There are many more things to do in Ethiopia than you’d ever imagine. A month wouldn’t be enough to discover them all, but the good news is that you can enjoy a lot of them on a two weeks Ethiopia tour.
A country yet to fall on the mass tourism’ radar, Ethiopia has a lot to offer. Mysterious archeological sites; breathtaking views; unique wildlife; ancient cultural traditions; flavors to tickle your taste buds – these are only a few of the things that Ethiopia has to offer.
Although tourism in Ethiopia has been constantly increasing in the last few years, traveling around the country isn’t exactly easy, and the tourism infrastructure is still somewhat lacking. Whatever the country lacks in terms of modern day comforts, however, it abundantly makes up for with its unspoiled charm.
In this post, I highlight what to see and do if you have two weeks Ethiopia tour. I will also share some tips that will help you better plan your trip.
13 Incredible Things To Do In Ethiopia
Take part in the Great Ethiopian Run
If you are planning on visiting Ethiopia in November, make it a point to enroll in the Great Ethiopian Run which takes place in Addis Ababa. Whether you are into running or not, this will easily become the highlight of your time in the country.
The GER is a fundraiser run that has now been taking place for 19 years – 2020 will see its 20th edition. Funds are raised in favor of disadvantaged categories such as ill-treated women and girls. More than anything else, this is a massive carnival which sees a whopping 40000 participants running, walking, and in general having a good time throughout the streets of Addis Ababa.
Explore Addis Ababa
Often overlooked for more famous destinations around the country, Addis Ababa is not exactly a picture perfect city but if you are on a two weeks Ethiopia tour I recommend spending a day to take in its sights. Besides, this is where you will find some of the best restaurants in the country; plenty of shows of traditional dances and bars and clubs where you’ll be able to listen to Ethiopian Jazz.
Among the attractions that you’ll find in Addis Ababa, there’s the National Museum of Ethiopia. Don’t expect anything big (plan to spend around one hour to go over the entire exhibit). However, this is where you’ll have a chance to admire Lucy, a fossil skeleton of a human ancestor that dates back to 3.2 million years ago and that was discovered in 1974 in Hadar (Ethiopia), and who’s changed the way we interpret and understand human history.
Another place to visit in Addis Ababa include Unity Park – a newly opened park located in the Grand Imperial Palace, where you’ll have a chance to walk through an interesting exhibit about Ethiopian heritage and culture. It costs between $20 and $50 USD to visit the park, depending on which kind of ticket you get (regular or VIP). It is a bit pricey but the park is huge and you also get a guide to walk you through the entire attraction.
Other places to visit in Addis Ababa include St. George’s Cathedral and Museum, the Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum in Meskel Square, the Holy Trinity Cathedral and the market.
I recommend going on a guided tour of Addis Ababa to make the most of the city in a short time, and to easily get from one attraction to the other (you really don’t want to dodge the public transportation system of Addis Ababa by yourself, trust me!).
You can book your tour of Addis Ababa here.
Learn some local dance moves
Ethiopians have an obsession with dancing, and any chance is good for them to show off some moves. They seem to have a preference for shoulder moves and for head shaking – though I have to say it is a bit reductive to narrow it down to shaking – these are twirling movements that I am honestly not sure belong to human nature at all!
Anyways, it goes without saying that you should learn some dance moves or – if you are as hopeless at dancing as I am – at least go to a dance show. There are plenty of “cultural restaurants” around the country’s top tourist destinations where you can sit down for a local meal and enjoy a traditional dance show.
Drink all the coffee
Coffee lovers beware! Coffee in Ethiopia is “da thing” and one of the things to do in Ethiopia is getting a proper caffeine fix. Take my coffee-junkie word for it. I have yet to visit another country were coffee is as good as it is in Ethiopia. Whether you have the traditional freshly roasted and brewed coffee or espresso at Tomoca, Addis Ababa most famous coffee house; whether you go for black coffee or a macchiato; you are bound to have the most fragrant, rich and intense coffee cup.
Walking around, you’ll also frequently smell coffee beans being roasted. Follow the fragrance and go have a cup!
TIP: Save some space in your luggage to take home some Ethiopian coffee powder or beans. It’s much cheaper and much better than the coffee you’d get at home!
Try the local food
I must admit I am not the biggest fan of Ethiopian food, but I still believe that trying local specialties is a must. Injera – a spongy, sour bread made with a fermented dough of teff flour) accompanies all meals and it is used to scope up dishes such as shiro tegamino (a very thick red paste made with chickpeas and spices). On a typical meal you’ll be served various curries and vegetable dishes.
The good news for the vegans is that Ethiopia is very vegan friendly. All you have to do is ordering “fasting food” – Ethiopians are Christian Copts and they don’t eat any animal products on certain days, and restaurants cater to this requirement.
You also may want to read this more detailed post about Ethiopian cuisine.
Marvel at the Rock-Hewn churches of Lalibela
Lalibela is one of the best places to visit in Ethiopia. The Rock-Hewn churches of Lalibela are truly unique and if you have limited time to explore the country, make sure you include this attraction in your Ethiopia tour. Dating back to the 13th century, these 11 churches are named after King Lalibela, who ordered them to be carved in the rock in an attempt to recreate the Holy City of Jerusalem, and a place of pilgrimage for Ethiopian Copts.
The churches, still in use, are a real work of art. Some are better kept than others, with beautiful paintings are frescoes. The most impressive is the Church of St. George, as it is actually fully visible from above (the others have protective structures above).
The Rock-Hewn churches of Lalibela are probably the most expensive attraction in Ethiopia. The ticket which gives you access to all 11 churches costs $50 USD – it’s honestly worth it. Consider hiring a guide so that you can make the most of all the churches and make sense of what you see. Like in all other churches in Ethiopia, you will have to remove your shoes before entering and be modestly dressed.
Make sure to read my post A Very Useful Guide To Visiting Lalibela, Ethiopia.
You’ve probably never heard of Gondar before – at most, you may know that it’s the best starting point to hike the Simien Mountains. Yet, visiting is a must, and you should factor enough time to take in all that it has to offer.
Gondar is easily the coolest city in Ethiopia, with plenty of attractions. Make sure not to miss Fasil Ghebbi Castle, built by Emperor Fasilides in the 17th century and remarkably well kept – it now is one of Ethiopia’s UNESCO Heritage Sites. The ticket costs 200 Birr (around $6 USD) and includes access to Fasilides’ Bath, a place that once was a villa with a pool for the royal family and is now filled once a year for religious ceremonies.
Another place not to miss is Debre Birhan Selassie church. You can spend some time admiring the incredible ceiling with its 135 cherubs, and the frescoes depicting Bosch-like hell. Admission is 200 Birr.
Gondar is quite spread out and the attractions far one from the other. You may hire a tuk tuk to take you around. That should cost you no more than 250 Birr for the entire city tour.
Hike the Simien Mountains
The Simien Mountains well deserve to be a part of your Ethiopia tour. The National Park is located at around 3 hours drive from Gondar and you can go on a 2 days, 3 days and up to 7 days hike. You will have to join a guided group hike as trails aren’t the easiest to follow, and it’s a national requirement to have a guide and armed scout (who’s mean to protect against animal attacks).
The 2 days hike isn’t strenuous – save for the fact that the starting point is at more than 2600 meters above sea level and you will reach an altitude of over 3000 meters. The views are gorgeous throughout – picture forest, open valleys, pastures, and nice wildlife. You will also typically see Jinbar Waterfall, which is simply spectacular.
A 2 days guided hike of the Simien Mountains costs around $115, depending on the size of the group. I bought my tour directly from Gondar Backpackers hostel and was happy with the price and service.
Different companies may quote you a different price, but the tours are actually run by the local community, with guides and scouts hired in Debark (the nearest town to the National Park) on a rotation basis, so there is no guarantee you will be getting a good guide (they usually are, though). So there really is no point in paying a higher price hoping for a better service – it is not one of the things to do in Ethiopia.
Tours include the guide and scout, tent and sleeping bag rental, all meals (food is surprisingly very good) and transportation from and to Gondar. Most of the time tents are actually quite good, as well as the sleeping bags, but make sure to enquire about the quality of the tents. It rains regularly in the Simien Mountains and the last thing you need is sleeping in a leaky tent!
You can book your guided hike of the Simien Mountains here.
Make sure to pack as light as possible for the hike – you won’t have a chance to shower anyways. Carry some toilet paper, wet wipes and anti-bacterial gel. Bring a change of pants, socks and t-shirt in case you get wet, and something extra warm for the night ie a thick fleece and a hat. Make sure to take a rain jacket and a head lamp. Bring enough water and snacks, at least for the first day!
Check out my post Everything You Must Know About Simien Mountains Trekking.
Observe the Gelada Baboons
Ethiopia isn’t the first destination that comes to mind in Africa when it comes to wildlife, yet you will be able to observe some interesting species that are unique to the country. The Gelada Baboons are only found in the Ethiopian Highlands and mostly live in the Simien Mountains. Though they are called baboons they really have little in common with them – they aren’t nearly as mean.
Gelada are grass eaters and spend most of their time grooming and munching. They live in large groups and are active during the day.
Other species you may come across in the Simien Mountains include the walia ibex and even the caracal.
As my friend and I got ready to get in the tent for the night, we saw a large orange cat hanging around the camp. We were quite surprised to see a cat that large in the mountains (and, proper cat ladies that we are) we even wished he’d come to our tents to snuggle for the night. The morning after, when we told the guide, we learned it was actually a caracal.
Interested in wildlife viewing destinations? Make sure to read my post Where To See Wildlife In Botswana.
Walk around Aksum
Aksum is often used as the starting point for a tour of the Tigray Churches and included in a two weeks Ethiopia tour. The city itself has some interesting attractions – it takes no more than a day to explore all of it.
Among the places to visit in Aksum, make sure you go to the New Church of St. Mary of Zion – it is right next to the Arabtu Ensessa Church, which is off limits to women (so I can’t really comment on it). St. Mary of Zion is rather large and airy, with some interesting paintings and decorations. There is a small annexed museum too. The entry fee for the whole complex is 200 Birr.
The other main attraction is the archeological park, which includes the Stelae Park, the Obelisk of Aksum, Queen Sheba Palace and Queen Sheba Bath, King Ezana’s inscription (which, much like Rosetta’s Stone, is a stone with an inscription in 3 different languages, including Ge’ez and Ancient Greek).
You can get a ticket valid for the entire archeological complex of Aksum from the tourism information office for 300 Birr (less than $10 USD). Make sure to keep the ticket with you for inspection at each place.
With increasing tourism in Aksum, touts and scams are becoming more and more common. Don’t be surprised if you are approached by local guides working for tour companies that offer a day tour for $150 (yes, that much). Keep in mind the city is walkable and that the overall cost of all attractions is no more than $15, so politely but firmly say no.
Climb up the Tigray Churches
Visiting the churches of Tigray definitely is one of the nicest things to do in Ethiopia, and you really should include it in your Ethiopia tour. The most spectacular one is Abuna Yamata Guh. The church is carved in the rock, and though the carving work doesn’t equate to that of Lalibela churches, it is such a unique place that it’d be a pity to miss it.
Getting to Abuna Yamata Guh is a bit of a challenge – you have to climb the rock in your bare hands and food, at most with the help of a rope. So this is not for the faint of heart. Inside, the church is beautiful with paintings and an extraordinary light.
The other most famous churches in the Gheralta region are Maryam Korkor and Daniel Korkor.
Guided tours of the Tigray depart either from Aksum or Mekele. You have the option of doing a one or two days tour. I honestly recommend going for the one day tour and to head straight to Abuna Yamata Guh, Maryam Korkor and Daniel Korkor, as these are the ones really worth visiting.
Visit Danakil Depression
A proper Ethiopia tour has to factor in enough time to visit Danakil Depression – visiting is one of the things to do in Ethiopia. This is a place like no others, breathtakingly beautiful and harsh at the same time; challenging and uncomfortable. This part of Ethiopia is remote and hard to get to; it is inhabited by the Afar communities, which are often in conflict with the central government.
The tourist infrastructure in the region is lacking – do not expect any sort of comfort. Hygienic conditions are dire, and you’ll be saddened by the amount of plastic waste you’ll see. Yet, you will be completely mesmerized by the landscape, enchanted by the light and captured by the surreal and desolated atmosphere.
The Danakil is famous for the hike up the active crater of Erta Ale Volcano at night and before the sun rises to see the lava eruptions; you can also go swimming (or rather floating) on Lake Giulietti; visit the colorful lake of Dallol and observe the work of salt miners and of their camels in Lake Asale.
Tours of the Danakil usually last two or three days, during which you sleep on mattresses close to the crater of Erta Ale volcano and in a very basic guest house. Tours cost between $250 and $300 USD and include transportation, guides and food. The quality of the tours and the services is very basic – expect dirty mattresses, basic food, and at times non-existing hygienic conditions. Enquire with your agency before departing, and make it a point to request new, decent materials for your tour.
Group tours can be quite large so make sure to follow some basic rules for safety reasons, as you won’t always be able to rely on the guide. Here is some guidance, also about packing:
- Drink plenty of water – it is extremely hot in the Danakil region, especially in the Dallol;
- Take a scarf or bandana to cover your mouth and nose for your visit of Erta Ale;
- Bring a swimsuit if you intend to swim in the salt lake; and a tower to rinse off in the hot springs;
- Cover your head with a hat; wear long pants and possibly sleeves to protect yourself from the sun;
- Take a headlamp;
- Always warn the guide if you intend to separate yourself from the group and never wander around by yourself. It’s very easy to lose the sense of direction!
I honestly do not have a company to recommend for this tour. The one I traveled with was a bit of a let down. My tip is to research and read reviews before you decide for one company over the other.
Make sure to read my post What You Need To Know Before Visiting The Danakil.
Finish off in Mekele
To be fair, Mekele is nothing special and I’d hardly add it to the things to do in Ethiopia. Most people end up there towards the end of their Ethiopia tour, as it is the starting and ending point for expeditions to the Danakil. I recommend factoring in a night there at the end of your trip, so that you can rest in a bed and take a good shower before traveling home.
The only real attraction in town is the Palace, which takes no more than an hour to visit. Other than that, head to the market for some good shopping, or hang out at one of the many nice cafés.
Practical Tips To Organize Your Ethiopia Tour
Visa requirements for Ethiopia
You will need a tourist visa to enter Ethiopia. You can get it on arrival, but Addis Ababa airport is extremely busy so I advise you to get it online before you go – this way you can directly go to the passport booth to get your passport stamped. You can obtain your visa here – it costs $50 plus $2 USD handling fee.
Traveling to Ethiopia
Ethiopia is very well connected internationally via its Addis Ababa airport, which is one of Africa’s main hubs. There are direct flight from most European and African capitals and major cities, and either direct or connecting flights from North America and Asia. Ethiopian Airlines usually has the best deals.
Guided tours of Ethiopia
There are many local tour companies that you can book tours with. They offer services that range from decent, to unremarkable to extremely poor (picture guides that speak no English, itineraries that aren’t respected, poor food and even worse sleeping arrangements). Paying more doesn’t necessarily mean receiving a better service. I strongly advise you to thoroughly read online reviews before booking anything.
Again, my recommendation is to make all sorts of enquiries before booking, to avoid any bad surprise.
Minimal packing list
Packing smartly but light is essential, especially If your Ethiopia tour crosses several climates (from the mild temperatures of the highlands to the colder nights of Simien and the fierce heat of the Danakil Depression). Here is an essential packing list:
- Two pairs of lightweight hiking pants. I like Kuhl Resistor Pants and Horizn Convertible.
- A pair of thermal pants and a thermal shirt. I am a fan of Kuhl Akkomplice Bottom and Akkomplice Zip Neck
- A rain and windproof jacket or a poncho such as Kuhl Hydroflex and a warmer jacket such as Kuhl Skyfire Down Parka.
- A sweater or a micro fleece for the chilly evenings. Also take the Kuhl Alskafor the cold nights in the Simien Mountains.
- Two light cotton long sleeve t-shirts such as Kuhl Intent Hoody and a couple of short sleeve ones such as Kuhl Valiant
- A pair of lightweight hiking shoes such as Salomon X Ultra 3 Low GTX
- A pair of flip flops or sandals such as Teva Elzada
- A hat, a headband and a bandana or facemask
- A good daypack such as REI Trail Hydro
- A headlamp
- Wet wipes and hand sanitizer
- Toilet paper and tissues
You may also want to take a water bottle with a filter, but keep in mind that you won’t really get hold of taps when traveling (especially in the Danakil) so you’ll often have to make do with bottles of water.
Cost of travel in Ethiopia
Ethiopia is kind of baffling in terms of costs. Food is extremely cheap, accommodation in general is very budget friendly, but tours are expensive, especially given the level of service you get. Be prepared to bargain for just about anything: it’s one of the things to do in Ethiopia.
General tips for traveling around Ethiopia
Ethiopia isn’t an easy country to travel around. You can’t expect most of the comforts you are used to, and this will at times be aggravating.
Hygienic conditions aren’t ideal, and there will be occasions during which you’ll go for days without a sink to wash your hands, or a toilet (not even a squat one) – though to be fair most of the toilets other than those in your hotel room (and even those in the guest houses used during tours of the Danakil) are so filthy that you’ll honestly wish you could use the bush instead.
I strongly recommend not eating any raw vegetables (ie salads) and even meat or chicken during your time in the country. By all means, never drink tap water – it’s definitely not one of the things to do in Ethiopia.
Chances are you’ll get some level of food poisoning at some point (I have yet to meet someone who hasn’t!). If that happens, make sure to drink plenty of fluids and eat plain food such as pasta with oil (no sauce) or bread. Avoid rice as that’s one of the foods that gets most easily contaminated.
Tourists are often approached by children selling small trinkets or demanding money or other objects. Never give anything to them; never buy anything from them: giving money or buying whatever they may be selling will encourage them to continue doing that; whereas they should be in school. Repeat after me: tipping children is not one of the things to do in Ethiopia.
Garbage isn’t much of an issue in most of Ethiopia, and you’ll find the country is actually quite clean in this sense. The only exception is Danakil, where plastic seems to be a major issue, with the cracks of Erta Ale Volcano typically filled with plastic bottles. Don’t leave any garbage behind!
Read my post What You Need To Know About Travel In Ethiopia for more information on what you should expect.
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.
Other useful information
Make sure to get a good travel insurance for your trip to Ethiopia. Get yours here.
Check out my post Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.
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.