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.
What to See?
- Sites of interest in Lake Tana and Bahirdar include the lake’s many picturesque island monasteries, most of which date to medieval times, and the stupendous Blue Nile Falls south of Bahir Dar.
- Its sprawling daily market is a fun place to explore, weaving between stalls that sell everything from traditional handicrafts to fresh tropical fruit. It also hosts several tourist-friendly traditional music venues.
- Bahir Dar’s oldest architectural landmarks are the medieval church of Bahir Dar Giyorgis and an adjacent stone tower built for Emperor Susenyos in the 1620s.
- At least 20 old monasteries stud the forested islands and peninsulas of Lake Tana. Many were established during the 14th-century AD rule of Amda Tsion, but others, most notably Tana Chirkos, with its trio of ancient Judaic sacrificial pillars, might date back thousands of years.
- The most popular monastery with tourists, due to its proximity to Bahir Dar and tolerance of female visitors, is Ura Kidane Mihret. which contains some of Ethiopia’s finest ecclesiastic artwork in Ethiopia and also has a superb museum. For adventurous seafarers, a full-day boat outing is required to visit the equally worthwhile but more remote likes of Daga Istafanos, Tana Chirkos, or Narga Selassie.
- Tana supports remarkable biodiversity. More than 20 fish species are endemic to the lake. Hippos are frequently seen within walking distance of Bahir Dar. Birdlife ranges from flotillas of great white pelicans to colorful weavers and their neat little nests, to the African fish eagles that perform a haunting duet high in the trees. The conservationist ethos of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church means that many of the lake’s monasteries double as virtual nature sanctuaries, protecting a range of forest birds and monkeys
Practical information before your trip to
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.