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 tree house built on the edge of a valley, serving local and Western dishes amid some of the best views in town.
2. Timket Festival
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.
3. 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.
4. Harar Jugol
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.
5. Communal Eating
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.