(Last updated Feb 2017)
Bulawayo is a laid-back place, but there are plenty of things to do. Its main attraction – the Matobo National Park – is a short drive away. In the city centre, don’t miss a visit to the Natural History Museum: in my opinion it’s the best in Zimbabwe. I recommend a visit to the Bulawayo Publicity Association in the City Hall car park (Leopold Takawira Avenue) so that you can pick up maps and local guidebooks. If you’re self-driving, most of the sights are well-signposted, but check out the route on Google Maps or in your own mapbook in advance.
1. Walk in the Matobo Hills
Called “Matopos” for short, the Matobo National Park is an expanse of granite hills and rock formations, an area of spiritual significance and natural grandeur. Come here for extraordinary landscapes, intriguing rock art, geological wonders, as well as sightings of rhino and raptors. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is said to hold the greatest concentration of leopards in Zimbabwe. Look out for a Matobo National Park travel guide post coming soon on this blog – there is a lot to be said about this place, and a lot to do, from abseiling to horseback safaris.
Must do: Have a sundowner at Rhodes’ Grave for a spectacular view of the sun setting over the hills; go for a picnic or a braai (barbeque) at one of the recreational spots; or stay in one of the lodges that have been built into the rocks.
Located approx. 40km from Bulawayo off the Matopos Rd; well-signposted. Open 6am to 6pm. Entry fee: US $4 for locals, $15 for tourists. To enter the Rhodes’ Grave area of the park you will need to pay an additional fee of about $4. Family friendly. See the Matopos Conservation Society website for maps and resources. Maps are also available at the Bulawayo Publicity Association in town. Read more articles about the Matobo Hills
2. Visit the Natural History Museum
This rather odd-looking circular building is an intriguing place to spend a few hours. My favourite part of the museum is on the ground floor, where taxidermy African animals have been presented in scenes showing their natural habitats. This may sound macabre and creepy, but somehow it’s not. It’s sad that some of the animals had an untimely end (although others did die of natural causes), but at least the creatures in this exhibit are educating generations of children and adults, rather than pointlessly sitting above a trophy-hunter’s fireplace.
An elephant in the taxidermy display holds the record for being the second largest of its kind to be mounted in the world. When you see this beast in person, at 4 metres or 12 foot in height, it’s a truly fearsome sight – apparently its tusks alone weigh 40kg. If you’ve been on safari, the elephants you see are unlikely to be this big, the reason being that the biggest elephants were killed by Arab, Portuguese and British hunters in the early days of African exploration, and their genes for next generations were diminished. The sheer enormity of this elephant at the Museum serves as a lesson in the importance of conserving the elephants that currently remain in the wild.
In addition to the wildlife galleries, there’s a Geology section showing Zimbabwe’s mineral riches, and a Mankind section which takes the visitor on a simplified tour of Zimbabwe’s history from the Stone Age to Colonialism. Don’t miss seeing a Dodo egg, or one of the first ever caught Coelacanths (pre-historic fish species), and learning about Syntarsus, a distinctive Zimbabwean dinosaur. Not only are the displays interesting in their own right, but they enrich our understanding of local wildlife, environment and society, which is invaluable to a visit to Zimbabwe.
Located in the city centre next to Centenary Park on Leopold Takawira Avenue. Open 9am to 5pm except Christmas Day and Good Friday. Entry fee: US $5. Family friendly. Visit the museum website
3. See rescued animals at Chipangali Wildlife Orphanage
Chipangali is where injured wild animals can be cared for, and prepared for release if possible. The orphanage has a long history, and was patroned by Diana, Princess of Wales from 1983 until her death. I have fond memories of bottle-feeding a baby rhino and playing with a lion cub here when I was young (although I’m not sure current visitors will be able to do so, as modern research has rightly deemed regular stranger interaction as counterproductive for young animals). They have a range of animals ranging from leopards to bush babies who now call Chipangali home.
Located approx. 25km south of Bulawayo off the Johannesburg Road. Open Tuesdays to Thursdays 1am to 5pm. Entry US $20. Family friendly. Visit the Chipangali website
4. Visit the Railway Museum
Any fan of locomotives or African history will love to visit the Railway Museum. Here, you can find Rhodes’ own personal carriage which was his personal form of transport while he was alive, as well as the transporter of his coffin from Cape Town to Bulawayo after he died. A fantastic collection of steam and diesel engines (some in working order) are also on display, as well as colonial ticket offices and exhibits dating back to 1897.
Visitors are allowed to climb on board the trains which makes it an exciting place for kids to play and explore. They can pretend they’re mechanics or train drivers, first-class passengers or livestock transporters. Yes, it’s dusty, and yes, parts of the place are run-down, but few other museums can allow such a hands-on learning experience or capture the imagination as well as this one.
Located in the city centre behind Bulawayo Railway Station on Prospect Avenue. Open 8am to 4.30pm daily. Small entrance fee; around US $2. Family friendly. Railway Museum Facebook page
5. Visit Mzilikazi Arts and Crafts Centre
Mzilikazi is a high-density township in Bulawayo named after the Ndebele king. It is also home to an art school community that has been running since 1963, where young talents learn the skills to become self-sustainung artisans. Visitors can view and buy the crafts here, ranging from pottery, ceramics, painting, sculpture and wood carving. The shop has proved very popular and you can buy functional kitchenware and homeware, as well as fine art pieces. Many talented artists have graduated from this school, and products have gained international popularity.
In the same complex, visit Bulawayo Home Industries which sells Batiks as well as woven products. Visit these craft shops, not only to pick up some excellent art pieces to remind you of Zimbabwe, but also to see another perspective of Zimbabwean life and culture.
Located off the Old Falls Road, near Mpilo Hospital; adjacent to J.M. Macdonald Hall. Open Mondays to Fridays between 8:30am – 4pm; closed lunch hours. No entrance fee. Family friendly. See Bulawayo travel guide for more information on shopping in Bulawayo
6. Explore Khami Ruins
Similar to Great Zimbabwe Ruins, these give a glimpse of pre-colonial Zimbabwean life. Scholars suggest that construction began at Khami in the 15th Century, some time after the collapse of the Great Zimbabwe state. Khami was thought to be the capital of the Shona Torwa nation, and it differs to Great Zimbabwe in size, structure and construction method, although they both stem from a similar. Here, stone walls were used to create terraces on which huts were arranged. The stone in this area is difficult to use for free-standing drystone walls, so it was built into the hillside instead. The terraces meant that the huts were better ventilated and cooler, and also reduced the number of mosquitoes. Don’t miss the short walk up to the Hill Complex where the elite lived, and where a Portuguese Cross of mysterious origins points to a lovely view of the hillside. There is a picnic area under large trees where you can refuel after your history walk.
Top tip: If you can’t fit in a trip to see the ruins of Great Zimbabwe near Masvingo, then Khami Ruins are the next best thing.
Located approx. 22 km from Bulawayo on 11th Avenue Old Khami Rd. Open 8am to 4.30pm daily. Small entrance fee is payable. Family friendly. See pictures and read about my visit to Khami Ruins here
7. Have tea at Nesbitt Castle
Zimbabwe doesn’t have many European-style castles, for obvious reasons, and that is why a visit to Nesbitt Castle feels like a trip down the rabbit hole. The eccentric owner built the castle in the 1920s, inspired by ones he had visited overseas, but using local stone. Today, the owners have turned it into a boutique hotel, restaurant and pub, surrounded by lush gardens and a pony park. Colonial paraphernalia and gothic curiosities adorn the winding, mysterious passages and provide for a fascinating visit. The Coach House Restaurant and Dragon’s Den Pub don’t require a booking, but I think afternoon tea is the best way to do justice to this fanciful place (for this, it’s best to phone or email beforehand). The castle is a popular venue for weddings so Saturdays are likely to be busy.
Located near the city centre, on 6 Percy Avenue, Hillside. Family friendly. Visit the Nesbitt Castle website
8. Have a swim at Diana’s Pool
A typical Zimbabwean landscape is one occupied by granite outcrops, and at Diana’s Pool you can swim in a rock pool with such a backdrop. Let’s face it, Zimbabwe can get pretty hot, and swimming areas such as these are a great alternative to a conventional beach. Take lots of sunblock, hats, swimming trunks and braai (barbeque) gear, and you’ve got yourself a fun day out.
Located 70km from Bulawayo off the main Beitbridge road. Guests are required to report to the caretaker at the homestead closest to the entrance of Diana’s Pool protected area, or at the Happy Thaba Store near the entrance. Voluntary contribution suggested. Family-friendly for swimmers. There are no crocodiles or hippos in these pools which makes them safe to swim in; however if you have symptoms of lethargy in the months following your swim, get tested for Bilharzia – the treatment is relatively safe and simple.
9. Walk around Hillside Dams
The local suburban Bulawayo community have recently refurbished this venue, and it’s a popular spot for picnics and walks. There’s also a good restaurant where you can have a cup of coffee or bite to eat, if you don’t want to bring your own food. There are two dams – upper and lower – and you can explore along aloe and granite-lined paths for a couple of hours.
Located close to the city centre, off Banff Rd. Open daily. Family friendly. Small entrance fee payable. Visit the Hillside Dams website
10. Ride on horseback through Tshabalala Game Sanctuary
This is a fantastic opportunity to explore the African bush on foot without worrying about being stalked by a lion! In most other game parks, you will need a professional guide with you when you walk around, but in this park, there aren’t any dangerous animals, so you have much more freedom. The park contains a variety of animals including zebra, giraffe, warthog and impala as well as an abundance of birds – so you will still be able to see some beautiful African game up close. The park also offers horseback rides, which will take you even closer to the wild animals because they are so accustomed to the horses. You can even cycle around the park if you bring your own bike. Take your own food and drink, as well as a hat and some safari-coloured clothing. The best time to see the animals is late afternoon.
Located 10km outside of Bulawayo, off the Matopos Rd. May be closed between January and February due to heavy rains affecting the road. Open daily 6am to 6pm. Family friendly. Small entrance fee payable. Visit the Tshabalala National Parks website
Want more? Here are some more sights near Bulawayo:
- Have lunch at The Bulawayo Club – once a gentleman’s-only club, this is an insightful place to look around, with many interesting colonial relics. It is primarily a hotel but the restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
- Old Bulawayo (koBulawayo) – This was Lobengula’s settlement, which he named koBulawayo in 1870. Today, the area is a museum which offers a window into life during the turn of the 20th Century. Lobengula’s royal abode was restored along with other relics, but unfortunately a fire destroyed much of it in 2010. The Interpretive Centre is still standing and it is still an interesting place to visit for its historical significance.
- Umguza Park Dam – recreational area, picnic spot, bird-spotting, boating and fishing.
- The National Gallery – Beautiful colonial building in the centre of town where you can view art exhibitions and art shop, or eat at the cafe.
- Naletale Ruins and Dhlo Dhlo Ruins – Continue learning about Zimbabwe’s archeological history at these sites.
- Cyrene Mission Chapel – The original students at this mission school were encouraged to express themselves through art, and they decorated this chapel with distinctly Africanised biblical scenes. The resulting frescoes are offbeat, poignant and absorbing.
- Hope Fountain Mission – The internal walls of this chapel have been decorated with photographs of the missionaries and teachers who ran the mission and boarding school, which was founded in 1870. It was here that Rev. Charles Helm introduced the Rhodesian Ridgeback dog – a breed developed to hunt lions.
- Centenary Park – A rather overgrown city park with mini-golf, an amphitheatre and a miniature railway. An intriguing place to stretch your legs if you’re staying in the city centre.
- Highlanders Football Club clubhouse – This is a popular Zimbabwean football club and a soccer lovers will enjoy a visit tot he clubhouse.
What’s your favourite thing to do in Bulawayo?