Gondar travel guide
After visiting Axum, our trip through Ethiopia go on with Gondar, the former royal capital of Ethiopia and one of the country’s most important historical sites. The city lies at 2100 meters above sea level and is another evidence of ancient Ethiopian splendour, rich in monuments, medieval castles and decorated churches. It was the home of many emperors and princesses who led the country from the 12th century to the last decade of the 20th century, including Suseneos, Fasiladas, Empress Mentwab, Iyasu I, Tewodros II and Empress Taitu. Thanks to its castles, Gondar is also nicknamed “the Camelot of Africa”.
How to reach Gondar
If you travel with a local operator, Gondar is always included in the historic Ethiopian circuit as it’s one of the must-do of the country. If you travel on your own, the best way to reach Gondar is by flight from Addis Ababa. The small Gondar Airport (GDQ), also known as Atse Tewodros Airport, is served by domestic flights only and is located about 20 km from the city. Left the arrival hall, you can reach your accommodation by taxi.
There is a public bus service between Addis Ababa and Gondar, but it’s not that worth it because it takes almost 2 days. The best company to travel to is Sky bus. Tickets can be purchased from the Sky Bus office located in the lobby of the Taitu hotel. Other companies that run from Addis to Gondar are the Selam bus and the Ethio Bus Et Abay Bus. Both ticket offices are located in Meskel Square. There is no direct bus from Axum to Gonder. You first have to reach Shire town by minibus (also known as India Sellasie), which take approximately 1 and a half and then take a bus to Gondar (almost 11-hour ride).
When to go
Like most of Northern Ethiopia, you can visit and enjoy Gondar any time of the year, but the best period is during the dry season, roughly between October and March. December and January are perfect because the temperatures are mild and the sky mostly clear. Avoid the rainy season as it’s wet, damp, cold and muddy. We suggest visiting Gondar from 18th January to 21st January to attend the Coptic Epiphany, the largest celebration of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Where to sleep
Gondar offers a good range of cheap accommodations. We slept at the Inn of the Four Sister, a nice hotel not far from the main attractions and close to several restaurants. If you are looking for something more comfortable, the Goha Hotel is one of the best accommodations in town.
Local cuisine and restaurants
The Ethiopian cuisine is delicious but very spicy, or, at least, for us, it is. 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, chicken drumsticks or wings cooked served in a hot sauce of butter, onion, chilli, cardamom and served with injera; and Beyainatu, a mixed combination platter of injera topped with a variety of vegan curries and vegetables. We ate at the Four Sisters restaurant, 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 some 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. If you need medical attention, you can go to the Birhan Tesfa Clinic.
The best attractions in Gondar
The Gondar attractions can be visited on your own by hiring a taxi for the whole day (70 birr x hour – remember to huggle), but if you want to know more about the history of this ancient town, the best way is to book a guided tour through a tour operator in town. It’s easy to book tours and activities even through Viator.com, where the local operators advertise their trips and activities in Gondar.
1. The Royal Enclosure
The Royal Enclosure, known as Fasil Ghebbi, is a 70.000-sq-metre compound containing numerous castles and palaces surrounded by a 900-m-long wall. Declared a UNESCO heritage site in 1979, it was the residence of the Ethiopian emperor Fasilides (1632 – 1667) and his successors. The most impressive spot is the Fasiladas’ Palace, an imposing 32 metres tall building with a crenulated parapet and four domed towers. The architectural style is a mix of Indian, Portuguese, Moorish and Aksumite influences. Other notable palaces within the Royal Enclosure are the Palace of Iyasu I, the ruins of Dawit’s Hall, and the Mentewab’s Castle.
Opening Times: 8.30am – 12.30pm and 1.30pm – 6pm every day
Entrance fee: 200 Birr (7 USD); Camera 75 Birr (3 USD); Guide 200 Birr (7 USD).
2. Debre Berhan Selassie Church
Said to be one of Ethiopia’s most beautiful churches, this ancient religious building features stone walls, arched doors and a two-tiered thatch roof. The interior is the highlight of the church as it boasts breathtaking frescoes and hundreds of winged cherubs on the ceiling. The church is surrounded by a large stone wall with 12 rounded towers that represent the 12 apostles.
Opening Time: 7.30 am – 12.30 pm and 1.30 pm – 5.30 pm every day
Entrance Fee: 100 Birr (3.5 USD)
3. Fasiladas’ Bath
It is a large rectangular pool overlooked by a charming vacation home. The complex was built by Emperor Fasiladas for religious ceremonies but also used as a swimming pool by the royal family. Today, Fasiladas’ Bath is an important place for the Timkat celebration, when thousands and thousands of pilgrims are encouraged to immerse themselves in the pool as a renewal of their faith.
Entrance fee: the visit is included in the Royal Enclosure ticket.
4. Gondar Market (Kidame Gebya)
The colourful local market is always an amazing place to experience a slice of local life. Within its stalls, you can find fruit, vegetables, meat, coffè, spices, clothes, shoes, handicrafts and many goods for everyday necessities.
One of the most charming moment to visit Gondar is during the Timkat – the Coptic epiphany -, the largest celebration of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The religious festival lasts 3 days, from January 18th to 20th (or January 19th to 21st in leap years) and commemorates the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan River.
6. Project Ploughshare Women’s Crafts Training Center and Falasha Village
Wolleka is a small town 3 kilometres north of Gondar. Here, you can visit the Ploughshare Women’s Crafts Training Center, a project to help disadvantaged women rekindle local craft traditions, including pottery, weaving and basket making. The on-site shop which sells their wares is open every day. Another spot in Wolleka that worths a quick stop is the Falasha Village. Falashas are Ethiopian Jews, known as Beta Israel, and Wolleka was once home to a huge population. Nowadays, no Jewish remain in Town as they were airlifted to Israel in the 1980s. However, you can still see some small buildings and a small synagogue adorned with hand-painted Stars of David.
7. Semien Mountain Nationa Park
If you like hiking and wild nature, Semien Mountain Nation Park is the right place. The Park is about 100 km from Gondar and offers unique wildlife and breathtaking views. Along its paths, it’s common to spot groups of gelada monkeys or a magnificent Walia ibex joust on rock ledges. You can arrange your daily hike (or several days) through the operators in Gondar or go to Debark town, where the National Park Office is located.