This is clearly the most explored part of the country by the tourists. The north offers what I like to call the classic trident: Bahar Dar – Gondar – Lalibela (which can easily be widely expanded if we include Simien, Axum, Adwa, Mekele, etc.)
The north is quite ready for tourism: nice hotels, fair food and the main attractions in Ethiopia. You can go by car or by plane depending on the time of your visit. The advantage of the plane is that you get faster and the advance by transport is that you get to see the countryside and what they call “the real Ethiopia”.
Now, for me, Gondar has never been that amazing. I come from Spain where we have castles like tress in Ethiopia, so I never felt very impressed by this, but I understand that in an African context it has its importance, and that’s why they probably like to call it “The Camelot of Africa”. Apart of the main compound where the Fasiladas castles are, they also have a spot not far for it, the Fasiladas Bath, that becomes important specially during Timkat festivity (the Epiphany) with hundred of people trowing themselves in a swimming pool as a remembrance of their baptism.
Many people go to Gondar to basecamp before their trip to one of the most beautiful Ethiopian sceneries: The World Heritage Site, the Simien Mountains. This is a must-seen escape for people who like trekking, wildlife or nature. The highest point of the country (and tenth in Africa) sits there: the Ras Dashen peak, at 5,550 meters high. Be ready to spot the Walia Ibex, the Gelada Baboon and, if lucky, the Caracal and the Ethiopian Wolf, though they are few and shy.
For those who want to have a glimpse of it, I attach a 7 min video we did few years ago at the now endangered Simien Mountain National Park and the efforts that some institutions are making to preserve it:
Increasing in importance we find Bahar Dar, a city that sits on the south of Lake Tana (the biggest lake in Ethiopia so far). This city has always amazed me, maybe because I had a girlfriend here too :). The weather is nice; the breeze and view of the lake are very relaxing; the city can be easily explored by bicycle due to its flat complexity, and it has 2 or 3 beautiful attractions: the waterfalls (that are not as brilliant as they used to be because of the construction of the dam, being more impressive in the summer during the rainy season), the source of the Nile (more interesting for its significance than for its impressiveness) and the monastery islands in the lake (some reserved for men, some for women, some for both). Few hotels are building luxurious 5-stars resorts by the lake and to me it will always be a good scape from the noise, crowded, dirty Addis Ababa.
Finalizing the trident, at the top of it, comes Lalibela, a manmade miracle. You have probably never seen anything alike. Image that many centuries ago they decided not to build up, but down instead, digging in the rock, creating cubes that would later on be dug in and made into churches, 11 to be exact, all connected by passages underground that make of this place an authentic architectonic wonder of the world. I advice to spend at least 2 days there to enjoy the architecture, the silence, the mass service in the morning at sunrise, the villagers, the local drinks and the astonishing views.
If you want to expand your trip further north, you can fly to Axum, the old capital of the aksumite empire that has several monoliths (the biggest has fallen though) and the church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, where orthodox Ethiopians believe to have the real ark of covenant (“tabot” in Amharic) given to Moses by God. Of course, we are not allowed to see it 🙂
Near Axum there is a city that gave name to one of the most important battles played on Ethiopian soil: Adwa, where Ethiopians bravely defeated the Italians in 1896 during the first Italo-Ethiopian war. I have never been there because I bought a book and saw a picture of just an open field, so I am not sure if it will be worth the visit for me. If anybody goes, please send me your feedback to consider going there or not.
Also in the north you can find the famous rock-hewn churches of Tigray: Debra Damo, Gunda Gunde, and Gueralta are just some of the places where some of the most amazing churches in Ethiopia lay, as you have to climb to reach them before observing an amazing and breathtaking landscape from above.
I liked this video that BBC Ethiopia produced recently, where you can check what are we talking about:
The last recommended city of the north is Mekele, the capital of Tigray. However, I don’t know what would somebody do in Mekele rather than going to the museum (very advisable) or to the emperor Johannes IV’s palace, or maybe learn how to dance some Tigrinya music! It is true that Mekele has something especial, and it can be a very enjoyable town to relax and enjoy the vibe, but it is more a landing point to go other places than a place to stay long by itself.
That makes me think that I should add here the trip to Danakil depression in the northeast of the country, since most of its tours are organized passing through Mekele (you can also fly to Semera if preferred). It is an organized trip that normally lasts from 3 to 5 days, and you can get to see an active volcano (Erta Ale), the Dallol depression, the camel routes, the salt mountain, the salt lake and much more. It is an extremely hot place but the visit has been one of my favorites so far; Come on, when in your life can you see an erupting volcano from few meters away? Be ready for the heat and for harsh conditions!