Traveling in Ethiopia

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Ethiopia is one of the most BEAUTIFUL lands in the world with a rich and varied history that began long before Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire existed. It is a place of dramatic natural beauty, of mountains and valleys, lakes and rivers, and the magnificent Blue Nile falls.

Scientists believe that Ethiopia is the cradle of mankind. Research shows that modern human beings and their hominid ancestors evolved in the eastern zone of the Rift Valley. “Lucy”, one of our most distant ancestors, lived around 3.2 million years ago and was found in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia. Most recently, an even older hominid fossil called “Ardi” was discovered in the Afar region of Ethiopia and is believed to be 4.4 million years old.

Ethiopia was known from the dawn of civilization. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all had strong trading links with Ethiopia which was one of the greatest merchant nations of the world. Moreover, the ancient Egyptians knew that their sacred and vital river Nile originated from a lake on a plateau in the land of “Punt” (“Land of the Gods” in their language).

Axum, a city 3000 years old, is the cradle of Ethiopian civilization. Some time in 980 B.C., the Queen of Sheba made this city the capital of her kingdom. As Ethiopian history tells it, after the Queen’s stay with King Solomon in Jerusalem, she returned to her country to give birth to a son whom she named Menelik. This child later became Emperor Menelik I, founder of the Solomonian dynasty. Most importantly, Ethiopians believe that when Menelik went to Jerusalem to visit his father, he brought the Ark of the Covenant to Axum, where it is believed to be resting until today.
Historical sources bear witness to the existence of a rich and powerful kingdom with a high level of civilization in pre-Christian times. From its capital city in the north-eastern part of the country, not far from the Red Sea the Axumite Empire controlled once a vast territory, including parts of today’s Yemen and Sudan. It was an important crossroad of trading caravans from Europe, Africa and Asia. The empire had its own written language, Ge’ez and its own coins which were employed in trade.

With the conversion to Christianity of King Ezana in 340 A.D. Ethiopia became one of the first Christian states.

In the seventh century, the first followers of Prophet Muhammad who were being persecuted in Arabia, sought refuge in Ethiopia and were granted asylum by the then Christian Axumite ruler.
After the decline of the Axumite Empire, the Zagwe dynasty established its reign over big parts of the country, with the center of power in Lasta, the area around Lalibela. King Lalibela was the most appreciated king of the Zagwe dynasty and it was he who ordered the construction of the sacred town, considered as a “New Jerusalem” with 11 rock-hewn churches, all carved out of the red mountain rock. Until today, Lalibela is considered to be a holy place for Orthodox Christians and a world heritage site. When the Zagwe dynasty declined, several years of changing rulers, coalitions, conflicts and wars followed, until the reign of Emperor Fasilidas in the 17th century, who turned the small village of Gondar in the north into the new capital city and a great religious and artistic center.

In recent history, there were other great kings who were able to unify and enlarge the country and oppose foreign invasions and interference. Menelik II, who extended the country to its current size, defeated the Italian colonial invaders in the historical battle of Adwa in 1896 and founded the current capital Addis Ababa. Haile Selassie, the last Solomonic emperor crowned in 1930, reigned for half a century until he was overthrown by a revolution in 1974. The military regime called the “Derg” ruled Ethiopia since then until it was overthrown in 1991 and the first democratic republic was installed.

Many monuments of the ancient and glorious past of this country remain: the monolithic churches of Lalibela, the carved obelisks and churches of Axum, more than 120 monasteries and rock churches in the Tigray region, as well as those scattered here and there along Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. In each of these sacred places ancient paintings, manuscripts and sacred objects are preserved.

Modern Ethiopia is a mosaic nation with over 90 million people and 80 ethnic groups coexisting in harmony. Today, Addis Ababa is considered Africa’s diplomatic capital and is home to the headquarters of the African Union, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and over 110 embassies

Best time to travel

This depends on the region you are travelling to. In the main highlands, the main rainy season occurs from June to the end of September, with a short rain period in March. In the Southern Omo Valley, the seasons are different with the main rains from March to June and shorter rains in November.


Ethiopia is a politically stable country. Its popular tourist destinations are safe and secure. Ethiopia is known to be still one of the safest places in Africa. Violent crimes are very rare. Tourist should be aware of pickpockets in crowded places like markets and it’s better not to showoff valuables and money. In some overland regions, it is recommended not to drive after dawn. In some remote areas, separatist movements have been active in the last years. Those regions are usually not easy to visit, or only with an official authorization.


Due to strict custom regulations, it may cause problems at the airport to carry more than the usual basic electronic devices , especially if they are new. Import Tax payment may be required. Souvenirs imitating historic artifacts have to be approved not original by the National Museum in Addis Ababa, if not they can be confiscated at the airport customs before leaving Ethiopia. Purchasing receipts have to be saved. You may want to consult your local Ethiopian Embassy if you want to bring high standard equipment. In many places, small fees are charged for photos taken of people, especially in the southern tribal areas of Ethiopia. Video fees can be very high in national parks and other guarded places.


We highly recommend to bring sunglasses and a hat for all areas of Ethiopia. Pack light clothes for the day time and a jacket or sweater for the chilly highland evenings and a good pair of walking shoes. Trekkers in the Simien and Bale Mountains will need jackets, warm clothes, thermals, waterproofs, and binoculars for viewing different animals. When entering the churches, the clothes have to be “respectful”, covering enough the body. Shoes must always be removed before entering churches and mosques – for travelling around sites like Lalibela with its many churches, airline socks are very useful.


There are two season: dry season from October to May and rainy season from mid of June to mid of September. In Addis Ababa, the climate is almost the same along the year and the temperatures are around 70 degrees Fahrenheit/around 22 Celsius. In the Southern Omo Valley, the main rains are from March to June and shorter rains in November. The Somali region and the Danakil lowlands in the Afar region have a hot, dry climate producing semi-desert conditions.


Tourists arriving from the following “tourist-generating” countries can obtain a Tourist Visa valid for 3 months at Bole International Airport upon arrival for a fee of $20 (USD): Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea (South Korea), Russian Federation, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States. Nationals from all other countries must obtain a visa before arrival. If you want enter Ethiopia by Land, you should obtain your visa in advance from your local embassy


The time difference is +3 hours from Greenwich Mean Time (GMT)


We are currently in year 2011 in Ethiopia.

The year of the Ethiopian calendar contains 365 days to which is added every fourth year an extra day. Each year in this four-year period is dedicated to one of the four Evangelists who come in the following order: Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. The year of Luke is the Ethiopian Leap year and is the year which precedes the western leap year.

Each year is divided into 12 months of 30 days. The extra 5 days are placed at the end of the year and known as Pagumen. In the leap year the extra day is added to these five days making the Pagumen of this year a period of 6 days


With more than 80 ethnic groups in Ethiopia come just as many languages. The main working language is Amharic, a Semitic language, related to both Arabic and Hebrew. Amharic with its own unique alphabet and numbers. The alphabet consists of over 200 unique symbols, or fidel, each representing a syllable, usually a consonant and a vowel sound together.

Amharic numbers are rarely used, mainly due to the lack of a character for zero (0). Rather, Indo-Arabic numbers are used, which is the same as in the Western world (1, 2, 3, etc).

Other widely spoken languages include Oromifa (Oh-roh-mee-fa) in the Oromo region and Tigrigna (Tee-gree-nya) in the region of Tigray. English is also widely spoken

Food & Drink

The staple of every Ethiopian meal is injera, a spongy pancake-like bread. The injera is laid on a large platter with the main dish on top. Small pieces of injera are then torn off and used to pick up bite-size portions of the main dish. Injera is made from the local grain teff, mixed with water and allowed to ferment before it’s cooked on a large, flat pan. Dishes eaten with injera include a variety of meat (beef, lamb and chicken), stews (known as wat, they may be spicy or mild) and vegetables. A variety of international cuisines are available in Addis Ababa but may be less widespread outside the capital. Generally, pasta is always available. Vegetarians should have no problems finding suitable dishes, though variety may be lacking.

Short-term guests are advised to drink bottled water to avoid any stomach discomfort during their stay. Soft drinks are wide-spread as well as fresh fruit juices. Coffee lovers will be delighted as Ethiopian coffee is some of the best in the world.

A variety of local Ethiopian beers are available as well as some locally-made wines. The local alcoholic beverages include tella, a local beer made from various grains, tej, local wine made from honey, and areki, a hard liquor made from maize.

Medical Information

The possession of a valid Yellow Fever vaccination certificate is not mandatory. Immunization for Hepatitis A and B, Tetanus, Typhoid Diphtheria, Meningococcal, and Polio is recommended.

Malaria: in most of the sites malaria is not a problem because of the high elevation, e.g. Addis Ababa, Axum, Gondar and Lalibela. But it may occur in Bahir Dar at the end of the rainy season and after unseasonable rains. Lowland areas along the Awash River, the Omo Valley, Rift Valley and Gambella are subject to malaria outbreaks. Chloroquine resistant strains have been identified in most areas so you should consult your doctor about the prophylaxis.

Visitors should take a simple first aid kit, band aids, antiseptic cream, anti-histamine cream and/or tablets for insect bites, sunscreen (while temperatures are moderate, the sun is strong), anti-diarrhea tablets, mosquito repellent, broad spectrum antibiotics, and anti bacterial spray /cream.

Public holidays

  • January 3: Birth of Prophet Mohammed (Mauwlid)*
  • January 7: Ethiopian Christmas (Gena)
  • January 19: Ethiopian Epiphany (Timket)
  • March 2: Anniversary of the Victory of Adwa (1896)
  • April 10: Ethiopian Orthodox Good Friday
  • April 12: Ethiopian Orthodox Easter Sunday
  • May 1: International Labor Day
  • May 5: Patriots Victory Day
  • May 28: Fall of the Dergue Regime
  • July 18: Eid Al Fitir (Ramadan)*
  • September 12: Ethiopian New Year
  • September 24: Eid al Adha (Sacrifice)*
  • September 28th: The Finding of the True Cross (Meskel)

*These holidays are subject to the lunar calendar


The local currency is the Ethiopian birr. US dollars, Euros and GB Pounds can easily be exchanged. ATMs are available in Addis Ababa (Visa and Mastercard only) and in a few locations outside of the capital. We recommend not to rely on obtaining cash from ATMs outside of Addis Ababa since machines may often be out of order and/or money. Few establishments accept credit cards, and where they do, it will be visa or mastercard only. The exceptions will be larger international organizations such as Sheraton, Hilton, Radisson Blu or Ethiopian Airlines. Traveler’s checks can be changed in banks, but travelers should bring the receipt of purchase with them.

Remember to keep receipts for ATM transactions or currency exchanges. You will need these in order to change any remaining birr to foreign currency before leaving Ethiopia.