There are plenty of impressive photographs of Victoria Falls, but none can do justice to the actual sensation of standing on the edge of a chasm facing a wide, white sheet of falling water: your ears filled with its deafening roar, your skin soaked by the unrelenting spray.
There’s no doubt that Victoria Falls is one of Southern Africa’s “must-visit” destinations. But to make the most of your time there you need to consider a couple of questions; the first of which is “Which side should I visit, Zambia or Zimbabwe?”
Having been to Victoria Falls a number of times and stayed on both sides, here is everything I think you need to know to help you make that decision. And if you’ve also travelled there before and feel I’ve left something out, then please do add it in the comments section below.
A section of the Main Falls as seen from the Zimbabwe side (photo: Steve Jurvetson).
View of The Falls: Main Falls vs Knife-Edge Bridge
Victoria Falls is actually made up of a series of waterfalls, four of which (Devil’s Cataract, Main Falls, Rainbow Falls and Horseshoe Falls) lie in Zimbabwe, and just one (Eastern Cataract) in Zambia. So if you want that iconic view of a wide sheet of falling water – you need to go to Zimbabwe.
Another thing about the Zimbabwe side of Victoria Falls is that, because the water tumbles into a narrow chasm you actually walk along a footpath on the opposite side of the gorge parallel to the falls. This gives you a face-on view about 60 meters away from a thundering sheet of water. Spectacular!
I loved the view from the Zambian side too, however, especially the thrilling crossing of the Knife-Edge Bridge – you really feel the power of the waterfall with spray coming at you from all directions. And, although I didn’t take the steep footpath down to the Boiling Pot at the bottom of the falls in Zambia, I’ve heard that experience is well worth the effort.
The Kife-Edge Bridge in Zambia gets you really close to the falls.
One thing though: make sure you get your timing right! The best time to visit Victoria Falls is from February to May when the Zambezi River is at peak flow. Visit in October or November, the end of the dry season, and the Zambian side of the falls dries up completely so you’ll need to go to Zimbabwe or you’ll find yourself staring at a rocky chasm wondering what all the fuss is about.
Of course you can always cross the border and see both. Find out more in the “Travel Essentials and Practical Advice” section.
Available Activities: Devil's Pool & Game Viewing
Whether you prefer high-adrenaline adventures (bungee jumping, white water rafting, microglight flights), time spent with animals (elephant-back safaris, horse riding trails, walking with lions) or something a little more sedate (sunset river cruises, helicopter flips, fishing) – you can do all of this activities and more in either Zambia or Zimbabwe.
There are, however, a couple of popular activities that are limited to the Zambian side of the falls, the first of which is a trip to Livingstone Island. Livingstone Island sits on the lip of Victoria Falls and is the spot where Dr David Livingsone first laid eyes on the falls – an experience he famously described as “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight".
The view from the island is fantastic, but to really live life on the edge - take a dip in the Devil’s Pool! Swimming at the top of one of the world’s most powerful waterfalls might sound like a crazy idea, and leaping into the churning water you’d do well to question your sanity. However, providing you follow the rules and go with a registered guide during dry season (around September to December) you’ll be prevented from tumbling over the edge by a low rocky ledge called the Devil’s Armchair. Once again, the Devil’s Pool is only accessible from the Zambian side of the falls.
One thing that is better in Zimbabwe is the game viewing. While Victoria Falls is not really a safari destination per se, it is highly unlikely that you won’t see at least some wildlife: monkeys play in the trees, warthogs graze the hotel lawns and river cruises take you past open-mouthed hippo and elephant at the water’s edge. But for game drives the Zambezi National Park in Zimbabwe offers better sightings than the Mosi-oa-Tunya Reserve in Zambia – especially in the dry season when along with elephant, buffalo and giraffe you’ve got a good chance of seeing lion and even leopard too!
Pick a lodge on the river and there's a good chance you'll see hippo from your suite.
Of course if you have a bit of time then you can go on a day trip to Chobe (available from either Zambia or Zimbabwe). Game viewing in the Chobe National Park is famously good but you'll also be competing with far more vehicles and other people than in the on-your-doorstep Zambezi National Park.
Accommodation: Grand Hotels & Riverside Lodges
Since Victoria Falls Town (in Zimbabwe) lies right next to the falls and Livingstone Town (in Zambia) lies more than 10km away, Zimbabwe has a greater selection of accommodation close to the falls. That said, if you want a luxurious stay in Zambia within walking distance of the falls then I’d highly recommend The Royal Livingstone Hotel which not only has its own private footpath but also its own entrance gate - giving you free access to the Zambian side of the falls whenever you feel like it.
Personally I prefer staying a bit away from the falls. In Zambia I chose a lodge tucked into the trees right on the bank of the Zambezi, where I could return from a busy day at the falls to the peace and quiet of riverside living. While in Zimbabwe I opted for The Stanley and Livingstone – and spent breakfast gazing at zebra at the lodge waterhole whilst tucking into a plate of eggs benedict. Both great options – both highly recommended!
The thatched chalets set right on the river at Royal Chundu (on the Zambian side).
Markets, Restaurants & Cafes
With Victoria Falls Town right there, Zimbabwe is the better choice for souvenir shopping. There’s a large outdoor market with rows upon rows of intricate wooden carvings, salad bowls and soapstone animals of all shapes and sizes. If you find markets exhausting; try the “Elephant’s Walk Shopping and Artist’s Village” which has boutique stores selling high quality jewelry, sculptures, clothing and leather goods – prices are fixed, so no haggling or swapping a wooden hippo for your grubby t-shirt.
Zimbabwe definitely has the greater choice in dining options too, not only in the hotel restaurants – sit down to afternoon tea and incredible views at the Victoria Falls Hotel or a dinner of kudu filet overlooking the waterhole at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge – but also in the cafes and restaurants around town. For a light snack there’s the Rainforest Café actually in Victoria Falls Park (try their cappuccino served with a shot of Amarula) and the lovely little Africa Café at Elephant’s Walk, and for dinner I went to The Boma, Place of Eating – which is admittedly touristy but also a really fun night out with drumming lessons, Ndebele dancers, and food ranging from chicken to smoked crocodile.
There’s less choice in Zambia, but a couple of options really stand out. The first is sundowner drinks on the riverside deck at The Royal Livingstone – watching the sun set and light up the rising spray of Victoria Falls is a real holiday highlight. And the second is The Royal Livingstone Express: a fine dining experience on board a luxury train pulled by a steam locomotive that chugs through villages, and into the Mosi-o-Tunya National Park as sip champagne and look forward to your 5-course dinner.
The perfect spot for sundowners - the riverside deck at The Royal Livingstone (in Zambia)
Travel Essentials and Practical Advice
Whether you opt to stay in Zambia or Zimbabwe, you can always get a day pass to visit the other side of the falls. The cost of the visa varies depending on your nationality, whether you want single or multiple entry and how long you plan on staying. But generally speaking you’re looking at less than USD 100 in visa fees all in, and the minor hassle of a border crossing to both sides of the falls – well worth it, I reckon!
Another factor that may affect your decision is that if stay in Zambia you’ll need a yellow fever vaccination and certificate, something that isn’t required for Zimbabwe.
As for currency, Zambia no longer accepts US Dollars. You can pay for your visa in dollars, but once you’re passed immigration you’ll need to change some of your cash into Zambian Kwacha for spending money. The US Dollar is Zimbabwe’s official currency.
And finally, some people avoid Zimbabwe due to the current political situation. Victoria Falls is a completely safe destination, and by staying on the Zimbabwe side of the falls you’ll be supporting local businesses rather than the government itself.
Bring some extra cash for shopping at Elephant’s Walk Shopping and Artist’s Village (in Zimbabwe)
So To Sum Up The Highlights of Each…
- Around two thirds of the falls including the Main Falls
- Face-on views from the a footpath running parallel to the falls
- Never dries up (even in the months of October and November)
- Good game viewing at Zambezi National Park
- More accommodation options close to the falls
- Greater choice for shopping and dining out
- The official currency is US Dollars
- No yellow fever certificate required
- Thrilling close up viewing on the Knife-Edge Bridge
- A path down to the Boiling Pot at the bottom of the falls
- Trip to Livingstone Island with a picnic (dry season only)
- Swimming in the Devil’s Pool (dry season only)
- Romantic riverside lodges
- Drinks on the deck of The Royal Livingstone
- Fine Dining on board The Livingstone Express steam train
One of the nine luxurious tented suites at The Elephant Camp (in Zimbabwe).
Top Places to Stay on Both Sides of The Falls:
- Victoria Falls Hotel: elegant hotel close to the falls, its green lawns extending down to views of Victoria Falls Bridge and the gorges below.
- Stanley & Livingstone: set in a private reserve, this inviting hotel has large and luxurious suites, and a dining deck overlooking an active waterhole.
- The Elephant Camp: a luxury camp with just nine tented suites, each with a private plunge pool, and the chance to meet Sylvester, the cheetah.
- The Royal Livingstone: zebras graze on the lawns of this colonial-style hotel, which has a private footpath and its own entrance to Victoria Falls.
- Royal Chundu: the first Relais & Chateaux property in Zambia, Royal Chundu River Lodge has 10 thatched suites set right on the Zambezi River.
- The David Livingstone: set a couple of km’s upstream of Victoria Falls, this hotel has a lovely riverside setting and shuttles to and from the falls.