What to see and do in Lalibela
Lalibela is part of the so-called “historic circuit“, which includes the major attractions of northern Ethiopia and is of the most popular and visited destinations of the country. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978, Lalibela is famous for its rock-hewn churches, some of which are almost a millennia-old. The peculiarity of these churches is that they were carved out of the living rock of monolithic blocks and further chiselled to form doors, windows, columns and roofs. Due to the incredible complexity of the structures, the legend says angels had a hand in building the churches. These churches were built when the Coptic Christians were transferred to this area of Ethiopia due to persecution by Muslims. King Gebra Maskal Lalibela, the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1181 to 1221, wanted to build all the churches and create a new Jerusalem where the faithful could go on pilgrimage, avoiding the long and dangerous journey to Jerusalem. Lalibela is soaked in magic and mysticism and still a high place of Ethiopian Christianity, pilgrimage and devotion.
When to go
Like most of Northern Ethiopia, you can visit and enjoy Lalibela any time of the year, but the best period is during the dry season, roughly between October and March. January and February are perfect because the temperatures are nice and the sky mostly clear. As Lalibela is situated at elevation, the evening and night temperatures can be chilly and drop to around 10° C. Avoid the rainy season, especially from July to September, as it’s wet and muddy. We visited Lalibela in January during the Timkat, the largest celebration of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, where thousands of pilgrims gather in town to renew their baptismal vows. Another celebration not to be missed is the Gena, the Ethiopian Christmas, which falls on 7th January, when families gather to enjoy local dishes like Doro Wat and Injera.
How to reach Lalibela
Lalibela is usually the last stop of the historic circuit. If you are not travelling with a local tour operator, the best way to reach the town is by flight from Addis Ababa. The small Lalibela Airport (LLI) is situated 23km out of town. You can reach your accommodation by catching a taxi. There are direct flights also from Gondar, Axum, and Bahir Dar.
Alternatively, you can also catch the bus from Addis Ababa (630 km – via Woldia town), Bahir Dar (300 km – via Gashena town) and Gondar (350 km – via Bahir Dar or Woldia). Travelling by bus is not a great choice as the road are often in bad conditions. For example, the bus ride from Addis to Lalibela takes at least 2 days.
Where to sleep
Lalibela is a small town, and there isn’t a better area where to stay. It offers a good range of accommodations, but if you visit the town during religious celebrations, you have to book in advance as it’s tough to find vacancies. We slept at Blue Nile Guest House, a nice accommodation between the city centre and the churches. They also offer an airport shuttle service.
Other good accommodations:
- Honey Land Hotel;
- Bete Serkie Hotel;
- Jerusalem Hotel;
- Top Twelve Hotel;
- Holidays Hotel;
- Panoramic View Hotel.
Local cuisine and restaurants
We really like Ethiopian cuisine as it is delicious, tasty, but very spicy. It mainly consists of vegetable and spicy meat dishes accompanied by a local bread named injera that locals eat with their hands most of the time. Our favourite dishes are Kitfo, a traditional dish of minced raw beef marinated in mitmita (a chilli powder-based spice blend), Niter Kibbeh, a clarified butter infused with herbs and spices, Doro Wat, a spicy chicken stew served with injera flatbread, and Beyainatu, a mixed combination platter of injera topped with a variety of vegan curries and vegetables. We ate at the Unique restaurant twice, a place with good service and delicious food.
Currency Exchange and Method of Payment
The local currency is the Ethiopian Birr. 1 USD is about 41 Birr. There are a few banks where to exchange your currency and ATMs which accept international cards. The method of payment is cash.
We would never think of travelling without proper coverage because the medical expenses could be very high. We always recommend travel insurance from World Nomads that we’ve used during our time in Ethiopia and throughout Africa. The northern circuit includes many hiking activities, and it’s always advisable to have travel insurance. Avoid drinking local tap water and make sure food is cooked thoroughly before eating. It is highly recommended to consult a travel medicine specialist to assess travel-related risks and have information to ensure your health and safety.
Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches
Lalibela’s highlights are, of course, its UNESCO rock-hewn churches. There are 11 churches divided into 2 main clusters and separated by the Jordan river: the Northwestern cluster and the Southeastern cluster. These are complemented by the Church of St George’s (Bete Giyorgis) that stands isolated from the other two clusters.
The ticket to Lalibela rock-hewn churches is 1000 birr (about 50 USD), and it is valid for 5 days. The ticket office (8-12, 14-17) is next to the path that leads to the Northwestern cluster.
For most tourists, and as we did, the usual route starts from the main entrance at Biete Medhane Alem and ends at St. George’s church. If you need it, there are official local guides just outside the ticket office. Alternatively, you can have a look at Viator.com, where the local operators advertise their tours and activities in Lalibela and its surroundings.
You can visit all the churches in a full day, but we suggest splitting your visit into 2 days, maybe visiting the surroundings during the second day, and taking it easy. For example, Naakuto Laab, a monastery 7 km away from the town centre; Yemrehanna Kristos, one of Ethiopia’s best-preserved late Axumite churches and located in a cave under a small waterfall with an open cemetery behind it; Asheton Maryam Monastery, located at an altitude of more than 3000 metres and carved into the rocky face of the Abuna Yoseph mountain. If you want to breathe the mystical air of Lalibela completely, the best moment to visit the church is on Sunday, during the mass, when the pilgrims dress in white and gather together to pray.
Tip: you have to visit the churches barefoot, so it is better to have a spare pair of socks to avoid catching fleas by walking on the large carpets that usually cover the floors.
1. The Northwestern Cluster
The six churches in the Northwestern cluster includes Bete Maryam, Bete Meskel, Bete Danaghel, Bete Mikael, Bete Golgotha and Bete Medhane Alem. They are located north of the canyon where the Jordan River flows and feature stunning and impressive artistic designs. A network of tunnels connects the various churches dug into the rock, and most of them were built on an East-West axis with the entrance facing West and the Sancta Santorum to the East. Our guide told us that the faithful enter the church from the Western gate, representing the darkness of sin and evil, and proceed towards the light of knowledge and salvation. Among the six churches, Bete Medhane Alem is considered one of the largest (or the largest) monolithic religious buildings in the world.
2. The Southeastern Cluster
This group of five churches includes Bete Amanuel, Bete Merkorios, Bete Abba Libanous, Bete Gabriel-Rafael and Bete Lehem. They are called the Southeastern cluster because they are grouped south of the canyon where the Jordan River flows. A maze of tunnels and trenches connects the churches and, compared to those of the northwestern group, are smaller but more finely sculpted. Bete Amanuel is the most beautiful and refined church of the group as it is a monolithic church, dug in a single block of rock that is separated, on all four sides, from the surrounding rock by a long and deep excavation.
3. Bete Giyorgis
St. George is our favourite church and features the most beautiful architectural design in Lalibela. The church is easily identified from its Greek cross shape, which can be seen from the elevated ground surrounding the church itself. It was the last church, in chronological order, built in Lalibela, and it stands apart from the northern and southern clusters. According to the legend, our guide told us that Saint George appeared to King Gebra Maskal Lalibela riding his white horse and reproached him for not having built any church in his name once the other churches were completed. So, after that vision, the King started the work of Bet Giyorgis. It’s said that the saint was often present during the construction of the church, and the footprints left by his horse’s hooves are visible in the rock around the Bete Giyorgis. The church’s interior is quite modest, featuring an altar, a curtain that shields the Holy of Holies, a few paintings and books, and a prayer hall. Some of the cavities in the walls surrounding the church hold the mummified corpse of pilgrims who came to Lalibela to pray.
Timkat – the Coptic Epiphany
If you want to live an evocative and charming experience, you have to visit Lalibela during Timkat (the Coptic Epiphany), the largest celebration of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It is celebrated every year on January 19th (January 20th in leap years), but the celebration lasts 3 days, from January 18th to 20th (or January 19th to 21st). The festival commemorates the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. The Orthodox celebration differs from our Epiphany, where the revelation of Jesus is commemorated on January 6th, symbolized by the Three Magi visit.