Why should you go?
In the long and disturbed history of the African continent, Ethiopia remains the only country which has never been colonised (except for a brief occupation by Italy during World War II). As a result, the country has a treasure trove of immaculately preserved historic churches, monasteries and ancient towers. Ethiopians have also retained a strong sense of identity and pride – and they are eager to share this with the foreign traveller.
Extensive erosion over the years on the Ethiopian plateau has created one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world, with jagged mountain peaks, deep valleys and sharp precipices dropping some 1500m. Ethiopia's wildlife is diverse, too, with unique indigenous creatures such as the Gelada monkey and Ethiopian wolf.
Why is now a good time to visit?
Ever since the government made tourism its priority in 2013, the country has seen a lot of improvements to infrastructure. The building boom in Addis Ababa includes a massive expansion of Bole International Airport and a number of new hotels currently under construction.
Provincial capitals are also getting new airport terminals, and a nationwide road improvement campaign is rapidly improving land transport between major cities. Ethiopian Airlines is also growing its route network, with New York City, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Dublin, Cape Town and Manila added since early 2015.
But Ethiopia's flourishing tourist industry took a plunge in 2016 after violent anti-government protests led the Ethiopian government to declare a six-month state of emergency. The situation has since improved, and most tour operators have resumed their trips to the country. Go now and you can enjoy Ethiopia’s sights all to yourself.
Is it safe to travel to Ethiopia?
Travelling independently in Ethiopia can be very challenging; its lack of infrastructure in places (despite recent improvements) and remote mountainous attractions make any trip here an adventure. But first-time visitors may be surprised to find that Ethiopians are extremely welcoming and curious about foreigners (considering how few travellers visit).
Several explosions at hotels in Gondar and Bahir Dar occurred in January and April 2017, but the government lifted the state of emergency on 4 August 2017. You should remain vigilant, however, and follow the advice of the local authorities and your tour operator. It’s important to check official travel advice before you go.
Which sights should I not miss?
The country’s most visited sight is the 900-year-old rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. The cluster of 13 medieval churches carved right out of balsatic scoria volcanic rocks is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Rise early and visit at dawn to see pilgrims and priests chant in a hypnotising and spiritual setting. History buffs should not miss the ancient capital of Gondar – lauded as the Camelot of Africa – and its treasure trove of 16th-century palaces, lavish castles and sprawling gardens.
For natural landscapes, the Simien Mountains are home to Ethiopia’s highest peaks. You can easily spend weeks trekking here and still not see everything in the national park (from troops of Gelada monkeys to mountaintop monasteries). Off the tourist trail is the Guassa Conservation Area, a 98-square-kilometre park that has been protected by the local community since the 17th century. It’s an excellent area to spot endemic wildlife.
Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake (and Africa’s third largest), has a peaceful and serene setting that’s worth visiting to escape from the dusty towns. Its waters are inhabited by small pods of hippopotamus, hundreds of endemic species of birds; and its shores are dotted with more than 30 monasteries, some of which feature the best mural art in Ethiopia.