Why Ethiopia Needs to Top Your Bucket List Now, in 11 Photos

by Zelalem

Hand-feeding hyenas. Visiting subterranean churches hewn out of rock. Wolf-spotting on one of Africa’s highest mountains. Even for the most plugged-in travelers, it may come as a surprise that the land-locked country of Ethiopia offers such diverse and unique draws.

Ethiopia is racing toward a bright, modern future. It’s one of the world’s fastest-growing economies; the capital, Addis Ababa, is expanding at breakneck pace; and the ruling party recently put the continent’s youngest leader in power.

But for travelers, the country’s robust cultural history is what makes it such an appealing destination.

For one thing, it’s the indigenous home to coffee: Arabica has been grown here since at least the 10th century. Then there’s the patchwork of ethnic groups—more than 80 in total—that live by the rhythms of a unique Ge’ez calendar and whose ancestry in Ethiopia spans at least 3,000 years. And there’s the country’s moniker, “the cradle of humankind,” which it earned after the 3.5 million-year-old fossil of a hominid known as Lucy was discovered in its eastern region.

Luckily for those eager to explore its fertile valleys and wildlife-rich national parks—home to the Walia ibex, mountain nyala, Gelada baboon, and endemic species of birds—Ethiopia is opening up to luxury travel.

“A visit to this incredible land is akin to stepping into the pages of the Old Testament,” said Nicola Shepherd, director of the Explorations Co., who has been welcoming discerning travelers to the country for over a quarter of a century. “It’s unlike anywhere else in Africa.”


Legend has it that Lalibela’s 800-year-old monolithic churches— all carved out of solid rock—were built with the help of angels who flew in building materials from Israel by night. Their goal, according to local lore, was to create a close replica of Jerusalem, though Lalibela is smaller and more charming.

Spend a day roaming the area’s 11 churches. The iconic St. George’s Church attracts thousands of pilgrims, while the little-visited Yemrehanna Kristos, located inside a dark cave on a hill, is a worthy detour two hours out of town.

For dinner, Ben Abeba is like a treehouse built on the edge of a valley, serving local and Western dishes amid some of the best views in town.

Photographer: OscarEspinosa/iStockphoto

<p>Timket Festival</p>

Frequent and vibrant festivals such as Timket in January—during which the Ethiopian Orthodox community plunges into purified waters to celebrate the baptism of Christ—are surprisingly accessible for visitors. They also offer a way to understand the country’s diversity. Meskel, which will come on Sept. 27 this year, celebrates the discovery of the “true cross” of Christ with a night of dancing around gigantic bonfires in town centers, villages, and homes. And the Thanksgiving-like Irrecha, arriving in autumn and spring, inspires thousands of members of the Oromo community to dance in colorful traditional clothes near their holy sites.

Photographer: J. Countess/Getty Images Europe

<p>Simien National Park and the Bale Mountains</p>

Simien National Park and the Bale Mountains

The beautiful, vast, and rugged mountain cliffs in northern Ethiopia are a hiker’s paradise. The tallest peak of what is dubbed “God’s playground,” Ras Dashen, stretches 4,500 meters. The mountains are home to the Ethiopian wolf, the gelada baboon, and the Walia ibex, a type of goat found nowhere else on Earth. See them with the help of naturalist guides at Bale Mountain Lodge, one of Ethiopia’s first luxury hotels, with 11 stone-walled, thatched-roof suites. Each comes with a wood-burning stove to warm guests on chilly nights.

Photographer: Created by Tomas Zrna/Moment RF

<p><span>Harar Jugol</span></p>

A fortified city in the Kingdom of Harar, built like a maze to deter attacks from outsiders, dates back to 940 A.D. Unlike cities and villages in Northern Ethiopia, Harrar’s culture and architecture is Islamic; its inhabitants were among the earliest to adopt the religion, and Harrar is considered the fourth “holy city” in Islam, after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Originally, it claimed 99 mosques, 82 of which remain intact. Harar’s appeal extends beyond religion: It’s a place to experience Ethiopia’s colorful, friendly culture. Women garbed in brightly hued dresses they balance baskets of goods on their heads, heading to and from the market. At night, a “hyena man” roams the town, letting visitors feed his wild cats by hand.

Photographer: Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis News

<p>Communal Eating</p>

More than what you’ve experienced in Ethiopian restaurants around the globe, the local cuisine is not just spicy and delicious; it’s a fundamental part of Ethiopia’s social fabric. Vegan and vegetarian stews, scooped up with injera flat bread, are typically served communally, shared with family and friends. If your host to tries to feed you with his or her hands, it’s a sign of affection.

Coffee is the traditional beverage of choice—fitting, considering that the plant originated here. It’s brewed strong, in a black clay pot called a jebena, and served ceremonially in tiny cups.

Photographer: Wayne Fennel/EyeEm

<p>Omo Valley</p>

The Omo Valley in the southwest is a marvel of contemporary anthropology, home to tribes totally excluded from modern life. The cultures and customs of the different groups vary, though images of the Mursi women, who pierce their lower lips with large clay discs and wear bull horns as earrings, have become emblematic of the region. Here, a very tall, armed Nyag’atom herdsman drives cattle through arid, dusty country toward the waters of the Omo River.

Photographer: Nigel Pavitt/AWL Images RM

<p>Fasilades Castle in&nbsp;Gondar</p>

Fasilades Castle in Gondar

In the 17th century, Gondar was home to King Fasil, who established the fortified city as Ethiopia’s capital. He marked its prominence with an impressive royal compound containing well-preserved castles, palaces, banquet halls, and churches.  

Photographer: by Marc Guitard/Moment Unreleased RF

<p>Danakil Depression</p>

Don’t let the nickname “Gateway to Hell” intimidate you. The scorched plains and Mars-looking landscape of Dallol, in the Danakil Depression, is well worth beholding. A surreal patchwork of active underground volcanoes, salt fields, and sulfuric lakes, it’s the hottest place on earth; average temperatures reach 113 degrees Fahrenheit. The barren land is frequented by camel caravans that carry hand-mined salt to the local markets, so you won’t have to brave the heat alone.

Photographer: © Santiago Urquijo/Moment RF


It’s believed that the original Ark of the Covenant, containing the Ten Commandments given Moses at Mount Sinai, is hidden in one of the churches in Aksum, under the watchful eyes of priests. The northern town is full of religious history: In the fourth century, the Aksumites were the first Ethiopians to convert to Christianity. Just outside the city center, you’ll find the ruins of a castle said to have been inhabited by Queen Sheba, who returned to Ethiopia with a child after visiting King Solomon of Israel. Perhaps the most iconic sights in town stand next to Tsion St. Mary’s Church, where giant monolithic obelisks, some as tall as 79 feet, mark the first century tombs of ancient royals.

Photographer: OscarEspinosa/iStock Editorial

<p>Limalimo Lodge</p>

The standard-setter for luxury accommodations in Ethiopia is Limalimo Lodge. Its 12 rooms look like wooden jewel boxes, with panoramic windows facing the rugged Simien Mountains National Park. It’s a place for serene yoga sessions on the edge of a cliff, Champagne-powered breakfasts, and campfires under the stars, all against a dramatic backdrop of smoke-colored peaks and canyons.

<p>Getting There</p>

Planning a trip to Ethiopia on your own can be challenging. High-end hotels such as Bale Mountain Lodge (above) are hard to find outside the capital, and they book out far in advance. Ten-night itineraries coordinated by Explorations Co. cost from $10,000 per person; such other luxury outfitters as Black Tomato and Abercrombie & Kent also plan trips to the fast-growing destination. 

Source: Bale Mountain Lodge

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