Zimbabwe is a curious beast. Ravaged by wars and civil strife, it had a particularly tumultuous exit from the age of European colonialism in Africa.
And while there are still lingering human rights complaints and authoritarian tendencies in the government here, the general consensus is that those dangers are slowly but surely subsiding.
That means Zimbabwe is once again entering the safari fold, and beginning to re-magnetize intrepid travelers with the promise of its inselberg-studded backcountry, its teak forests and cypress-spattered hills; with its rugged Eastern Highlands where curious monkeys huddle against the cold breezes and its deep caves and underground riverways.
Of course, there are some mainstream attractions, not least of all the roaring wonder of Victoria Falls, and the up-and-coming metropolis of Harare – certainly one to watch! So, if you’re feeling adventurous and ready to throw caution to the wind, it’s worth considering this lost jewel of the African south for sure…
Lets explore the best places to visit in Zimbabwe:
1. Victoria Falls
There’s a clear reason why tersely-named Victoria Falls is one of Zimbabwe’s must-see places.
Like the eponymous towns of Niagara in the US and Canada, the settlement is just a stone’s throw from the roaring waterfalls that gave it its moniker.
Thousands of people flock here to see the awesome sight every year too.
They join the baboons in the jungles and delve into the Victoria Falls National Park just to the south of the center, gawping and gasping as the great curtain of water comes into view, cascading dramatically off its black-rock cliffs in plumes of steam and mist.
Nearly three million people call the metropolis of Harare their home, making it not only the capital but also the largest city of the nation.
Sat up on plateaus of Zimbabwe’s central highlands, it certainly looks the part.
Endless steel-clad skyscrapers shoot up from its CBD – the economic kingpin of the country – and First Street and the downtown buzz with purring traffic and shoppers from morning until night.
And there’s history too, poking out with the great preservation of the National Gallery, in the national archives, and the Queen Victoria Museum, not to mention the wealth of old colonial builds.
Apart from that, visitors here can wallow in the pretty parks and wander between the jacarandas that famously pepper the roadways.
Bulawayo belies a sort of New Orleans vibe.
It’s got age-stained colonial frontispieces that ooze art deco and Victorian regal styles.
It’s got swaying trees dotting its old avenues, and the occasional Anglo-esque public house occupying the arcades.
But this second city is more than just a historical relic.
It’s also an industrial and economic hub, once known for its smoke-belching factories, and still crisscrossed by more railway lines than you can shake a Ndebele tribal trinket at.
The town is indelibly green and flowery, with bougainvillea cascading over the rooftops and palms peppering the roundabouts.
Between it all you can see elegant governmental buildings, go shopping for trinkets, or plan your next safari out to the south-western parks.
4. Matobo National Park
The legendary Matobo National Park is a cross-shaped reserve found just south out of aforementioned Bulawayo.
Famed since time immemorial for its curious array of inselbergs and hoodoo rock formations, it’s a land of sculpted granite peaks and anthropomorphic bluffs.
These have been a shelter for man for millennia, and today it’s possible to spy out remnants of southern Africa’s pre-history carved into the stone at spots like the Nswatugi Cave.
Meanwhile, others come to stalk ungulates in the Hove Wild Area – the dedicated game park here; a land of sable antelope and wildebeest, baboon packs and leopards.
5. Nyanga National Park
The home of the Highveld is a wild and wonderful place.
Perched on the very roof of Zimbabwe, more than 1,800 meters above sea level, it’s formed by hulking hills of dolomite rock, and suspended boulders that creak in the cool breezes.
Dressed in groves of msasa trees and cypresses that are rare to these regions, the habitats here can host a truly otherworldly array of creatures.
Many are endemic, like the Old World Samango monkeys, with their white-brushed throats that can only be found in these parts.
You’ll also find a smattering of leopards and lions, just in case you wanted a taste of the quintessential African safari!
6. Hwange National Park
Bringing up the forefront of Zimbabwe’s ecotourism offering with its nigh on 15,000 square kilometers of protected landscape, the Hwange National Park rarely fails to impress safari goers making their way through this section of southern Africa.
Inside its boundaries is a mosaic of Kalahari woods and teak groves, grass plains and flood flats, all of which are peppered with bulbous termite mounds and the occasional pan – a watering hole that makes this one a perfect destination for lion stalkers.
And apart from the kings of the plains, it’s also possible to see hyenas and wild dogs, leopard and cheetah, all lurking amidst the fossil-spotted river banks and bubbling hot springs.
The gateway to the farthest eastern fringes of Zimbabwe and the Nyanga National Park besides, Mutare makes its home between the steep-side valleys of Manicaland.
All around you can see the serrated tops of the Bvumba Mountains that enfold the town, making this one something of an enclave of civilization in the deep southern African wilds.
Today, the place has developed a nice clutch of backpacker guesthouses and cheap hostels, giving it the rep of a fine stopover on route to hike the hills or stalk the curious Samango monkey atop the rugged Eastern Highlands.
Welcoming travelers to the deeper reaches of Zimbabwe, Masvingo is one of the prime drop off points for VIP buses heading through to the southern edge of the country.
And what a welcome it is! Sat neatly on the edge of the Mutirikwi National Park, the place has plenty in the way of outdoors exploration up its sleeve.
However, the real treat has to be the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Great Zimbabwe, which lurks between the bush some 20 kilometers away.
These 700-year-old ruins crumble and crack under the sun, revealing tales of the nation’s old Shona-speaking folk.
The so-called Hill Complex and Great Enclosure there are hailed as perhaps the most awesome example of drystone architecture on the globe!
9. Lake Mutirikwi National Park
In the shadow of the sculpted Beza Range and the undulating hills of southern Zimbabwe, the Lake Mutirikwi National Park is one of the country’s more off-the-beaten-track areas for outdoors recreation.
Small and compact, it completely ensconces the reservoir of erstwhile Lake Kyle, which flooded the valleys here after the construction of a dam in 1960. As you flit between the empty banks and the smooth granite hills of the surrounding area, you’ll keep the company of ostriches and buffalo, not to mention local fishing folk searching for bass and bream beneath the waters.
A small crossroads town on the main way west from Harare to Lusaka across the border in Zambia, sleepy Chinhoyi is a kind of picture of rural Zimbabwe.
It sits nestled between the rising ridges of the Mashonaland West Province, and comes with a sleepy vibe and a set of essential services – a bank, hospital and the like.
However, Chinhoyi is famed mainly for one thing and one thing only: its caves.
Known simply as the Chinhoyi caves, these carve their way into the cliffs just west of the center.
They occupy their very own national park, and divers come from far and wide to try ultra-technical deep descents into the cool subterranean waters that hide in the gaping caverns.
11. Mana Pools National Park
The Mana Pools National Park is fed by the lifeblood of the Zambezi River, which spills over onto the plains and grasses here when the rains fall to create a patchwork of watering holes and pans during the wet season.
Of these, it’s the largest four that gave the area its name (mana means ‘four’ in the local vernacular), but there are actually countless little puddles to see.
The main upshot is that animals gather at the sites to drink, making Mana Pools a game viewing destination of the top order.
Despite being underdeveloped, there are more crocodiles and hippos here than you can rattle a baobab tree at, and visitors during the monsoon are virtually guaranteed a sighting!
12. Matusadona National Park
Clinging to the southern banks of Lake Kariba, on the Zimbabwean side of the great water body, Matusadona National Park is a relic of the former state of Rhodesia.
After becoming subsumed by Zimbabwe following the upheavals, the area retained its protected status.
And it’s easy to see why! First off, the whole region is beautifully untouched and untrodden, with Cape buffalo and elephants by far the most common mammalian inhabitants.
Secondly, there’s the waters of Kariba itself, which have created ample grazing lands since the creation of the Kariba Dam, allowing ungulates and predators alike to thrive along its fringes.
13. Gonarezhou National Park
You could be forgiven for thinking that you were strolling through Colorado or Arizona as you move between the rock-ribbed, rust-colored escarpments that dominate the vistas in the North Gonarezhou National Park.
This wild land covers a whopping 5,000 square kilometers, which is just a portion of the colossal Limpopo conservancy, set to sprawl out across the frontier into Mozambique when its fully established.
Elephants and giraffe are common sightings, while you’ll also be able to spot wild dog packs and zebra between the mopane woods.
Deep in the very heartlands of Zimbabwe, the town of Kadoma actually started life as a ramshackle gold rush town, housing the miners and prospectors who flocked to the central provinces here to chip away at the ground.
After gold was found, the spot developed quickly, slowly giving rise to hotels and banks and businesses.
Today, Kadoma is a richly-imbued place, with some colonial-style church towers and a lively local population of nearly 80,000. Come here to learn about Zimbabwe’s mineral wealth, and see cotton fields swaying in the African breezes.
The kingpin of the Kariba Lake region and the Zambezi Valley, this little lakeside town draws thousands of visitors a year to the extreme northern reaches of the country.
Set just on the edge of Zambia, it offers access to the breathtaking Kariba Dam – one of the most awesome engineering feats in these parts.
It’s also the place to come for hiking and outdoor explorations around the edges of the water, or to watch the red-pink African sunsets in the company of locals, as the evening hues descend over Antelope Island in the distance.