Updated in 2018: My 12 Favorite Things to do in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia
My 12 Favorite Things to do in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia - Understand
Bahir Dar is Ethiopia's fifth largest city and is located along the southern shores of scenic Lake Tana. However, Bahir Dar does not feel like a big city; it has a distinct small-town feel to it.
Bahir Dar is famous for its lake excursions and as the source of the Blue Nile. The city is even cheaper compared to Addis Ababa, the capital. Expect lunch to be under $1 and coffee under 30 US cents. The trouble is the quality that drops off sharply from Addis and its food (only if you like Ethiopian food) and coffee heaviness.
Bahir Dar is about 10-15 degrees warmer than Addis Ababa because of its lower elevation. October - April is usually cloudless with cool nights and warm afternoons. The 'winter' sees a smaller spread between daytime temperatures and some rain (less than Addis).
Locals are generally suspicious of foreigners and see you as only a money tree. I detailed more advice below in the Safety and Scam Alert sections.
If you like cities and want to explore more of how Ethiopians live, you should spend at least 3 days here for the city and the nearby day trips.
My 12 Favorite Things to do in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia - Get Around
Car and motorcycle ownership are minimal in Bahir Dar. For many, the way to get around is to walk (there are often good sidewalks) or to use the local tuk-tuks. Most rides in town are under ETB 30, though it gets more expensive after dark.
Ethiopian Airlines has the monopoly on flights to Bahir Dar's airport. Flights to the capital usually cost around $200 one-way for foreigners and $70 for locals. You can also use 8,000 United miles and $40.
Once you've landed, your hotel's likely to pick you up for free. In town, walking and a trusted ‘tuk-tuk' driver will do the trick.
My 12 Favorite Things to do in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia - Safety
Ethiopia has very little violence (compared to the size of the population) and given the influence of the 'police state', it likely won't change. Muggings and violence are extremely rare. You can walk almost anywhere in Ethiopia during the day and it's safe enough even at night.
That's the good news; the bad news is that Ethiopians have mastered the art of parting you from your money through an endless set of scams. None of those will likely blow your budget but the whole procedure is just overwhelming.
My 12 Favorite Things to do in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia - Scam Alert, Harassment
Ethiopians are somewhat friendly people but also xenophobic. Generally, 'donations' are expected just for being 'friendly' all over the country and Bahir Dar is likely the worst place for this.
Ethiopians are somewhat sociable but NOT with foreigners, so if you hear anyone approaching you speaking English, it is likely a scam. While we thought the title of 'con men capital' of the world would be Lagos, Marrakech or Cairo, I feel it has, in fact, been conquered by Ethiopia.
There is very little common courtesy or respect in Ethiopia and this is especially an issue in many restaurants and shops. Of course, there are plenty of differences between people but after plenty of stares and after days of street harassment here, you are likely toagree.
If the 'con men' aren't enough, there are plenty of aggressive beggars and child beggars pulling at your clothing and at times it will feel like the whole city is following you (I often had at least a group of five following me).
Bear in mind that I do A LOT to avoid all that (this isn't my first rodeo here) by walking fast, knowing my directions, having no valuables out and not stopping.
Once you make it into someone's business in Bahir Dar, it is usually better but dual pricing is rife almost everywhere.
As with other Ethiopian cities, it's pretty safe here. Violent crime is not a concern and even after dark, it's OK to walk while taking normal precautions. The touts around the quay can be annoying, but just keep walking.
My 12 Favorite Things to do in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia - Connectivity
Ethiopia is not included in T-Mobile's Simple Choice Plan. Also, Skyroam does not work here. The Ethiopian government is using the Internet to suppress 'protest movements' in the city and beyond. As a result, Ethio Telecom provides no data service, WiFi at hotels is spotty and no restaurants or coffee shops feature WiFi.
The Delano Hotel has fast Internet, IF it works on that day (it can be down for weeks at a time).
My 12 Favorite Things to do in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia - Pollution
Ethiopia suffers from bad standards of hygiene, and you should avoid going to a hospital at any cost as well!
The air in Bahir Dar is clean and there is precious little road pollution.
My 12 Favorite Things to do in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia - Sights
St George Church
Right in the center of town is this beautiful church that sees active service around sunset.
You can't stroll through the city of Bahir Dar without being offered a tour across the lake. After all those scams in town, I kept my expectations low but that wasn't necessary at all!I ended up sharing a boat with two guests from the hotel and we each paid ETB 350 for a private boat with a superbly friendly (and not scammy) skipper.
The tour usually starts out to the east in an area where papyrus grows.
After seeing the impressive plants, we made our way to see a hippo family and saw local fishermen.
Surprisingly, it did not seem touristy and we barely saw another boat out there.
The next 'highlight' was the monasteries which occupy the little islands. I found them to be a letdown; one was outright closed and the other was just a small building with a painted wall.
The tour and museum were a joke. The entrance fee per monastery is ETB 100 and from what I heard from repeat visitors, most monasteries here are the same anyways.
The end of the tour usually runs alongside a huge pelican colony; these birds are massive!
I really enjoyed being on the lake, trundling through the water in the sun for about four hours, with the quiet and friendly folks.
You can go to more monasteries and spend more time on a tour, all depending on your taste and schedules.
The sun sets along the south-west shores and from the eastern part of Bahir Dar, the sunsets are usually quite magical. There are a number of hotels and spots near the water to enjoy them. Make sure to bring along some good mosquito protection!
Bahir Dar University Complex
Yes, the buildings are dilapidated and there are plenty of sewage smells but still, there are no cars and it is a green campus that is safe enough to walk around (though you'll get plenty of scary stares).
Blue Nile Falls
The Blue Nile Falls are located in Tis Abay, just about 15 miles outside the city of Bahir Dar.
However, the road leading to the town is just a one-lane dirt road that allows for low speeds only (it has a lot of pedestrians).
The water level of the Blue Nile obviously depends on the rainfall prior and when I visited in July, I was advised that the road would be washed out and the water level would be too high.
The second time I visited was in December (summertime) and I was warned that the water level would be too low but I did not find that to be the case. You can likely go at any time except for when the annual rains have just started.
There are a number of public buses that run the route and while I was hesitating to book one, this is likely the best way to go, since these buses run the roads every day and know what they are doing. Despite the size of the buses, they also go rather fast (faster than anything I had seen on my drives) but they are cheap and they garner a modicum of respect.
Unfortunately, I went with a ‘tour' - a pretty new minibus organized by the Delano Hotel tour desk.
The driver put the music on full blast and then argued loudly with his buddies all over the minibus. I doubt any of them paid for this trip. They also started smoking on the bus. I really did not like the 90-minute journey!
The falls itself are all drama until you get inside (there is an entrance fee of ETB 50) and there is an ETB 20 boat ride if you go that way (but to avoid this, there is a walking trail).
The river drops about 150 feet and produces a good amount of spray. While they are not the Victoria Falls, it's still quite cool. There are a number of small waterfalls to the left and right and you can cross the steep gorge via the hanging bridge.
There is a local 'show village' which has less aggressive locals and offers some basic food and, of course, coffee and water. I really enjoyed the scenery and found it less crowded than I expected. I just did not like the drive there or drama around the falls.
Plan 2-3 hours inside the park and the rest of the day for transport, which can be unexpectedly slow at any time.
My 12 Favorite Things to do in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia - Eat & Drink
Generally, food and coffee are cheap in Bahir Dar but the quality (hygiene and taste) are big problems (even in hotels). You can usually use the lakeside resorts (which are often very empty) or go local and get hit with plenty of scams (usually only outside though).
Wude has good macchiatos, not as good as in Addis, but still. They also serve cheap food. The service is slow and English is a language from another planet.
A little further out, next to St George Church, is Ours Café (owned by a recent transplant from the Bay Area) who serve macchiatos for ETB 9 each and food for ETB 20. It's a decent place but the staff refuse any orders in English.
This place gets good ratings but I found the food underwhelming and the setting full of angry mosquitoes.
Lake Shore Resort
You may be able to stay here as well but I only went for dinner. Thefood tastes good but also pretty stale, which made me paranoid. The setting right along the lake is pretty but full of mosquitoes. I asked for repellent and all the staff explained to me that there were 'no mosquitoes' despite literally a dozen mosquitoes sitting on my skin while talking. Oh well...
There are several juice bars that make decent avocado juice. Never look insideat how it is made - to stay sane, just judge the smoothie by its taste.
My 12 Favorite Things to do in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia - Where to Stay
I stayed at the Blue Nile Resort Hotel – a huge construction along the lakeshore (the former Sheraton). The views from the patio are superb, but everything else is just shaky – no hot water, no Internet, on and off electricity, too many ants in the room and a less-than-stellar breakfast. The $100 per night rate is clearly too much.
The Delano Hotel has an amazing 100% happy guest score on Expedia and charges just $30 per night. I found the location to be OK, the rooms superb and the staff somewhat knowledgeable. The breakfast is pretty bad though and the WiFi comes and goes (if it works, it is really fast!)
I booked two tours from here and felt one was great and the other one was a disaster. Still, it offers fantastic value compared to the resort along the lake.