Ethiopia’s Northern Circuit

Ethiopia’s Northern Circuit, sometimes called the Historical Route, is by some distance the most impressive tourism itinerary in the country. Across Bahir Dar, Gondar, Axum and Lalibela there lies an extraordinary trove of historic and cultural treasures, from beautifully preserved ancient monasteries to monolithic churches and vast, mysterious obelisks.

The route is frequently supplemented with time in the wider and relatively little known Tigray region from Axum, including the rock-hewn churches around Wukro and the battlefield of Akwa. Gondar is within easy reach of the magnificent Simian Mountain range making the national park a natural add-on to the circuit, and it can also be appended with tours to the game reserves and lakes of southern Ethiopia, such as those in Ethiopia’s section of the Great Rift Valley.
Northern Circuit trips can take the form of small group tours, with numbers limited to around 16 people, or tailor made holidays allowing more flexibility in terms of your travel dates, accommodation standards and precise itinerary. It is normally travelled in a clockwise direction beginning in the capital, Addis Ababa, and while it may be done entirely by road this can be quite arduous with some long days of driving required. For this reason internal flights are often used between destinations, with flight durations of around an hour.

Tours tend to last a minimum of two weeks due to the distances involved and giving you time to really get the most from each place. They can also be arranged to coincide with the huge Christian festival of Timkat, which is held in Gondar during January.

Highlights of Ethiopia’s
Northern Circuit

Bahir Dar

On the southern shore of heart-shaped Lake Tana, the largest body of water in Ethiopia and reputed to be the source of the Blue Nile, sits the port city of Bahir Dar. There are a dozen or so medieval monasteries scattered around the lake and its islands, some of them dating as far back as the 13th century. Among the most impressive are the delightfully restful Narga Selassie church, and those on the Zege Peninusla (reached by boat). The Blue Nile Falls, just south of Bahir Dar, are voluminous in the rainy season, little more than a trickle in the dry season. Lake Tana itself is renowned for its birdlife, and you will often see bathing hippos, too.


The town of Gondar, north of Bahir Dar and normally reached by road, was the capital of Ethiopia for three centuries until 1855. It is sometimes referred to as ‘the Ethiopian Camelot’ for the attractive ruins of castles and palaces, once the homes of emperors, in the Fasil Ghebbi (Royal Enclosure). There are also over 40 churches in Gondar, notably Debre Birhan Selassie, with stone walls, a thatched roof and stunning frescoes making it among the most beautiful in the country. Gondar is just a three-hour drive from the Simien Mountains National Park, so Northern Circuit holidays frequently divert there for a few days of trekking.

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Axum in the Tigray region is close to the border with Eritrea and another ancient capital. There was a strong civilisation here centuries before the birth of Christ, and it stands on an immense haul of antiquities. The most famous of these are the stelae – huge engraved obelisks some 1,700 years old, sculpted from single blocks of granite and reaching as high as 33m. Here also are the old and new Cathedrals of Our Lady of Zion, and the Chapel of the Tablet, rumoured to be the last resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. Together they represent the holiest sites in Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity.


The monolithic stone churches of Lalibela are a testament to the ingenuity of medieval stonemasons and engineers. Their striking presence has made Lalibela an active shrine, set amid glorious mountain scenery which is dotted with other ancient churches and monasteries. Northern Circuit routes typically spend at least a full day here as you need that time to fully appreciate the complexity and scale of the site, and the best time to visit is in the early morning when it is thronged with white-robed pilgrims.
“We visited Bahir dar, Gonder, the Simien mountains, Axum and Lalibela in eight days – too much packed into such a short time with significant travel distances between each base. Take longer – 12 - 14 days and you won't be so weary. There is plenty to see and do but build in time to unwind and just enjoy. Internal flights are a real joy – wit efficient airports and helpful staff.” – Vivienne Barton in a review of her tailor made holiday in Ethiopia

“The most beautiful sight must have been the Blue Nile waterfalls, which were just awesome. Followed by Lalibela and Axum. The entire countryside, culture, sights and sounds are amazing too to see. The entire holiday exceeded our expectations, but then, that depends on how high you fix them to start with.” – Oliver Kuhn in a review of his tailor made holiday in Ethiopia
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Marc Veraart] [Bahir Dar: A.Davey] [Axum: A.Davey]