What Makes Lalibela Special

Lalibela is one of Ethiopia's most magical destinations. For many, it is the absolute highlight of their journey across Ethiopia.

Mountaintop vistas where countryside extends as far as the eye can see, only to be broken by the rise of jagged peaks on the horizon.

The quiet of a countryside walk swiftly juxtaposed by the chaos of a weekly market.

Pilgrims adorned in white robes joining together in prayer and song, their voices heard in the farthest corners of the town.

The kindness of a local priest, who upon noticing you, brings you a gown as the service begins. 

Rock churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia
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The smoke from burning incense is forever in the air. The crackle of small speakers amplifies the chants of morning service and the rock against which you are resting, observing the scene, is smooth to the touch. There are not many places where a hermit’s cell, red cloth drawn to denote occupancy, is set next to another in which old bones can still clearly be seen.

The Rock Churches of Lalibela

When King Lalibela decided to re-create Jerusalem in Ethiopia in the 12th century, he did things a little differently.

Where others built their churches tall as a bridge to the heavens, Lalibela carved his from the volcanic rock beneath his feet, perhaps eager for God to join him.

And he didn’t just carve one, today 11 churches stand waiting to be explored.

Occupying a roughly triangular 15 hectare site either side of a rock-cut stream known locally as the Jordan River, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are found in two clusters, with the magnificent Bet Giyorgis standing alone about 300 metres from the rest.

Highland Monasteries in Lalibela

Head up into the mountains surrounding Lalibela and you'll discover churches and monasteries that pre-date those in the centre of town. 

As you ascend the escarpments, navigating the craggy rock faces that lead to the churches, you're rewarded by stunning views for miles around.

It soon becomes clear why the religious leaders of the time chose to build the monasteries here, high in the hills, away from the noise of the city. 

Priest holding ancient manuscript inside rock-hewn churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia

Yemrehanna Krestos

Close to the small town of Bilbilla, 30km from Lalibela, there is a small cluster of churches built into the cliff-face. Yemrehanna Krestos is the most impressive of the bunch. 

Yemrehenna Krestos, built from layers of wood and granite laced with gypsum - it is a remarkable example of Axumite architecture. 

Although academically interesting, it is the atmosphere of the place that lingers in the memory. Priests appear as silhouettes in the gloom, partially obscured by the smoke from burning incense.

The bones of 10,740 pilgrims rest here, a shock to each visitor, but nothing out of the ordinary for the locals who worship here. 

Lalibela

Asheton Maryam

The monastery of Asheton Maryam is carved out of a cleft in the cliff face on the western slopes of Mount Abuna Yoseph.

Thought to have been founded by King Nakuta La’ab, the construction is relatively rough compared to the churches in town, but there are some interesting wall paintings and relics to be seen.  

Asheton Maryam can be visited as the focus of a day hike from Lalibela, which takes five to six hours. Alternatively, you can be driven along a new road in the area that cuts the total hiking time do just 10 minutes, and means you can visit Asheton Maryam as part of a longer hike towards Hudad Lodge

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Hiking outside of Lalibela en route to Asheton Maryam monastery.

Nakuta La’ab Monastery

Named after Lalibela’s nephew, Na’akuto La’ab Monastery is located just 7km from Lalibela.

It is a relatively simple church built around a cave which in turn holds several spring-fed holy pools.

Treasures, including paintings, crosses and illuminated bibles are available to see, the latter reputedly owned by Nakuta La’ab.

We recommend visiting this site in the afternoon as it is one of the best places to catch the incredible sunset over Lalibela and rural Amhara

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Naaktuo Laab Monastery in Lalibela

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Although much of your time will be spent in subterranean shadows exploring the underground churches, when you do look up to the skies, you will not be disappointed by the endless blue, the shafts of sunlight cutting through piled storm clouds or the star-bright night.

Hiking the Escarpments

The escarpments that surround Lalibela provide some of the most incredible hiking routes in the country

Small eco lodges or community guesthouses have been built along the plateau edge. All locally run, the hospitality is heart-warming and the views from the escarpment are staggering. 

The hike to Hudad Lodge can be completed in an afternoon, and you only need to spend one night there. If you want to spend longer in the mountains, consider a community trek

Community Trekking in Lalibela Ethiopia

Hudad Lodge

Once experienced, never forgotten. Hudad Lodge is run as a community guesthouse and so is deliberately simple.

Therein lies the joy.

Built on the rim of the escarpment, 3,300 metres above sea level, four circular stone and thatch tukuls can take up to four guests.

Each tukul has an external stone and thatch earth closet toilet. Water is provided for simple washing, but is not on-tap.

The food is wholesome, tasty and traditional, served either to take advantage of the spectacular views or snug against the mountain winds.

If you don't want to do too much hiking, but still want to get an impression of Ethiopia's highlands - Hudad Lodge is the prefect choice. You'll need to tack on an extra day to your time in Lalibela to fit it in. 

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Cliffside views at Hudad Lodge outside Lalibela

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The easiest way to get a taste of the highlands on foot is to trek to Hudad Lodge from Lalibela or from Asheton Maryam. You can base yourself there for a night or two. For a challenge, head up towards Mount Abuna Yoseph, at 4,284 metres, or traverse the escarpment on a 35km trek to Yimrehanna Kristos. If you want to experience the view, but don’t want to walk, you can drive most of the way but the last 30 minutes or so must be on foot (or by mule).

Community Trekking

Community trekking in Ethiopia began in Lalibela, with the first community guesthouse established at Wollo, just outside Lalibela, in 2004. 

The trekking in Lalibela is one of our personal favourite experiences not just in Ethiopia, but in all of East Africa. 

Meditative walks through rural Ethiopian countryside conclude at the simple stone and thatch guesthouses perched on the escarpment edge.

The cost of each community trek is broken down into three parts: 25% administration costs, 25% guiding costs and 55% to the local host communities.

Did we mention the views here are extraordinary? 

Map of Lalibela

Map of Lalibela

Markets & Museums in Lalibela

Lalibela Markets

If you are coming to the end of your trip - or don’t mind adding to your luggage - Lalibela is a great place to buy local handicrafts. 

The hustle and bustle of the Lalibela markets are a lot of fun - they're chaotic and loud, but your guide will help you navigate

The stalls are mainly found on the town square and along the road between the Lal and Roha Hotels. These are also good places to buy a few snacks if you are heading up into the mountains and need fuel. 

The main community market day is Saturday. Forget about souvenirs, instead, just take in the spectacle: the colours, noise and movement of the second most important day of the week.

Saturday Market in Lalibela Ethiopia

Lalibela Cultural Museum

Ethiopia is a place of stories and a story is much more than just facts, but sometimes it is nice to see an information board - or to cross-check your guide’s account. In which case, visit the cultural museum with its beautifully presented displays about Lalibela’s past and present.

The exhibits range from cultural artefacts to ancient manuscripts and other archaeological finds from Lalibela's sites. A museum guide is included in your entry fee.

Lalibela Cultural Museum Ethiopia

Restaurants in Lalibela

The quality of the food available at Ethiopian hotels has improved massively over the last few years and so all the quality hotels in Lalibela serve good food and normally provide both international and Ethiopian menus

But, as good they are, sometimes it is nice to leave your hotel and see what the town has to offer. Happily, Lalibela won’t let you down.

While XO Restaurant and Torpedo Tej House are fun and good options for local dishes, the restaurant scene in Lalibela has long been dominated by Ben Abeba - Ethiopia's most famous restaurant blending Scottish and Ethiopian cuisine.

When is the best time to visit Lalibela?

Lalibela is at its busiest during the festivals of December, January and September. Lalibela is the best place to be during Ethiopian Christmas on the 7th January. 

The town’s position in the central highlands of Ethiopia means that it receives the greatest rainfall from June to early October, but it is possible to visit all year round.

Typically, the peak travel season runs from October to March - these months see the best weather conditions for hiking in the highlands, and you're more likely to see blue skies and sunny days. 

It's still possible to visit during the rainy season from June to October. Indeed, there is a lot to be said for the thrill of being one of very few observers of a morning service, or being the only occupant of a silent, dark, tunnel.

Rock churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia

How to get to Lalibela

Arguably, Lalibela has survived in its current form because it was historically very difficult to access. That has now changed and although still not connected by any other town by a sealed road, Ethiopia's fantastic domestic flight network means the airport runs a daily schedule of flights to destinations across Ethiopia all year round.

The airport is 25km away from the centre of town, reached by a good quality tar road.

Although set just apart from the rest of the northern circuit towns, it is still possible to drive to Lalibela. It is not advisable to drive from Addis because it takes two days, but you can make the journey from both Axum and Mekele in a long day and Bahir Dar or Gondar in about five to six hours.

If you're coming up from the Omo Valley or Bale Mountains, you will need to connect to Lalibela via domestic flights through Addis Ababa

Church of Saint George, rock-hewn churches in Lalibela Ethiopia

Best Hotels & Lodges in Lalibela

Being one of Ethiopia's most popular tourist destinations, Lalibela has a decent portfolio of hotels and lodges

You won't find any 5* hotels here, but the best lodges in town have all the amenities you would expect from a decent international hotel, the staff are helpful and friendly, the rooms clean and comfortable and the views are exceptional. 

The best options in town are Mezena Lodge or Maribela Hotel, but there are a number of quality mid-range options as well that are slightly closer to the rock churches. 

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Lalibela FAQs

  • How long should I spend in Lalibela?

    Most visitors will spend one or two nights in Lalibela. If you want to explore the highland monasteries as well as the central churches, you will need two nights. 

    If you are visiting during the Ethiopian Christmas (7th January) or Timket (19th January), it's worth spending 3 nights in Lalibela to experience all the celebrations and festivities. 

  • What is the weather like in Lalibela?

    Lalibela is the northern highlands of Ethiopia which have a rainy season from June to September. The peak travel season is from October to March and these months have the driest days and warmest weather. 

    In the height of the dry seasons, temperatures can hover around 25°C to 30°C on clear days. However, temperatures are more likely to be between 20°C and 25°C due to the altitude. Lalibela sits at an altitude of around 2,500 metres and so the crisp and cold mountain air makes it feel colder. This is particularly true in the evenings, so make sure to bring a jacket no matter what time of year you are visiting!

  • How old are the churches in Lalibela?

    The rock churches of Lalibela were built in the 13th century. The monasteries in the highlands around the town are even older, dating back to the 12th century. 

  • Do I need a guide to visit Lalibela?

    You do need a guide to visit the churches of Lalibela. 

    Without a guide, you miss out on so much historical context, as well as the local myths, legends, and folklore that surround the churches, and what makes them such an integral part of Ethiopian culture. 

    If you book your trip with us, all guiding fees are included in your trip price. 

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When to visit Lalibela

When to visit Lalibela

The best time to visit Lalibela is between October and March. Lalibela experiences a rainy season from June to early September, but it is still possible to visit during these …

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Accommodation in Lalibela

View of Lalibela on the trail to Hudad Lodge.

Lalibela is one of Ethiopia's most popular destinations, and the selection of hotels has improved dramatically over the years. There are now a number of great options in the centre…

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Yemrehana Krestos Church

Yemrehana Krestos Church

The Yemrehana Krestos Monastery is one of the most well-preserved examples of Aksumite Christian heritage. Around 20 kilometres outside Lalibela, the church pre-dates the more …

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