Festivals of Ethiopia

Ethiopia

Culture | Festivals

Experience Ethiopia's Genna and Timkat Festivals

16 days £2,795 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


Home to one of the oldest forms of Orthodox Christianity, watch white-robed devotees drift into Addis Ababa's Church of the Holy Saviour on the eve of Genna (Ethiopian Christmas) and witness Timkat rituals in Axum, once the seat of the great Aksumite empire, and Addis Ababa. Explore Ethiopia's architectural wonders in the form of its rock hewn churches and monasteries in Lalibela and Tigray, the ancient obelisks of Axum, as well as the fabled castles of Gondar. For raw natural beauty, walk amongst gelada baboons in the misty Simien Mountains, trek to the source of the Blue Nile and take the boat to a hidden island monastery on Lake Tana.

TOUR HIGHLIGHTS

  • Genna Festival – Ethiopian Christmas
  • Meet Lucy, the world’s oldest humanoid
  • Gentle rural walk to source of the Blue Nile
  • Visit island monastery on Lake Tana
  • Gelada baboons in the Simiens
  • Rock-hewn churches of Lalibela
  • Lalibela
  • Churches in Mekelle
  • Witness the Timkat Festival
  • Great Temple of Yeha

Places Visited

Addis Ababa - Bahir Dar - Gondar - Simien Mountains - Lalibela - Mekele - Ghera'alta - Yeha - Axum

What's Included

Domestic flights
Airport transfers
Ground transport
Accommodation
Escorted tour guide
Meals as per itinerary
Activities as per itinerary
Bottled water each day
Entrance fees to sites
Drivers and local guides
Itinerary & Map
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Day 1 : Addis Ababa - arrival

Pick up from Addis Ababa airport. Transfer to hotel. Rest and refresh before the gentle afternoon sightseeing of the main markets in Addis Ababa - Merkato, the biggest open-air market in Africa, and the makeshift bazaars set up for Genna. Visit the National Museum. Late evening, visit one of Addis’ churches to experience ‘Kidase’ and ‘Wereb’ on the Eve of Genna. Witness the pilgrims draped in white robes and listen to the spiritual singing of ‘Kidase’. Overnight in Addis Ababa.

Meal plan: n/a

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’.

Although Genna is labelled the ‘Ethiopian Christmas’, the Genna Festival is a Christmas experience like no other. Not many countries provide the opportunity to celebrate Christmas twice in one year: as Ethiopians follow the Julian, rather than the Gregorian calendar, Genna falls on January 7 with celebrations starting on the Eve of Genna. There are two origins for the name Genna: the word Gennana (eminent), expressing the coming of the Lord to free mankind of sins, and also a hockey-like game that the shepherds allegedly played upon hearing of Christ’s birth. Come witness village men and boys playing the traditional Genna game on Christmas Day afternoon, and cheer alongside the village elders. You may even get a chance to try it for yourself!

A visit to the early morning Christmas service is a truly moving experience: the congregation lift their voices in hymn and chant, just as they did over a thousand years when Ethiopia accepted Christianity. After the glorious procession of the Tabot (a replica of the Ark of the Covenant), where the masses carry lighted candles as church bells chime, elated Christians head home to enjoy their delicious traditional Christmas feast with family and friends. One taste of Doro Wat, a spicy chicken stew eaten with ingera (sourdough pancake-like bread), and you will be asking for more- especially accompanied by a glass of tej, a local wine-like drink made from honey. 


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Day 2 : Addis Ababa

Visit Bale Egzyabier church to see Tabot paraded out. Visit Selassie church, go on up to the Entoto Mountains. Enjoy the views over Addis. Overnight in Addis Ababa.

Meal plan: Breakfast

Entoto Mountain, located to the north of Addis Ababa, offers a panoramic view of the capital. It is the highest part of the city and is historically covered in Eucalyptus trees, which are often referred to as the 'lungs of Addis Ababa'.

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Day 3 : Addis Ababa - Bahir Dar

Early morning depart for Bahir Dar, with a stop at the Portuguese Bridge to enjoy beautiful views of the area. Arrive in Bahir Dar in the late afternoon. Evening free to relax. Overnight in Bahir Dar.

Meal plan: Breakfast, lunch & dinner

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Day 4 : Bahir Dar

In the morning, take a gentle walk through rural countryside to the impressive Blue Nile Falls. Water flow may be less strong during the dry months (November - June). After lunch, take a boat ride on Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia and stop off at Ura Kid Mihret & Azwa Mariam, some of the island monasteries. Afterwards return to your accommodation. Evening free at leisure. Overnight in Bahir Dar. 

Meal plan: Breakfast, lunch & dinner

Lake Tana is the largest lake in Ethiopia,  measuring approximately 84km long and 66km wide,  and is also the source of the Blue Nile. The lake contains 37 islands, however their visibility varies according to seasonal water fluctuations, which are regulated to measure inflow to the Blue Nile Falls. The islands accommodate 20 monasteries, which are used to store religious artifacts due to their remote location. 

The Blue Nile Falls, also known as Tis Abay, mean 'smoking water' in  Amharic. They start as a gentle river flowing 5,223km north of the Mediterranean Sea before joining the impressive falls. The waterfall itself is around 150ft high and half a mile wide, which is just spectacular to witness. Surrounded by immense natural beauty, the falls attract parrots, bee-eaters, white throated seedeaters and vervet monkeys, just to name a few. 

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Day 5 : Bahir Dar - Gondar

Drive to Gondar via the ruins of the impressive Guzara Castle. On arrival in Gondar, explore the medieval compound, including the castle and the baths, and later head to the basket market. Overnight in Gondar.

Meal plan: Breakfast, lunch & dinner

King Fasil (Fasiledes) is believed to have moved his royal camp to Gondar where he settled. Surrounded by fertile land with rich sources of gold, civet and ivory, and at the crossroads of 3 major trading routes, the King established Gondar as a capital city. It is often referred to as the "Camelot of Africa", with several medieval castles rising above a landscape of tin-roofed stone houses. The Royal Court developed into a compound called Fasil Ghebbi which consists of six major building complexes and is surrounded by a 900m long wall. In this area alone, there are around twenty different palaces and royal buildings as well as thirty churches.

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Day 6 : Gondar - Simien Mountains

After breakfast, visit the church of Debre-Birhan Selassie. Then start the journey to the Simien Mountains National Park, where you can admire the incredible scenery and see endemic gelada baboons and other wildlife. Overnight Simien Mountains.

Meal plan: Breakfast, lunch & dinner

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Day 7 : Simien Mountains

Drive to Chenek, a beauty spot with stunning mountains and vistas. En route, walk to various sites to spot the endemic Walia Ibex, and have a picnic lunch in the national park. Overnight Simien Mountains.

Meal plan: Breakfast, lunch & dinner

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Day 8 : Simien Mountains - Lalibela

In the morning, drive the scenic Debre-Tabor road to Lalibela. En route you can see the mountain bridge that divides the former administrative regions of the Wello and Gondar. Optional evening visit to Lalibela Art Gallery. 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.

Lalibela's Fine Art Gallery is a tiny simple gallery showcasing unique watercolours, sepia paintings and sketches by local artist Tegegne Yirdaw, which are also available for sale. 

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Day 9 : Lalibela

Today, explore the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. There are several churches, dating back to the 13th century. In the afternoon, visit the famous cross-shaped Church of St. George. Overnight in Lalibela.

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 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. 

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.

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Day 10 : Lalibela - Mekelle

After breakfast, start your 9 hours drive to Mekelle via Weldiya Road. On the way, stop at the cave church of Nakutola’ab. Overnight in Mekelle.

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.

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Day 11 : Mekelle - Ghera'alta

Drive to Ghera’alta area. Along the road, visit the rock-hewn churches of Wukro Cherkos, Mikael Imba and Abreha Wa Atsbeha. Overnight in Ghera’alta.

Meal plan: Breakfast, lunch & dinner

Situated 15 kms west of Wukro,  Abreha Wa Atsbeha  lies about halfway between Dugem and Wukro on newly built gravel road leads to Hawzien. It is one of the best and largest of the churches of Tigray and was built for the legendary kings of Axum, the brothers Abreha and Atsebha. The church is blinding with its white painted face which protect two tall blue doors under arches. The church is built into the red rock overlooking a valley and is decorated with post-17th century mural paintings depicting Biblical scenes and saints. The church holds the prayer cross which according to churchy officials, belonged to Frumentius who was the first Bishop of Ethiopia. 

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Day 12 : Ghera'alta

Full day visit to the rock-churches of Debre Tsion, Gebre Mikael and Mariam Papeseti. Overnight in Gheralta.

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.

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Day 13 : Axum

Start the day with a drive to Axum, via Yeha. Later, witness the annual Epiphany or "Timkat" festival. Overnight in Axum.

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.

The monastery that sits atop Debre Damo, is one of the most important in Ethiopia and is thought to date back to Akumsite times during the 6th century when the region was ruled by King Gebre Meskel. It remains a fantastic albeit difficult to access representation of Akumsite construction. The monastery is around 500sq/m and hosts around eighty monks that are entirely self-sufficient with their own livestock and water supply. 


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.

Timkat Festival, the Ethiopian Orthodox festival of ‘Epiphany’. Timkat celebrates the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. The enthusiasm of the procession crowd, all dressed in white, is truly contagious. Dance and sing alongside them; feel the pound of Ethiopian traditional drums. Alongside the throng of excited Ethiopians, satin-robed priests carry the Tabot on their heads. Around 2am, the whole procession - priests and revellers alike - arrive near a stream or pool, where the priests then perform the Divine Liturgy. After the water has been blessed, it is sprinkled on the masses in a communal baptism; you may even spot the more passionate Christians throwing themselves fully-clothed into the water. Cleanse yourself of any inhibitions, and fully soak up the sunshine and spirituality of this wonderful baptism festival. 

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Day 14 : Axum

Spend the morning enjoying the annual Epiphany or "Timkat" festival. Visit Axum’s St. Mary of Zion Church, where the original Ark of the Covenant given to Moses is believed to be kept, and witness the Timkat festivities. The priests and deacons will be wearing traditional costumes and holding colourfully decorated umbrellas which are used during such religion occasions. The selected high priest shall also carry the replica of the Ark of the Covenant. The whole place is filled with crowds of people dancing, chanting and singing a variety of spiritual songs. In the afternoon, proceed on a sightseeing tour of Axum, where Ethiopian history, empire and religion began. Visit the steale field, the Tomb of Kaleb and his son Gebre Meskel and the stone inscription of King Ezana (4th century King). Continue to the Ezana's stelae park. Overnight in Axum.

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 Obelisks of Axum are 1,700 years old and stand 24m high. They are made from granite stele and weight 160 tons altogether. Similar to Stone Henge, the Obelisks of Axum are a mystery and nobody can be certain when they were built or for what purpose. Some think they played an astrological role in the early centuries, while others believe that they mark the burial places of deceased royalty. One of the obelisks was taken by the Italians and resurrected in Rome in 1937 to mark the invasion of Ethiopia. It was only recently returned to Ethiopia in 2005. 

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Day 15 : Axum - Addis Ababa

After breakfast, fly back to Addis Ababa. Visit the Ethnographic museum and then enjoy the rest of the afternoon at your leisure. In the evening, enjoy a traditional Ethiopian dinner and cultural dance performance.
Overnight in Addis Ababa. 

Meal plan: Breakfast & dinner

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. 

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Day 16 : Addis Ababa - departure

Transfer to the airport for your international flight home.

Meal plan: Breakfast

Accommodation

Accommodation Title

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

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Caravan Hotel

Located in the center of Addis Ababa, this hotel is near all the best sites in the city. All rooms are equipped with state of the art furnishings, as well as all the essential amenities. The hotel has a restaurant as well as a bar. 

Visit hotel's site
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Jacaranda Hotel

Jacaranda Hotel is a relatively new hotel positioned close to the centre of the Bahir Dar Town. The hotel features an auditorium, steam and sauna and meeting facilities. The hotel overlooks the Tana Lake and the old Stadium. Free Wi-Fi is available.
The rooms are singly fitted with a minibar, a flat-screen TVs with satellite channels. Each room is also designed with an en-suite bathroom and a balcony.

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Fasil Lodge

Located just a two-minute walk from the Royal Enclosure the Fasil Lodge is a family run hotel, with a restaurant and bar. The rooms include all the basic amenities, as well as fast, free WiFi in the rooms and garden. The restaurant is open all day, and uses fresh, local ingredients. 

Visit hotel's site
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Walya lodge

Walya Lodge is a simple friendly lodge on the edge of the Simiens just outside Debark. Ideal place to launch visits to the Simiens. Rooms large but simple, rather basic bathrooms. Good views. Wifi is available in the structure. 

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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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Zemarias Hotel

Ideally located in the centre of Mekele, shops, bars and restaurants are all in walking distance of the hotel. All rooms have access to basic amenities, and the hotels restaurant offers a wide range of Ethiopian dishes. 

Visit hotel's site
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Sabean International Hotel

Situated on the main road in Axum, the Sabean International Hotel is an ideal base from which to see the area's archaeological sites. Rooms are comfortable and simplistically furnished with modern amenities including free WiFi. A variety of Ethiopian and international cuisine is served in the hotel's onsite restaurant.

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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 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

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

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

Richard & Margaret Haworth , Ethiopia's Historic North

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

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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