Gondar is probably the most immediately impressive of Ethiopia’s major ex-capitals, but it is perhaps less enduringly memorable than either Axum or Lalibela. Gondar is one of Ethiopia’s largest cities, yet it has retained its friendly character and is generally considered to be one of the most welcoming towns on the ‘tourist route’.
Much of the modern town centre dates from the Italian occupation of 1936-41, although in the last few years a number of bars and hotels have been repainted and refurbished and a number of new buildings are being constructed as you read this.
Gondar was founded in 1635 by Emperor Fasiledes (as in the name of our link school). For several centuries Ethiopia had been ruled from a succession of temporary capitals and Fasiledes recognised that a permanent capital might help provide greater internal stability.
By the time of Fasiledes’ death in 1667 Gondar was the largest and most important city in the empire. It retained its position as the capital of Ethiopia for 250 years, though this status was largely nominal from the late 18th century onwards.
How to get there
Ethiopian Airlines flies between Gondar and Addis Ababa, Bahar Dar, Axum and Lalibela. The airport is around 20 km out of town so you’ll have to get on to a taxi or a minibus.
The most straightforward way to get from Bahar Dar to Gondar is by bus, which will take around six hours. You can also catch a bus from Addis, which will take around two days and you will stop overnight at Debre Markos or one of the smaller towns on the way.
From the north, the bus from Axum needs a day and a half as it must ascend the dramatic connecting road up onto the plateau, passing very close to the Simien Mountains. You will need to get a bus from Axum to Shire, and then from Shire to Gondar. Road transport from Lalibela is possible but difficult, with no obvious direct service.
Where to stay
The Goha Hotel, part of the government Ghion chain, is a couple of kilometres from the town centre on top of a hill. The great view over the town and above-average service make this one of the best hotels in northern Ethiopia. Rooms cost US$ 36/48 single/double.
Those on a budget could try the Fogera Hotel, which has a period Italian feel to it. The semi-detached villas with twin beds cost Birr 135. The very comfortable Circle Hotel is Birr 80 for a single room with large double bed and Birr 100 for a twin.
There is the usual cluster of dollar-a-night dumps around the bus station. The Ethiopia Hotel, in the central Piassa, is where many backpackers stay, and probably the pick of the places in this range. Rooms cost Birr 15/25 single/twin.
Where to eat
The Goha is a nice place to head to watch the sunset before the best food in town.
For those who are slightly more price conscious, the good restaurant at the Fogera Hotel has main courses for Birr 10-12. The Circle Hotel, with a good rooftop bar, does great roast lamb. For traditional Ethiopian food try the Mintu Wuhab Restaurant.
Delicious Pastry serves cakes, biscuits, coffee and fruit juices, and is highly rated by all, and the Teleclub beneath the telecommunications centre is another popular breakfast spot. Gondar is well known for its nightlife, with the greatest density of bars clustered in the backstreets behind the NTO.
What to see and do
The Royal Enclosure lies at the heart of Gondar and gives the city much of its character. Containing five castles, and several smaller buildings, it is a fascinating place to explore. It may be worth getting a guide as they are very knowledgeable. The most impressive castle, built by Fasiledes around 1640, shows a unique combination of Portuguese, Axumite and even Indian influences.
About 2km out of town lies the large sunken Fasiledes bathing pool. The pool is still used for the Timkat Festival which takes place every January. Tickets cannot be bought at the pool itself but entrance is included in the price for visiting the Royal Enclosure (providing you visit both on the same day).
The church of Debre Birhan Selassie, a half-hour walk out of town, is regarded by some experts to contain the finest art of its period anywhere in Ethiopia. The church is most famous for its roof which is decorated with a painting of 80 cherubic faces. Apparently Emperor Yohannis I intended to move the Ark of the Covenant here from Axum. Photography is permitted but useless without a flash or tripod.
A short taxi ride out of Gondar is the falasha (see the Lake Tana section) village of Woleka which was vacated by all but one of its falasha occupants during the last famine. One falasha woman remains but the village continues to make traditional pottery, and there’s an interesting temple. Realistically this is the only place in Ethiopia where you can check out something of the falasha tradition.
Where to go from there
You can fly out from Gondar to Addis Ababa, Bahar Dar, Axum or Lalibela.
You can catch a bus to Debark, which is the base for exploring the Simien Mountains. The journey will take roughly four hours.
Slightly closer to Gondar is Gorgora, on the northern shore of Lake Tana, which can also easily be reached by bus. Gorgora is dominated by the leafy Marine Authority compound, which birdwatchers will find rewarding to explore. Also visit the Debre Sina Maryam Church.
Source: Ethiopia: The Bradt Travel Guide – third edition by Philip Briggs http://www.bradt-travelguides.com