Home to one of the world’s great natural wonders – Mosi-oa-Tunya, ‘the smoke that thunders’ – the Zimbabwean town of Victoria Falls delivers what it says on the tin. But this diminutive place also has an eclectic identity beyond its star attraction.

Its artisan craft markets, micro-breweries, raucous drum shows, adrenaline activities and sophisticated high teas (with some serious views) will reward those who resist the urge to hightail it out of town after snapping some shots of the falls. Staying for a couple of days will allow you to get the feel of Zimbabwe’s blockbuster border town.

Between a silhouetted rocky cliff and rainforest-clad outcrop is a seething Zambezi; a arching rainbow bills the right of the image, while the Victoria Falls are seen 'smoking' between the two cliffs.
The view from the far end of Victoria Falls National Park, near Devil’s Cataract © Dmitry Pichugin / 500px

Day one: morning

It’s your first day in Victoria Falls and you can’t dance around the reason you came here. Head to Victoria Falls National Park early in the morning (the park opens at 6am, with seasonal variations) to avoid the crowds and intense midday heat. After paying the US$30 entry and passing through the cute gift shop, resist the urge to immediately turn left – one of the most staggering views is down a forested track to the right. Just before the statue of David Livingstone, you'll get an eyeful of the Devil’s Cataract, a panoramic shot down the falls sliced with dazzling rainbow prisms. Now you can explore the rest of the park and its jaw-dropping viewpoints, each impossibly outdoing the last. Pause and relish in the thundering rumble and soak hot brows in the clouds of spray billowing off the cascades.

A river raft is deluged and almost turned over by an intense set of rapids on the Zambezi; most of the rafters have one hand on a paddle and the other firmly on the raft's safety line.
Rafting the grade V rapids of the Zambezi is one way to get your fill of adrenaline © DEA / G. COZZI / Getty Images

Next stop is a short walk into town for lunch at the Shearwater Cafe. This bright, airy and thoughtfully-designed space wouldn’t feel out of place in Barcelona or London, until you get to the menu which serves up traditional, locally-source fare with a contemporary flourish (crocodile wasabi wrap, anyone?). If, however, you’re in the market for a blood-pumping close-up of the falls, put lunch on pause and visit Wild Horizons first. Free-fall 70m before its world-famous gorge swing catapults you cross the chasm or soar 120m above the coursing Zambezi on a 425m-long zipline. There’s no wilder ride, though, than whitewater rafting – visit when water levels are low (July to December) for the ultimate thrill.

Beneath a tree canopy sits a wooden A-frame building that is the home of The River Brewing Co; people sit around tables sitting in front of the building.
Visit the River Brew Co for a brewery tour, meal or simply a local beer in a scenic setting © Louise Bastock / Lonely Planet

Day one: afternoon

Once your blood pressure has dropped, allow your lunch to digest while you browse the curios of Elephant Walk Shopping and Artist Village, an eight-minute walk from Shearwater Cafe. Here, high-end silver smiths and jewellery studios mingle with artisan galleries and boutique souvenir shops in a tropical garden setting. If this morning’s activities haven’t given you a metaphorical taste of the Zambezi, you can get a literal one adjacent to this souvenir paradise at the River Brew Co. From the light Kaza Blonde to the chocolatey Jack Tar Porter, all the beers here are brewed from pure Zambezi water. Book a brewery tour or while away an afternoon on their sunny patio with a tasting paddle and a hearty, pub grub-style dinner.

A hippo, with mouth agape and facing skyward, protrudes from the waters of the Zambezi River; a second hippo (only eyes and ears visible) lurks in the water nearby.
While on a sunset cruise atop the Zambezi, there are usually uninvited guests © Emma Shaw / Lonely Planet

Day one: evening

Anywhere else in the world a sunset river cruise might feel a bit sedate and retro, but in Victoria Falls it's anything but. Grab a drink from the boat's bar and wait for the show; come dusk, the river banks of the Zambezi erupt with elusive wildlife. Let your on-board guide point out swooping heron, regal African fish eagles, grazing buffalo and, if you’re lucky, a pod of hippos slashing in the shallows or an elephant calf and mother coyly hiding in the bushes. Even as you wend your way back to shore the show isn’t over – as the sun slips out of the frame, you’ll be treated to the unforgettable image of the inky banks of the Zambezi silhouetted against a flamingo-pink sky.

A view from the back of an open-topped 4WD safari vehicle; it looks down over the driver and hood of the truck to the dirt road head, with the sun shining brightly on the horizon.
A sunrise wildlife drive through the African bush on the outskirts of Victoria Falls © Louise Bastock / Lonely Planet

Day two: morning

Rise at the crack of dawn (early birds catch the once-in-a-lifetime worm, and all that) for the ultimate, animal-spotting adventure. Public wildlife drives are run throughout the Zambezi National Park and Stanley and Livingstone Game Reserve, and some lodges, such as Masuwe, offer their own tours through private reserves, so check at your accommodations and ensure you go with a reputable guide. During a quintessential safari experience, your open-sided 4WD will trundle through cinematic landscapes, allowing you to see heavy hitters such as elephant, giraffe, kudu, warthog and impala enjoying their natural habitat. The moment you spot a well-camouflaged giraffe peeking between two skeletal trees or a witness kudu shape-shift out of the shrubbery, you get a real appreciation for being allowed inside their world – so sit back, stay quiet and revel in their awesomeness from a safe distance.

A curtain of water plunges over the mile-wide precipice that is Victoria Falls; misty clouds rise into the skies, while the waters of the Zambezi are channeled through the narrow gorge that makes the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Taking to the skies above Victoria Falls in a microlight or helicopter is another way to take in the splendor of the scene © Vadim Petrakov / Shutterstock

After your wildlife drive, it’s all about those big, beautiful views. Victoria Falls Bridge should be on every traveller’s itinerary. Built in 1905, it’s a pioneering example of Victorian-era engineering and provides some of the most magnificent (if a little head-spinning) 360 views across and into the gorge. Plenty of tours will take you over and underneath this historic landmark, but it’s much cheaper to do it yourself. Stroll down to the tiny immigration office, pay your US$30 (single-entry visa) and off you go – the gob-smacking vistas are yours for the taking. Get a snap of yourself crossing into Zambia in the middle of the bridge, but bear in mind, if you actually want to cross into Livingstone, Zambia and get your passport stamped on the other side, you will need to purchase a double-entry visa when you arrive in Zimbabwe.

Beyond a foreground of lush bush are the rapids of the Zambezi river and mist from Victoria Falls; behind the rainbow is the graceful arch of Victoria Falls Bridge.
A view over the gorge to Victoria Falls Bridge © Nick Dale / EyeEm / Getty Images

Day two: afternoon

As the day’s heat begins to ramp up, head back into town to the palatial, Edwardian-style Victoria Falls Hotel for afternoon tea. Scoff tiny cucumber sandwiches and deftly-crafted macaroons on the breezy Stanley’s Terrace overlooking the manicured lawns. On clear days the terrace affords postcard-perfect views across the gorge and bridge, at times shimmering behind plumes of mist from the thundering falls. Built only a year before the bridge, Victoria Falls Hotel is an icon of luxury in Southern Africa. While you’re here, wander the gardens (keeping an eye out for families of the fanciest warthogs who call these grounds home) or book a massage at the spa.

Day two: evening

Kick things up a notch in the evening with dinner at the Boma. An African boma is a type of circular enclosure used for shelter and as the setting for social gatherings, where people would congregate around the fire to share folkloric, ancestral tales. The Boma – Dinner and Dance Show at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge takes all those traditional elements and blows them out into a mad, magical spectacular that’ll have you dressing up, dining on a mind-bending array of traditional dishes and even earning your mopane worm eating certification. After your sumptuous four-course dinner set around an open-spit fire, teams of drummers and dancers take to the floor. Follow in the community spirit from which the night is inspired and master some rhythms on your own drum or get up and get dancing – the energy of the night is contagious.

A man jumps into Devil's Pool in the Zambezi River at the top of Victoria Falls; a rim of rock creates the pool that stops swimmers from getting swept over the falls.
A trip across the bridge makes visiting Devil's Pool on the Zambian side of the falls a possibility (at times of low water) © StanislavBeloglazov / Shutterstock

Make it happen

The falls are at their most mighty February to June, but July to September actually affords you better views. For epic whitewater rapids, the best time to visit is July to December. Zimbabwe’s green season blooms in late-October/November and is a great time for spotting wildlife. Victoria Falls has a range of amazing accommodation options from the opulent Victoria Falls Hotel and luxury safari-style lodges such as Masuwe to the budget-friendly favourite Victoria Falls Backpackers. Travellers with a little extra cash to burn could also add a helicopter ride and a trip to the infamous Devil’s Pool in Zambia to their itinerary.

As of June this year, the only legal tender in the country is the newly reintroduced Zimbabwe dollar. There are some bureaux de change, however, which will exchange US dollars. It’s advised that you travel into Zimbabwe with all the cash you’ll need, as few places take card and you won’t be able to withdraw cash with your bank or credit cards.

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