What is a cultural experience in Ethiopia?

In some sense, everything you do in Ethiopia could be labelled a cultural experience. There is no separating an experience in Ethiopia from the cultural fabric from which it's borne.

That's what makes Ethiopia so hard to describe. It's incredibly diverse, and a single destination can be described a thousand ways. 

For us, culture experiences in Ethiopia are those that capture a small part of Ethiopian culture with some immediacy, delivering a flavour of this incredible country in a single experience that has a start and an end.

Ethiopia Cultural Tours

Cultural Trips to Ethiopia

The tours below showcase just some of what is possible. Use these itineraries as starting points, or to draw inspiration. Then get in touch, and let our expert team help craft the perfect itinerary for you.

Top Cultural Experiences in Ethiopia

Lalibela, ancient churches and hidden artefacts

Buried deep below the surface, a long cross peaks its squared-off sandstone head above a crumbled crevice. Surrounded by an unending network of winding tunnels and secret passageways that lead deeper and deeper into the earth, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela were, for centuries, unknown to the wider world, and housed one of Ethiopia's most prized possession.

Also known as Afro Ayigeba, the Lalibela Cross is a large ornate processional cross, elaborately adorned in lavish gold, and is held in high regard as an artefact of immense historical, cultural and religious significance. 

The spiritual epicentre of these rock churches is the Church of Saint George, the most famous church of in the town, and the most visually impressive. 

Experiencing the morning service in the rock churches is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The nighttime services during Ethiopian Christmas are extraordinary, and once you've explored the churches in the centre of town, there are plenty of amazing cultural experiences on offer in the highlands around Lalibela.

Ethiopia Cultural Tours

The beautiful saint George church Lalibela

Axum

An ancient epicentre of power and politics

Once the beating heart of a mighty empire that spanned for over a thousand years, Axum is famed for its 24-metre Stelae surrounded by a ring of smaller Obelisks. Built-in the 4th century by King Ezana, the 160-tonne monument had stood in place for over a thousand years, until the Italian occupation of Ethiopia would change the course of its fate.  

Having spent over 90 years away from its original home, the story of the Obelisks of Axum is as fascinating as the Obelisk itself. Discovered in 1935 by a group of Italian soldiers, the semi-submerged Obelisk was partially taken apart, and over two years was transported to Rome as a spoil of war. Re-erected in Portal Capea square, it spent the next few years on show, far from its home, waiting to return home.

Since its return, the graphite monolith is one of Axum’s key attractions, dominating the skyline and drawing visitors from far and wide. From the ground, the squared-off monolith features two orientated false doors, with layers of ever-morphing patterns that intermingle as they slither up the tower to the semi-circular domed top. The detailing on these decorations is so precise that the windows and doors all have locks carved into them. 

Adjacent to the Stelae field lies another of Axum's wonders, a church that is said to house the Ark of the Covenant

Ethiopia Cultural Tours
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Trips across the spiritual hubs of Ethiopia usually come with a dose of art, with many of the bigger churches featuring endless memorials sprawled along the winding corridors and cramped caverns. Many of these paintings are relics of long-lost times and depict - in vivid detail - tales from the bible, allowing the mainly illiterate practitioners of the past the chance to embrace God’s teachings. Now, these relics shine as bright as ever, still imprinting their stories in the psyche of all those who visit. 

Gondar

Home to Kings and Queens of a Bygone Era

Found in the Semien Gondar Zone of the Amhara Region, Gondar is north of Lake Tana on the Lesser Angereb River and south-west of the Simien Mountains and is a popular destinationg along the northern circuit of Ethiopia

The city is home to several royal castles, including those in the Fasil Ghebbi UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many of the Castles were built in the 1600s under the reign of King Fasilides, who also built the city's bathhouse often used for its baptismal waters during Timkat festival.

Gondar is also home to one of the country's most remarkable churches, Debre Birhan Selassie

Fasil Ghebbi, The Royal Enclosure in Gondar

Harar

Colourful streets by day, but hyenas come at night

With a name that translates to the City of Saints, Harar is known as one of Islam's biggest spiritual hubs in Africa.

For centuries, the city had been a major commercial centre, linking trade routes from the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and, through its ports, the outside world. According to UNESCO, it is considered the fourth holy city of Islam with 82 mosques, three of which date back to the 10th century, and 102 shrines.

The colourful architecture stands out from much of the rest of the country, with its Arabic influenced design a stark juxtaposition to the more Christian influences found on the northern circuit. One of the key architectural attractions is Harar Jugol, the old walled city, was listed as a World Heritage Site in 2006 by UNESCO in recognition of its cultural importance. 

Most famous for the hyena feeding you can do there, the town has a special connection with these wild beasts, and a long-standing tradition of feeding meat to spotted hyenas evolved during the 1960s.

Also in the city is the Harar Brewery. Established in 1984, beers brewed within its walls can be sampled at the adjacent brewery social club.

Coffee Ceremonies

More than just a beverage

Considered a simple convenience in most parts of the world, coffee holds a place of cultural significance in Ethiopia.

Not only do they consume anywhere between 3-6 cups a day, but they also honour the drink with a ceremony, which draws many parallels to the tea ceremonies of Japan.

Within Ethiopia households, these ceremonies are often held daily, with up to three taking place in a day, especially over the weekends. The making of coffee is an art in Ethiopia, from only selecting the finest beans, to triple pouring each cup, nothing is left to chance and this reflects in the taste.

Traditionally, coffee in Ethiopia is served black, with liberal helpings of sugar, sometimes with a little soft twig of rue. Referred to in Amharic as Tena Adam, which means ‘The health of Adam’, rue is an ancient medicinal herb that grows wild in most parts of Ethiopia. 

More Cultural Experiences in Ethiopia

Ethiopia Community Trekking

Ethiopia Community Trekking

Trek through rural Ethiopia and stay overnight at charming, community run guesthouses with views among the best you'll find anywhere in Africa. The majority of money for our …

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Omo Valley

Omo Valley

Experience another way of life as you’re welcomed by some of the 88 cultural communities of the Omo Valley. Famed for its cultural traditions and tribal diversity, this remote …

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Festivals in Ethiopia

Festivals in Ethiopia

There are a number of fantastic festivals in Ethiopia throughout the year. If you're lucky enough to be travelling during these celebrations, it's well worth shaping your itinerary…

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How it works

We can put together an itinerary to fit any time frame or budget. Whether you've got some fixed plans and need help with the detail, or don't know where to start, here's how we can help:

  1. We'll talk about your dream Ethiopia moments, how much time you have and your budget.

  2. We'll discuss any places to go or things to do that you've already got in mind and send you a few suggestions of our own.

  3. When you've decided what you want to see and do, we'll put together the perfect itinerary that covers all the destinations you're most excited about, and moves at just the right pace. We'll select the accommodations that are right for you, and we'll make any adjustments until you're confident its the perfect itinerary for you.

  4. When you're happy with your trip and the cost, we'll get your adventure set up, make all the bookings and reservations, and provide all the pre-travel information you need. 

  5. Once your on the ground in Ethiopia, we'll be here to look after you every step of the way. 

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Whatever your budget, group size, length of stay, preferred activity or appetite for adventure, we can help.

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