Lalibela, Ethiopia, often called the “New Jerusalem,” is a loveable little town located in the north. It’s absolutely a must-see when visiting Ethiopia. It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not, these volcanic rock-hewn churches are absolutely bucket-list worthy.
Here’s the Inside look at the 11 best things to do while you’re visiting the churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia:
1) Know the History
Lalibela, Ethiopia is packed with an amazing history. King Lalibela spent time in Jerusalem during his youth. He absolutely revered this holy city. But when it was captured in 1187, he set off to build the “New Jerusalem.”
Each church, carved out of one rock, is meant to symbolize humility and unity. Each of the churches are named after a Saint or Biblical word. Even Lalibela’s river is referred to as the River Jordan.
Being active in use since the day it was founded, every inch of these churches are filled with mysterious rituals and secrets.
2) Get a Guide
If you’re traveling with our Ethiopian travel agency, one of our amazing local guides will take you upon the journey. If you’re venturing alone, it’s worth getting a guide to show you everything and keep you from getting lost. While there are guides lined up at the churches, it’s better to arrange one that you can trust through your hotel and confirm the price before you leave.
Guides like ours studied the history of the churches and some even grew up in this tiny town. It makes a big difference to have someone explain to you the history and layout of each church to make your experience that much more powerful.
3) Go Inside the Churches
One of the best parts about visiting the churches is getting to climb inside each and every one. Inside you’ll find ancient rugs and artwork. You’ll see priests and the interior of each magnificent church.
It is required that you take off your shoes before entering. You’ll see a pile of other shoes at the gate of each one. So far, it’s rather safe and the chances of your shoes being stolen while you’re inside are slim. However, you might want to wear socks so that your bare feet aren’t touching the floor themselves.
4) Wear the Right Shoes
Despite the fact that you’ll be taking your shoes on and off, you don’t want to wear slip-on or sandals. Don’t forget that the churches are carved into the rock. It feels a bit more like hiking than church-attending. At times the small climbs will make you feel out of breath. They are 2500 feet above sea level after all.
Wearing good shoes will also help protect you from any falls. Because there are no guard rails and some of the potential falls are quite steep.
5) Be Sensitive
What makes Lalibela, Ethiopia so special and unique is that the churches are still active today. Unlike other churches or ancient sites around the world that are just for tourists, Lalibela still draws church-goers every day. In fact, every year it’s the site of a huge pilgrimage that people flock to during the Christmas season (Ethiopian Christmas is actually celebrated usually the 7th or 8th of January).
There’s no tourist shop. No cultural performances. It’s real and authentic, and that’s part of its charm. With that being said, be sensitive to the Orthodox Christians that are there for religious reasons. Of course, you can take photos and enjoy your time, but don’t get in the way or do anything that would offend those coming for non-tourists reasons.
6) Attend a Church Service
Because it’s still an active religious center, you can actually attend a real-life mass. Normally, they are held early in the morning around 4 or 5 am. Perhaps that’s too early for some. But it’s a magical experience to be huddled inside one of the churches next to strangers and a priest before dawn. Watching the sunrise near the churches is also a special experience that most miss out on.
7) Find the Tunnels
There are at least two tunnels in Lalibela that connect the churches. The one from Bet Gabriel-Rufael is 35 meters long and pitch black. It’s supposed to represent hell. According to local tradition, you are not supposed to use any flashlight or light. It’s eerie. Carved out of rock, bent over while you’re feeling you’re way to the end. It’s definitely an unusual experience.
There have been a few rare occurrences where travelers were robbed while in the tunnel. But they have significantly cracked down on that, and your guide can give you the update on the safety of doing it when you’re there.
8) See the Burials
Along many of the outside walls surrounding the churches are chambers where past monks, priests, and notable individuals have been buried. You can actually see their graves and their skeletons. It can be a bit eerie, but it really adds to the experience and reminds you of the deep history of the churches.
9) Take a Break
In total, there are 13 churches. It can actually be quite tiring to visit them all at once. Because they’re spread out, you’re doing some moderate exercise and climbing to see them, under the sun, and there are no refreshments or lunch places available inside the church areas.
Don’t be afraid to sit down on one of the hills and relax for a while. Or better yet, visit for a couple of hours in the morning and then leave for lunch. Your passes are good for a few days so you can come back in the afternoon or the following morning.
10) Admire the Architecture
While walking around, trying to take pictures and see everything, don’t forget the magic and wonder of it all. Each church is carved out of one giant volcanic rock centuries ago! Experts still haven’t figured out how long it would have taken them to chisel out each one. Most religious locals in the area claim they did it only with the help of angels.
While you’re there, really take in the scene and the wonder of it all.
11) Explore the rest of Lalibela, Ethiopia
While the churches are the highlight of the town, all of Lalibela, Ethiopia is pretty charming too. Don’t be afraid to join in on a game of table tennis (ping pong) that you’ll see on the streets. Or take a bajaj (three-wheeled small motor vehicle) to get around. There’s also a famous restaurant that you’ll want to enjoy several times called Ben Abebe. For hikers, there are several mountains in the areas to enjoy. There’s even one that has an eco-lodge at the top.