Swaziland is a curious little place in more ways than one. For starters, it’s one of the few landlocked countries in Africa, and comes entirely encompassed by the borders of Mozambique and South Africa. Secondly, it’s tiny, which is pretty unusual for this part of the world. Yep, the whole country covers only 17,000 square kilometers, making it even smaller than Wales! Then there’s the land’s continued allegiance to an absolute monarchy; the Ngwenyama tribal kings hold complete sway over domestic politics here.
But all these little nuances are just part of the palpable and endearing charm of this southern country, and it remains one of the raw and untouched sections of the bush, where travelers can encounter traditional reed dances and stalk hippos and rhinos along the waterways. Zulu culture, awesome game sanctuaries, colorful craft markets and breathtaking mountains are just some of the other reasons to stop by!
Lets explore the best places to visit in Swaziland:
1. Hlane Royal National Park
In truth, there’s simply no other wildlife reserve in all of Swaziland that can live up to the sheer wealth of bucket-list sights and the mind-boggling biodiversity that Hlane has.
After all, this is the only (repeat: only) place in the nation where it’s possible to track down a lion (which have recently been repatriated), an elephant, and a rhino, all in the same day – that’s three of the Big Five! What’s more, the safari expereince here is well-developed, with rustic campsites next to more built-up lodges.
There’s also a well-maintained network of game paths, all offering great viewing between the knobthorn forests and the savannahs.
For all intents and purposes, little Lobamba in the hills is the capital of Swaziland.
Actually, it kind of shares the title with Mbabane down the valley, but it’s here that travelers will discover all the machinery of state: the beautiful Lozitha Palace, home to the Queen Mother; the Swaziland Parliament; the honorific memorials to the country’s independence hero, King Sobhuza II. And if you’re still searching for something to do, make a beeline for the informative National Museum of Swaziland, where the collections reveal stories of the British colonial age, and one colourful head of the Indian god Krishna tells of trading tales with the subcontinent across the Arabian Sea.
3. Mbuluzi Game Reserve
Step over the snapping crocodiles of the Mlawula River, located in the extreme north-eastern reaches of Swaziland, and it’s likely you’ll find yourself in the acclaimed Mbuluzi Game Reserve.
There are certainly fewer safari crowds here, due mainly to the absence of any of the so-called Big Five.
However, that just makes it easier to spot a roaming giraffe or herd of zebra on the plains.
What’s more, it also means a peaceful vibe; one that adds a real air of naturalism and wildness for those stays in the bush.
Mbuluzi has both campsites and family lodges for travelers with kids in tow.
A mere 95,000 people call Mbabane home, which should give you just a clue as to how large Swaziland is as a whole! After all, this town of low-rise bungalows and palm-dotted streets is the official capital, even if it’s sat more than 1,200 meters up in the Mdzimba Mountains.
The altitude is great for avoiding the scorching heat of the tropical plains below though, while the heritage and cultural attractions here are pretty good too.
Check out the endless bazaars and emporiums of the Swazi Maket, where wicker creations and soapstone whittlings meet fresh veg and fruit.
Oh, and don’t miss the views from drive-able Piggs Peak to the north.
5. Malolotja Nature Reserve
Wax up the walking boots and prep those thigh muscles, because the Malolotja Nature Reserve is hailed as one of the hiking meccas of southern Africa.
Ranging from the grass-topped highveld to montane forests, the region is home to the rugged rises of the Ngwenya Mountain (the second-highest in the country). It’s famed for its endless trails of trekking routes, which pierce deep into the wilderness and offer encounters with wildebeest and bucks, cheetahs and grazing bushpigs as they go.
Try to come in Spring or Autumn – summer here means rain, and winter can even see frost caking the ridges.
Right on the doorstep of the Mlilwane Reserve, the pint-sized town of Malkerns is a great place to while away a couple of days in the shadow of the eastern Swaziland mountains.
Encompassed by swaying fields of corn and other crops, the center here boasts a lovely clutch of earthy Swazi homestays, not to mention a range of country pubs (that’s the English influence, no doubt!). However, it’s the immersive craft stalls and traditional arts centers here that really take the biscuit.
You’ll be able to buy everything from woodworks to handmade candles.
7. Mantenga Village
Once upon a time, the beautiful areas around the village of Mantenga were known simply for their waterfalls, which – to be fair – are amongst some of the most awesome in the country.
However, in more recent years, the spotlight has shifted to include the cultural experiences offered by the Mantenga Village too.
It’s the place to go if you want to encounter the Swazi people and learn all about their rich heritage; if you want to see the famous reed dances in action, or want to witness the age-old style of hamlet construction used by the tribal folk here.
And of course, the waterfalls are still close by for that end of the day activity!
8. Piggs Peak
Accessible Piggs Peak represents the heartland of the old Swaziland gold rush.
Set in-between the hills of the north, it once attracted miners and prospectors of all types, who came to dig in the shafts around the town.
Unfortunately, the mineral wealth never really materialised, and the gold faces of Piggs Peak were closed down less than 70 years after opening.
Today, the spot has great hiking, some interesting craft markets, and nice homestays.
And it’s the perfect stopover for travelers making their way through to Kruger National Park, located just across the border in South Africa.
9. Big Bend
One of the main urban centers on the meanders of the Maputo River, appropriately-named Big Bend (the town does actually occupy a big bend on the water) has been a center for Swaziland’s important sugarcane farming industry for decades.
It’s a charming place, with a clutch of shops and inns, but the setting is what really counts.
In the distance, the grass plains and agricultural land give way to the rugged rises of the Lubombo Mountains.
Small eco lodges hide in the hills nearby, walking paths beckon as they delve into the deep-cut gorges and canyons to the east, and the green lawns of the Mhlosinga Nature Reserve are also on the menu.
Once, this bustling industrial depot in the highlands of central Swaziland bore the name of explorer Arthur Bremer, who was one of the first colonial figures to designate this cool and temperate place an official trading post way back when.
Today, the city hasn’t shed its mercantile character, and it continues to reign as perhaps the most important economic powerhouse in the nation.
There are business hotels, trade fairs, and the Matsapha International Airport is just a stone’s throw away.
It’s hardly a wonder that locals endearingly refer to the bustling spot as simply, ‘The Hub’!
Sibebe isn’t a town, or a city.
It’s not a nature reserve, or some awesome man-made attraction.
However, it is a rock.
And it’s a darn large rock at that! Yep, the colossal dome that is the Sibebe Rock is the largest granite pluton in the world.
It sits just 10 kilometers away from the capital city at Mbabane, making it both accessible and unusual.
Tourists and locals alike love to climb the great monolith, which can be done on a whole host of different trails.
The hardest, hailed by many as the steepest incline trekking path in the world, is a real challenge, while some others are light and easy-going, offering beautiful views over the eastern mountains of Swaziland as they wind to the summit.
12. Mkhaya Game Reserve
The place to stalk the lowveld plains of Swaziland’s eastern haunch, the Mkhaya Game Reserve is a world peppered with acacias and trodden by galumphing great black rhinos.
It’s famed as one of the best bargain safari destinations in the region, offering affordable lodges and both jeep and walking game encounters as part of affordable packages.
Ecotourists who come here can stake out the riparian lands for giraffes, elephants, hippos and crocs, and learn all about the important poaching patrols that Mkhaya is known for.
Set deep between the hills of the Hhohho Region of northern Swaziland, tiny little Maguga has its own smattering of lodges overlooking Piggs Peak and the waters of the nearby lake.
But it’s the cause of said lake that really makes this corner of the country worth the stopover.
Why? Well, because it’s the home of the iconic Maguga Dam – that’s why! This colossal megastructure straddles a cut in the gorge of the Komati River, and has received countless awards for achievements in civil engineering.
It’s been designed to withstand flooding and cyclones, and can hold a total capacity of 332,000,000 cubic meters.
Cast out on the lowveld plains that begin to bubble up and into the Lubombo Mountains to the west, Simunye is a prime example of a corporation town.
The population of just under 6,000 is entirely employed by the Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation, which runs the great sugar mills and plantations that make their home here.
For international tourists, the town is also located super close to the acclaimed reserves of the Hlane National Park, has its very own protected area (the Simunye Nature Reserve), and comes with a pool-dotted country club serving international food.
It’s just a short drive from the Mahamba border posts with South Africa to the town of Nhlangano, which is officially the fourth-largest in Swaziland.
Peppered with pretty jacaranda trees, the place is a chilled regional hub, with good transport links to the safari destinations of the lowveld deeper into the country.
However, if you chose to linger, you’ll be able to see the spot where King George VI once thanked King Sobhuza II for his country’s contribution to the war, and explore the high-perched hamlet of Hlathikhulu, set magnificently above the gorgeous valleys of western Swaziland.