7 Must-Visit Places in Ethiopia

When you think of Ethiopia, you’ll no doubt be inundated with mental images of extreme famine and poverty set against an infertile and unforgiving desert landscape ravaged by war. Put the preconceptions aside, however, and you’ll discover a colourful nation that stands apart from every other country on the African continent. The only African country to have resisted colonisation, Ethiopia is also one of the oldest in the world with scientists declaring it to have been the beginning of mankind thanks to the discovery of the 3.5 million-year-old fossils from ‘Lucy’, the first human being on record. Bordering Kenya, Somalia, and Sudan, Ethiopia rests on a plateau at 2,500 metres above sea level and boasts staggering landscapes rich in natural beauty with gushing waterfalls and winding rivers set amongst fertile highlands and the flat-topped peaks of the vast Simien Mountains. This wild paradise is fused together with ancient civilisations and historical treasures like the awe-inspiring rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and the fascinating lost tribes of the Omo Valley to create a remarkable country that astounds and overwhelms visitors in equal measure.

Not for the faint-hearted, exploring Ethiopia can be challenging and will almost certainly push you to the edge of your comfort zone. But come prepared with an open heart and mind and you’ll be rewarded with some of the most extraordinary experiences of your life and will come to know the true essence of adventure. Oh and the outstanding coffee, of course. Don’t forget the coffee.


Set in the east of Ethiopia nearing the border with Somaliland, the ancient city of Harar is a capsule of colour and culture, so different from the rest of the country and indeed from anything you’ll have seen before. Inside the crumbling city walls lies a warren of twisting alleyways bursting with colour, exotic smells and the sounds of daily life. Packed with mosques, markets, and colourfully robed locals, Harar reminds us of what Morocco must have been like centuries ago. Recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006, the city is also Islam’s fourth holiest city with 82 mosques and 102 shrines. Harar isn’t a place you’ll forget in a hurry and that’s without mention of the hyena encounters that take place outside the walled city when dusk falls and the ancient hyena men call their wild friends to feed.

Although records of spotted hyenas go back up to 500 years, the practice of feeding them has only been happening since the 1960s. The intention was to protect the livestock and with time the hyenas were even responsive to names given to them by the hyena men. For fans of David Attenborough, they were featured on the Cities episode of Planet Earth II.

The Simien Mountains

Often heralded as the ‘Roof of Africa’, Northern Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains are home to the continent’s largest and most beautiful highland ranges with many of its peaks reaching over 4,000 metres above sea level. With vast plateaus that stretch endlessly into the horizon and hundreds of uniquely shaped rock formations, it’s not difficult to see why the Simien’s have been described as the ‘chessboard of the Gods’. The towering spires, jagged peaks, precipitous cliffs, and huge gorges that thunder with cascading water have all been shaped over time, formed from ancient volcanic eruptions and carved by decades of natural erosion. The impressive landscape and cool climate haven’t merely afforded some of the best hiking and trekking experiences throughout Africa, they’ve also provided the perfect conditions for the survival of a number of endangered species including the endemic Walia ibex, Ethiopian wolf and of course the fascinating gelada monkeys that roam the highland ridges. It’s thanks to these rare species that the area was established as a national park in 1969 then later became listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.

The Danakil Depression

The Danakil Depression is the meeting point of 3 tectonic plates and as Africa and Asia have slowly moved away from each other has caused the depression (120m below sea level) along with the volcanic activity. It is the hottest place in the world with a yearly average day/night temperature of 35 degrees. Yet as hard as it is to believe, this barren land is home to the Afar people who have adapted to life in Danakil and trek daily with their caravan of camels to collect salt from the plains. Visit Dallol, which is the Earth’s lowest land volcano at 48m below sea level and last erupted in 1926. Its craters contain hot springs that boast an array of neon colours due to the hot magma below the surface. This heats the groundwater flowing into the area, which moves up towards the surface it dissolving salt and sulfur before depositing in the craters. For those wanting to really get out of their comfort zone why not hike up over 600m and sleep next to the active volcano crater of Erta Ale which is the world’s longest existing lava lake (1906). A remote place that is truly like no other.


No matter how much you’ve heard about Lalibela or how many pictures you’ve ogled at, nothing quite prepares you for the overwhelming experience of seeing Lalibela’s extraordinary rock-hewn churches for the first time. Indeed, witnessing these cave churches in the flesh makes it easy to understand why they have been described as the ‘8th Wonder of the World’. Carved by devout Christians in the 13th century on the order of King Lalibela, the rusty-red volcanic rock was painstakingly chiseled from top to bottom to form a total of eleven subterranean churches in a variety of styles. Four of them were completely freed from the rock and now stand as isolated structures including the iconic church of St. George, whose forms take the shape of the cross and demonstrate the exceptionally refined standard of carving. Not just a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lalibela has been heralded as the ‘new Jerusalem’, its underground churches are by a series of maze-like tunnels and dark twisted passageways separated by the aptly named ‘River Jordan’. In fact, the whole place breathes devotion with white-robed priests clutching precious icons or poring over religious texts, and worshippers kissing the ancient rock walls and praying silently in the cool courtyards.

Omo Valley

The main draw of Southern Ethiopia is the culturally diverse and fascinating Omo Valley, which is located in Africa’s Great Rift Valley. Here, the landscape ranges from endless arid savannah plains punctuated with acacia bushes to the verdant forests and fertile banks of the Omo River that are filled with birds and monkeys hiding in the dense vegetation. The life-giving Omo River snakes through the Omo and Mago National Parks for nearly 800km all the way down the Kenyan border and shelters some of Africa’s most remote and remarkable ethnic tribes. Each of the many tribes that call the Omo Valley home is as culturally diverse and unique as the next. From the walled stone villages of the Konso and the body- painting Karo tribe to the tall beehive-shaped homes of the Dorze and the lip-stretching clay plates of the Mursi people, you’re unlikely to have seen or seen anything quite like it. But these tribes that have little or no acknowledgement of the 20th century (let alone the 21st) are starting to be influenced by a wave of modernisation from the outside world. Hydroelectric dams, palm oil plantations, Chinese road construction, and new laws aimed to ‘civilise’ these tribes threaten the very existence of these remarkable people. Even tourism, which offers the most stabilising influence from the western world needs to be practiced in a sensitive, respectful and sustainable manner in order to preserve the ancient traditions and unique cultures of this untouched corner of Africa. Many people who visit Ethiopia won’t venture further south than Addis Ababa so this really is a remarkable opportunity to take a journey through time to the very edge of your comfort zone where you’ll witness a world that is so utterly captivating and unique that the memories you create along the way will stay with you for a lifetime.

Tigray’s Mountains

Tigray is Ethiopia’s northernmost of the country’s nine regions and is also home to the Danikal Depression which highlights quite how diverse it is! However, the region is most famous for its stunning landscape, hiking and its rock-hewn churches situated in the inaccessible mountains which makes it a real challenge to reach them but also means they have been excellently preserved over the years. They are still used by devote locals to this very day who will pass you on your way up completely unassisted, where as in parts you’ll even need a harness and a rope. These places of worship were deliberately made as inaccessible as possible to protect them from those who sort to persecute Christians. It’s worth noting, for those that want to visit that if you have an issue with heights you should let your guide know so he can select the churches you’ll visit accordingly. Some of the churches are particularly unnerving for those with vertigo, think 500m drops and even harnesses to assist ascend in parts.

Addis Ababa

The overwhelming chaos of Africa’s fourth largest city can be a somewhat overwhelming experience, particularly on first exposure. It is a busy, bustling and blaring working that will give you a wide-eyed insight into an authentic third-world African city. Poverty-ridden, Addis Ababa does possess a certain unconventional charm that has everything to do with how raw and real the place is. Nothing has been put on for show, this really is a no-frills, true-to-life Ethiopian city, its streets choked with traffic and locals going about their business. While it might not be beautiful in the traditional sense of the word, what it does have is the largest outdoor market in the world, a fascinating museum and some excellent coffee shops where you can sample Ethiopia’s claim to fame. And if you didn’t already know, Addis Ababa is also the world’s third highest capital city at 2,400m. Stay open-minded, curious and willing to embrace the madness and Addis might just surprise you.

If you’re interested in visiting Ethiopia and exploring these incredible destinations then take a look at our once-in-a-lifetime Extreme Ethiopia Experience.

Written by Marion Poerio and James Chisnall