Ethiopia has opened up tourist e-visas to travelers of any nationality. It costs $52 for a single entry for 30 days, and $72 for 90 days. Processing time is approximately three days.
Bring US dollars in cash, and exchange to Ethiopian birr upon arrival: Credit cards are accepted in some high-end hotels in Addis Ababa but most restaurants and mid-range hotels only accept cash, and likewise around the rest of the country. It is not uncommon to experience faulty credit card machines, too, even in places that accept credit cards.
Dress appropriately: Most people dress conservatively, especially when visiting churches and places of worship.
Addis Ababa: Ethiopia’s Capital (2 to 3 days)
Addis Ababa is a juxtaposition of tradition and modernity; a gateway to understanding Ethiopian culture, teeming with fashionable citizens, city traffic and the best Ethiopian food. International hotel brands Sheraton, Hyatt Regency and Radisson Blu are present here, and are synonymous with luxury.
Visit the National Museum, where the remains of Lucy, mankind’s most famous human ancestor from over 3.2 million years ago, are on display.
Indulge in Ethiopian cuisine, one of the most delicious in the world. Injera, which is their staple food, is made from an organic, gluten-free super grain (it even contains calcium, magnesium, phosphate and iron) endemic to Ethiopia. The dish is topped with wot or sauces and stews that can range from chickpeas, beef, chicken, lamb among others. Other dishes to try are shekla tibs (cubed beef or lamb cooked over a clay pot) and kitfo (Ethiopian steak tartare). These can be enjoyed at Yod Abyssinia (the cultural show here is a must!), and the more casual Kategna, Tsige Shiro and Diplomat.
Partake in an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Coffee, a $900 million export industry, is a large part of the country’s economy. It is also deeply rooted in Ethiopian culture as it follows an almost ceremonial ritual. The apparatus is first arranged on grass before the coffee is roasted on a pan over the charcoal stove. Prior to roasting, coffee is washed and grounded with mortar and pestle. The ground coffee is slowly stirred into the black clay coffee pot known as jebena, before it is strained on a sieve. The fresh brews are served with frankincense for good energy. It is often taken with sugar—sometimes salt or honey.
Try tej or Ethiopian honey wine. Made from fermented honey with the addition of a leaf called gesho (a relative of hops), tej is sweet and contains only 6% alcohol, and it is available at most restaurants and bars.
Visit Merkato, the largest open market in Africa. Here, they sell everything from spices to mattresses to electronics.
Winetraveler Tip: Be vigilant as there are a lot of pickpockets here. Another alternative is Shola Market, where locals like to shop.
Axum: The Supposed Site of the Ark of the Covenant (1 to 2 days)
The Kingdom of Axum (also referred to as Aksum) was once the most powerful state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia from the 1st to 8th centuries AD. It is also believed to house the Ark of the Covenant.
Visit the Tsion Mariam Church (Church of our Lady Mary of Zion), the largest round Orthodox church in Ethiopia, believed to have been built during the reign of Ezana, the first Christian emperor of Ethiopia, during the 4th century AD. It is most popularly known as the supposed site of the Ark of the Covenant. On Sunday mornings, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians worship for approximately three hours.
Stroll through the Dungur Palace, also known as Queen of Sheba’s Palace. An observation tower at the back offers views of the 50-room layout.
Look up at the monumental stelae, also known as obelisks, where they are situated on the UNESCO Heritage Site of Axum Stelae Field. They are recognized as “markers” for the royal tombs underneath, believed to be “stairways of heaven for the kings of Axum.”
Shop at the Axum market, which sells everything from spices to handicrafts. It is busiest on Saturdays.
Lalibela: The Pilgrimage City (1 to 2 days)
The city of Lalibela in Northern Ethiopia is best known for the 11 rock-hewn churches, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that dates back to the 5th and 6th centuries AD. Lalibela is a 45-minute flight from Axum; and a one-hour flight from Addis Ababa.
Explore the 11 rock-hewn churches. The church ground spans 25 hectares and takes about three to four hours to go through. The construction of the rock-hewn churches by King Lalibela was believed to be a deliberate attempt to create the second Holy Land in Ethiopia. He did this to discourage the journey of pilgrims to Jerusalem—to minimize the suffering and deaths of Ethiopian Christians in the deserts of Muslim lands on their way to Jerusalem. Pilgrims to Lalibela are believed to share the same blessings as pilgrims to Jerusalem. The various places are named in relation to places in Jerusalem, i.e. Jordan, the Mount of Olives (Debre Zeit), the Tomb of Adam (Keranyo), Bethlehem, Bethany (Bithania), Mount Sinai and Golgotha. Comfortable shoes must be worn at all times as some parts are rocky.
Shop for souvenirs at The House of Lalibela, a cooperative that handmakes clothing, scarves, dresses, and paintings. Supported by UNESCO, the Japanese Funds-in-Trust and the Government of Ethiopia, proceeds are given back to the community.