Ethiopia is one of those countries that are not known for its tourism potential. A lot of its potential lies behind closed curtains. I joined my sister for a week of exploring some Ethiopian Highlights and was amazed of how little I knew about the country.
Being an ancient civilization, the country has an incredibly rich history and culture. Having been so closed out from the world, the people are friendly and excited to have people visit their country.
Amharic, the national language is one of the oldest written languages in the world. English is not widely spoken but the guides and hotel staff can pretty much communicate to tourists. In terms of things to do there is quite a good range from visiting the religious buildings, feeding of hyenas, playing with baboons and playing princess in a real life Africa Camelot. Below are some of my highlights and top things to do while visiting Ethiopia for the 1st time.
- Food, Food and Coffee
The one thing almost everyone knows about Ethiopia is the food and coffee. It was about 4 -5 years ago when I tried Ethiopian food at restaurant in Kenya. I was not the biggest fun of Injera (more on this later). Not sure if my palate is more refined or trying the food at its birth place changed but whilst in Ethiopia, I had local food at-least each day and loved it.
A typical Ethiopian dish is predominantly served with Injera. Injera is an East African sourdough-risen flatbread with a unique, slightly spongy texture; it is traditionally made out of teff flour, and is the national dish in Ethiopia. I believe it could be an acquired taste but one that easily grows on you. It comes both in an off white colour and a darker version depending on the type of teff used. The fun part is the many variations of dishes you can have it with.
For anyone experimenting with Ethiopian food or visiting Ethiopia, the 2 main dishes that are a must will be ‘Fasting” dish or the National Dish. The fasting dish is a vegan version full of intense flavors and unique textures. Many Ethiopians are Orthodox Christians and traditionally eat vegan on Wednesdays and Fridays, as well as other special days. The National dish is the meat version where you can get as much or as little variety of meats you want. They will still include all the yummy sauces made from chickpeas – ‘Shiro wot‘, lentils – ‘azifa‘ and sometimes the feta cheese if the “kifto” raw meat is part of the dish.
The presentation just makes you want to stare at the food and not disturb it but the aroma just gets your hands in there and bam! – Minutes in food heaven. Ohh and that brings me to the “Big Fish” dish. On one of our lunches, we went to a restaurant and being a fish ‘joint” we had 2 options: big fish or small fish. In our minds we thought small fish meant tiny fish and big fish was medium sized. So when my sister was served with 43 inch (3.6 ft) grilled fish it was a shocker but one Big Yummy shocker!
When it comes to coffee you will find a traditional coffee station almost at every corner across the different cities. The traditional ceremony is active till date you will find everyone takes part in it. From airports, 5 star hotels, street vendors, basic restaurants or fancy ones, they all will have a similar traditional set up. It is very inexpensive and something I would recommend everyone to try especially if you love coffee. Unfortunately I tried the coffee twice and absolutely hated it but this is because I generally do not like or take coffee so the very strong and intense Ethiopian coffee did not work for me and so even with all the pressure from my sister who took part in the ceremony I didn’t do it. Booooo!!!
2. Real Life Camelot, Gondar
This real life Camelot is from the Ethiopian dynasty that ruled the region in the 17th and 18th centuries. The castle complex is extremely interesting and they had lion cages and even a spa! Gondar is one of those cities that are a major throwback to the 188 century, cobbled stones, horses, castles with mountains in the horizon.
When you think of East Africa you think Big 5, Savannah and sometimes tropical beaches but Gondar is just the place to remind you of the diversity that Africa has to offer. Gondar deserves a post to itself so be on the lookout for that soon.
3. Home of the second Jerusalem, Lalibela
My experience in Lalibela definitely agreed with the Ethiopians proclamation that Lalibela is the 2nd Jerusalem of the world. Lalibela is a small town that is well known for its rock sewn churches that are as impeccable as the photos suggest. It is a very religious town and besides the churches there is not much to it. I will write more on the magic of Lalibela.
4. Cheap Magical Dining
If you follow me on my personal Instagram you know my love for food and when combined with affordability, I am in heaven. Above I have gone in details about all the amazing Ethiopian foods but The Four Sisters Restaurant and Ben Abeba restaurants needed their own mention.
The Four sister’s restaurant is in Gondar, my favourite Ethiopian city. With it being located 7 minutes walk from the Castle of Gondar, its central location makes it a place everyone visiting Gondar should visit. You are welcomed with a little blow of a horn that alerts the restaurant a new client has arrived. It is set in a forested garden area where you can seat at the patio viewing your food been prepared down below in the partly open kitchen. The decor follows an inspired theme of the Debre Birhan Selassie Church, biblical scenes and saints and the ceiling is covered with the faces of hundreds of angels.
Each patron has a tribal Ethiopian cover up for those chilly evenings and some coffee smelling ritual to open your smells and taste senses. We visited the restaurant 2 nights in a row as we couldn’t get enough of it. The 2nd night we ordered the National dish and shared it and it was so tasty. They also serve a hearty vegetable soup as a starter with some freshly made bread. On the second night we returned with our new found friends for another dinner and opted to have fish and land goulash while they had the fasting and national dish. You can read more on my sister’s blog post here on our experience.
Main dishes range from US$ 2 (Kes 200) to US$ 5 (Kes 500)
Ben Abeba in Lalibela was totally different but even more amazing. Ben means hill in Scottish and Abeba is flower in Amharic hence “Hill of Flowers” Susan, the owner is Scottish and her business partner is Ethiopian. Here, it was all about redefining dinning with a view. Just like the other restaurant one dinner was not enough and so we had 2 dinners. On the second night we were more sharp and opted for very early dinner combined with a sunset sundowner. The restaurant is set on a hill just outside the centre of Lalibela and can be accessed by mule, taxi or tuktuk.
It is evident from the restaurant design and vibe that the owners have great architectural tastes. The restaurant design is hard to explain but combines a great deal of the terrain, the outdoors while still maintain and indoor feel. My favourite spot was one of the sundowner spot that seems to be hanging with mountains in the background. We had a killer sunset and enjoyed Doro Wat a dish that required 24 hours notice. To be honest the actual dish was not mind blowing and to this day my sister and I wonder why the dish is so special.
If you are in Lalibela for even just one day of viewing the churches, this new restaurant should definitely be on your to do list.
Main dishes range from US$ 2 (Kes 200) to US$ 4 (Kes 400)
5. Stunning Landscapes
I am obsessed with great views and landscapes; there is something about the diversity in landscapes that intrigues me. Ethiopia did not disappoint in this front, Addis Ababa for starters is rather low gradient hilly, in that while driving through the city you do notice the “ups and downs” for lack of a better term. Maybe it’s comparing it to Nairobi which being very flat makes walking around quite a breeze. The Bole International airport is also the only airport I know that is located on the highest point of the city.
Moving away from the city is where all the magic started to pop up, from the views from the plane; to your bed and breakfast views it was all magical. Gondar landscapes are a great mixture of rolling hills, Simien Mountains in the distant and fertile land. Traditional villages are found among the terraced hills they rely on for subsistence. From the slopes protrude giant stone colossi rising hundreds of meters into the air. Although the city of Gondar does boast some impressive scenery, the medieval castles are the main catch; they are a testimony to Africa’s pre-colonial kingdoms.
Flying over Lake Tana and the Simien mountains from Gondar to Lalibela, the 30 minutes flight felt like 7 minutes and we were happy to stay a while longer on the plane and enjoy the aerial views. The stunning landscapes of Lalibela can be easily missed for someone staying in the town and just taking the tour of the churches. We opted to stay a little out of the city and had the best views from the bed.
6. Interesting facts
For a bonus some interesting facts you may not know about Ethiopia or at least things I had no clue about up until visiting.
They do produce their own wine it is actually quite decent. My sister, a lover of all things sweet fell in love with Axumite wine whilst I fell in love with the Rift Valley Wine. The latter is a merlot and produced by a French company and intended for export. What made the wines even more attractive were their very low price tags. Most hotels charge their beverages at exorbitant prices but we got wine at the hotels we stayed at for about $8 – $10 a bottle which was awesome.
- No English
Well I knew English was not very common but I didn’t realize most people spoke no English at all. Some hotel staff, guides and very few taxi guys could communicate but trying to strike up a conversation with a local always resulted to creative sign languages.
- No Social Media
I am not sure if this is following the unrest the country has been having or it’s always been this way. Facebook/ Twitter/ Linked In are all blocked and we were so lucky the government has not discovered Instagram so we had a way of sharing the great pictures we were taking. They do have a major problem with electricity meaning internet is rare and when available it’s very slow that you can barely use it. That being said it did allow us time to really enjoy the moment and get off from behind our screens.
- Hush hush lifestyle
Coming from a country where we talk about everything loud and are happy to share all details with world both in person and over social media, it was interesting to try understand the hush hush culture in Ethiopia. The past few months Ethiopia has had some unrest with fires and fights in certain parts. As a traveler I wanted to know more: what caused them, how severe, if things were resolved, etc but from the guides, the waiters, the hotel managers, no one was divulging any information. While in Gondar, we met this German lady who has spent many years in and out of Ethiopia and she shed some light. The locals will not share negative stories with foreigners and we were not sure if this is to ensure that tourists felt safe or if it was case of “mind your own business”
- Cheap AF
I am a traveler with very little money and so I am generally attracted to countries and destinations that are easy on the pocket. Ethiopia was great on this front, hotels in East Africa are generally ridiculously expensive and so when we found deals for hotels that cost us US$50 (Kes 5,000) – US$ 60 (Kes 6,000) for 2 people per night on Bed & breakfast that was great. Meals were always less than $ 5 (Kes 500) at rather nice restaurants. Ethiopian is a huge country and getting around by road is not easy and extremely time consuming. From Addis Ababa to Lalibela or Gondar the approximate time is 48 hours, we opted for flying through all our stops and only paid US$ 165 (Kes 16,500) per person for all the flights
Love & Peace,