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Ethiopia: The Top 10 Places You Need to See Before You Die

When I first embarked on my trip to Ethiopia, I didn’t know what to expect. I was enthralled with visiting this historic and fascinating corner of the world, but concerned with how little I knew and how hard it is to find information about Ethiopia.

I wondered: Where should I go in Ethiopia? How long should I spend? And what are the top places to visit?

But in the end, my every question was answered. What I found in Ethiopia was a land brimming with awe-inspiring landscapes, rich cultural heritage, and an indomitable spirit that left me enchanted. I’ve since returned a second time to Ethiopia and discovered even more of its incredible beauty. Traveling here is always an exhilarating adventure.

Related: This was my (surprising) experience flying Ethiopian Airlines in business class

Why you need to visit Ethiopia (at least) once in your lifetime

The Semien Mountains at sunset. One of Ethiopia’s natural treasures.

Boasting not just ancient historical sites but also breathtaking natural wonders, Ethiopia has literally something for everyone.

From the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage site that transports you to a bygone era, to the simmering volcanic landscapes of the Danakil Depression, where otherworldly landscapes blend with vivid colors, Ethiopia offers a myriad of experiences that will leave you in awe. Whether you’re drawn to the ancient ruins of Aksum, the mystical castles of Gondar, or the breathtaking beauty of the Simien Mountains, Ethiopia will far exceed all of your expectations.

A lovely Mursi lady with epic accessories. She welcomed us to her market in the south Omo Valley, Ethiopia.
Traveling to Ethiopia soon? Make sure to apply for your e-Visa in time for your trip - I recommend at least two weeks ahead.

And these top bucket list places to see in Ethiopia will show you just why it’s such an exhilarating destination that should be at the top of every traveler’s bucket list.

I recommend spending at least 2 weeks in Ethiopia if you want to see most of its highlights.

Looking for an unforgettable travel experience? Make sure to read about our most epic trip ever: Living With the Mundari Tribe in South Sudan.

1. Dallol, Danakil Depression – Ethiopia’s Most Insane Treasure

Our guard enjoys the splendor of Dallol. Even as a regular, the sights (and smells) are nothing short of fantastic.

Standing on the edge of the world – in the hottest place on the planet, technically the closest to ‘hell’ (lowest elevation) – yet the most beautiful, exists Ethiopia’s epic Danakil Depression. In Dallol certainly is the highlight.

But trust me, nothing about this place is depressing. Rather, the vibrant colors, some of which you can only see here, the sound of sulfur spitting from the core of the earth, the occasional steam bath hitting you like the hottest sauna you could ever imagine – it all feels like a Time Machine. It’s like you’re brought back to the beginning of Earth.

When the sulfur smell hits, it hits hard! And better not step in a puddle, lest it melt your shoe!

What makes Danakil and Dallol so special and unique

The Danakil Depression is so brutal and unfriendly that although it sits on likely the largest oil reserves in the world, attempts at setting up camp to make a fortune from the oil here have failed – simply due to the heat.

And yet, there’s nothing like Dallol. Sinkholes, puddles, ponds of acid, geysers that make Yellowstone look like someone’s backyard, and more colors than the rainbow decorate the land as far as the eye can see.

As the dried sulfuric salt crackles beneath you, you traverse a totally unrecognizable terrain. You have to make sure to tread carefully, watching where you step to avoid melting your shoes in acid. And the rest of your body too.

Traversing the unbelievable landscapes of Dallol – a surreal experience

A remnant of the Tigray conflict, a guard stands by with an AK-47. He’s very friendly, and only wishes to take some selfies together. He’s been here before, and his internal map is quite useful. If you’re walking with this guy, you won’t get lost.

Otherwise, the local guides share some fascinating information about this place. They tell us about the continental rift, and how this could all become the next Red Sea in a couple million years. I’ll set my watch.

Until then, you can enjoy the splendor of this seemingly forbidden place. It’s definitely not made for humans – but it could be what made humans (and all life) in the first place. 

2. Erta Ale Volcano Crater: you can literally hike into an active volcano

An incredible sunrise we spent meditating on the incredible massive crater of Erta Ale, with its activate eruptions and unearthly landscapes.

As evening set upon us, we snapped on our headlamps and made our way from base camp. Leaving the comforts of home base, we made our way up an at times steep path, seeing nothing but uphill in front of us as we climbed.

After about 40 minutes of trodding through volcanic ash, feeling the temperatures begin to finally cool from their evening highs, we ended up at the viewpoint. This viewpoint also happens to double as the edge of the Erte Ale volcanic crater. Lucky us.

The totally surreal landscapes of Erta Ale as the morning sun begins to rise. The hike up here is totally worth these incredible views.

The descent from the rim into Erte Ale is sort of magical. You truly feel like an ant would on an anthill the size of a great pyramid – absolutely tiny, surrounded by tens of millions of years of lava eruptions and flows and the subsequent cooling. Metaphorically, it feels a bit like staring through a wormhole into the past. Nothing makes you appreciate how short our time on this planet is quite like it.

The peak of our experience at Erta Ale

As we made our way towards the center of the volcanic, the smell of sulfur grew, and the dancing red light in the distance became more and more vivid. Before we knew it, we were staring directly into the fire of a volcano.

It was an experience like no other, nothing so vividly displays our place on earth like this. Knowing that this is one place that  Earth shares her inner workings with us, feeling the heat and ferocity of it all, it’s something you can never forget. This is a chance to look Earth directly in the eyes. And by god, her eyes are beautiful.

3. Lalibela: Africa’s Duomo – but cooler

Viewpoint on Bet Uraiel, one of the most beautiful and visible rock hewn churches at Lalibela – a truly one of a kind place on earth.

Standing on the edge of a 30 foot cliff isn’t something I normally like to do. But when that 30 foot cliff is a result of decades of hard work, and gorgeous hand carved cathedrals embedded in rock stand before you, you make an exception.

As we walk through hidden walkways carved in the rock, local churchgoers dressed in white greet us. They didn’t know a lick of English, but their eyes tell us stories that words simply can’t. We feel welcomed, witnesses to the beautiful side of organized religion.

But this experience was nothing when compared to what happened the next day – when we were welcomed to join a mass.

What Mass is like at the Holy Site of Lalibela, Ethiopia (enchanting and beautiful)

‘Mass’ is definitely the proper word here, as the passages, cathedrals, and surroundings all became a sea of beautiful white clothing. Beautiful hymns and chants fill the air, and we partake in rituals focused on coming together. There’s something that feels so natural about it.

A man dressed in a white gown bows his head to the Holy Bible during a Sunday Mass at the holy site of Lalibela. ​
A man dressed in a white gown bows his head to the Holy Bible during a Sunday Mass at the holy site of Lalibela.

Inside the cathedrals, perfectly preserved ancient frescas and paintings are on display, totally unique to this part of the world and unseen anywhere else (the angels have Afros here, and I love it). The confined spaces between the intricate art, beautiful doors, and carved ceilings grant a feeling of togetherness. In this place, we are all one, no matter where we come from.

A gorgeous scene from Sunday mass at Lalibela as two women pay their respects to the church.

And that’s the beauty of it all. Initially, this sanctuary was designed as a place to hide and practice religion in peace from oppressors. Today, it’s an open place, where even strangers from a distant land can be invited to participate in sacred activities – like mass.

Truly enchanting. 

Did you know Ethiopia’s Christian beliefs date back over 1700 years? It’s one of the oldest branches of this religion! Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity was introduced when the King of Aksum the kingdom at the timain the 4th century AD) converted the people to this religion, but because of Ethiopia's long-held isolation, they have very unique traditions, different from any other branch!

4. Gondar – a magical land of Ethiopian castles (Fasil Ghebbi)

The gorgeous, intricate castles of Fasilides in Gondar, Ethiopia.
Some of the majestic castles you can find in Gondar, highlighting just how incredible and deep Ethiopia’s history is. Many empires have existed here, and Fasilides castle area is the prime example.

When I sent pictures of the Fasilides castles in Gondar to my family and asked to guess where I was, they were stumped. This UNESCO World Heritage site looks nicer than many of the castles you find in Europe.

The faces of the Fasilides castles stand several stories high, surrounded by moats, with incredible decorations. A balcony stands up top, and we’re told this was specially built by the kings for their wives. How romantic.

We’re invited to step inside and enjoy what royalty is like. High ceiling, beautiful tables, an intricate kitchen, and many, many rooms ornate this place. 

And this is just the first of several castles. See, Emporor Fasilides had sons. And they had sons.

Walking through this land of castles gave us that same feeling you get as a kid in a playground. It’s like an open house, but for ancient castles.

The Fasilides Castles in Gondar, Ethiopia are must visit top 10 places.
The main Fasilides castle, with balconies galore. A beautiful sight in Gondar.

Our guides told us some crazy things. For one, Dawit III didn’t want a big castle. His was actually smaller than the others. A humble emperor? Who knew that existed?

In any case, walking through this ancient royal land, with libraries and halls and kitchens and incredible architecture, is a great remind of how Ethiopia is such an enchanting place.

5. Hamar: the place where ancient tribal traditions live on

A woman stands bearing the deep scars of multiple bull jumping ceremonies – an honor for Hamer women.

When Bre, our guide, told us we lucked out with our timing and had arrived perfectly in time to witness an ancient tribal celebration from the Hamer tribe, we were elated. But little did we know what we were getting ourselves into.

As we approached camp, the sound of cowbells overcame us. Then, another mysterious sound. The sound of whips.

We curiously made our way down a ravine into where the celebration was starting. Women running around, ringing bells, taunting the men to whip them. Literally begging to be whipped.

It was truly hard to watch, and we winced every time we heard the whips fly through the air.

Why Hamer women allow themselves to be whipped

I know it sounds weird, and perhaps a bit brutal, but these women aren’t just any women. They’re part of the future spouse’s family, and being whipped is a (perhaps extreme) form of showing support, love, and excitement in the Hamer community. The more you get whipped, they say, the more love you express. So the begging continues – and so does the whipping.

You can see the result – older Hamer women bare the scars of many family marriages, displaying them as a badge of honor. They have demonstrated the most altruistic and evident form of love and they have something to show for it.

As we’re watching the ladies, old and young, getting whipped, something surprises us. It’s their reaction – or rather, lack thereof. While we were grimacing and wincing at the sounds and sight of this brutal act, the ladies barely reacted.

Even as the edge of the whip goes supersonic, striking with ferocious force the breaks the skin to its core, the women hardly budge. In fact, the only thing that happens is them asking for more.

And it was this day I realized that girls are a lot tougher than we give them credit for.

The Hamer bull jumping ceremony

Visiting the Hamer tribe in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia during a traditional bull jumping ceremony was one of the most epic off the beaten path travel experiences we ahve ever had.
As the Hamer tribe sets this celebration and event up, the excitement becomes more and more palpable. Even as visitors, we’re invited to join in on this magical moment.

Next, we walked from the ravine up a dirt path for about 15 minutes, following a group of women with horrible looking bloody wounds. Yet, not a sound, no flinching, nothing. It was just a Monday for them.

We joined a group of wonderful cute kids in the shade and awaited the ceremony. The kids were fascinated by us, and the elders made us feel welcome. We communicated with just gestures and smiles. In any case, it felt like an honor to be there.

Now – for the bull ceremony. See, it’s a quite scared ceremony that has been going on for hundreds of years. 

First, the spouse-to-be strips naked, in front of the entire village. Then, a line up of cattle is set up, the cows standing all in parallel. The spouse’s task is to jump over all of the cows successively, naked, in front of everyone, and survive.

As part of the Hamer bull-jumping ceremony, this young man had to make his way over this herd of bulls with all the local crowds excitedly watching – and pushing him to do it.

But just to add some fuel to the fire, the crowd’s role isn’t just to spectate. We’re assigned to run around in a circle, chanting, skipping, egging the guy on. It’s our turn to taunt him, and it’s his turn to successfully jump over all of the cattle and make it in one piece.

How it felt watching a Hamer bull jumping ceremony in Ethiopia

The excitement is palpable. It’s like a pep rally, but on steroids. 

When the setup is finally ready, the crowds (us included) skipping and chanting, he goes for it. A sprint, ferocious, full of energy, as he launches towards the bulls. See, he has a lot of skin in the game (both physically and metaphorically).

He’s not just getting married. Today, he’s becoming a man.

And we got to be a part of this incredible ceremony. Truly one of the most memorable off the beaten path travel experiences we have ever had.

Looking for another crazy authentic of the beaten path travel experience after Ethiopia? Make sure to check out 

6. Addis Ababa: more than just a city

Addis Ababa is one of Africa’s most wonderful cities, deep in history, rich in culture, and filled with incredible diversity.

Eating Raw beef: a (surprisingly delicious) Ethiopian tradition 

As we chewed on raw beef at Yilma, the premier get-together place for well-off residents, we remark on the day we just had exploring Addis Ababa. What a city.

And yes, it was truly raw beef – but only of exceptional quality. My thoughts while eating were: Even if you do get a worm or two, what’s the problem? It’s better than any diet pill I know of.

Coffee: Ethiopia’s gift to the world 

Addis Ababa features these local, traditional coffee ceremonies, where you can learn to roast and brew your own coffee - fresh.
Bre invited our group to a local, traditional coffee ceremony, where we learned to roast and brew our own coffee – fresh.

We started that day by driving through the Italian style ‘Piazza’ section of the city, enjoying its grand beauty.

On our way, Bre takes us to a little store in the middle of nowhere, where we’re invited to a spectacular coffee ceremony. The aromas take my nose straight to heaven, and it hasn’t even started. 

We get to roast the beans- old fashion style, then all take turns mashing the beans into a powder. The beans come from Ethiopia, and we learn that Ethiopia is actually the source of all coffee. As if you didn’t think it was important enough already.

Coffee was invented here – on the hills of Kaldi, the place it got its name from. At least that’s the rumor they tell us about.

Shirot, tibs, doro wat: some of the best food in the world right in Addis Ababa

The traditional Beyaynetu, my favorite fish in Ethiopia. Photo: Yonatan Solomon, Wikipedia Commons, CC BY-SA4.0

As a semi-vegetarian, I find enormous pleasure in the powerful, delicious, and sharp flavors of Ethiopian dishes. My favorite: the ‘fasting’ plate, beyayenetu, which features all sorts of delights:

  • Meser,
  • Gomen,
  • vegetables,
  • Azifa,
  • and Shiro

All on a massive injera (sort of a thin bread which is used to dip in the different foods, sauces, spices). Of course, you eat this by hand and it’s usually shared with everyone at the table – which makes for an absolutely delightful feast.

Part of the tour Bre provides includes hopping around several of Ethiopia’s finest restaurants. And I can say in full honesty: I had some of the best food in my life.

Along the way, we also had some incredible:

  • Tilapia
  • Pizza (Italian style)
  • Ridiculously strong coffee
  • And of course, the raw beef!

7. Entoto: A viewpoint to beat all others, right outside Addis Ababa

Entoto: A surprisingly green, clean, and beautiful viewpoint just outside of Addis Ababa.
Entoto: A surprisingly green, clean, and beautiful viewpoint just outside of Addis Ababa.

Our senses of smell at peace, taste buds happy, and energy buzzing, we make our way to a wonderful viewpoint area in Gulele, Entoto. Bre knows a secret spot there with a magnificent view on the entire city and the surrounding impressive mountains. It’s truly a gem.

Right alongside this viewpoint is one of the oldest chapels in the city, the Maryam Church. It sits on top a hill, and harbors a history museum where you can actually see real clothing from the ex-emperor, Selassie.

Few museums feel more real than this – being able to see the real items from a person who spent considerable time here, closer than your phone is to your face right now. 

8. The largest open-air market in Africa: Merkato

Overlooking the beautiful chaos of Merkato in Addis Ababa from a local rooftop. It's quite a spectacle to behold.
Overlooking the beautiful chaos of Merkato in Addis Ababa from a local rooftop. It’s quite a spectacle to behold.

Next up is the Merkato market. Now this isn’t just any market – it’s actually the largest open-air market in all of Africa. Bre takes us to the spice section, where our noses are bombarded with sensations we’ve never encountered before. We immediately start coughing, and so does Bre. I’m happy we’re not alone. (Also, it was during covid times!)

Friendly locals invite us to try their products, take pictures, and learn more about this magnificent market. We walk through fruit and vegetable stands, trying out all sorts of products and tasting strange, unique, and delicious flavors along the way.

More of the incredible hustle and bustle of the famous 'Merkato' market in Addis Ababa, the largest open air market in Africa.
More of the incredible hustle and bustle of the famous ‘Merkato’ market in Addis Ababa, the largest open air market in Africa.

Bre takes us to a rooftop of a 5 story building – the first place we get a sense of just how humongous the Merkato market is.

It extends almost as far as the eye can see, with multitudes of buildings, floors, tarps, and especially one thing: hustle and bustle. People doing the most to sell their product, others doing the most to haggle the prices down.

It’s an epitome of free market capitalism. And the feeling of electric aliveness is palpable.

9. The National Museum of Ethiopian History

The National Museum of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa. Here there is a copy of the oldest Homo specimen ever found, Lucy.
The National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa is an incredible place to spend an afternoon, filled with an incredible depth of information and history dating back hundreds of millions of years.

In fact, National Museum of Ethiopian History is  much more relevant to you than you’d expect, and that’s why it deserves a spot in the top 10 places to see here in Ethiopia. 

What makes it so relevant to you? Well, the desert of Ethiopia, a long time ago (200 million years ago to be precise) when it was still green and fertile, is where the first Homos species existed. It’s the early beginning of our species, and the museum dedicates a whole floor to it. 

When you go downstairs, you’ll see a full size copy of Lucy, an early descendant of the first Australopithecus species that ever existed, found and dated to be more than 200 million years old – one of our earliest ancestors.

There are all sorts of animals, like pre-giraffes before their necks got long, zebras before their stripes, and all sorts of mammals.

Modern History of Ethiopia

Old, ancient monolith found in Ethiopia dating many centuries. One of the many treasures on display at the National Museum of Ethiopia.
Old, ancient monolith found in Ethiopia dating many centuries. One of the many treasures on display at the National Museum of Ethiopia.

Displayed upstairs of course is where Ethiopia’s modern history is portrayed. It’s tumultuous at best, but there’s a lot to be proud about.

Emperor Haile Selassie is one of the most instrumental leaders of all time, and transformed the country after its brief but oppressive Italian occupation. He’s one of the most famous emperors of all time, with his influence spreading as far as Jamaica, where he’s still hailed as a hero.

Though the future of Ethiopia is now uncertain, we can take pride in knowing that the Tigray conflict is official over (though some remnants surely remain).

10. Semien Mountains

An incredible viewpoint in the Semien Mountains, Ethiopia.
Hiking and camping on the Semien Mountains in Ethiopia was one of my most unforgettable outdoor experiences.

Staring over the precipice, looking down thousands and thousands of feet over dozens of miles into the endless horizon. No, I’m not talking about the views I get as an airline pilot. I’m talking about the views you get when you’re on the Semien mountains.

Quite possibly the most beautiful mountain chain in all of Africa, the Semien mountains invite you to stupor in awe at their beauty. As one of only two major escarpments in the world, the Semien mountains offers unparalleled views over the legendary Ethiopian countryside. It’s a wonderful place to be.

Why camping in the Semien Mountains is a must-do experience

We spent 2 nights camping here at close to 12,000 feet. We weren’t alone up there. At times, I’d say it was even crowded. But not with humans.

Gelada baboons, an endemic species of the Semien mountains in Ethiopia. We camped and hiked this gorgeous escarpment.
Our friendly neighbors, the Gelada baboons. We spent hours watching their hilarious interactions and funny looking faces.

Our camping neighbors were Gelada baboons, with hilarious facial expressions and adorable affections. Watching these endemic creatures in their home turf was such a special experience. They were great company.

As we enjoyed a fire pit while the nighttime temperatures tumbled, we recounted stories with the locals and learned to love this magnificent place, and incredible country – even more than ever before.

Looking for a fully organized tour of these epic bucket list spots in Ethiopia?

If traveling to Ethiopia seems daunting, or you’re just looking for a structured, easy way to explore this marvelous country, you’re in luck.

Destination Chaser, a fully-fledged and certified travel company is organizing a fantastic tour here. I would know – I participated in their last Ethiopia group trip!

So make sure to check out Destination Chaser’s Ethiopia Group Trip – November 2024!

Note: Many of the photos taken in this article are thanks to the magical work of Andi Munoz, better known as @destinationchaser, my partner in crime.

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