Ethiopia is a breathtaking country, its history rich and unlike any other in Africa: never colonized, the only serious attempt made was by the Italians in 1896 when Emperor Menelik led his army in a jubilant victory. Though they’ve wrestled with political instability, civil wars, famine, and poverty, its 84 million people are joyously (and rightly) proud of their country and culture.
The landscape is assorted with soaring mountains, dry plains, and tropical forests. A rainy season prevails throughout the summer months, with September and October being the greenest time of the year when an abundance of exotic birds and plants are seen in the southern forest areas. The dry season (which lasts from October to May) is perhaps the best time to visit, with clear visibility of the beautiful vistas throughout the country.
Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, is a massive, sprawling city beaming with life. Cars, buses, motos, taxis painted bright blue, and a seemingly endless supply of homeless dogs fill the streets. Men, women, and children pack the sidewalks and one might feel like they’re in Manhattan on a Monday morning when in the busy Mercato or Bole districts.
There are countless places to see and things to do in Addis Ababa. Restaurants abound, local and foreign alike. Italian and Lebanese are popular and tasty, but for a real experience, wander into any local cuisine and try the injera. A sour, spongy bread is served in large quantities as you choose from an extensive selection of sauces, veggies, and meats. It’s all finger food here: rip off a piece of injera, use it to sandwich your choices, and eat! Though it may take one’s stomach a few days to get used to this heavy food, the flavors are sublime and well worth a try.
Visit the National Museum for a good overview of Ethiopian history and check out the remaining skeletal bits of Lucy, Earth’s earliest known hominid. In Mercato wander the stalls of Africa’s largest open-air market and The Grand Anwar Mosque, an incredible structure built during Italian occupation. In the afternoon, have a seat in Meskel Square and watch the city unfold. Statues and sculptures dot the city and often come with an interesting story; one that a stander-by will be eager to share.
Ethiopia isn’t only defined by its vibrant capital, however. With cities like Axum, Lalibela, and Gondar, the country demands your attention. It is nearly six months ago when I found myself unexpectedly in Gondar. Sitting alone on a flight from Addis Ababa to the small, northwestern city of Gondar, I excitedly looked out the window to expanses of hills, mountains, and plains. Similar in word, but so unlike in appearance to Rwanda. These were golden brown, with craggy rock formations climbing toward the sky. The air was hot and thick as we drove through the valleys, up the hills, and climbed in between steep mountains to Gondar.
When Fasilides was declared Emperor he restored the official status of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and established his seat of government in Gondar in 1636, serving as home to emperors throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Currently a city park, Fasil Ghebbi is well maintained with lovely trees and plants weaving in and out of banquet halls, stables, libraries, churches, the castle, and a palace. It’s easy to spend a few hours wandering the grounds on a lazy afternoon.
Gondar is a timeless place: the medieval setting and age-old history bring a texture to the town unlike anywhere else in East Africa. The college town quality adds a free, lawless, abandon. Mix these two together and you find yourself in a truly tremendous space. Walk through the wide-open streets as boys bike around in packs, or turn down to a small alley where the sky is covered by overhanging trees. Lounge in a sidewalk cafe as people watch while sipping an espresso, or imagine the Ethiopian knights as you run your hands along the oldest of walls in Fasilides Castle.