It should be one of the Wonders of the World. And if it weren’t so hidden away, high in the mountains in Ethiopia, it probably would be. The tiny town of Lalibela contains the world’s most impressive complex of ancient rock hewn churches. In this post, I’ll cover how to see the churches in two days in Lalibela.
- 1 Why visit Lalibela? What’s so great about some old churches?
- 2 How to spend two days in Lalibela
- 3 Two days in Lalibela practicalities
- 4 Start planning your two days in Lalibela now!
Why visit Lalibela? What’s so great about some old churches?
Lalibela is Ethiopia’s biggest tourist draw and arguably the one can’t-miss sight in the entire country. Even if you’re not a church person or a history buff, this town should be on your radar — it’s one of the best places to get familiar with Ethiopia’s 10th-Century-meets-2017 culture.
The main attraction is two clusters of subterranean rock hewn churches. The churches were hacked out of single pieces of volcanic rock from the top down. Some are several stories deep, while others are elaborately carved and decorated. They’re connected through a series of tunnels and footpaths.
Little is really known about the history of the churches. Spend two days in Lalibela and you’ll find yourself hearing far more legend than fact. But it’s commonly accepted that the churches were constructed under King Lalibela’s reign, sometime around the 13th century, in an attempt to establish a “New Jerusalem.”
But what makes Lalibela truly unique is that it’s not just a historical relic. The churches are active Christian shrines, attracting local worshipers and pilgrims from across Ethiopia and beyond. Given that Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity is one of the oldest forms of Christianity still practiced today, visiting Lalibela means you can get a glimpse of what life has been like in this town for hundreds of years.
How to spend two days in Lalibela
Two days is the perfect amount of time to spend in Lalibela. Some travelers rush through in one, but you’d miss the magical experience of early morning mass if you did that. Others stay longer — this would allow you to hike to some of the hilltop monasteries or do a longer trek through the mountains, which is only possible in dry season.
The churches are clustered in two groups, each of which takes about half a day to explore. I suggest starting with the northern cluster on Day 1, and saving the rest for Day 2. In between, stop by the excellent museum and grab a meal at Ethiopia’s quirkiest restaurant (with spectacular views).
Start at the ticket office at the entrance to the northern cluster. It’s just down the hill from the main square. If you want to arrange a guide, this is the best place to do it. You’ll also have to pay your $50 admission, which gets you into all the churches for up to five days and includes a photography permit. Don’t lose your ticket. They check it at each church.
Note that you’ll be expected to remove your shoes at each church you want to enter. Don’t do what I did and wear hiking boots.
The northern cluster
Lalibela’s northern churches are the perfect introduction to the town. You can clamor through tunnels, glimpse into hermit cells, and chat with priests along the way.
Bet Medhane Alem
The largest church is also the first one you’ll see during your two days in Lalibela. Bet Medhane Alem is visibly huge.
You’ll arrive from above. Peer over the edge of the 11-meter-high cliff to the entryway below. The church is supported by a series of pillars, both inside and outside.
You can walk around much of the church from above. Then, climb down the steep staircase to get to the courtyard. This allows you to appreciate the enormity of the structure. Remember, it was all carved top-down out of a single piece of volcanic rock.
As you wander around the outside, keep an eye out along the outer courtyard wall for little niches carved into the stone. Some are graves, while others were formerly used as hermit cells.
Once you’ve explored the outside, check out the interior. There isn’t much to see here other than further appreciation of how huge and cavernous it is.
Look for a tunnel roughly opposite the doorway of Bet Medhane Alem. It leads steeply down the mountain to a large courtyard occupied by three more churches.
Bet Maryam is the highlight of this set. From the outside it’s a letdown after Bet Medhane Alem. But enter the church and you’ll be rewarded with the most elaborate interior artwork in all of Lalibela. Paintings and carvings tell the history of the town. A relief on the outside shows a battle with a dragon.
Behind Bet Maryam are a couple small churches carved out of the side of the rock. Ask a priest to open the House of the Cross and explain its unique cruciform shape. Right beside it is a tiny, plain chapel.
Bet Mikael and Golgotha
Continue down the mountain from Bet Maryam to reach a trio of churches rising out of a network of ditches. This courtyard poses some navigation challenges — narrow, steep staircases and passageways — and it’s not always clear where to go.
The two larger churches in this cluster, Bet Mikael and Golgotha, are partially connected and partially carved into the hillside, rather than being free-standing. Unfortunately women are prohibited from entering Golgotha, but we can enter Bet Mikael. Ask a priest to point you to the correct entrance.
The third structure in this courtyard is the Selassie Chapel, the supposed burial place of King Lalibela. You probably won’t be permitted to enter, but it’s worth poking around the area to see the pilgrims go pay their respects.
Follow the short, clearly labeled path from the courtyard to Adam’s Tomb — a one-time hermit cell decorated with elaborate paintings.
The southern cluster
The southern cluster of churches is best visited in late afternoon or early morning on your two days in Lalibela. It’s more spread-out and sees fewer tourists.
The first church you’ll find in the southern cluster may not have been a church at all — it could have been King Lalibela’s home or some other type of royal palace.
Bet Gebriel-Rafael is surrounded by a moat-like ditch. You’ll have to walk across a shaky wooden bridge to reach the doorway. It looks more like a castle than a church.
Considering how enormous the church looks from the inside, the interior is surprisingly cramped, as the entrance is on the top floor. The priest told me there were other rooms below it, but no one knows how to reach them (this is the kind of questionable legend you’ll hear a lot during your two days in Lalibela).
Bet Abba Libanos
This bizarre-looking church was partially carved out of a cave, but maintains its connection to the cave roof. The rock is a noticeably different color than the others in Lalibela, and in the morning when the sun hits it, it looks almost pink.
Look for the architecturally-interesting windows, check out the eternally-shining light in the interior, and chat with the priest (who speaks good English). Then, check out the surrounding tunnels for a small chapel known as the House of Bread.
You can reach this church by walking around Bet Gebriel-Rafael, but it’s easier to get lost in the southern cluster, so don’t be shy about asking for directions.
Arguably Lalibela’s most beautiful rock-hewn church, Bet Emanual resembles Axumite construction. The exterior is decorated in layers.
The interior has some beautiful architectural elements as well. It’s worth popping in for a quick minute.
Bet Emanuel is located inside, around, and on top of a series of trenches from Bet Abba Libanos. Its hard-to-find location means you’ll have it mostly to yourself. The priest here was very friendly and eager to show me around.
Blink and you’ll miss it — Bet Mercurios looks like it’s part of the cave it was carved from. This church may once have been a prison. Now, it’s adorned with a few beautiful paintings. Much of the interior lies in ruins.
To reach this church, continue following the trenches and staircases from Bet Emanual.
Standing alone, separate from both clusters, is the most impressive and iconic church you’ll see during your two days in Lalibela.
Bet Giyorgis was carved 15 meters deep into the ground in the shape of a cross. You would never know it was there as you traverse the hills of Lalibela — it’s not visible until you’re almost on top of it.
Start by appreciating the view from above. The lookout platforms provide epic views into the surrounding mountains. Admire the truly mind-blowing effort and vision it must’ve taken to create this church.
Then, hike down the steep staircase to the base. The cruciform structure feels much more imposing when it’s looming above you. Walk around the outside, then check out the plain interior.
By far the most magical experience in Lalibela is visiting Bet Giyorgis during morning mass. The church grounds open to visitors at 8 am — be there at 8 on the nose. You’ll see hundreds of white-robe-clad pilgrims in a procession to and around the church. Someone will inevitably be singing/chanting through a loudspeaker. The smell of incense fills the air. Bible-studying priests sit in the nearby bushes for a moment of peace and quiet. There’s even a reasonably good chance you’ll be the only faranji (foreigner) around.
Lalibela Cultural Center
As amazing as the rock hewn churches are, unfortunately, the site museum offers little insight into their history. Far better is the town-operated museum at the bottom of the hill. Even if you’re generally not a museum person, this one is worth visiting if you have two days in Lalibela.
The first half of the museum displays artifacts found in the churches. It includes Bibles written entirely in Ge’ez, ancient manuscripts and textile paintings, and traditional church keys. The walls are lined with explanations about each church and the history of the town.
The second room has a focus on ethnography and is an excellent introduction to Ethiopian highland culture. Displays include wedding dresses, an explanation of the injera (Ethiopian bread) production process, and insights into farm life and the agricultural community.
The museum costs 30 birr (about $1.50) to enter. One of its managers will offer to show you around the ethnography section. The guy who was there when I visited was also eager to chat about American and Ethiopian politics and daily life — we ended up getting coffee together to wait out a rainstorm and he became a good local friend.
Two days in Lalibela practicalities
Beyond the churches, Lalibela is a charming little town. It definitely has a traveler-focused vibe to it, as one would expect from anywhere that has been a pilgrimage site for centuries. Sure, it may have lost some of its authenticity since the days it was reachable only by donkey, but don’t complain too much — the good selection of hotels and restaurants and ease of reaching the churches more than make up for it.
When to visit Lalibela
Lalibela is accessible any time of year. But each season has its advantages and disadvantages.
Many people want to see the churches at their finest, during Ethiopian holidays like Timkat or Genna (in January). While this is meant to be an incredible experience, remember that thousands of pilgrims also come to Lalibela at these times. The town fills to the breaking point with travelers. Prices skyrocket. If you visit during holidays, make reservations far in advance for your hotel and transportation, and consider bringing a tent to save money.
September through May is dry season in Ethiopia. Tourism peaks between October and January. If you want to trek in the highlands around Lalibela, visiting during dry season is essential — guides don’t operate in rainy season. However, given how small a space the churches of Lalibela occupy, and how popular they’re becoming, it may be quite crowded in peak season.
It’s certainly possible to visit Lalibela in rainy season. In Ethiopia, the rains generally mean skies open up in heavy downpours for an hour or so in the afternoon. They generally don’t disrupt sightseeing too much. I visited in August, and during my two days in Lalibela, I got one completely clear day, one gorgeous morning, and one total drenching in the afternoon. On the plus side, I had the churches almost entirely to myself. I literally saw three other faranji tourists in two days. Not bad for one of the world’s most impressive historical sites!
How to get to Lalibela
Unless you are seriously cash-strapped, you’re going to want to fly to Lalibela.
At least one flight a day runs from Addis, Gondar, Bahir Dar, and Axum. Often the plane lands in Lalibela to drop off the one or two faranji passengers before continuing to somewhere else. The airport is small but modern. It’s 25 km or so from the town — arrange a pickup in advance for $5, or try your luck with the taxi drivers who meet flights. There is little chance of finding public transport that will charge you less than the taxi drivers.
My flight from Axum to Lalibela cost $30. Given that traveling by bus would have required at least one extra hotel stay, it probably worked out cheaper.
If you want to brave the buses to Lalibela, you’ll need to plan on at least two days each way, no matter where you’re coming from. You may get through in a day from Gondar/Bahir Dar with just one change at Gashena, but don’t count on it. If starting from Axum, Mekele, or Addis, you’ll need to first go to Weldiya, Dessie, or Sekota. Then you’ll often have to change a second time to get to Gashena, from where you can find a minibus to Lalibela.
If you go this route, be prepared to get stuck at any of the transfer points for the night. The bus journeys all run through the mountains, and motion sickness is very common. Finally, note that Gashena’s minibus stand is the one bus station in Ethiopia infamous for ripping off tourists — find out the real price in advance from a trustworthy local.
Where to stay for your two days in Lalibela
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Since it is Ethiopia’s one major tourism destination, you can find a good variety of hotels to stay in during your two days in Lalibela. Standards are pretty high, but value for money is lower than elsewhere in Ethiopia. Not many $10 rooms here.
There is a large cluster of hotels at the bottom of the hill. On a map, these look like they’re in a convenient location for your two days in Lalibela. In reality they’re far from the center of the action and you’ll have to hike up a steep hill in order to reach the churches. (Lalibela is at roughly 2500 meters and you can feel the breathlessness that comes with walking at altitude.) The benefit is they’re quieter.
The best pick of the bottom-of-the-hill options is Jerusalem Hotel. Rooms start at $30 a night in high season, and are cheaper in low season. The attached restaurant is a good dinner spot. I stayed at the neighboring Villa Lalibela Guesthouse for $20 a night. I liked the homestay vibe and the lovely owners, and the WiFi worked well. But I was disappointed by the lack of a functional shower at that price point.
The two best options for backpackers — where I wish I’d stayed — are Red Rocks Lodge ($25/night) and Asheton Hotel ($25/night in high season, but I was offered a room for $12/night in low season). Both are centrally located.
Where to eat when you visit Lalibela
For such a middle-of-nowhere little town, Lalibela has a good variety of affordable and friendly restaurants.
A tourist attraction in and of itself, and a must-visit during your two days in Lalibela, is Ben Abeba. Perched on the top of a steep slope and designed in the shape of a witch’s hat, the atmosphere is super quirky and fun. The food isn’t half bad either. Try to visit for sunset if you can (the staff can arrange transport back to your hotel). I had a tasty “vegetarian shepherd’s pie,” a drink and a delicious chocolate cake for dessert for about $4 total.
John Lodge is a backpacker mainstay in central Lalibela, convenient for visiting the northern cluster of churches. It has an extensive local and Western menu with backpacker favorites like sandwiches and salads. A wide selection of juices makes it a decent breakfast option.
The best local restaurant in town is Unique Restaurant, across from Asheton Hotel. Tiny, family-run, and extremely friendly, it offers a mostly Ethiopian menu (with some Italian dishes). Try a yetsom beyaynetu (mixed veggie platter) — both the beets and the collard greens were the best I had in Ethiopia. They do coffee ceremonies during the day and may invite you to eat with the family if you’re there at the right time in the evening.
Start planning your two days in Lalibela now!
Whether you’re an expat living in Addis, traveling in Ethiopia for a month, just passing through, Lalibela is worth the trip. The town’s rock hewn churches are one of the most jaw-dropping ancient sites in the world — easily rivaling Petra and Angkor Wat.
It may be out on a limb, deep in the hard-to-navigate mountains of northern Ethiopia, but that’s part of what makes Lalibela so special. If pilgrims can walk from hundreds of miles away, surely you can fit it into your itinerary. Don’t miss this truly spectacular town.
What’s your favorite historical site? Have you ever considered traveling to Lalibela? Leave a comment!
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