Everything You Need to Know About Visiting Lalibela, Ethiopia

By on February 19, 2018 in Africa, ETHIOPIA, Off the Beaten Track with 20 Comments

Visiting Lalibela, Ethiopia

Most famous as the centre of Ethiopia’s rock-hewn churches, Lalibela is a town soaked in magic and mysticism.

A small, rural village, an unassuming place set amidst a stunning highland landscape, Lalibela is home to some of the finest UNESCO rock-hewn churches in the world.

In true Ethiopian form, these churches sit alongside a unique, ancient, fascinating and untainted culture.

With no gift shops, no souvenir touts, no staged cultural shows, Lalibela is refreshingly real.

Dry, dusty and full of donkeys, complete with some incredibly elevated views, this is a living breathing African town that leaves you feeling like you’ve stepped back in time.

To put it simply, Lalibela is breathtaking.

The first place I visited in Ethiopia after Addis Ababa, Lalibela left me spellbound and set the tone perfectly for my unfolding love affair with this country.

I remember gushing on Instagram about my experiences as I struggled to believe the reality of this rich and enchanting place I was witnessing.

So if you’re heading to Ethiopia, it goes without saying Lalibela has to be on your itinerary. Here’s everything you need to know…


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When to Visit Lalibela

The best time of year to visit Lalibela, infact to visit Ethiopia as a whole, is during the dry season of October to March.

Within those months, I highly recommend visiting Lalibela at the weekend.

On Saturday there’s a great local market to experience here and Sunday is the time to visit the rock-hewn churches, when white-robbed locals descend in their hundreds for a dawn mass service that puts a whole new level of understanding onto the otherwise usually empty stone church structures.

To see the churches really packed, you need to visit during Ethiopian Christmas, which takes place in this country in January.

This is when thousands of pilgrims flock to Lalibela for the major religious ceremony of the year and while prices rocket at this time and the town is packed, it’s a spectacle worth the crowds.

Ethiopia, Lalibela, Sunday Mass

 

Lalibela Climate

During the dry season you can expect stunning clear, blue skies in Lalibela and warm temperatures around 27 degrees C.

Situated at elevation however, the evenings can be chilly here as the wind picks up and the temperatures drop to around 10 degrees C.

As such, bring a jumper and a warm hat!

 

How to Get to There

You’re likely to be accessing Lalibela from either the capital, Addis Ababa, or north from Makele.

From both Makele and Addis you can fly direct to Lalibela for around $80 USD – bookable online or in any Ethiopian Airline office.

Top Ethiopia Travel Tip

Save a huge amount on domestic flights within Ethiopia by flying into the country with Ethiopia Airlines.

Having an international flight with this domestic carrier allows you to access local flight prices, which are up to 2 thirds cheaper.

Check out my post about the EVERYTHING You Need To Know About Travelling in Ethiopia for more great tips.

The Lalibela airport is situated 23km out of town.

Book your accommodation in advance and you can arrange a pick up for 100 Birr.

Otherwise, you can also catch the bus to Lalibela from Makele or Addis, although do beware this is one of the worst roads in the country – and that’s saying something!

From both these destinations, you also have to change buses in Woldia and pick up a connection to Lalibela from there, so get prepped for a full day adventure if this is going to be your transport of choice.

Ethiopia, Lalibela, Priest in Doorway

 

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Ethiopia, Lalibela, Biet Giyorgis

 

Suggested Lalibela Itinerary

I spent 3 nights in Lalibela, which was a good amount of time, but you could easily spend longer if you wanted to see more of the out of town attractions (see below).

At a minimum, 2 nights would give you 1 day to explore the churches in town and a 2nd day to head out of Lalibela to take in some of the stunning viewpoints, hikes and churches that lie dotted in the countryside outside of town.

These will both be busy, long days with a lot of sightseeing and walking, so schedule in a 3rd day if you want some time to relax and or visit the town churches again.

 

Lalibela Rock-Hewn Churches

Lalibela’s biggest drawcard is of course its UNESCO rock-hewn churches.

Split into 2 main groups – the Northwestern cluster and the Southeastern cluster – these are complimented by 3rd isolated church of St George’s or Bet Giyorgis.

You can see all 3 of these groups in 1 full day. And it will be a full day.

The key to enjoying Lalibela is to take your time and soak it all in.

Tickets to the entire town site are valid for 5 days (and so they should be for $50USD!) , so if you have the time, don’t hesitate to visit the churches on a second day to allow their splendour to really soak in.

If you do only have 1 day, then I recommend starting your day early (especially if visiting on a Sunday so you can view the mass ceremony at 6am) and beginning with the Northwestern cluster.

Tour these churches, until the site closes for lunch at 12pm.

Then at 2pm return to explore the Southeastern churches, ending with St George’s Church in the afternoon to grab some stunning pics in the late day sunglight.

Visiting hours finish at 5pm.

Ethiopia, Lalibela, Pilgrim 3

 

6 Things to Bring When Travelling to Lalibela

#1 Headtorch – required for those all too often power cuts. I always go for Black Diamond.

#2 Toilet Paper – most places don’t provide it, although the Red Rock Lalibela Hotel does!

#3 Long, Thin Trousers – perfect for the cold evenings and conservative dress standards during the day

#4 Good Camera – an absolute must if you’re looking to capture the incredible landscape and cultural practices of Ethiopia. I love my mirrorless Sony A6000, which is light, compact and robust – ideal for Africa travel

#5 Hiking Boots – necessary for dusty roads, walking and cold nights. KEEN Women’s Targhee II Mid Waterproof Hiking Boot are a great option.

#6 Travel Scarf or Sarong – whether it’s covering your shoulders in the churches, wrapping round you at night as a shawl or using as a protection for the dust, this is a great multi-purpose travel item for Lalibela.

 

To Guide or Not to Guide

Always looking to do things on the cheap, I’m not usually one for taking a guide, but Lalibela is one place I’m glad I made the exception.

Honestly, you just can’t appreciate the depth and intricacies of legends and local customs that surround Lalibela without one and I know for a fact my time here was deeply enriched by doing so.

There’s little signage around the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and guides can show all the best photo spots, advise you of any local etiquette and fill your brain with so much information you’ll be struggling to learn any more!

 

LOOKING FOR A BUDGET TOUR IN ETHIOPIA?

If you’re interested in an unforgettable, well-priced tour in Ethiopia with guides you can trust, then email me at steph@bigworldsmallpockets.com with details of where you want to go and I’ll send you my top recommendations – simple!

Ethiopia, Lalibela, Sunset 2

 

Around Lalibela

As I said before, if you have the time, it’s well worth taking a day to explore some of the attractions around the town of Lalibela too.

Mulu will happily plan an itinerary for you or, if you do some research yourself, investigate the churches you might want to visit and he can arrange transport and act as your guide.

  • Top of the list is Na’akuto La’ab, which is 7km from Lalibela and has a 200 birr entrance free. Best seen in the afternoon, this is a good sunset watching spot.
  • Yemrehanna Kristos is a natural cave church 42km from Lalibela  and costs 400 birr to enter. It’s meant to be one of the oldest in area and a spectacular sight as it has been built, rather than excavated, from the rock. A visit here can be combined with a trip to 4 of the other major churches in the area as a part of a full day trip.
  • Head to Ashetan Maryam for sunset straight from Lalibela. Situated at over 3000m above sea level, it’s worth the 200 birr entrance fee just for the views alone. Getting here either involves a 5 hour hike or a $10 USD half hour tuk tuk ride. Again Mulu can help arrange.

 

Where to Stay

When it comes to budget accommodation in Lalibela, you can’t go past the excellent Red Rock Lalibela Hotel, which boasts some wonderful ensuite rooms, all with hot water and private balconies that start from just $15 USD a night.

Prices include free wifi and complimentary breakfast.

The Red Rock Lalibela Hotel is incredibly central – within walking distance to the rock-hewn churches – and offers some epic views from its elevated position.

All in all, it’s a winner.

Check out my full review of Red Rock Lalibela Hotel here.

Ethiopia, Lalibela, Mountain Views

 

Restaurants in Lalibela

The following restaurants in Lalibela come recommended:

  • John’s Café
  • Seven Olives
  • Ben Ababa

 

Amenities in Lalibela

Although only a small town, Lalibela has most of the amenities you could need.

There’s a few banks, with the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia offering an ATM machine and the ability to change USD to Ethiopian Birr.

The Ethio Telecom office here, which is amusingly just a tin shed, can hook you up with a local SIM card from Monday – Saturday if required.

Small shops, roadside sellers and tuk tuks are plentiful in Lalibela and the Red Rock Hotel offers a laundry service.

 

PIN IT FOR LATER!

 

There’s no way an Ethiopian itinerary could be complete without a trip to Lalibela and hopefully this article has shown you just why.

Definitely one of the country’s most fascinating destinations, it’s a perfect introduction to the sometimes baffling, often understated beauty of this fabulous African country.

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About the Author

About the Author: Creator of Big World Small Pockets, Stephanie Parker is a budget travel addict! Originally from Jersey in the Channel Islands, Stephanie backpacks the world collecting tips, advice and stories, to share with a smile .

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There Are 20 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Veronika says:

    That’s a great write up, Stephanie! I hope to go to Ethiopia in a month 🙂 How did you find it with the safety – you even carried a big DLSR camera, right? I’ve heard so much about pickpockets, I’m a bit worried to bring any valuable items. Did you bring your laptop too?

    • Steph says:

      Hi Veronika, I’ve been travelling here for 2 months and have had absolutely no safety issues at all. I really feel Ethiopia is one of the safest countries I’ve been to in terms of crime, everyone is very respectable and friendly – even Addis feels amazingly safe for an African capital city. I have a mirrorless camera, so a bit smaller than a DSLR, but no problems travelling and going out with it. Ditto the laptop. I think locals here are very used to foreigners wanting to snap / write about their incredible country. The only thing to be aware of is wifi. Slow at the best of times, nonexistent at the worst! Allow yourself some good time in Addis- the only place with semi-decent connection if you want to blog as you go. FYI. Currently 3G data is not working outside of Addis at all, so do consider this too if you’re getting a SIM. Also check out the other posts I’ve written about Ethiopia – there’s a lot of info there too. Enjoy your time in this spellbinding country! 🙂

  2. Robert D Stevens says:

    Thanks for the wonderful article and advice!

    • Steph says:

      Hi Robert, thanks for your comment and delighted to hear you enjoyed the article. Lalibela really is one of the utterly unique and amazing places. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

      • Kei says:

        Are women allowed inside the church?

        • Steph says:

          Hi Kei, great question. Women are allowed in the vast majority of churches in Lalibela – in the town itself, I believe it’s only 1 small church women can’t enter. The most famous church not accessible to women is Debre Damo, but this not located in Lalibela (it’s nearer to the city of Axum). Hope that helps 🙂

  3. Ricardo Ribeiro says:

    “With no gift shops, no souvenir touts, no staged cultural shows, Lalibela is refreshingly real”

    I am sorry but considering this place is the most touristic in the whole country it’s difficult o believe.

  4. Diaw Martha says:

    Thank you! I am willing to travel to Ethiopia.
    And I found as well local guide recommend by some friends of mine who spend a great vacation in Lalibela

  5. Daniel says:

    Selam dear Steph,
    Thank you very much for puting your Lalibela experiance in a very nice words!
    I just want to suggest what other authenetic expeiacne to do next to the churches, the Highlands above Lalibela (Abune Yosef Massif) has a lot t offer when it comes to endmic animals like Gelada Baboons, Ethiopia Wolf, so many Kind of bird, and the authentic culture, its sepctacular landscepe with off-the-beaten-track, and stay in a village with a farmer Family.

    • Steph says:

      Dear Daniel, many thanks for your lovely words and so happy to hear you like the article on Lalibela. I loved the place (as you can probably tell) and look forward to getting back to explore the amazing surrounds sometime soon. I would love to see the Ethiopian Wolf especially!

  6. Trevor banthorpe says:

    Hi Steph
    Great interesting article which I found very useful prior to my trip for timkat in jan2019.
    I am a pensioner and wondered how fit
    U have to be to visit the churches as I have read there are tunnels, scrambling and steps
    Thanks trevor

    • Steph says:

      Hi Trevor, wonderful to hear you are heading to Ethiopia soon. The main churches within Lalibela sometimes require some minimal climbing and walking through tunnels, but it’s more akin to uphill hiking and ducking down for some short periods of time, rather than any scrambling. It’s hard for me to fully say without knowing how fit you are, but if you’re thinking of heading to Lalibela, I think you must be the adventurous type and therefore will be fine!

  7. Kris says:

    Hi Steph
    I expect to visit Ethiopia January 2019. I would like to go to Erytrea for 2 – 3 days overland (from Axum) but the problem appears as visa on arrival to Addis is single entry one. Is any possibility to ask for re-entry visa before leaving for Erytrea ? Of course it is possible to get new visa in Bole airport but for me it is too expensive to fly back from Asmara. Especially with intention to go to NP’s in North Ethiopia

    • Steph says:

      Hi Kris, so exciting you are heading to Eritrea! Wow! The border wasn’t open when I was last Ethiopia, so I don’t have personal experience of this, but I believe the best option may be for you to get a multi-entry visa for Ethiopia, which you can apply for online. This should allow you to head over the border and then back again without the need to buy a second visa. I’m not sure of the passport you hold – so this will also affect things of course – but check out this site for more information: https://www.evisa.gov.et/#/home Would love to hear more about travelling Eritrea too! I’m getting jealous now … maybe a new travel plan brewing!

  8. Frank says:

    You cannot get .ultimate entry visas on line .only thru an Ethiopian embassy

  9. Joe Brown says:

    Hi! Good write-up but two significant mistakes. Domestic flights can be had for far less (about a third of the price you gave) if you have an international ticket with Ethiopian Airlines already. More importantly, Orthodox Christmas is NOT Timkat. Those are separate holidays. Timkat = Epiphany is on January 19th, not 6th.

    • Steph says:

      Hi Joe, thanks so much for the help with this one. I updated the info on Timket / Christmas, but as you can see I’d already made mention of the cheaper flights you can get when you have an international Ethiopian Airline ticket 🙂 Hope you enjoyed Lalibela. Best Steph

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