From Addis Ababa, the sprawling capital city, the "historic route" makes a big loop around the cultural highlights of the country. An alternative southern loop takes in the wildlife sightings more commonly associated with Africa.
Aksum, with its tombs, monasteries and churches, is one of Ethiopia's prime attractions, but it's the magnificent stelae that appear in most visitors' photographs. In 2005 the Italians finally returned the towering column Mussolini's troops had looted back in 1937, which for nearly 70 years had stood in Rome's Piazza di Porta Capena.
The churches of Lalibela, cut straight out of the rock, are an equally compelling sight. Said to be modeled on Jerusalem, the small town even features a River Jordan. Bet Giyorgis, the church of St. George, with its design in the shape of a Greek cross, is the most dramatic of the town's amazing collection because it appears to have been cut out vertically; your first sight of the structure is when it suddenly appears at your feet.
Between Aksum and Lalibela there are plenty of opportunities to wander off the main route to sights such as the rock-cut churches of Tigray. At one stop or another, a priest or monk is sure to casually unwrap some age-old illustrated manuscript and open it to another view of St. George (Ethiopia's patron saint), expertly dispatching another ugly dragon while Brutawit, the dragon-threatened damsel in distress, looks on approvingly.
Despite this cornucopia of attractions, it's impossible to deny that this is also a threadbare country where life is hard. On the road in Ethiopia there are always people, striding out toward some distant destination with a steely determination that seems to deny their poverty. This is also a country where the everyday trash of modern civilization simply does not exist. No mineral-water bottle is casually tossed aside, for example. When an Ethiopian child requests "Give me plastic," it has nothing to do with credit cards. She is simply hoping that you have an empty bottle, which can be recycled for any one of a thousand potential uses.
And the food! Every Ethiopian meal circles around a pancake-like disc of injera, the country's bread-potato-pasta equivalent. A dollop of meat stew known as wat, a spoonful of spicy sauce and a ladle of salad are all heaped on board, and you tear off chunks of injera to scoop up or soak up the toppings. There are no forks or spoons. It's this basic foodstuff that also makes dining Ethiopian-style such a friendly, convivial affair because there's only one disc of injera per table. The more people, the bigger the circle; it's hard not to be friendly when you're all sharing the same plate.
Ethiopian Airlines, often cited as one of Africa's best airlines, has regular connections from Washington, D.C., to Addis Ababa via Rome for around $1,500 round-trip. From New York, EgyptAir has direct flights to Cairo, while Emirates has direct flights to Dubai, both cities with good connections to Addis Ababa.. Traveling by public transport in Ethiopia is strictly for the experienced and hardy, but renting a vehicle with driver is easy to organize. Village Ethiopia (http://www.village-ethiopia.net) is a capable local tourist operator.
Where to stay and eat:
The Addis Ababa Hilton is comfortable, conveniently located and not quite as expensive as the nearby Sheraton Hotel, which has some of the fanciest rooms in Africa, from around $300 a night. At the other extreme, cheap rooms cost less than $10, and there are some popular midrange choices like the Ghion Hotel at $70. The Dashen Traditional Restaurant is a great place to savor, as the name indicates, traditional Ethiopian food. The short Italian colonial period has left a surprising number of Italian restaurants; try Blue Tops near the museum.