Bahir Dar, also spelt Bahar Dar, on the southern shore of Lake Tana, the biggest lake in Ethiopia, is the third largest city in the nation, after Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa, with a population of a quarter of a million. It's the capital of the Amhara region, dominated by the Amhara people, the Ethiopia's second largest grouping; the Ethiopian official language is Amharic. Bahir Dar is a clean and well-maintained city by African standards. Even the cheaper accommodation has neat, but basic, services.
Ethiopian Airlines operates scheduled flights every day from Addis Ababa (ADD IATA) and Lalibela (LLI IATA). There are three to five direct 1-hour flights per day from and to Addis Ababa. Multi-stops flights to Lalibela connect to Gondar (GDQ IATA) and Axum (AXU IATA) in the north.
In September 2015, adult 1-way direct trip from Addis Ababa were around 3091 birr ($148) for foreigners, or 1163 birr ($56) for Ethiopians and residents (or those who have flown Ethiopian internationally - note that you can get the discounted prices by simply booking a ticket, for instance a refundable Nairobi to Addis fare, for the near future).
Routes through Bahir Dar
Bahir Dar is 555 km north-east by road from Addis Ababa, using national highway 3. It's 170 km south of Gondar via road 3, and 314 km east of Lalibela via Woleta.
The city is connected by daily buses to/from Addis Ababa and Gondar. Many private minibuses also run to/from Gondar and Addis Ababa. They often do not leave from the bus station but are instead arranged through your hotel or by local touts (who will find you before you find them!). The minibuses are more expensive but faster, especially to Addis Ababa. Try Selam bus or Sky bus for a more comfortable (and potentially safer) ride.
To get to Bahir Dar from Lalibela by bus, take a dawn bus to Gashina (about two hours south of Lalibela) and change there to the Woldia - Bahir Dar bus, which passes through Gashina around 10:00. To get from Bahir Dar to Lalibela, take the dawn Bahir Dar - Woldia bus and catch the last Lalibela bus at Gashena, which passes through around 15:00.
A ferry service runs between Bahir Dar and Gorgora via Dek Island and villages on the lakeside.
Bajajs (three wheel rick-shaws) are the most common form of transportation in the city. There are also blue minibuses, but few still exist as means to get around town. Bajajs are inexpensive and cost no-more than two birr per line of road and ten birr for a private charter.
- Some of the world's oldest churches and monasteries are on islands in Lake Tana. There are plenty of boat tours available to the monasteries (Entrance at every monastry is 100 Birr as of 2016); these range from 2 to 12 hours in length and can be booked through your hotel or by one of the many touts in the city. They can organise a boat tour for half day and the other half a trip to the Blue Nile Falls. It should cost no more than 400 Birr per person, however you can have it much cheaper by chartering your own boat and only visit the islands you want to see and also getting a local minibus to the waterfall. In some of these monasteries, women are not allowed to enter. Be cautious and aware of the traditions and rules of the Ethiopian Orthodox church when you visit. (Note: These churches are definitely unique to Ethiopia, but they tend to be expensive and the tours are overrated. The boat trip on the lake is nice, but there are better examples of rural churches elsewhere in Ethiopia in a more pleasant and less touristy environment.)
- Bahir Dar grew around a Jesuit settlement, founded in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, from which time the Pedro Páez building dates. One of Emperor Haile Selassie's palaces is located near the city, and the Emperor considered moving the national capital to the town. The palace is an impressive architectural work of its time. Facing Lake Tana it provides a beautiful, picturesque scene of the Blue Nile.
- If you take a boat trip on Lake Tana ask the 'driver' to take you to the place where the Blue Nile river flows out of the lake. It is very atmospheric, and probably the best place to spot hippo.
- 1 Blue Nile Falls (Tis Abay in Amharic) (Take a bus or car to the town Tis Abay (about 35 km south-east from Bahir Dar) and walk from there (20 minutes). To take the short route, you have to cross the river by boat. However the long route over the stone bridge is more comfortable and scenic.). The water is no longer diverted to a hydro-power dam. It is a very nice sight – smaller than Niagara Falls, but amazingly scenic. You take a big trip in the countryside to reach the falls. If you take the bus, ignore anyone in the village who insists that the last bus back to Bahir Dar will be full and wants you to pay them to hold a seat, or that the last bus has already left but they can offer you an amazingly expensive taxi ride. There are plenty of buses back to Bahir Dar, the last one leaves at 17:00 or later, and the bus conductor will find a seat for you! You can also arrange for a tour to the falls through your hotel. Also ignore any guides that insist that you need a guide to find your way. Take a sneak peak on a map before you go and you will be fine. Ask the locals to find your way. 150 birr entrance to the area. Boat is 20 birr one way. You do not need the boat if you walk the regular, longer and more comfortable way. There is an official guide (250 birr as of 2016) which you won't need if you take the long way as it is obvious. The guide may tell you only halfway there that you need to pay him..
- 2 Martyr's Memorial Monument, Gonder Road (east side of the Blue Nile River, close to the bridge). Huge monument with waterfalls going to Blue Nile. Include a museum with pictures.
- 3 Palace of Emperor Haile Selassie & Viewpoint over Bahir Dar/Blue Nile, Bezawit Road (east side of Blue Niler river, a hill at the south-east of city).
- 4 Kidus Giorgis church, Giorgis Road crossing Lake Street (Close to the Lake).
- Cycling Almost everyone rides bicycle to get around and bikes can be rented at Ghion Hotel.
- Enkutatask (Ethiopian New Year): 11 or 12 September annually. The place to be on the eve of this holiday is on the shore of Lake Tana. Deacons in the monasteries on islands all over the lake will make music all night, leaning on canes or sticks so they can stand all night. They chant and play musical instruments like the drum and sistrum that go back to the traditions of the Old Testament's King David. Oddly enough, the locals seem to pay no attention to the sounds emanating from the churches, although it may be possible for a traveler to creep undetected into a side room and listen from outside the curtain to the various pitched drums fugue back and forth.
Bahir Dar has a big and colorful market that is open every day. Saturday is the biggest day. Sunday has very few activities.
The local specialty is small footstools covered in goat hide. Find them along the road that runs from Ghion hotel to the main highway. They can apparently be "unstuffed" for travel.
There are ATMs that accept Visa cards at Dashen Bank and Wegagen Bank.
- 1 Market, Giorgis road. Open every day, Saturday is the biggest day, Sunday has very few activities. A big and colorful market. The second largest in Ethiopia, after Mercato in Addis Ababa.
- 2 Goat skin handicraft products shops (Basket market), Giorgis road. Around twenty shops selling goat skin seats and others.
- Checheho Cultural Restaurant, Lake Rd (near Wude Coffee). Not just a restaurant, an excellent cultural club with azmari music and dance performances, one of the best nightspots in town.
- 1 Lake Shore Resort, Lake Street (along the lake near Summerland Hotel). It has good food and amazing views of the lake from the garden. The foiled fish has a good reputation. 90 birr for the foiled fish.
- 2 Desset Restaurant, Lake Street (just behind the big tower “Grand Resort and Spa”). A new restaurant that has OK food and a beautiful view of the lake. Highly recommended to enjoy a beer here while watching the sun set.
- Azewa Hotel has some of the best fish goulash in the country and is inexpensive.
- Tana Restaurant serves fabulous fish dishes cheaply.
- Al-Hanan Muslim Restaurant, near the Dalot Pension, serves huge and tasty mutton dishes, even during Lent. Also a good place for an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. The owners are exceedingly nice and don't charge tourists extra.
- Hotel Bahir Dar. Cosy outdoor area and inexpensive food.
- WaWi Pizzeria & Restaurant. Second floor restaurant with both indoor and outdoor seating. Serves pretty good Western food. 25 - 80 birr.
- Balageru Cultural Club. Meals, tej and azmari music.
- There are many cultural night clubs throughout the city center.
- There are a few Western music clubs, with Dream House and a bar above Friendship Cafe the most popular.
- 1 Wude Coffee, Lake Street. Wood and stone building. Nice for a quiet drink. Also serves Ethiopian food.
- Hot Spot, inside the big tower “Grand Resort and Spa”.
Prices are changing quickly. The Ghion Hotel was permanently closed early 2015, it will become a recreational area.
- Koriftu Resort is a nice getaway after roughing it around Ethiopia. One of the nicest resorts in Ethiopia with a complimentary massage for every night's stay. Good, but expensive, restaurant and a nice pool.
- Dalot Pension, near the bus station, singles from 20 birr, modern, clean and convenient, best value in town.
- Tana Pension. Rooms from US$2.50, the food is marvelous.
- Hotel Bahir Dar (in the center, street behind Lake Street next to the huge antenna). Backpacker hotel with a terrace in the middle and a good restaurant attached. Beware of Muhammed, a nice boy who hangs there and tries to hustle you overpriced tours. 150 birr singles.
- 1 Bin Anbessa Hotel, Lake Street. Large hotel with restaurant. Was being renovated in 2013. Friendly staff. Very good, by Ethiopian standards, free Wi-Fi. Double with bathroom for 480 birr if you're Ethiopian, otherwise it's 600 birr.
- 2 Blue Nile Hotel, Beg Tera (250 m from the Lake Street), ☎ (reception), (office), (mobile), fax: , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check-out: 11am. OK with old rooms. View on the lake on the 3-5th flood. Free Wi-Fi. They can organize for you the boat trip and car trip to the Blue Nile Falls. Festive area (noise). Not to be confused with “Blue Nile Resort Hotel”. 500/600 birr Sgl/Dbl.
- 3 Grand Resort and Spa, Lake Street, next to Stadium (the big tower, visible from everywhere). $70/$90/$200 sgl/dbl/suite.
- 4 Papyrus Hotel, Giorgis road crossing Arba Meter road. Mid-range hotel with swimming pool.
- 5 Blue Nile Resort Hotel (formerly Avanti Blue Nile Hotel), Lake Street, ☎ , , , (mobile), e-mail: email@example.com. A luxury resort on the shore of the lake. Not to be confused with “Blue Nile Hotel”.
Like many other cities in Ethiopia, Bahir Dar is generally safe and free of violent crimes.
You may encounter some hustlers around the shore of Lake Tana to get you rent a boat they may get a kick-back for. The boats on Lake Tana that take you to visit the monasteries have fixed rates. Make sure the self-appointed "brokers" won't get you charged a jacked up fee for the boats.
As of 18 October 2016, the British government advise against all but essential travel to Bahir Dar. As the capital of Amhara region, it is likely to be an epicentre of further protests by the Amhara people against the government in Addis Ababa. It is likely that protests, with high risk of turning violent, could soon become a norm in Bahir Dar and the surrounding region.
There are some internet cafes.
- Internet Cafe in Ghion Hotel, Phone: 00251 918 766005 (Hanna)
- Gondar – to the north and the nearest big city, it has a complex of castles and palaces
- Lalibela – to the west, its rock-hewn churches are a big attraction