Like many travelers in Ethiopia, we went to Gondar because it serves as the main departure hub for the Simien Mountains. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much prior to arriving; I was so excited for our trekking that I mentally dismissed Gondar as just a transit location. But the city positively surprised me. We spent a full day sightseeing among castles, bath houses and seminaries, and at the end of the day I was so happy with the time we had spent in one of the former capitals of Ethiopia. In this post I will give you some ideas about how to spend one day in Gondar so you can optimize your time there.
Morning – coffee and castles
Our international flight into Ethiopia arrived in Addis Ababa early in the morning, and we immediately took the next flight out to Gondar. If you want to make the most out of your day, make sure you take the 07:10 or 08:20 morning flight, or plan to arrive the evening before.
Start your day with a coffee somewhere in the Piazza or its adjoining streets. This area still shows the influences of the Italian occupation that took place in the 1930s. Although the presence of Mussolini’s forces only lasted for a brief few years, it has left its mark on this central area in the city. You can still see some Italian-style shop fronts and even a cinema. The piazza area has plenty of choices if you want to enjoy a good Ethiopian coffee: a strong brew served in small cups, just like an Italian espresso. Except that the Ethiopians pour their cups so full that you cannot escape spilling some of the liquid black gold on the pavement as you sit on one of the storefront benches overlooking the busy streets. I could probably spend a good few hours just sitting here, people-watching. Donkeys, priests, playful children, churchgoers, bajajs, bearded men walking with sticks, students in pink school uniforms: everything and everyone passes by in an intriguing orchestrated chaos. An old man shuffles ahead on the sidewalk across the street, and then bumps into a parked vehicle. Seemingly disoriented he stands there, touching the car. The man sitting next to us at the coffee bar shouts at him and then the man on the other side of the street slowly makes his way around the vehicle. “That old man is blind,” he explains to us. “So I have to help him by telling him there is a car on his usual route. He walks here every day so now he is confused.” This shows that Gondar is a small town at heart: a place where this old man blindly knows his way and where people know each other and look out for each other.
After finishing your coffee (and maybe one of those cakes?), walk the short distance to Fasil Ghebbi, the Royal Enclosure, to admire what’s left of Gondar’s impressive 17th century fortress city. Walk around the compound, climb the staircases leading up to grand halls with creaking wooden floors and imagine how this was once a lively city within the city, full of palaces, libraries, horse stables and markets. You can walk around on your own and then it may take you an hour or two to see most of the area. You can also opt to hire a guide who can explain you all about this UNESCO World Heritage Site which is likely to enrich your experience.
- Entrance fee 200 birr (ticket also valid for Fasiladas'Bath)
- Opening hours 08:30-12:30 & 13:30-18:00
- Official guides from the cooperative can be hired inside the enclosure, just past the ticket booth. Prices start at 200 birr.
When Fasil Ghebbi closes for lunch it is time to grab a bite – there are several places that serve lunch just north of the Royal Enclosure, such as Tele Café near the central post office.
Afternoon – Fasiladas’ Bath, Kuskuam Complex and Debre Birhan Selassie church
The afternoon is all about exploring more ancient structures, with some glimpses of current-day Ethiopian life in between. Take a bajaj, a minibus, or just use your feet to arrive at Fasiladas’ Bath, a large bathing complex that lies about 2 km north of Gondar’s city center. The large stone pool and its adjacent buildings stand in a peaceful garden setting, with my favourite feature being the large trees growing over the stone walls, their roots enveloping the structure and reclaiming it to nature.
- Entrance fee 200 birr (this is included in your entrance ticket to Fasil Ghebbi. The best order to visit is to first see Fasil Ghebbi and then go to Fasilada's Bath, because at Fasil Ghebbi there is a ticket office while at the Bath there is not, but you may be prompted to show your ticket there)
- Opening hours 08:30-18:00
- Note that you can't actually swim here :-) The baths are currently not in use.
After spending some time walking around the bath and perhaps sitting among the trees to enjoy the silence of the place, continue your trip to Empress Mentewab’s Kuskuam Complex that lies about 4 km out of town. It is similar to Fasil Ghebbi in the sense that it contains several centuries-old structures, but it is less well preserved – which at the same time gives it its charm. Empress Mentewab ordered this site to be built in 1730, and today you can walk around the ruins of her palaces. It is much quieter place than Fasil Ghebbi and it is perfect for strolling through the high grass, watching the vultures that patiently stake out in the large trees that surround the area, and exploring the various ruins.
There is a small but very interesting museum on site in one of the palace rooms. It houses a collection of ancient transcripts and regal paraphernalia and even a skeleton in an open casket. It is said to be the remains of Empress Mentewab herself. What is fascinating about the museum is that all of these old and precious items are kept in conditions that are far from ideal: the small rooms are damp and the delicate items are unprotected; anyone can touch them. Amazing to think that these are objects that in any western museum would probably be kept in a special airconditioned room to preserve them are just lying around here, slowly decaying.
Empress Mentawab's Kuskuam Complex
- Entrance fee is 100 birr; you can pay this after your visit to the museum
- Opening hours 08:00-16:00
- If you want to see the museum you have to find the guy who holds the keys to the door. He usually sits nearby in the area, ask around if you don't find him immediately.
Right next to the Kuskuam Complex there is a relatively modern church that is worth popping into for a moment, and on the hills next to the complex you’ll find a deacon seminary where young boys are being trained to become priests or monks. You will find them studying their theological books all around the compound – they have also discovered the peace and quiet of this place that is only slightly disturbed by their mumbling of holy texts. If you walk around the seminary grounds you can see the small huts where the boys sleep together in groups, and the open air kitchen where they cook their own meals.
Just behind the Kuskuam complex we stumbled upon a mass of people who had gathered around a priest who was blessing them by besprinkling them with water. We heard that a new water well has recently been discovered here, and the general belief is that it provides holy water. The large crowd seemed impatient to be baptised. They were all scrambling for a spot close to the priest. Some persons enter a tent where, we were told, they are fully immersed under water to wash away their sins. Some seem to need some thorough scrubbing: they appear to be possessed by evil demons as they violently shake their bodies and let out ghostly howls. The contrast between the motionless ruins of Kuskuam and this chaotic and dynamic scene couldn’t be bigger.
It’s time to make your way back to town to see the magnificent Debre Birhan Selassie church, which for me was an even bigger highlight than the royal complexes. It is the oldest preserved church in Gondar: the story goes that when dervishes arrived from Sudan to ransack the city and destroy all of its Christian structures, a large bee colony guarded the church and prevented it from being wrecked. It may not look so exciting from the outside, although it is situated in a pleasant walled garden, but once you go inside (women and men enter through different doors) you will be amazed by the intricate ceiling paintings that depict the faces of hundreds of angels, each with their own unique expression. Like the Mona Lisa, the angels’ eyes seem to follow your movements as you walk around the church. Some seem to express sorrow, others curiosity and yet others appear quite content. You’ll leave the church with a slight neck cramp from looking up in awe for an extended period of time – what a sight! On your way back into town keep an eye out for the small booths at the side of the road where retired government employees are offering cheap legal advice to people from Gondar and surroundings, for example farmers who are enveloped in land disputes with the local government. There are official law firms that they could hire to prepare their legal cases, but most farmers do not have sufficient funds for that. The retired government employees have set up their booths right across the street from some of the official law firms and it is an interesting sight to see lines of them conversing with their clients, showing them the relevant legislation and helping them to write their letters of objection or defense.
Debre Birhan Selassie Church
- Entrance fee is 100 birr, to be paid at the entrance gate to the garden
- Opening hours: 07:30-12:30 & 13:30-17:30
- The church lies northeast of Gondar's city center. It is a fairly steep walk of probably up to 45-60 minutes so if you are short on time it is better to take a bajaj.
Evening – Dinner and dance
After a full day of sightseeing you will be happy to sit down for a good Ethiopian meal. A well known place is Four Sisters, which serves Ethiopian fares that come with performances of traditional music and dance. You’ll probably be surrounded by more tourists than locals, but the food gets really good reviews. On our day in Gondar it was closed due to a private function so we walked over to Master Chef where we had a decent candlelight meal of injera.
The candlelight was because of a power cut, so be sure to bring a torch as the streets of Gondar are very dark at night. It will help you find your way to your hotel, for example Lodge du Chateau, a charming small scale accommodation that is set around a lovely garden and that has an upstairs terrace with beautiful views over the city and the valley. Its location is right next to the Fasil Ghebbi complex – it doesn’t get much more central than that!
So there you have it – if you have just one day to spend in Gondar you still have the opportunity to see plenty of interesting sights. With a bit of planning you will be able to see and do all of the above in one day – just be mindful of the attractions’ opening hours as some of them close for lunch. I hope you will love Gondar as much as I did!
A guide in Gondar
It is easy and safe to go around Gondar on your own to see the different sites, but if you have only one day to spend it makes sense to hire a driver for the day who may double as a guide. Some of the sights are not situated very centrally so if you were to walk there or organise separate transportation for each leg you may lose precious time. My recommendation is to contact Simon, one of the owners of Lodge du Chateau, who can organise transportation (guided if so desired) along all sights for you, including transport by modern minivan. Contact him through email@example.com or +251 0918 7703 32.