Churches of Ethiopia & The Caucasus

Ethiopia | Armenia | Georgia

Culture

A journey through ancient, traditional and diverse Christian cultures

21 days £0 pp This is the per person group tour price, based on 2 sharing. The price is subject to change with exchange rate and flight cost fluctuations.
Dates & Prices

Intro

Journey through tradition and religion on this tour through Ethiopia and the Caucasus. Discover the many rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and explore Axum, home of the Ark of the Covenant. Ascend Abuna Yemata Guh, Ethiopia’s church in the sky, and examine the colourful art and monasteries that occupy Lake Tana’s peninsula. Hike up Mount Aragats for a magnificent view of Amberd castle. Navigate your way through a field of stone crosses on your way to the UNESCO recognised and Sanahin monasteries and spend a day exploring medieval churches in Tbilisi old town.

TOUR HIGHLIGHTS

  • Rock-hewn churches of Lalibela
  • Impressive 5th century Great Temple of Yeha
  • Ancient stelae of Axum
  • The remains of Lucy, our ancient ancestor
  • The 'Pink City' of Yerevan
  • The ruins of Zvartnots Temple
  • See traditional Armenian architecture and the views surrounding the Noravank Monastery
  • Intricate wooden carvings on Karakol's Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral
  • Stunning views from the sacred pilgrimage site of Jvari Monastery
  • Iconic mountaintop Gergeti Trinity Church

Places Visited

Addis Ababa - Lalibela - Lalibela - Western group of churches - Mekele - Hawzen - Axum - Yerevan - Garni - Sevanavank - Tbilisi - Mtskheta - Gori - Kazbegi

What's Included

Arrival & departure transfers
Ground transport with driver
Domestic flights (if relevant - refer to itinerary)
Accommodation
Meals (refer to itinerary for meal plan)
English-speaking guides
Entrance fees to sites & parks
Itinerary & Map
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Day 1 : Addis Ababa

Upon arrival, you will be met by a Travel The Unknown representative and taken by transfer to your hotel. Check into hotel where you will be able to rest after your flight. Later, there will be an afternoon sightseeing tour of Addis Ababa which will include a visit to St George's Church and the Ethnological Museum. Overnight in Addis Ababa. 

Meal plan: Breakfast

The two-storey Ethnological Museum is a great place to learn about the diversity of Ethiopia. It is structured like a story book, depicting the journey of life to death from different perspectives. 

Addis Ababa is Africa’s fourth largest city, with an area of 250sq/km, and is located at an altitude of 2,300m above sea level. It is a vast place with a thriving population of over 2,750,000 people. There is a wide range of visitor attractions, including many museums and educational institutions. It has most recently become known as the ‘spa city of Africa’.

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Day 2 : Axum - Lalibela

In the morning, fly to Lalibela and transfer to hotel. After lunch, explore the Northern cluster of the incredible medieval monolithic cave churches dating back to the 13th century. Evening free. Overnight in Lalibela.

Meal plan: Breakfast, lunch & dinner

Originally known as Roha, the city of Lalibela is believed to pre-date the 12th century. King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela sought to recreate the holy city of Jerusalem there and structured the city accordingly. To this day, many of Lalibela’s features remain similar to those of Jerusalem, such as The Tomb of Adam, the Jordan river and Calvary.

The Northern Group of Churches consists of six churches north of the river Jordan. The Biete Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World) holds the Lalibela Cross, and is believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world. It is linked to Biete Mariam (House of Mary), which is the oldest church of the group, the Selassie Chapel and the Tomb of Adam. In addition to this, there is the Biete Golgotha, which is believed to contain the tomb of King Lalibela. 

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Day 3 : Lalibela

Today, you will enjoy a full day visit to the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. Overnight stay in local area. 

Meal plan: Breakfast, lunch & dinner

There are no less than 1000 of Ethiopia's famous rock-hewn churches in the Lasta region of Lalibela - some hidden in enormous caves - but it is exceptional to find 11 churches of such master craftsmanship in one locale. These brilliant feats of engineering and architecture are often referred to as the "Eighth Wonder of the World".

The Eastern Group of Churches include Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel), Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of St. Mercoreos), Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos) and Biete Gabriel Rufael (House of Gabriel Raphael) and Biete Lehem (House of Holy Bread). Biete Mercoreos and Biete Gabriel Rafael most likely used to be royal residences, and their interiors are decorated with murals.

The Western Group of Churches features Biete Ghiorgis (House of St. George), which is believed to be the most finely preserved church carved from a single rock. It is connected to the other churches via a system of trenches.

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Day 4 : Lalibela - Mekelle

In the morning, drive to Mekele. En route you will visit the Yeha Temple, the Wukro Cherkos, Rock-Church and the Negash Mosque. Overnight stay in Mekele. 

Meal plan: Breakfast, lunch & dinner

Mekele, also known as Makale, is a northern Ethiopian city and the capital of the Tigray Region. It was founded by Emperor Yohannes IV, as the region's capital, in 1881. During his reign, the emperor built a number of churches, including Medhane Alem and Kidane Mihret, during the 1870s, a palace in the 1880s and the churches of Saint Teklehaimanot.  Today the city is a modern and clean city, wealthier than most in Ethiopia, and has thrived under Ethiopia's Tigrayan rulers.

The Great Temple of Yeha is an example of the stunning construction that dates from the 5th to 8th century BC. The whole temple remains as an example of near perfect geometry due to the stature of its build.

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Day 5 : Axum - Hawzen

After breakfast drive to Hawzen (in Tigray), home to some of Ethiopia's most spectacular rock-hewn churches. Witness some of Ethiopia's stunning mountain scenery on the way. Overnight in Hawzen.

Meal plan: Breakfast, lunch & dinner

Abuna Abraham Debre Tsion Church  is elaborately decorated with 16th century murals. The church's ceremonial fan dates back to the 15th century and consists of 34 parchment panels, each painted with a figure of a saint.

Yohannes Maequddi has six free standing pillars that hold up the ceiling. The rectangular church is popular for its ancient and well preserved paintings and decor. The ceiling, like many features in the church, is beautifully carved with geometrical designs, while some of the paintings are as old as 300 years and are unique in style to any other in Ghera'alta. 

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Day 6 : Hawzen - Axum

Drive to Axum which will take you through the Great Temple of Yeha. Arrive early evening into Axum. Check into hotel and evening to rest. 

Meal plan: Breakfast, lunch & dinner

The Great Temple of Yeha is an example of the stunning construction that dates from the 5th to 8th century BC. The whole temple remains as an example of near perfect geometry due to the stature of its build.

Axum is the cradle of Ethiopia’s 3,000-year-old civilisation. In its heyday in the 6th century, the Axumite Kingdom was one of the four great powers of the world and ruled the two southern sides of the Red Sea. The glory of the Kingdom can still be pictured as you gaze out on the colossal rock stelae, the stonework of royal tombs and the legendary bath of the Queen of Sheba.

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Day 7 : Axum - Yeha - Axum

Early morning trip to the ancient city of Axum for sightseeing. Visit Axum's 2000 year old stelae, the Palace of the legendary Queen of Sheba, and the St Mary of Zion Church which is believed to house the actual Ark of the Covenant. In the afternoon visit the Adwa mountains en route back to Axum. Evening at leisure. 

Meal plan: Breakfast, lunch & dinner

The Ark of the Covenant, referred to at several points of the Old Testament, is stored in the Chapel of the Tablet. This is opposite the St. Mary of Zion Church. The Ark is believed to contain the ten commandments given by God to Moses.

The Palace of Queen Sheba, known locally as Dungar, now bears only the remains of the mansion that previously stood in its place. Covering around 3,250 sq/m, a visit to the site will allow you to see the full excavation that has taken place so far. 

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Day 8 : Addis Ababa - Yerevan

Transfer to airport for flight to Addis Ababa. Free time to do some shopping in the local markets. Optional visit to the National Museum. Evening flight to Yerevan via Dubai.

Meal plan: Breakfast & dinner

The National Museum in Addis Ababa holds an interesting collection of artefacts from Ethiopia's illustrious past but the undoubted star of the show is the remains of Lucy, a skeleton of a female Australopithecus afarensis, named from the Afar region of Ethiopia where she was found. Discovered in 1974, Lucy is 3.2 million years old and shares traits with apes (her skull) and with humans (walking upright), leading to claims of the 'missing link' having been discovered. Sometimes the museum exhibits a replica when Lucy is on tour at museums overseas.

Addis Ababa is Africa’s fourth largest city, with an area of 250sq/km, and is located at an altitude of 2,300m above sea level. It is a vast place with a thriving population of over 2,750,000 people. There is a wide range of visitor attractions, including many museums and educational institutions. It has most recently become known as the ‘spa city of Africa’.

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Day 9 : Yerevan

Fly from Dubai to Yerevan in the morning. You will be met by a Travel The Unknown representative and transferred to your hotel. 

Meal plan: Breakfast

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Day 10 : Yerevan

Enjoy a morning tour of Yerevan, including visits to the Republic Square, St Grigor Lusavorich Cathedral, Zoravor Church and the Cascade Complex. In the afternoon, visit the National Gallery of Armenia and History Museum of Armenia. Return to Yerevan. Overnight in Yerevan. 

Meal plan: Breakfast & lunch

The capital of Armenia, Yerevan, sits on the Hrazdan river surrounded by picturesque hills and snow-capped mountains. It is often referred to as the 'Pink City' due to the 106 shades of tufa lava stone used on the city's buildings. During the Soviet years, Russian architect Alexander Tamanyan completely reconstructed Yerevan to resemble the neo-classical city styles of Paris and St. Petersburg. 

Republic Square is the central town square of Yerevan. It was originally designed in 1924 and consists of musical fountains and a roundabout carpeted in mosaic rock. The buildings surrounding the square include two government houses and a museum. This site is the meeting point for all sorts of events and parties as well as political demonstrations. 

The Cascade Complex is a major landmark in Yerevan which includes a huge limestone staircase that links nearby neighbourhoods with the city centre. There are several exhibition halls, fountains and modernist sculptures located around the complex and the summer brings jazz concerts to the main square which can be admired from the steps. 

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Day 11 : Yerevan - Mt Aragats

Travel to Mt Aragats stopping in Ashtarak town to visit Karmravor Church. Continue on to visit the Monasteries of Hovhannwank and Saghmosovank. Proceed up Mt Aragats to see Amberd castle and church. Overnight in XXXXX

Meal plan: n/a

Translating to "fortress in the clouds", Amberd Fortress stands on the slopes of Mount Aragats at 2,300 metres above sea level. Built during the Bronze Age to protect Armenia's rulers during the Roman era, the fortress lasted several centuries as the country's primary military bases until it was attacked and destroyed by Mongals in 1236. The fortress was reconstructed at the end of the 13th century, but invasions of Lenk Timur resulted in its abandonment at the end of the 14th century.

Mount Aragats is located in northwest Yerevan. It is circular in shape and is made up of both lavas and tufas. There are high altitude meadows and rockfalls as well as glaciers found upon the mountains summit and even some landmarks such as Amberd church sit on its slopes.  

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Day 12 : Etchmiadzin Cathedral

Proceed to Vaghashapat to visit the Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the Churches of St Hripsime and St Gayane, the Zvartnots Temple, The Holy Mother of God Cathedral and Shoghakat Church. Then return to Yerevan, stopping at The Genocide Memorial Museum and the Blue Mosque en route. Overnight in Yerevan.

Meal plan: Breakfast

The 4th-century Etchmiadzin Cathedral is the central authority of the worldwide Armenian Apostolic Church. Its name translates as 'where the Only Begotten descended' in reference to Gregory the Illuminator's vision of Christ descending from heaven and striking the ground with a golden hammer. The Cathedral was then built on that exact spot. The complex consists of the Mother Cathedral, the monastery with a residing brotherhood, the Catholicos residence, the Kevorkian Theological Seminary and a museum. 

Constructed in the 7th century, the UNESCO-listed Zvartnots Temple originally stood at a height of 49 metres, making it one of Armenia's tallest structures during that period. It consisted of three stories in a cylindrical shape and was crowned with a dome. While all that remains now are the ruins of the lower walls and individual fragments, details including floor mosaics and intricate stone carvings indicate how the temple was once beautifully decorated from top to bottom. It is still questioned as to what caused the temple's fall in the 10th century, though theories include destruction by a powerful earthquake or the temple's cornerstone being removed during an Arab invasion, causing the building to collapse in on itself. 

Opened in 1995, the Armenian Genocide Museum commemorates the victims of the Armenian massacre  from 1915 to 1922 in the Ottoman Empire, told through photographs, newspaper reports and films. Built into the side of a hill, the museum has a simplistic concrete design so not to distract from the 40-metre-high Genocide Monument nearby, reached via a path from the museum flanked by a 100-metre-long wall engraved with the names of the massacred communities. Visits to the museum are now part of the official State protocol, with many foreign official delegations paying their respects, highlighting the importance of remembering such tragedies so they will never repeat themselves. 

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Day 13 : Garni

After breakfast, proceed to the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts. Then visit Geghard monastery and Garni fortress and temple. Explore the Ururtian fortress of Erebuni. Spend the rest of the evening exploring or at your leisure. Overnight in XXXXX

Meal plan: Breakfast

Garni Temple is a picturesque monument of the Hellenistic period and an impressive piece of ancient Armenian architecture built in the 1st century A.D. After Christianity was proclaimed as a state religion in 301, the temple was used as a summer residence of the kings. The Garni canyon, which is a one-hour walk away along the Azat River, is particularly interesting. Its walls are formed of hexagonal rock strips, which is a natural formation known as the 'Symphony of Stones'. The gorge is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The Geghard Monastery is a magnificent monument of medieval Armenian architecture that is partially carved out of a mountain. It was founded in the 4th century by  Gregory the Illuminator when a  sacred spring was found inside a nearby cave, but the  main chapel was built only in 1215. The name is translated as 'Monastery of the Spear', named after the spear that pierced Jesus on the crucifix. Apostle Jude supposedly brought this spear into Armenia and it is now displayed in the Echmiadzin treasury. However, churches in Rome, Vienna and Antioch also claim to possess this spear. Geghard has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Day 14 : Khackars

In the morning, travel to Kor Virap Monastery. Then proceed to Noravank Monastery and cross the field of khachkars at Noratus and Hayvarank Monastery. Overnight in Tsaghkadzor. 

Meal plan: Breakfast

Khackars or Armenian cross-stones can be found all over the country, particularly in graveyards and churches. They can only be found in Armenia and are historically important as they reflect traditional medieval sculpture within the country. They often depict rosettes or saintly figures and are all one of a kind. Many of the original khackars were destroyed by the government of Azerbaijan in the 1990’s.  

Contrary to its name (which translates to "New Monastery"), Noravank Monastery was constructed before the 12th century. Perched on the ledge of the gorge in which the river Amaghu flows and surrounded by steep red rocks, the building is as famous for its magnificent surroundings as it is for its beautiful medieval Armenian architecture. The monastery's main temple, Surb Karapet, is the oldest part of the structure, built between the 9th and 10th centuries.

The Khor Virap Monastery, located in the Ararat plains, is the closest point to biblical Mt. Ararat. It is a prominent pilgrimage site, as it is where the first Armenian Catholicos resided and where Gregory the Illuminator, Armenia's patron saint, was imprisoned for 14 years. The monastery holds regular services to this day.

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Day 15 : Sevanavank

Depart for Dilijan, visiting Sevanavank en route. Explore Goshavank and Haghartsin monasteries. Overnight in XXXXX

Meal plan: n/a

The Sevanavank monastic complex sits on a picturesque peninsula off the shore of Lake Sevan. It was founded in 874 AD for monks from Etchmiadzin Cathedral who had sinned against God. 

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Day 16 : Tbilisi

Proceed to Haghpat and Sanahin monasteries. Continue on to the Georgian border, visiting Akhtala fortress and monastery en route. Once across the border, transfer to Tbilisi. Overnight in Tbilisi. 

Meal plan: Breakfast

Tbilisi, formerly known as 'Tiflis', is Georgia's capital and the largest city of Georgia. It lays on the banks of the Mtkvari River and has a population of roughly 1.5 million people. Founded in the 5th century by the monarch of Georgia's ancient precursor, the Kingdom of Iberia, the city was invaded by different invaders over the centuries. The increase of Armenian population was noticed in the 19th century. Tbilisi has many narrow streets and a mixture of religious and secular architecture. There are many churches, synagogues, mosques and 19th-century houses with multi-coloured wooden balconies. 

Built between the 10th and 13th centuries, the UNESCO-listed Haghpat Monastery was Armenia's largest centre of science during this period, holding a rich collection of books and manuscripts within its library. Along with the nearby Sanahin Monastery, Haghpat became the religious centre of the Lori region in the mid-11th century. It is a beautiful example of medieval Armenian architecture, with many well-preserved structures within the site showcasing wonderful detailing and craftsmanship. 

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Day 17 : Tbilisi

Explore Tbilisi's old town including medieval churches Metekhi and Sioni. Visit the Georgia State Museum, Narikala fortress, Anchiskhati and Holy Trinity Cathedral. Overnight in XXXX

Meal plan: n/a

Tbilisi’s old town stands in the shadow of Mother Georgia’s silvery statue, perched on a hill overlooking a mosaic of multi-coloured houses constructed in the 19th century. Nestled together on narrow streets, the homes feature wooden balconies that allow residents to revel in the fresh air. Established in the 4th century and fortified over hundreds of years, the ruins of Narikala Fortress also tower over Georgia’s capital, offering visitors spectacular panoramic views.  

Located in the centre of Karakol, the Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral is a fine example of a Russian Orthodox church. Built on the site of an earlier church in 1895, it served as a dance hall under the Soviet rule before being used as a school during World War Two. It was renovated in the late 1980s and now serves as an active church. Constructed using wooden walls on a stone foundation, the facade is decorated with intricate carvings.

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Day 18 : Mtskheta

Spend the day in Mtskheta visiting the Jvari Monastery, Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and Samtavro Monastery. Then discover Goru and Ateni Sioni. Rest of the evening is free to spend at leisure. Overnight in XXXX

Meal plan: Breakfast

Mtskheta is one of Georgia’s oldest cities, located roughly 20 km north of Tbilisi at the confluence of the Aragvi and Mtkvari rivers. Within the city (which is itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, one of Georgia’s largest places of worship. The site, surrounded by a defensive wall, has housed churches since the 4th century, but the standing building was constructed in the early 11th century and artfully restored in the 1970s. According to Biblical canon, Christ’s robe was carried to Mtskheka after his crucifixion and buried beneath the cathedral. Inside, a painting illustrates the buried garment and the miracle of a pillar rising into the air during the church’s construction.  

The city of Gori is famously known as the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. The city is home to the Stalin Museum, which was originally built in 1951 as a local history museum. It later became a memorial museum to Stalin, following his death in 1953. Visitors to the museum can delve into the dictator's past, seeing the house where he spent the first few years of his life, his personal armored train carriage and many items that once belonged to Stalin - including hand written texts, office furniture and a bronze cast of his death mask.

The cross-shaped Jvari Monastery precipitously tops a mountain, peering over the city of Mtskheta and the three-pronged intersection of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers below.  This UNESCO World Heritage site was built on the site where St. Nino erected a cross outside of a Pagan temple, symbolising Iberia’s shift to Christianity in the 4th century. The Small Church of Jvari was built to the north of the cross, 60 years before the Jvari Monastery was completed, and can still be identified as ruins. Relief sculptures survive on the sacred pilgrimage site’s exterior, and a giant wooden cross still adorns the small monastery today.

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Day 19 : Tbilisi

In the morning, proceed to medieval monastery Betania. Then continue on to Dmansi and Bolnisi cathedrals. Overnight in Tbilisi.

Meal plan: Breakfast

Betania Monastery was built in honour of the Nativity of the Mother of the God dating back to the 11th century. The monastery consists of two Georgian Orthodox churches and is an excellent example of medieval architecture. Each church contains several murals, including a depiction of Georgian monarchs throughout the ages. 

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Day 20 : Tbilisi

Depart Tbilisi heading north towards Kazbegi. En route visit Ananuri fortress and church. Once in Kazbegi, explore Gergeti Trinity Church. Overnight in Kazbegi.

Meal plan: Breakfast

Kazbegi, officially known as ''Stepantsminda", is a small town located just 10 kilometres south of the Russian border. The town is 1,750 metres above sea level and has breathtaking mountain views that include Mount Kazbek (or 'Glacier Mountain'), Georgia’s third highest peak, standing at 5,047 metres high. Kazbek is associated with the myth of Prometheus, who is said to have been chained to the mountain as punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to mortals. 

The isolated Gergeti Trinity Church, constructed in the 14th century, is elevated 2,170m over the Chkheri riverbank, facing Mt. Kazbek. The church holds important religious relics which were brought from Mtskheta during the 18th-century Persian invasion. Even when religious services were outlawed during the Soviet era, tourists were still drawn to the church to admire the small town of Kazbegi. 

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Day 21 : Tbilisi

On your return to Tbilisi, visit the Sioni Church. Enjoy a walking tour of the old town or feel free to explore at your leisure. Overnight in Tbilisi.

Meal plan: Breakfast

Accommodation

Accommodation Title

All accommodation subject to availability. Final accommodation choices will be confirmed after booking.

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Saro-Maria

Saro-Maria Hotel is one of Addis Ababa's best hotels located between the airport and the city centre. All rooms have modern facilities with a television, minibar, private bathroom and they are decorated with local art.

Visit hotel's site
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Tukul Village Hotel

Tukul Village has recently opened. Designed like traditional African thatched huts, it is equipped with all modern facilities inside. The hotel has attractive views of Lalibela and is within walking distance of many of the ancient churches. The rooms are completely independent with their own private balconies and spacious modern bathrooms.  The accommodation includes a bar and an attractive restaurant serving both European and Ethiopian meals. The village even has wireless internet.

Visit hotel's site
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Mountain View

Mountain View Hotel in Lalibela is situated at an altitude of 2680 metres at the edge of the Lasta Mountain chain. Its panaromic mountain view offers dramatic vistas and is one of the best places to watch the sunset. The architecture of the hotel is comparable to the rock-hewn churches.

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Planet International

This is a comfortable hotel in Mekelle that provides modern amenities. Rooms have wi-fi access, TV and fully equipped bathrooms.

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Consolar International

Consolar Hotel is Axum’s newest hotel, offering 33 en-suite bedrooms featuring electronic safe, broadband Internet access and a mini bar.

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Reviews

A different world and culture which we were privileged to experience. Welcomed by the warmth of locals who wanted to share a little of their time with us...and English is their second language!!!!!!

Mhairi McKechnie , Festivals of Ethiopia, Ethiopia

Ethiopia really blew me away. The rock-hewn churches were remarkable and I never knew Ethiopia had so much history. It was great to see the gelada baboons in the Simien Mountains. Our guide was always smiling and helpful, and I really enjoyed the coffee ceremonies. I hope to come back again some day.

Neha , Ethiopia's Historic North, Ethiopia

The trip in the south was no less than an adventure, way beyond my anticipations. My guide was both helpful and knowledgeable.

Yngve Gausla , Tribes & Landscapes of Southern Ethiopia, Ethiopia

Ethiopia is a country everyone should visit. It has the perfect combination of spectacular scenery, stunning architecture, unique wildlife and a wonderful culture. Seeing it with Travel The Unknown means that you see all the highlights but don't miss the details and surprises between. The excellent local guides ensure that you experience its wonders through Ethiopian eyes. An overwhelming, eye opening, awe inspiring, emotional adventure.

Michael Russell , Festivals of Ethiopia, Ethiopia

A memorable experience in a lovely country. All aspects of the trip were impeccably handled. Highly recommended.

Richard & Margaret Haworth , Ethiopia's Historic North

Escaping from the comforting embrace of the big travel companies, Travel the Unknown`s `Ethiopia`s Historic North` programme gave us a window into a whole new world. The wildlife, the art, the food and the landscape were all unexpected and deeply memorable. The people were sometimes desperate, sometimes crazy, but nearly always smiling and ready to talk. One to treasure.

Philip & Mary , Ethiopia's Historic North, Ethiopia
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