Why visit Lalibela?

Lalibela is one of the most iconic destinations in all of Ethiopia, and an absolute must-see for any visitors to the country. It is a place full of legends, mystery and charm.

The town has a certain magic that you cannot find anywhere else in the country. 

Reasons to Visit Lalibela

Evening light on saint George church

Our top reasons to visit Lalibela

Rock-hewn Churches

The most famous attraction in Lalibela is the extraordinary collection of rock-hewn churches. Built by King Lalibela in the 12th century as a recreation of Jerusalem within Ethiopia, the churches are steeped in mystery and each has a unique style. Whilst most churches are built from the ground up, stretching towards the heavens, these monolithic churches were instead dramatically carved from the volcanic rock below.

There are eleven churches in total, arranged in two distinct clusters with one singular church, the Church of Saint George, found roughly 300 metres away from the others. Each church represents a true architectural and engineering achievement. They are surrounded by a complex labyrinth of passageways and tunnels, still in use today, which together make up the awe-inspiring cultural heritage complex.

The churches have remained in active use ever since they were hand-carved into the ground some 900 years ago. In fact, Sunday is the best time to visit to see them in their full splendour, when the scent of incense fills the air and worship songs ring out as hundreds of white-robed locals arrive for a dawn mass service.

When visiting the churches, make sure to leave plenty of time to really soak up the atmosphere. Most visitors allow two days, which gives time to visit each church, return to those you find most compelling, and experience a service.

Bustling Markets

Market day in Lalibela, held every Saturday, is not to be missed. Spread out over a large area in the centre of the town, the experience of the marketplace is at complete odds with the peace and tranquillity you may find on a meditative walk through the surrounding highlands. Here, vendors and shoppers arrive en masse to create a chaotic scene full of colour and noise, some travelling from miles away to join the fray. 

The goods for sale, including everything from firewood and clothes, to food and salt blocks, are set up on temporary stalls where vendors shade themselves from the sun, or simply spread out over tarps on the ground. If you feel like jumping in, this is the perfect opportunity to pick up unique local handicrafts or simply a few snacks before heading into the mountains.

Reasons to Visit Lalibela

Bustling market day in Lalibela

Festivals

Attending a festival in Lalibela is an immersive experience. The festivals demonstrate the beauty of Ethiopian traditions in a way that can only be fully appreciated first-hand.  

The busiest times for festivals - and as a result the busiest time in Lalibela in general - are the months of December, January, and September.

The spirited crowds and buzzing energy of Lalibela during festivals demonstrates how the rock-hewn churches still form the living, beating heart of spiritual Ethiopia. Ethiopia has a busy festival calendar, with Timkat and Ethiopian Christmas among the most special. 

Ben Abeba Restaurant

Ethiopian cuisine is more than just injera - it can be wonderfully diverse from soft sourdough flatbread topped with a selection of delicious meat, vegetable, lentil and bean sauces, to rich, spicy stews full of flavour, and of course coffee of the highest quality.

There is no better place to experience this than in Lalibela. The town has a great selection of local restaurants where visitors get to experience the wonderful warmth and hospitality of Ethiopian food culture. The most famous restaurant in Ethiopia, Ben Abeba, blends the cuisine of Scotland and Ethiopia. Along with delicious dishes,  Ben Abeba offers modernist architecture and spectacular panoramic views, and is popular with tourists and locals alike. 

Landscapes & Trekking

Community trekking in Ethiopia has its origins in Lalibela. These treks are an opportunity to learn more about authentic Ethiopian life, connect with local guides and directly support their communities. First set up in 2004, the community trekking sites remain some of the most memorable places to visit in the whole country. 

Tranquil walks through rural Ethiopia often conclude at simple guesthouses on the escarpment edge where you can enjoy a wonderful meal, local coffee, and a rest whilst soaking in the views. The locally run Hudad Lodge is a fine example. Sitting on the edge of an escarpment just outside Lalibela, accessible by a moderate hike of 2-3 hours, it is the perfect way to spend a night and enjoy the outstanding natural beauty.

For a greater challenge, you can hike out to Mount Abuna Yoseph. Standing at an incredible 4,284 metres, this mountain is the 6th highest peak in Ethiopia and offers breathtaking views of the northern highlands and Goha Mountains. 

Churches & Monasteries

The highlands around Lalibela host a number of fascinating churches and monasteries. Due to the wide range of design styles, construction techniques and ages of the churches, they make for an experience quite distinct from the rock-hewn churches in central Lalibela. 

Easily reached by an afternoon drive from the centre of town, the monasteries of Asheton Maryam, Yemrehane Kristos and Nakuta La’ab are well worth a visit. Take time to explore the unique architecture, marvel at the wonderful treasures found within, and soak in the spectacular scenery that stretches down to valleys below and out to the horizon. 

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