Bahir Dar is a clean and well-maintained city by African city standards. It is popular with national tourists for its lake and comfortable climate. It has become part of the northern tourist loop for its access to historic monasteries and as a jumping off point for Blue Nile Falls and Gondar. Due to the bustling tourism industry, the city has numerous pool halls, bars, fresh juice shops, and restaurants.
Giorgis Road is the main road in the north-south direction, featuring plenty of shopping and restaurants. The bus station and markets lie on side roads. The city is easy to get around by foot, bicycle, or cheap bajaj (tuk tuk).
Bahar Dar airport is 10KM west of the city. Many upscale hotels offer shuttle services from the airport. Pickup can be arranged if you have pre-booked accommodation but may be overpriced. At the airport, taxis will ask 200 birr to get into town, which is a bad price. Two options: first, haggle with the taxis. Since the airport has few flights a day, they may be willing to take you into town, knowing no other fares are coming for a while. Using this option, we paid 100 birr to get into town. Second: by walking 1-2KM toward town, you may be able to find a tuk tuk/bajaj for as low as 80 birr.
The city is connected by daily buses to/from Addis Ababa and Gondar. Many private minibuses also run to/from Gondar and Addis Ababa. Many busses leave from the "new bus station" on the south side of the city near the national stadium. Some private busses do not leave from the bus station, but are instead arranged through your hotel or by local touts. 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. Ask your hotel for newer information.
Look at the "See" section for details on the public boat to Zege peninsula.
See the Get Out section for a two day government boat ride to Gorgora or vice-versa.
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. Beware: bajaj drivers will often quote much higher (40-50 birr) and you must haggle.
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. Look for one of those many bike repair places, they rent out a decent bike for about 20 ETB per hour. Cheaper if more distant from the center. More modern bikes can be rented in the port area from a tour organisation service for about 50 ETB.
Note: children, beggars, and guides may try to follow you on the walk. Just smile and give them a firm no, and they'll leave you alone.
If you want to stay at Blue Nile Falls, there is an accommodation option at the top of the falls. Blue Nile Camping offers affordable tent camping (either your own tent for 100 birr or their tent for 200 birr), or huts from 450-550. They also sell affordable tea, coffee, tej, and beer. Chill place and worth a visit. You can hang out on a hammock overlooking the falls. There's also pretty amazing wildlife watching to be done.
Zege Peninsula, on the southwest shores of Lake Tana, is home to a number of monasteries, including the more famous Ura Kidane Mehret. Women are allowed to enter this monastery, and entry is 150 birr per person. The murals here are well preserved and beautiful, and admission includes a small museum with old books and paintings. While many tour companies (and your hotel) will offer a package tour of 5+ monasteries for 300 birr and upwards, Zege and its monasteries can be reached by public boat for 59 birr one way (Nov 2018). The boat leaves at 7AM from the Marine Authority. Arrive 30 minutes early to buy a ticket. The boat stops first near the monastery (20 minute trail walk), then proceeds on to the town of Afaf, often marked on maps as Zege/Zeghie. A tour guide is not needed: there are decent signs, and the shops along the way will point you the right direction. From Ura Kidane, you can walk 40 minutes to Afaf or other monasteries. From Afaf, you can catch an evening boat back to Bahir Dar, or take a minibus. Minibuses leave when they're full, last bus around 4PM. We paid 50 birr each with some haggling.
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 is 950 Birrs for the 1/2 day trip. It's the official price for a boat, without guide services and without entrance fees (100-150 per monastery). You decide what you want to see. There are also long trips to the churches far away (3 hours by boat to reach them). The prices are much higher (3 times more).
You can also try to share a tour via a tout. Ask in this case how many people are on the boat and what's included in the price. Asking price for a shared 1/2 day tour is 400 birr but can be haggled down. Visiting 2-3 churches is more than enough, and each monastery has a separate charge of 100-150 Birr per foreigner. Ask if any of the monasteries have an event going on, to make a visit more worthwhile.
Debra Mariam monastery, near the city, can be reached almost entirely on foot. The last bit requires a boat ride, which is cheap for locals but may be very expensive for tourists (100+ birr).
Note: The tourism industry in Bahir Dar is somewhat controversial. Many people find themselves hassled into buying overpriced tours, and some people don't enjoy the churches and monasteries. Taking a self-guided trip (e.g. the public boat to Zege) may satisfy your desire to see churches without being very expensive. Supporting touts and pushy guides reinforces a negative tourism culture and should be avoided.
Bahir Dar has a big and colorful market that is open every day. Saturday is the biggest day. Sunday has very few activities. While the part closer to the main road has heaps of imported cloth digging deeper will offer you a lot of local fabrics, grains, spices and even stalls dedicated to organic honey.
The local specialty is small footstools covered in goat hide. Find them along the road that runs from Ghion hotel to the main highway. They can apparently be "unstuffed" for travel.
The road in front of the bus station has many tailors.
Some people in Bahir Dar go to bed early and wake up early (5-6AM). Low budget accommodation may be loud after 6AM. Check-out time is often at 8AM. Check your hotel for running water or hot water before you pay.
There are a great number of low budget pensions around the bus terminal. To name just a few: Romaha pension (150 Birr single with shared bathroom; 200 Birr single with attached bathroom; perhaps less if you go there without a tout; no wifi), Golden Pension (120 Birr single shared bathroom; no wifi), Edget Pension (120 Birr: single shared bathroom; 175 Birr single with attached bathroom supposedly including a hot shower, but I hardly managed to get one; often there is no water at all; very unfriendly staff; wifi) Info Feb2018
Manuhie Backpackers Lodge offers clean, cheap rooms on the west of town. 450 birr per night for a medium bed with bathroom and hot shower. Rooms have a good mosquito net but lack ventilation. Many tourists stay at Manuhie and its a good place to meet people. The owner is knowledgeable and friendly, but some have reported finding him pushy.
Other rather old information:
There are some internet cafes.
There's a (slow) internet cafe in the German Protection Building opposite the church.