How to plan the trip of the historical circuit in Ethiopia
The northern historical circuit is one of the most visited itineraries in Ethiopia and includes ancient cities, Unesco heritage sites, dramatic cliffs, lush mountains, scenic landscapes, and stunning panoramas. The region is a collection of historical sites, and the tour is mainly concentrated on religious buildings like the amazing rock-hewn churches, some of which are almost a millennia-old, and monasteries featuring ancient mural paintings. For nature lovers, the itinerary gives the chance to visit the Simien Mountains, the first national park of Ethiopia and a top destination for hiking.
When to go
Ethiopia is a large country with different seasonal characteristics, and in general, the best period to visit the historical circuit is during the dry months, from October to March. December and January are perfect, with mild temperatures and a clear sky. January is also a perfect month as you can also experience two of the biggest celebrations for the orthodox church, the Ethiopian Christmas and Timkat. The rainy season runs from June to September and, although it’s still possible to visit the northern circuit, the sky is cloudier, and the rain could spoil your excursion.
Historic circuit destinations
The classic northern historical circuit in Ethiopia loops clockwise from Addis Ababa to Gheralta Mountains, but you can also take a domestic flight to Axum and start your tour from here. The days to complete the tour and fully enjoy it are, at least, 13-14 days.
The most popular destinations of the historic circuit are:
- Addis Ababa
It’s the capital city and the starting and ending point of the historic north circuit. Addis Ababa is a huge and chaotic metropolis, and, to be honest, there isn’t much to see. The best attraction is the National Museum of Ethiopia that, among its historical and archaeological exhibits, hosts Lucy, the most famous skeleton of Australopithecus and the oldest hominid ancestor.
- Bahir Dar
Bahir Dar is a beautiful town, well maintained, and features avenues lined with palm trees and public gardens planted with colourful flowers. It’s often the first stop along the historic circuit and the perfect base to explore Tana Lake and its ancient monasteries and the Blue Nile Falls.
Lalibela is the most popular destination on the historical circuit, famous for its rock-hewn monolithic churches, declared a UNESCO heritage site in 1978. King Gebra Maskal Lalibela, the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1181 to 1221, wanted to build all the churches to create a “new Jerusalem” where the faithful could go on pilgrimage, avoiding the long and dangerous journey to Jerusalem.
Gondar is the former royal capital of Ethiopia and one of the country’s most important historical sites. The city was home to many emperors and princesses who led the country from the 12th century to the last decade of the 20th century. It is famous for its castle ruins, ancient bathhouses, and beautiful churches. The Gondar Royal enclosure, known as Fasil Ghebbi, was declared a UNESCO Heritage site in 1979.
- Simien Mountains National Park
If you like hiking and wild nature, Simien Mountains are the perfect place as the park is one of the best-hiking destinations in Ethiopia. It is also home to endemic species like Gelada Monkeys, Walia Ibex, and Ethiopian Wolf. The Park was inscribed in the UNESCO Heritage site list in 1978.
Axum is the birthplace and holiest city of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, and it is a renowned place for its magnificent monuments recalling the greatness of the Axum Kingdom that, for almost ten centuries, dominated a vast area and trades between Africa and Asia. The archaeological site, known as North Stelae Field, was declared a UNESCO heritage site in 1980.
- Gheralta Mountains
Tigray region is a vast flatlands broken by towering sandstone cliffs, well known for the beautiful churches that dot the area. They are carved from cliff faces, built into pre-existing caves, or constructed high atop some incredible perch, often reachable climbing rocks and hills. There are over 100 marked-out churches within the Tigray region, and the perfect base to explore the area is the small city of Wukro or the tiny Hawzien.
- In addition to the northern historical circuit
The historical circuit can be added to the visit of the Danakil depression, a dry and desert region known as “the devil’s land” for being one of the most inhospitable and hottest places in the world. Several of its areas extend more than 100 meters below sea level and are dominated by still active volcanoes, salt lakes, lunar landscapes, endless plains of salt, bizarre rock formations. If you also want to explore the Danakil depression, you need 3 weeks. The first stop along the historic circuit will be Wukro and Tigray, then, the itinerary will proceed anti-clockwise.
How to reach Addis Ababa
Addis Ababa Bole International airport (ADD) is the country’s main hub and is served by Ethiopian airlines and several flagship companies. It has two terminals – one for international flights and one for domestic flights – and is located on the southern outskirts of the capital city, about 9 km from the town centre. Taxis are immediately available outside the arrivals hall. Alternatively, you can book a private transfer with booking.com.
Getting around northern Ethiopia
The best way to enjoy the historical circuit is by renting a vehicle with the driver through a local tour operator. You’ll be able to tailor-make your trip, and the operator can eventually help you not to waste time with suggestions and indeed adjust to your wishes, preferences, and budget requirements.
If you travel on your own, you’ll find a regular domestic air service from Addis Ababa to Aksum, Bahir Dar, Gondar, and Lalibela. Some of these towns are also linked to each other by domestic flights operated by Ethiopian Airlines.
Buses operate between all the major towns, but they are very slow as the roads are not well maintained. For shorter routes, you can also consider minibuses, but they are quite dangerous and always jam-packed.
The main destinations of the historic circuit offer a good range of accommodations for any travellers. Some hotels also allow camping on their grounds. If you travel during the peak season, especially December and January, it’s highly recommended to book in advance.
Ethiopia food and restaurants
Ethiopia’s cuisine is delicious and generally spicy. It mainly consists of vegetable and spicy meat dishes like bege (lamb), bure (beef), figal (goat), accompanied by a local slightly bitter flatbread named injera. 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, Beyainatu, a mixed combination platter of injera topped with a variety of vegan curries and vegetables, Misir Wat, a lentil stew made by cooking lentils in clarified butter, garlic and tomato paste and Berbere spice blend.
Currency exchange and method of payment
The local currency is the Ethiopian Birr, made up of 100 cents. 1 USD is about 41 Birr, whereas 1 euro is about 49 Birr. There are a few banks in the major towns where to exchange your currency and ATMs that accept international cards. If you need it, it’s possible to change back any excess Ethiopian Birr to foreign currency at the airport in Addis Ababa. The method of payment is cash, as credit cards are not widely accepted.
Traveller’s safety and health
Although Ethiopia is a fairly safe destination, scams and petty crimes are commonplace. Anyway, we didn’t experience any problem or warned dangerous situations. Use common sense and not leave your valuables unattended. Avoid going around alone at night, especially in Addis Ababa, and, if you can, do not catch minibuses as they are quite dangerous. For more safety information, always check the travel advice on your government’s official websites or contact your country’s embassy in Ethiopia.
In Ethiopia, there is a risk of contracting malaria, especially during the rainy season. It’s always safer to take measures to protect yourself against mosquitos, above all at night, by applying mosquito repellent that contains at least 30% DEET. Also, avoid drinking local tap water and make sure food is cooked thoroughly before eating to prevent intestinal disorders. It is highly recommended to consult a travel medicine specialist to assess travel-related risks and have information to ensure your health and safety. If you need medical attention, you’ll find small clinics and a hospital in the major towns.
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.
This below is the classic itinerary of the northern historical circuit. It can be changed according to your interests. For example, if you are not interested in hiking in the Simien mountains, you can go directly to Axum as we did. We did not go trekking but only crossed the park and its wonderful landscapes, making short walks and also encountering a large group of gelada monkeys. Costs vary according to the season (December and January are the most expensive months), the level of accommodation you will choose, the international flight, and the use of internal flights. We travelled with a local operator spending about 1200 USD each (international flight excluded) and choosing mid-range accommodations and the domestic flight from Lalibela to Addis Ababa.
Day 1 – Addis Ababa (by flight)
Day 2 – Addis Ababa to Bahir Dar.
Day 3 – Bahir Dar and Lake Tana
Day 4 – Bahir Dar to Gondar
Day 5 – Gondar to Debark
Day 6 – Debark (Simien Mountains) to Axum
Day 7 – Axum to Wukro
Day 8 – Wukro (Tigray Churches).
Day 9 – Wukro (Tigray churches)
Day 10 – Wukro to Weldiya
Day 11 – Weldiya to Lalibela
Day 12 – Lalibela
Day 13 – Lalibela to Addis Ababa (by flight)