In the northern part of Ethiopia, there are several hidden treasures and travellers are invited to discover them. One of these treasures is the former capital Lalibela. Even today, the city is one of the most sacred places in the country and attracts tourists from all over the world thanks to the rock churches from the 12th and 13th centuries. Some even claim Lalibela to be the Macchu Pichu of Africa. And yet: the churches are rarely overcrowded. What awaits you in Lalibela and what you can experience there I will tell you in this blog post:
Visit the Market
It is loud, confusing and chaotic like a maze – we are talking about the Saturday market. So plan your trip so that you are in Lalibela on the weekend – the market is well worth a visit so be sure to plan your itinerary accordingly.
At first glance, it may look like pure chaos, and admittedly there is not much organization here. Most market stalls are no more than tarpaulins, the goods are presented on the ground or on small tables and the amount of fruits, vegetables, spices, incense and useful things sold there is amazing. Be sure to check it out!
Attend a Mass
Even if you are not a diligent churchgoer, you should still attend one of the masses in Lalibela.
On the recommendation of the travel guide, I walked to Bete Maryam on a Sunday together with a group of motivated early birds. We already heard the songs of the ceremony from afar. Sitting in a corner I followed parts of the Mass and enjoyed the rhythms, prayers and the heavenly scent of frankincense.
Discover the Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela
The rock churches of Lalibela reminded me strongly of the stone city of Petra in Jordan (which I have unfortunately not yet visited myself). The buildings in Petra were carved horizontally into the rock, while in Lalibela the churches were created from top to bottom. And that almost 1000 years ago!
Visiting the rock churches feels like walking through a time portal. Time really seems to have stood still here. Take time to see the churches from the inside (many of them are very similar).
All eleven churches can be visited and are divided into three groups:
- The Northern Group:
- Biete Medhane Alem
- Biete Maryam
- Biete Golgotha Mikael
- Biete Meskel
- Biete Denagel
- The Eastern Group:
- Biete Amanuel
- Biete Qeddus Mercoreus
- Biete Abba Libanos
- Biete Gabriel-Rufael
- Biete Lehem
- The Western group consists of Biete Giyorgis – the church of St. George, which was created in the shape of a crucifix.
By the way, there are different notations for individual churches.
Tip: First visit the northern, then the eastern group and save St. George’s Church as your grand finale!
Tips for visiting Lalibela
Visiting the rock-hewn churches
- To visit the churches, a steep entrance fee of 50 US$ has been set. If you do not want to visit all the churches, you can also take part in the Mass without paying an entrance fee.
- Explore the churches without a guide and learn about the special features of each building before you go.
- Cover your knees and shoulders.
- Pack socks, because to enter the interior of the churches, you have to take off your shoes.
Not so pleasant things about Lalibela
In no other city in Ethiopia did I meet so many begging children and teenagers. In small groups, they spread out and encircle the tourists – who are easy to spot. They ask for money, but shoes, pens, writing pads and other little things are also popular. However, you don’t really help them with a donation of money or goods. At the end of the day, the children and teenagers have to hand in their prey and there is almost nothing left for themselves. Though it is difficult to say, the easiest thing to do is to say that you have nothing to give and then ignore them.
How to get to Lalibela
From Addis Ababa, there are several direct flights a day and also flights with stopovers with Ethiopian Airlines. Be sure to book your long-haul flight with Ethiopian Airlines, as this allows you to book very cheap domestic flights, which cost about one third or less than a regular ticket. Let the hotel in Lalibela pick you up from the airport – it is about 25km out of town.
Where to stay in Lalibela
I stayed in one of the bungalows in the Tukul Village Hotel, which is within walking distance of the rock churches. Dinner and breakfast were excellent. You can find other accommodation for Lalibela here.
Read more travel tips and tips about Ethiopia
Why you should visit Ethiopia in 25 photos
This packing list for Ethiopia
Find all my Ethiopia content here
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