Lalibela is an absolute must see when visiting Ethiopia.
If you are coming from Addis Ababa, the crazy busy capital of Ethiopia, Lalibela, which is located in the north of the country, really comes as a breath of fresh air. Quite literally so! The first thing I noticed when I got off the plane that took me there was the smell of vegetation – so different from that of dust and exhaust fumes that you get in Addis Ababa.
With no more than 25000 inhabitants, Lalibela has much of a rural feel. You wouldn’t expect much of it, were it not for the fact that it is home to the famous Rock Hewn Churches that date back to the 13th century, and which are so unique that are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So much so that Lalibela is known as the New Jerusalem.
Lalibela is a town that is rich in culture. It is an important place in terms of religion, as it is a site of pilgrimage for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. And – for us travelers – it’s a lovely place to visit.
In this post, I highlight the nicest things to see and do in Lalibela, Ethiopia. I also share some tips that will help you organize your trip.
5 Things To See And Do In Lalibela, Ethiopia
The Rock Hewn Churches
Most people visiting Lalibela head to the Rock Hewn churches as soon as they arrive. These eleven churches are truly unique, and like nothing else you may see in your world travels!
They date back to the 13th century, when King Lalibela decided to create something similar to the Holy City of Jerusalem right in Ethiopia so that his people would have a place for pilgrimage without having to travel so far.
The churches are fully carved in the rock, from top to bottom. They are huge monoliths that are beautifully decorated inside with paintings and frescoes. What’s most astonishing is that they are still in use, so you will see people going in and out to place their prayers, and monks standing by, guarding the altar.
The nicest church is that of St. George, for it is fully visible from above (protective structures have been placed above most of the other churches).
The Rock-Hewn churches of Lalibela are quite expensive to visit. The ticket costs $50 USD and gives you access to all 11 churches- it’s honestly worth it. Keep in mind that the churches close at lunch time, between 12:00 and 2:00 pm.
I recommend hiring a guide to visit the churches. A good guide will be able to time your visit so that you get to see most / all of them, and will provide insightful information to make your visit more meaningful. Like in all other churches in Ethiopia, you will have to remove your shoes before entering and be modestly dressed.
Markets in Ethiopia are sheer chaos, and Lalibela Market isn’t any different. It takes place on Saturdays, which is when locals will frock to the city to sell any sort of goods – from live animals such as goats, cows and donkeys, to fresh produce, pottery and what not.
If you miss market day, you may alternatively take a look at the many street stalls in the center of town. Lalibela is one of the most touristy destinations in the country, so you’ll have a chance to get souvenirs to bring home when visiting Lalibela.
Sunset from Ben Abeba restaurant
This is by far the most popular restaurant in Lalibela among tourists, though I must say there was also a nice local crowd when I visited. The building is quite funky looking – a bit like a space shift, and honestly a bit out of place. Yet, the views from there are absolutely stunning. Make sure to head there in time to admire the gorgeous sunset!
In terms of food, you will find a good mix of local staples and international cuisine, though the house specialties are Scottish staples such as scotch eggs and shepherd’s pie. This may come as less of a surprise when you’ll learn that the owner is actually a Scottish lady who used to teach English in town. Once she retired, she opened the restaurant.
Hiking around Lalibela
I haven’t actually done any hiking in Lalibela, but the area is packed with hiking trails, and you can go on hiking expeditions that last three to five days.
Hikes usually go through villages and valleys, and you are supposed to get a great mixture of beautiful scenery, historical sights as well as insights into local life. It’s also a good occasion to admire wildlife.
There are several companies in Addis Ababa and even in Lalibela that will make all the arrangements for the hike, including a guide, sleeping arrangements (you usually sleep in community lodges which are very basic, but usually have showers), food and drinks.
Practical Tips To Plan Your Trip To Lalibela
Where to stay in Lalibela
Despite being small, Lalibela is one of the top tourist destinations in Ethiopia. This means that there is an excellent selection of places to stay. These are the best ones:
- Tukul Village is a very good hotel with spacious, comfortable rooms set around an internal garden. There is a good onsite restaurant that serves a fantastic breakfast (make sure to try the fresh honey) and wifi is good by Ethiopian standards. Click here for the latest rates.
- Jerusalem Hotel has plain rooms, but they all have impressive views of the mountains. There is an onsite restaurant. Click here for the latest rates.
Guided tours of Ethiopia that also go to Lalibela
If you want to visit Ethiopia but you are tight on time, you may want to consider booking a guided tour that will take care of all arrangements.
Many companies in Ethiopia offer tours that also go to Lalibela. While Lalibela is small and well organized and is likely to be an easy stop, the rest of the tour may be range from unremarkable to simply bad – with guides whose level of English is not up to the job, or completely inexperienced; or with poor sleeping arrangements in filthy guest houses.
If you are already in Ethiopia and want to book a guided tour with a local company, thoroughly read the reviews before doing so. Keep in mind that paying more doesn’t mean getting a better service. And since you will likely pay cash (credit card transactions are hardly a thing in Ethiopia) there won’t be a way you can get your money back once you have paid.
How to get to Lalibela
Lalibela is very well connected to the rest of Ethiopia by plane, with direct flights from Addis Ababa, Gondar and other cities. If you book your international flights with Ethiopian Airlines, domestic ones will come at a real steal.
Lalibela airport is at about 30-45 minutes from the city.
How to move around Lalibela
Lalibela is fairly small, so you can easily walk to the various churches. You may want to book a tuk tuk or a private transfer back to your hotel if you plan to eat at Ben Abeba, as that is a bit out of town.
When to visit Lalibela
The best time to visit Lalibela – in fact, the best time to visit Ethiopia altogether – is in the dry season, between October and March. Temperatures rise up to 23 degrees during the day, so it is nice and pleasant (though the sun can be quite strong due to the elevation), but they drop at night.
The churches get extremely busy during Sundays, when locals flock to service completely dressed in white. Saturday is market day – another interesting thing to see. You may either plan to visit at the weekend, if you want to experience a function and see the market, or to avoid it if you don’t want to be there when it is too crowded.
Ethiopian Christmas is on 7 January, and that’s when the churches of Lalibela will be most packed, with thousands of pilgrims joining in the celebrations. If you aren’t bothered by crowds, and if you are interested in the celebrations more than the actual structure of the churches, you may want to go right then.
Visa requirements for Ethiopia
Travelers need a tourist visa to enter Ethiopia. You can get your visa on arrival. However, please keep in mind that Addis Ababa airport is extremely busy so my tip is to get your visa online before you go. This will save you a lot of time on arrival. You can obtain your visa here – it costs $50 plus $2 USD handling fee.
General tips for visiting Lalibela
Traveling around Ethiopia isn’t easy and you shouldn’t expect any of the comforts you can have in your home country.
Though Lalibela is almost a safe haven compared to the rest of the country, with good tourist services, nice hotels and a handful of good restaurants, much of Ethiopia is in poor hygienic conditions and travelers often get food poisoning.
My general advice is to avoid eating raw vegetables ie salads, and even meat or chicken. Never drink tap water.
Children in Lalibela
A common issue – even in Lalibela – is that of children that follow and surround tourists demanding all sorts of things, most usually money. “Hello Money!” is the typical greeting, and it’ll get to a point where you wish you could close your ears not to hear them.
Never give them anything, and never buy anything from them – these kids should be studying instead of trying to get easy money from tourists! It may sound harsh, but ignore them completely or they will follow you for a long while, nagging you until you give in.
Make sure to also read my post The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler for more inspiration on how to leave less footprints.
Scams in Lalibela
Ethiopia certainly isn’t scam free, and you should keep your eyes open for scams even when visiting Lalibela. Two common scams are that of children asking you to buy them a ridiculously expensive English-Amharic dictionary. They will usually invite you to their homes for a coffee ceremony, and then lure you into buying them them overly priced item. If this happens to you – if you get invited by a children to go to their home – simply say a firm no.
A similar scam is that of the football t-shirt. It works pretty much the same way: teenagers will approach you saying they are trying to raise funds to buy football t-shirts for school. Again, say no and walk away.
For more scams in Ethiopia, make sure to read this post.
Other useful information
Don’t take any chances: get a good travel insurance for your trip to Ethiopia. Get yours here.
Check out my post Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.
- What You Need To Know About Travel In Ethiopia
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- What You Need To Know Before Visiting The Danakil
Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Great Ethiopian Run for the first part of the trip (Addis Ababa and Lalibela) and wish to thank them and Blogilicious for putting together a fantastic trip and for allowing me to have such an incredible experience. Needless to say, the views expressed remain my own.