Rough Guide To Bahir Dar City Ethiopia

lake tana

Bahir Dar is a lakeshore city, the name “Bahir Dar” by itself means Lake Shore in the Geez language. The lake that’s the reason for the name is Lake Tana. Bahir Dar is the current capital of the Amhara Regional State in Ethiopia. It’s also one of the leading tourist destinations in the country.

The city is located at about 578m from Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. It’s at an average of 1820m above sea level. These Factors as well, as the city being at lakeshore make the weather as well as the overall climate of the city, vary at different times of the day and the year. Their climate is on a fence between the tropical savanna climate and subtropical highland climate. The weather varies within a day, mornings are usually cool and the afternoons till night are warm. 

What is the History of Bahir Dar City?

The city is said to have been formed around the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Jesuit settlers. Originally the settlement was called Bahir Giyorgis. In the early 20th century the British government sent several specialized teams (1902 – 1936) intending to make barrages (dams). But in 1930 the Ethiopian government sent their own team of experts to Bahir Dar. At this time the city was becoming a traditional settlement destination from other neighboring lake tana port cities such as Zege. When these settlers came, they brought their traditions and social positions along with themselves.

 In 1936 Bahir Dar was occupied by the Italians during the Ethiopian five-year occupational period. One of the things they did in this period was to completely destroy and abolish communal ownership of land, they encouraged the people to have private ownership of land. During their time in the city, they introduced different types of shops, tea rooms, tailor shops bars, and restaurants all run by foreigners. They gave Bahir Dar political status as well.

After the Ethiopian government came back to power in 1941, Bahir Dar was promoted to the capital of the sub-district and later on to the capital of the district level. In 1945 the city was announced to be a municipality. In the 1950s’ the city was deemed to be a good choice for an alternate capital of Ethiopia.

Starting from the 1960s up until the 1970s’ the city of Bahir Dar grew drastically and at an alarming pace. The rapid growth with in the city made it a center for large market areas, transportation centers, and economic growth especially those relating to Lake Tana and the Blue Nile river. In this period the Germans prepared a master plan for the city, which transformed the city of Bahir Dar tremendously.

This introduced their own water supply, hydroelectric power, improved lake port facilities, the Abbay Bridge, textile mills, a hospital, and their own higher education institutions, which have now formed the Bahir Dar University. A combination of the Polytechnic School (inaugurated by Emperor Haile Selassie) and teachers’ college formed the Bahir Dar University.

During the Ethiopian civil war (1988), the city was headquarters for the 603rd corps of the Third Revolutionary Army (TLA). The TLA left in disarray in 1990, blowing up a bridge on their way out. This kept the other forces at bay for a while. In 1991 the Ethiopian people’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) reoccupied Bahir Dar. After that period the city has been prospering in all aspects, growing and expanding at a surprising rate.

What is the Geography of Bahir Dar?

Bahir Dar is surrounded by Lake Tana. Lake Tana is a shallow lake with a maximum of 15m depth and covers a total area of 3,673km2.  The fact that the water is shallow provides a long-lasting supply of fresh fish to the people go to the city. It is also the largest lake in Ethiopia. Lake Tana is the source/origin of the Blue Nile River. The lake provides 85% of the Blue Nile River and is the origin of the river as well. The Lake Tana region is a UNESCO Biosphere reserve since 2015.

On Lake Tana there are islands, with eleven churches and monasteries on them, each has one. These churches are one of the oldest churches in Ethiopia and are of great historical significance to the country. These churches are said to be the safe keepers of some of the oldest and best-kept documents of the past regarding history, geography, medicine, engineering and construction, linguistical, and other knowledge sources.  

The Blue Nile Falls are positioned about 30 km to the south of the city, one of the origins of the river being Lake Tana. The water flow has been reduced since the beginning of the construction of the hydroelectric dam in the Benishangul – Gumuz Region of Ethiopia. Even under these criteria’s the falls are one of the most beautiful sights to see.

Bahir Dar is on relatively stable ground in comparison to most of Ethiopia. The rift system known as the Afar Triangle that is said to divide Africa into three different plates in about a million years doesn’t pass by, in or near Bahir Dar. Which makes it a desirable location for industrialization and new developments in the country.

lake tana

The people (Demographics, Linguistics & Ethnicity)

According to the census led by the Central Statistical Agency of Ethiopia in 2007, Bahir Dar has a total of 221,991 people out of which 108,456 are men and 113,535 are women. Out of the total population of Bahir Dar, 180,174 (81.16%) are urban inhabitants.

There are three mainly dominant ethnic groups in the city of Bahir Dar. The most dominant ethnic group is the Amhara at 96.23% next in line is the Tigrayan at 1.11%, the Oromo at 1.1%, and other ethnic groups make up to 1.56% of the total Bahir Dar population. The most dominant language in the city is Amharic as a first language at 96.78%, Oromiffa at 1.01% and other languages sum up to be 2.21%.

The latest statistics show that the number of Amhara is 93.21%, the Tigrayan at 3.98%, the Oromo at 0.7%, and all others summed up to 2.11%. In terms of linguistics, Amharic was spoken by 95.52% as their first language, Tigrinya was spoken by 1.55% and other languages made up to 1.55%.

Culture of Bahir Dar City

Since the city was mainly inhabited after the early 20th century by people from all around seeking markets and different factors, the city is an interesting scenery place to see. Bahir Dar offers a wide variety of goods at its very vast open markets at different venues. 

Some other cultural doings in the area are, for example on Ethiopian New Year’s (Enkutatash) Eve the local priests, deacons and the people go to the islands with the churches and monasteries, some even stay inland and with candles and drums wearing white spend the night singing to God and praying for all the good they want the new year to bring. This culture is open to all if wanted anyone can attend (while respecting their traditions and culture) or watch from a seat afar or at a selected spot. 

Another culture is that the city is very active at night, people walk and stay out late at cafes enjoying their time, and the master design of the city has allowed this to become a reality for the people of the city and those that come to visit it.

The religion of Bahir Dar

The most dominant religion in Bahir Dar is the Ethiopian Christian Orthodox Church with 79.72% followers of the faith, next to the orthodox church, are the Muslims with 18.47% followers, and the Protestants at 1.62%. There are Ethiopian Christian Catholics that practice the Alexandrian Rite in the Geez Language, have their own Cathedral and Parishes in the city.

Institutions in Bahir Dar

There are different institutions in Bahir Dar which were established in 1954, one of them is the Bahir Dar University which was a combination of originally two different smaller institutions after the departments in the smaller institutes were raised to degree levels after 1996. The current president of the university is Dr. Firew Tegegne Amogne, with a total of 54,000 students enrolled in the school currently.

bahir dar city
“File:Bahir Dar 7.jpg” by O.Mustafin is licensed under CC0 1.0 

The university is a combination of eight different campuses scattered at different positions in the city. These are the Bahir Dar University College of Medicine, Bahir Dar Institute of Technology, Bahir Dar University Agriculture College, Ethiopian Institute of Textile and Fashion Technology, Institute of Land Admission, College of Business and Economics, Institute of Educational and Behavioral Sciences and College of Natural Science. The now in use slogan of the university is “Wisdom at the source of the Blue Nile”.

Another institution in Bahir Dar is the Bahir Dar (Dejazmach Belay Zeleke or Ginbot Haya) Airport. It is located about 8km outside the west of the city. The Airport also serves the Ethiopian Air Force. It has only one runway designated 04/22.

The Bahir Dar stadium is the largest in the country so far and has the capacity to hold a total of 60,000 people in it. The stadium was started in 2008 and is still lacking some basic utilities such as chairs, bathrooms, and concessions. The stadium hosted the 2015 CAF Confederation Cup Match and is still getting work done on for finishing touches.

The Amhara Regional state convention and conference center, which was completed about seven years ago, the design of the conference center is interesting since the initial concept was driven from the basic characteristics of the city of Bahir Dar. The architects were quite successful in displaying the cities in-depth character by including some words that the people who went there described the city by terms such as stone, market, water, and island. These terms and descriptions of the city are later on visible in the building and the whole construction when one walks through it.

How do you Travel in Bahir Dar?

There are several means of transportation into and within the city. People mostly use Planes, Buses, Taxis, and privately chartered minibusses. The means of transportation with in the city are Public Buses, Public Taxis, Private Mini Buses, Bajaj and the most common means of transportation in Bahir Dar is that of cycling, since the weather is warm in the afternoons, people leave work and come to the city for their daily dose of relaxation and peace.

What are the places to visit in Bahir Dar?

Most of the places in Bahir Dar may not be travel destinations in the normal sense. However, some of the landmarks below will give you a general idea about the city. The landmarks in the Bahir Dar region aren’t those that we would describe as the regular landmarks but are unique in their own ways. A landmark is not only physical but could also be some form of celebration of activity done at some point at a certain time.

Lake Tana

Lake Tana is the lake that surrounds Bahir Dar and it is also the reason for which the city was named a “lakeshore”. It is a lake with a lot of features on it, in one day on a single boat ride you could see all islands, some hippos, the separation point of the Blue Nile Water (even though it’s from a distance for safety reasons). Since the location and position within which the lake is many hotels have lined up around the shore to be able to capture the beauty of the lake, along with some of the best restaurants in the city.

Kidus Giorgis Church

It is a beautiful church compound right on the lake and is full of beautiful sites and scenery. The compound is not attached or in any way part of the churches on the island areas. Many interesting programs and activities are held there, that add to the overall beauty of the city. Right outside of the church compound is one of the small-sized market areas that can be found in Bahir Dar. 

Martyr’s Memorial Monument

The Martyr’s Memorial Monument is a very large memorial in honor of those who died in the war against Derg and the downfall of Derg. It’s a local wedding and event site, it is a hangout spot for the new generation as well as the older ones. Its seen as a stepping stone for our country’s history and overcoming. The monument alongside it has a museum tracking the civil wars (the fall of Derg) progress with different pictures and paintings. 

Three Palaces of Haile Selassie 

They are found about two and a half kilometers (2.5km) south of the Martyr’s Memorial Monument and Northwestern to the town. They are a beautiful sight to see but the building can not be accessed for security reasons but the construction technique and style that the building was done in relation to the time the building was constructed in is fascinating. From the site itself, the route of the Blue Nile is visible with a spectacular view of the river and the surrounding landscape. 

The Blue Nile bridges 

The only way that the bridge is visible in is by renting a boat, you can even see the amazing Blue Nile outlet we can see the bridge and space where the separation actually happens and it is visible but also from afar since there are several safety and security hazards involved.  

The Lake Tana Islands

The islands have different types and kinds of monasteries and churches, which are historically significant and one of the oldest churches in Ethiopia. They are said to be the secret keepers of different historical scrolls and information, passed from generation to generation.

These islands are Tana Qirqos, Dek Island, Daga Island, Mitraha Island, Gelila Zakarias, and Rema Island. Some of the islands are gender-specific.

There are several monasteries on the islands, some of the top to see are Daga Estifanos Monastery, Debre Maryam Monastery, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Nagra Selassie Monastery, Tana Cherkos Monastery. The Zege Peninsula is located about the southwest edge of Lake Tana, and endemic plants of coffee. There are seven ancient monasteries on the island, they are Azuwwa Maryam Monastery, Bete Maryam Monastery, Bete Selassie Monastery, Ura Kidane Mehret Monastery, saint Giorgis Monastery, and Tekla Haimanot Monastery.

As we can see the city is full of different landmarks ranging from all sorts of qualities it could also depend on the type of person and their affordability rate to each of them.

Rivers-in-Ethiopia -

What To Enjoy In The City Of Bahir Dar?

There are different features in Bahir Dar that make parts of the city the spot to be at and to enjoy. Some of these activities are; the lake itself is a tourist attraction that many people cross continents to see, one of the sources of the Blue Nile river. The activities around the water are beautiful and attract many people, the presence of the tourists from other parts of the world only adds to the beauty of the city. While at the lake people are prone to eat the famous Bahir Dar Fish, which comes from an abundant source, the lake.

The city masterplan was initially done by the German people between the 1960s’ and the 1970s’ and has served the city well. The city starting from the late afternoon up to the evening never makes one want to stop walking, the sea breeze with the warm air and the clean wide sidewalks lined with huge well-grown trees provides the perfect environment for a night’s stroll.

Anywhere you go in the city, there is a market spot be it small or big, these market places provide an assortment of cultural craftsmen’s work, ornaments, jewelry, local spices and the sort at cheap and reasonable prices. There are much larger markets in different parts of the city with a much more permanent status where you can basically find anything and everything ranging from local to international goods. Especially on the weekends, these market areas are usually congested by local people on their weekend errands.

There are some of the most beautiful hotels and restaurants are on the lakeshore of the city some of them are the Avanti Hotel, Castel Kuriftu wine house, Kuriftu Hotel has two branches, Dessert Lodge, Jacaranda Hotel, Olive Hotel and Spa, Homeland Hotel, Papirus Hotel, Unison Hotel and Spa, Grand Resort and Spa, Tayitu Meznagna and Abbay Minch Resort.

Bahir Dar has the greatest number of globally threatened species of birds. A survey in 1996 recorded a total of 217 species of birds in Bahir Dar, and more are said to occur. For example, there are trees in a raw that attract about thirty or so Hornbill birds and people can sit at a specific location and admire without disturbing each other. 

One of the most enjoyable experiences in Bahir Dar is cycling, which is also one of the most dominant means of transportation in the city. Rentable cycles are available in a few corners to take and replace. The long sidewalks and trees give a good environment for one to simply ride with the wind as they say.

To go to the monasteries and churches on the islands there is a long but enjoyable boat ride in between islands and the mainland, by chance one might even encounter some hippos on the way to one of the islands.


As mentioned above the Bahir Dar city is far away from any imminent danger regarding natural land disasters, and has also been suggested as being the backup capital of Ethiopia.

It has also been said that there are eight different campuses to the University of Bahir Dar with international partnerships around the world.

The city has also received different grants and industrialization promises in different aspects regarding good soil quality, good climate conditions, the overall layout of the city (master plan), and many other features that make Bahir Dar a special place.

The city of Bahir Dar has accomplished what most cities are still striving to accomplish, it has found the balance between proper urban green spaces with alarming city industrialization growth. They haven’t let one influence or change the other, instead, they have made them go along together. The city has been awarded the piece price for urban urbanization by UNESCO, for similar reasons.

There are a lot of places to see in Bahir Dar, and a week does not do the city justice, one needs to spend actual time in a place to become acquainted with all its features. The city having been said to have a bright future.  

Cover: “AAE026A” by gill_penney is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

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