It was for nearly 800 years the administrative centre of one of the great empires of the old world along with those of Rome, Persia and China and remains the ecclesiastical capital of the Ethiopian church. It is famous for its stelae, churches, monasteries, tombs and the ruins of palaces and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980.
It is one of the cleaner and better kept Ethiopian towns with cobbled side streets and attractive flame trees providing shade in the main street.
Given the often trying conditions of Ethiopian roads, flying into Axum is a much more reasonable option. There are daily flights from Addis Ababa, Gondar and Lalibela to Axum Airport, 7 km to the east of town. Some flights are direct, others make stops along the way. At the airport, there will be taxis eager to drive you into town. Many hotels also offer van service to and from the airport.
Buses from Addis Ababa take a minimum of three days to travel via Dessie and Mekele. It is a very taxing ride over rough roads. Via Gondar and Shire, the section of the bus ride from Debrek to Inda Aba Guna (70 km before Shire), is just as gruelling - but spectacular - but then it is technically possible to complete the 90 minute journey from Shire to Axum on tarmac by minibus the same day.
From Gondar, take the dawn bus to Shire and change there for Axum – you can usually get through in a day. To travel to Gondar, you must take an afternoon bus to Shire, spend the night there, and catch the dawn bus to Gondar. The road between Shire and Gondar is one of the most spectacular in Africa, but currently, North of Debark until Mai Tsebre, also one of the roughest as the road is being re-made - a process likely to take about 2 years.
From Debark and the Simien Mountains, there is only one bus heading north to Shire. That is the Gondar bus, and it is often full when it passes through Debark. You can either take your chances (it isn't always full), or hire someone from Debark for about 150 birr to go into Gondar the day before and ride the Shire bus to Debark for you, guaranteeing you a seat. (Note that you must make arrangements the morning prior to the day you want to leave. If you are going trekking, you can make arrangements before you leave for your trek.) There are many buses travelling between Shire and Axum. To travel to Debark, go to Shire in the afternoon, spend the night there, catch the Gondar bus the next morning, and get off at Debark. You will probably have to pay the full fare to Gondar (about 50 birr).
Bajaji (blue, three wheeler motorised rickshaws with 250cc two stroke engines imported from India) charge faranji about 20 birr for short trips around town. For the Lioness of Gobedra and the Judith (Gudit) Stelae Field, instead of hiring one of the ultra-expensive tourist minibuses, you can catch a minibus going in the direction of Shire (there are many early in the morning) and ask them to drop you at the Lioness of Gobedra turnoff and catch another one back. The Lioness is not easy to find on your own but a group of children will soon appear who will guide you, and they should be compensated appropriately.
A 100 birr ticket from the tourist commission, located off the roundabout 400 m south of the Northern Stelae Field, is valid for three days and covers admission to all sights that require it, except Tsion Maryam (the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Zion complex) which costs 200 birr for the whole ecclesiastical compound.
- Tsion Maryam. Ethiopian legend has it that this complex is the repository of the Ark of the Covenant (the subject of the controversial book The Sign and the Seal), which is said to have been stolen (with God's will) from the temple of Jerusalem by Menelik I, Solomon's own son by the legendary Queen of Sheba. The chapel in which the Ark is kept is not accessible to anyone, even the Ethiopian emperors. The high entrance fee to the church compound is deterring, but sometimes the guards let you have a look from the outside without having to pay. There are two churches in the compound: the old church, which was built by Emperor Fasiladas in 1665, and a new church built in the 1960s by Haile Selassie. Pilgrims flock to the church for a festival on Hidar 21 (November 30).
- Northern Stelae Field contains numerous stelae, including the fallen Giant Stele and the standing Ezana Stele and Obelisk of Axum, tombs and a very worthwhile museum.
- The monolithic stelae are fashioned out of solid granite. Their mystery lies in that it is not known exactly by whom and for what purpose they were fashioned, although they were likely associated with burials of great emperors. The Ezana Stele, which measures 24 metres (78 feet) high, is standing at a slight lean in the centre of the field and currently supported as a precaution against toppling. Another stele, the Obelisk of Axum, 24.8 metres (80 feet) high, fell while the tombs were being pillaged around the 10th Century AD. It was stolen by the invading forces of Fascist Italy and taken to Rome, where it stood, from 1937 to 2005. It was returned to Axum and re-erected between the Ezana Stele and the Giant Stele in 2008.
- The Great Stele, the biggest monolith in the world, measuring over thirty-three metres (108 feet) in length and weighing over 500 tonnes, fell somewhere around the 4th century AD and now lies in broken fragments on the ground.
- The mausoleum and the tomb of the brick walls are now open to the public again. The Tomb of the False Door is very impressive with its accurate workmanship.
- Ezana's tri-lingual tablet. A well preserved, 2 m tall, thin tablet in Greek, Ge'ez and Latin discovered in the 1980s by a farmer, and praising God for his assistance in the conquest of land in what is now the Yemen. Since it issues a death curse to anyone who dares move it, it is in a rectangular building with a galvanized, corrugated roof that looks like a small farm building at the left hand side of the rough road from the northern stelae field as the tombs of kings Kaleb and Gebre Meskel hove into view. This small building is kept padlocked but the key holder will magically appear (unless at lunchtime between 12:00 and 14:30) if you're patient.
- Tombs of Kings Kaleb and Gebre Meskel. A 20 min walk along the rough road heading northeast from the northern stelae field. Impressive foundations and tombs. Take a torch. From here a signposted and very pleasant uphill rural stroll through giant lobelia shaded lanes will bring you to the Monastery of Abba Pantaleon.
- Monastery of Abba Pantaleon (Abba Penalewan). Perched at the top of the 40 m rock thumb of Debre Katin, this sixth century monastery offers a stunning panorama out to the convoluted and whimsical shapes of the Adwa mountains, but women may not enter this beautifully simple structure. The priest will usually bring out some vellum manuscripts, brass crosses and crowns and other relics from their treasury.
- Dungur Palace (Palace of the Queen of Sheba) (just out of town to the west, on the main road to Shire). The grand entrance steps and the foundations (topped with well dressed ruined walls up to 3 m high in places) of this palace near the Judith stelae field clearly indicate that this was the largest and most impressive palace in Axum. Although everyone calls it the Palace of the Queen of Sheba, it actually dates from the 7th Century AD, about 1,500 years after the time of the Queen of Sheba.
- Judith (Gudit) Stelae Field (just out of town to the west, on the main road to Shire). Of inferior quality in comparison to the Northern Stelae Field. On the other side of the road from the Dungur Palace.
- Ezana park contains a series of al fresco billiard tables and, in a circular building that looks padlocked but maybe isn't, a tablet from the time of King Ezana inscribed in Ge'ez, Greek and Sabaean.
- Lioness of Gobedra. A stone carving of a lion, a few km out of town in the direction of Shire. It is close to the quarry where the stelae were made. Ask a local boy to show you where.
There is an ATM that accepts Visa cards at Wegagen Bank.
- AB Restaurant, ☎ . 06:00 until 22:00. Close to Ethiopian Airlines office. Serves traditional dishes, with dancing on Saturday nights.
- Africa Hotel (see the Sleep section below) has a large, clean restaurant where a steak club sandwich with lettuce and tomato together with chips cost 30 birr in June 2013. Traditional and other "international" dishes are also served and their bar has a large screen LCD TV if you want to watch some soccer or the manic, shoulder-shaking style of the local dances.
- Pizza Restaurant, turn north one block east of the Africa Hotel into the street that leads to the Remhai Hotel and this small place is on the right of the street. A large pizza, "but-not-as-we-know-it-in Italy, Croatia, Canada or Singapore", cost 60 birr in June 2013.
- Underground near the Ambassador Hotel on the west side of town. Large selection of imported spirits.
- Zebra also near the Ambassador Hotel, stays open until about 03:00. Reasonable prices for drinks with a Dashen or St George beer costing 20 birr and popular with the ladies. DJ and dancing every night.
- Africa Hotel, on the main highway from Shire to Axum Airport right in the middle of town, ☎ . One of the more popular hotels in town for travellers with a bearable, although not really desirable, restaurant with excellent salads, a small bar, and a friendly helpful owner/manager. Rooms are triples, doubles or singles with individual bathrooms all allegedly with hot showers and DSTV. Nice, secure courtyard with fruit trees. MasterCard and VISA accepted; free Wi-Fi and airport shuttle - just. From 175 birr for a single traveller.
- Brana Hotel, on the main highway from Shire to Axum Airport on the eastern fringe of this rapidly growing town. This is one of the three most luxurious and modern hotels in town and everything works - unusual for Ethiopia! Rooms are large and both luxuriously and comprehensively furnished with rooms on the first floor above the ground having a balcony with a good view of the surrounding mountains. Restaurant with excellent salads, a large bar, and a friendly and helpful manager. Rooms are triples, doubles, twins or singles with large en suite bathrooms, all with hot showers and 20 of the 28 rooms have hip baths. 13 channels of satellite TV including BBC World, Al Jazeera and 4 movie channels. Secure courtyard with car-parking for 12 vehicles. Conference room caters for parties of up to 300 with overhead projector and whiteboard, etc. Standby 26kW generator. MasterCard and VISA accepted; free Wi-Fi and airport shuttle - just phone +251 347 752 349. From 900 birr for a single traveller.
- Consolar Hotel (sic)
- Kaleb Hotel, from 120 birr (single). The rooms are fine but the place is fairly noisy as there are discothèques nearby. The food is not worth mentioning.
- Yeha Hotel, government owned hotel overlooking the Northern Stele field from US$55. Good restaurant with mediocre service. Excellent view from terrace.
By minibus to Shire (40 birr), Adwa (around 26 birr)
By minibus to Yeha to see a temple from a pre-Christian and pre-Aksumite civilization, a church, and a small museum