I initially meant to stop in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe for a few days on my way to see the rest of the African region. Instead, I unexpectedly spent almost two weeks here recharging, making new friends, catching up on work, and of course, exploring. Bulawayo proved to be more than just the perfect jumping point/transit hub on my solo Southern Africa backpacking trip. With its wide tree-lined streets, charming architecture, and the tranquil and rustic feel of the city, once I gave Bulawayo a chance it was hard to let it go. As the second-largest city in the country, Bulawayo offers several opportunities to get a deeper perspective of Zimbabwean history and culture through its friendly Bulawayans, museums, sites, and much more.
Take the Sleeper Train to Victoria Falls
This train ride ranges between 14 to 20 hours depending on conditions. The carts are clean and comfortable. At night you can marvel at the beautiful views of the star-lit sky and in the morning you can stick your head out of the window to take in the fresh and ever-changing landscapes from safari yellow to deep green as the train passes through Hwange National Park in the morning. Without a doubt, this was one of the most special experiences of my travels thus far. And in my opinion, one of the best experiences in Zimbabwe!
Go to the Bulawayo Railway Museum
I know what you're thinking. Railway… museum? What for? It sounds boring, I know. But it was actually one of the most impressive experiences I had in Bulawayo. Possibly because my expectations were so low about a museum on trains, but mostly because it was fascinating to check out the antique and well-preserved collection of everything train-related. Who knew how important the railroad was in this region of Africa during the British imperialism? Or that the country of Zimbabwe was known as Rhodesia (Rhodesia Railways) until it recently gained its independence in 1980?!
See the National Gallery of Zimbabwe Bulawayo (Art Museum + Studios)
This art museum in Bulawayo contains a different assortment of Zimbabwean artworks. From what you imagine to be traditional "African art" to contemporary paintings to trendy West African-influenced fashion prints. In addition to their exhibitions, the museum has a store on the first floor where you can buy one-of-kind woven baskets, paintings, and sculptures. And in the back of the museum, you can actually visit the studios of and meet with various Zimbabwean artists! This is a must experience for art lovers and those interested in a more insightful and cultural look at Zimbabwe.
Learn at National History Museum
While I personally found this one to be the least exciting museum in Bulawayo, many would argue it's the best one in town. If you are particularly excited about game drives and animal safaris, then this is probably the place for you. You can get a comprehensive and general overview of the different animals local to this region of Africa as well as a pretty interesting and educational exhibition of the region's geology. I strongly recommend this before going on a safari or game drive so that you understand what you'll be seeing. But if you've already done a safari or game drive, were not very impressed by the experience, and you don't have much interest in geology, then a visit to this museum probably isn't going to excite you.
Take a Day Trip to Great Zimbabwe
The "city" of Great Zimbabwe is considered the Machu Picchu of Africa and is today recognized as a World Heritage Site by. Constructed from the 11th to the 15th century, Great Zimbabwe stretches across almost 2,000 acres and could have once housed up to 18,000 people. Here you can get a guided walking tour (though at the time it felt like a hiking tour) to learn the history of this medieval city. The tour lasts about 2-3 hours. You start at the Great Zimbabwe museum and you finish at the top of a hill overlooking the magnificent views of Great Zimbabwe from high above.