It has been said that Bahir Dar is the Ethiopian Riviera. Having been here myself, I would say this term is a bit of a stretch however, the city itself is beautiful and the lake makes a beautiful centre-piece and offers those quintessential Africa views.
Bahir Dar is the third largest city in Ethiopia and has a population of approximately 300,000. It is the capital of the Amhara region and where the official language is Amharic. Bahir Dar is a visually beautiful city where gardens are manicured and rubbish doesn’t line the streets, commonly found in other African cities. This is the reason why it is the summer residence for Ethiopian political heads of staff. Having said this, there is still a very rural part of the city which can be found along dusty roads on the way to Blue Nile Falls, where a considerable proportion of the population lives. Here life moves at a slower pace and the needs of the city aren’t as prevalent. I always seek these areas out for their absolute realness.
The city streets are welcoming and a walk down the main street will reveal a number of places to drink fresh juice, local restaurants to eat in, shops to buy handicrafts and a huge range of accommodations from the bargain basement, up to the superficially stunning.
Where to stay?
I stayed at the Grand Resort and Spa which sits right on the lakeshore. It’s an aesthetically good looking hotel but the bathroom design is how should I say…awkward. Rooms come in at roughly US$110 per night which in Ethiopia standards is fairly expensive, but my days of staying in the cheapest digs are long departed. They have a sauna and steam room, restaurant and outside roof terrace for chilling in the evening under the stars.
Things to do in Bahir Dar
Tana Lake is the diamond in the crown and no visit to Bahia Dar is complete without a boat trip across its shimmering surface to visit the various monasteries and hippopotamus. There are a number of islands with some of the world’s oldest churches and monasteries so renting a slow boat from any one of the boat tours is worth your while. They range from 2 to 12 hours and can be booked by your hotel if you want it pre-arranged.
Even though there is an official price to rent a boat (1000birrs for 1/2 day), you’ll more than likely need to barter the price. Be aware in some of the monasteries that women are not allowed to enter. You can hire a guide on arrival and the going rate in 2015 was 100birrs (mine was included in a package price). Even if you decide that churches are not your thing, or you’ve had enough of monasteries, a boat trip on Lake Tana is a relaxing way to spend time (sunset especially) and be sure to stop at Lake Shore Restaurant for lunch and awesome views.
Despite what you are told on the day, Lake Tana is not the source of the Blue Nile as this is found near to the Blue Nile Falls. You can ask the boatman to take you to the place where the river flows into the lake and it’s here you have an excellent chance to spot hippos that dart the area.
Blue Nile Falls
I really enjoyed this visit and although the road to get to the Blue Nile Falls is unpaved and can feel like an ordeal, the rural setting along the way more than makes up for it. The Blue Nile Falls is roughly 35 km from Bahir Dar and you really need a minimum of 3.5 hours for the round trip. T’o to make life easier on yourself its recommended to hire a private driver to get there and back, but I was assured there is also a public bus option. If you do take the public bus, ignore anyone that tells you the last bus has gone or sold out as they will be trying to sell you an expensive taxi journey. You’ll need to check with the bus on the way out when the last bus departs but its around 17:00.
After arrival to the village of Tis Abay, you’ll need to boat across the river which will cost 10 birrs. Then you walk for 30 minutes until you come to the falls which in terms of size are definitely smaller than Victoria Falls, but still very pleasant. Once upon a time the water was diverted to a hydro-power dam but now it is a beautiful sight in a wonderful location. You can hire a guide upon arrival if you wish and should expect to pay around 100 birrs.
Each evening, local boatsmen feed pelicans in front of the lakeside promenade at sunset. Whilst I didn’t personally see this myself, I hear it is worthy of a visit and nice place to take photos as the sun sets on the lake.
I only spent on night in Bahir Dar but I did have a full day and for me this felt like enough. A visually beautiful city and absolutely worthy of a place on anyones Ethiopia travel itinerary.
Finally here is a video I made of my time in Ethiopia, hopefully you’ll enjoy yourself as much as I did.
If you want to read any other Africa blogs, check these out:
A guide to travelling Sudan
Everything you need to know about travelling in Cameroon
How to spot gorillas in Lobeke National Park
The ultimate guide to travelling in Ethiopia
The Danakil Depression – one of the hottest, driest and lowest places on earth
Tanzania – Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater
Botswana and the Okavango Delta
Happy travelling folks.