Bahir Dar is the third largest city in Ethiopia, after Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa, and has a population of 201,450. It is the capital of the Amhara region, inhabited by the Amhara people, the country's ethnically and geographically second largest group. The Ethiopian official language is Amharic.
Bahir Dar is a clean and well-maintained city by African city standards. Even the basic accommodations have neat, but basic services.
The city is connected by daily buses to/from Addis Ababa and Gondar. Many private minibuses also run to/from Gondar and Addis Ababa. They often do not leave from the bus station but are instead arranged through your hotel or by local touts (who will find you before you find them!). The minibuses are more expensive but faster, especially to Addis Ababa. Try Selam bus or Sky bus for a more comfortable (and potentially safer) ride.
To get to Bahir Dar from Lalibela by bus, take a dawn bus to Gashina (about two hours south of Lalibela) and change there to the Woldia - Bahir Dar bus, which passes through Gashina around 10am. To get from Bahir Dar to Lalibela, take the 6am Bahir Dar - Woldia bus and catch the last Lalibela bus at Gashena, which passes through around 3pm.
Bajajs (three wheel rick-shaws) are the most common form of transportation in the city. 20 Birr will get you most places you want to go in the town center. There are also blue minibuses, but few still exist as means to get around town. Bajajs are inexpensive and cost no-more than two birr per line of road and ten birr for a private charter.
Being a relatively flat city with wide streets, Bahir Dar is an excellent city for cycling, and bikes can be rented at various locations in the city.
The Blue Nile Falls or Tis Abay (in Amharic) is about 35 km from Bahir Dar. The water is no longer diverted to a hydro-power dam. It is a very nice sight – smaller than Victoria Falls, but amazingly scenic. You can take a bus to the village of Tis Abay, from which it is a 30-minute walk to the falls. You take a big trip in the countryside to reach the falls. If you take the bus, ignore anyone in the village who insists that the last bus back to Bahir Dar will be full and wants you to pay them to hold a seat, or that the last bus has already left but they can offer you an amazingly expensive taxi ride. There are plenty of buses back to Bahir Dar, the last one leaves at 5PM or later, and the bus conductor will find a seat for you. You can also arrange for a tour to the falls through your hotel for about 200 birr per person, the boatman is 10 birr each way, entry tickets are 30 birr to enter the falls. No need for an overpriced local guide, just ask or pay one of the many children there to guide you for a small fee. 1 hour very bumpy drive from town centre.
Bahir Dar is situated on the southern shore of Lake Tana. On the islands of the lake there are some of the world's oldest churches and monasteries. There are plenty of boat tours available to the monasteries; these range from 2 to 12 hours in length and can be booked through your hotel or by one of the many touts in the city. In some of these monasteries, women are not allowed to enter. Be cautious and aware of the traditions and rules of the Ethiopian Orthodox church when you visit. A boat tour costs about 200 birr per person (find people to share), and will take you to 3-4 monasteries, 3 is more than enough, each monastery has a separate overpriced charge of 100 birr per person. Ask if any of have an event going on to make them more worthwhile. The 'museums' are nothing more than a one room shack. Guides can be helpful, but don't feel you absolutely need them. (Note: These churches are definitely unique to Ethiopia, but they tend to be expensive and the tours are overrated. The boat trip on the lake is nice, but there are better examples of rural churches elsewhere in Ethiopia in a more pleasant and less touristy environment.)
Bahir Dar grew around a Jesuit settlement, founded in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, from which time the Pedro Páez building dates. One of Emperor Haile Selassie's palaces is located near the city, and the Emperor considered moving the national capital to the town. The palace is an impressive architectural work of its time. Facing Lake Tana it provides a beautiful, picturesque scene of the Blue Nile.
Lake Tana is not the source of the Blue Nile, it's before. The Blue Nile goes out of the lake up to Tis Abay (waterfall). If you take a boat trip ask the 'driver' to take you to the place where the river flows out of the lake. It is very atmospheric, and probably the best place to spot hippo.
Lakeshore Resort, located along the lake near Summerland Hotel has good food and amazing views of the lake.
Desset Lodge is a new restaurant that has OK food but a beautiful view of the lake. Highly recommended to enjoy a beer here while watching the sun set.
Azewa Hotel has some of the best fish goulash in the country and is inexpensive.
Tana Restaurant serves fabulous fish dishes for little money.
Al-Hanan Muslim Restaurant near the Dalot Pension, serves huge and tasty mutton dishes, even during Lent. Also a good place for an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. The owners are exceedingly nice and don't charge tourists extra.
Koriftu Resort is a nice getaway after roughing it around Ethiopia. One of the nicest resorts in Ethiopia with a complimentary massage for every night stay. Good (but expensive) restaurant and a nice pool. Many of the (few) expats living in Bahir Dar congregate here on the weekend to swim and relax during the day.
Dalot Pension, near the bus station, singles from Birr 80, modern, clean and convenient, best value in town
Ghion Hotel, Camping USD 6.00, rooms from USD 10.00, a travellers meeting place, on the shores of lake Tana. Rooms are extremely worn down and unclean, but the terrace is nice (00251 58 220 0-111 or -740)
Tana Pension, rooms from USD 2.50, the food is marvellous.
Bahir Dar hotel, (Behind the Telecomm building which is located across the street of Ghion Hotel). An ethiopian hotel with fairly bad rooms, but a very nice courtyard which serves good food. The staff is very friendly and do speak english.80-150 birr. edit
Like many other cities in Ethiopia, Bahir Dar is generally safe and free of violent crimes.
You may encounter some hustlers around the shore of Lake Tana to get you rent a boat they may get a kick-back for. The boats on Lake Tana that take you to visit the monasteries have fixed rates. Make sure the self appointed "brokers" won't get you charged a jacked up fee for the boats.