A mesmerizing inland sea fringed by lush tropical vegetation, the 3,156 km² Lake Tana is most easily explored from Bahir Dar, a well-equipped port city that doubles as the capital of the Amhara Region. The source of the Blue Nile, Tana was known to the ancient Egyptians as Coloe, while the ancient Greeks extolled it as the ‘copper-tinted… jewel of Ethiopia’. In June 2015, Lake Tana became the centerpiece of a 5,000 km² UNESCO biosphere reserve.
Bahir Dar lies 484 km northwest of Addis Ababa and 175km south of Gondar along good surfaced roads. Ethiopian Airlines (www.ethiopianairlines.com) operates daily flights connecting Bahir Dar to Addis Ababa, Lalibela, and Aksum. The airport is 5km west of the town center and taxis are available there. There are no flights between Gondar and Bahir Dar, so most operators drive between the two. Trips can be organized using local tour operators based in the main towns.
Taxis and bajaji (tuc-tucs) are available to explore the town center and environs.
Several local operators offer half-day trips to the Blue Nile Falls.
The best way to explore the lake monasteries is on a boat trip arranged through your hotel, the Lake Tana Tour Guide Association, or one of several operators in the Marine Authority compound.
Bahir Dar has one of the best selections of hotels in Ethiopia, including several upmarket lakeshore resorts and midrange high-rises.
The main national Christian holidays are all celebrated vigorously in Bahir Dar. These are Ethiopian New Year (11 September), Meskel (Finding of the True Cross; 27 September), Gena (Ethiopian Christmas; 7 January) and Timkat (Epiphany; 19 January). Holidays fall one day later in leap years.
A row of craft stalls runs along the west side of Bahir Dar Giyorgis. The central market is also good for handicrafts. Bahir Dar is a good place to buy an agelgil, a unique type of goatskin ‘picnic basket’ used to carry food by well-to-do travelers.