10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Swaziland

Bordering Mozambique, in the southeast of Africa, the lush and mountainous Kingdom of Swaziland is Africa's last absolute monarchy. This small but scenically beautiful country of emerald peaks, rivers, ravines, rolling valleys, and waterfalls is a hiker's eden. Nature reserves are the top attraction here, and though only a few host Big Five animals (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, and rhino), all of them offer an intimate game-viewing experience, lush mountain scenery, and a rich diversity of species. Swaziland also proudly preserves its fascinating culture, customs, and festivals. Travelers are welcome to watch some of the festivities of Incwala, an impressive three-week kingship ritual in December and January, and, Umhlanga, the lively Reed Dance ceremony, which takes place during the last week of August or first week of September.

1 Hlane Royal National Park

Hlane Royal National Park
Hlane Royal National Park

The Hlane ("Wilderness") Game Sanctuary is home to the largest herds of game in the country and is one of the few places in Swaziland where visitors have a chance of seeing lion, elephant, and rhino. Birders will also be happy at this 22,000-hectare reserve with a diverse collection of species, including the highest density of breeding white backed vultures on the continent. Visitors must take a guided game drive to see the lions, which reside in a separate enclosure, but self-guided drives are permitted in other areas of the park. Besides wildlife watching, activities here include guided mountain biking, cultural visits to a nearby Swazi village, birding walks, and overnight fully-catered bush treks. Guests can opt for an evocative electricity-free experience in a campsite or traditional lantern-lit hut, while a second camp offers self-catering stone cottages with modern conveniences. About a 40-minute drive south of Hlane Royal National Park, Mkhaya Nature Reserve was established to protect endangered species, including white and black rhino. The park also protects buffaloes and elephants as well as giraffes, hippos, and many birds. Day visitors are welcome to book guided game drives here with advance notice, while overnight visitors are ensconced in lantern-lit open-sided stone cottages.

2 Mbuluzi Game Reserve

Narina trogon
Narina trogon Derek Keats

Privately-owned Mbuluzi Game Reserve offers a peaceful retreat on the banks of the croc-filled Mlawula River. The top activity here is self-guided wildlife safaris to see animals such as giraffe, zebra, kudu, jackal, wildebeest, and nyala during the day and possibly hyena, genets, servals, and honey badgers during the night. Birding is also particularly rewarding with more than 300 species, including the beautiful Narina trogon. Visitors can hike the well-marked web of nature trails, mountain bike along jeep tracks, and cast a line for fish in the two rivers. Accommodation is varied. Options range from riverfront campsites and safari tents to several family lodges. Although the reserve lacks any of the Big Five (leopard, lion, elephant, buffalo, and rhino), guests have free entry to neighboring Mlawula Game Reserve and Hlane Royal National Park, with its white rhino and elephant.

Official site: http://www.mbuluzi.com

3 Lobamba

Lobamba traditional huts
Lobamba traditional huts Robert Staudhammer

In the beautiful Ezulwini valley (the Valley of Heaven), Lobamba is Swaziland's spiritual and cultural heart. This laid-back town is home to Swaziland's monarchy as well as its most important buildings. Here, visitors will find the Lobamba Royal Village with the Royal Kraal, the Parliament Building, the National Museum, and other government buildings. In the large Embo State Palace, the king holds audiences, and the magnificent State House, built in 1978, is used mainly for ceremonial and other state occasions, though neither of these buildings is open to the public. However, visitors can tour the Parliament Building. Also in Lobamba, the Somhlolo Stadium is the venue of major cultural and sporting events, state celebrations, concerts, dance performances, and speeches by the king.

4 Swazi Market, Mbabane

Swazi crafts
Swazi crafts Heather Dowd

Mbabane, Swaziland's cool-climate capital, is home to the Swazi Market, a must-see for souvenir-starved tourists. It lies at the south end of Allister Miller Street, the town's main shopping street. The stalls here brim with fresh produce, pottery, hand-made baskets, masks, traditional fabrics, soapstone carvings, and beaded jewelry. Particularly interesting is the traditional medicine center, with an impressive array of healing lotions and potions. About an hour's drive away, shoppers can see more Swazi crafts, including baskets, jewelry, and textiles at Tintsaba Crafts, just past the Piggs Peak Hotel.

A pleasant excursion from Mbabane is a trip up beautiful Pine Valley to the north of the town. The route follows the Umbeluzi River, passing a number of waterfalls. This is great walking and riding country, with agreeable temperatures, even in summer.

5 Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary

Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary
Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary

In the lovely Ezulwini Valley, Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary is one of Swaziland's first conservation areas and its most popular game reserve. It was established by Ted and Elizabeth Reilly, who turned their farm at Mlilwane into a game reserve with the support of King Sobhuza II. The non-profit Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, has now grown to 4,560 hectares of wilderness surrounded by the Nyonyane ("Place of the Little Bird") Mountains. Originally animals and plants were introduced to the reserve from far afield, but today, the Mlilwane Sanctuary is home to more than 400 species of birds and many animals, including zebras, vervet monkeys, crocodiles, warthogs, caracals, hippos, and antelopes. The sanctuary offers plenty of activities. The lineup includes game drives, nature walks, mountain biking, horseback rides, a village cultural experience, and swimming in the rest camp's pool. Accommodation caters to campers and backpackers as well as those seeking a little more comfort with self-contained cottages, traditional Swazi-style beehive huts, and a luxury hilltop lodge.

6 Malolotja Nature Reserve & Phophonyane Falls Nature Reserve

Malolotja Nature Reserve
Malolotja Nature Reserve René C. Nielsen

In northwest Swaziland, the 18,000-hectare Malolotja Nature Reserve is the largest protected area in the country. The name means "river with many rapids and waterfalls" for the reserve is sliced by the Malolotja River, which forms a series of waterfalls, including the country's highest cascades, the Malolotja Falls. Habitats range from wetlands and grasslands to thick riverine forest, and wildflowers brighten the beautiful landscapes in spring and summer. One of the best features of the reserve for visitors is its network of hiking trails and many backpacker camps allowing multi-day wilderness treks. The fauna is particularly notable for the abundance of reptiles and birds, including breeding groups of endangered species such as blue crane and bald ibis. Resident mammals include rock hyraxes, eland, and zebra, among others. A fun way to experience the reserve is by soaring through the forest on the Treetop Canopy Tour zip line.

About a 40-minute drive northeast from here, Phophonyane Falls Ecolodge and Nature Reserve claims the motto: "Peace, Privacy, Paradise." The reserve protects an astounding diversity of habitats in a relatively small area with lush forests, rivers, waterfalls, and scenic hiking trails. A visit here offers a tranquil escape into the beautiful Swazi countryside. Guests can choose from safari tents, beehive huts, or self-catering cottages.

7 Mlawula Nature Reserve

Lebombo Mountains
Lebombo Mountains Steve Slater

Scenic and diverse, the Mlawula Nature Reserve occupies a transitional zone extending from the lowveld up into the Lebombo Mountains. Landscapes here ranges from dry savannah to rolling green valleys and dense riverine forests with mountains rising south to north along the Mozambique border. Due to the contrasting ecological zones, wildlife is varied and includes 60 species of small and large animals such as wildebeest, kudu, impala, and tortoises as well as 350 species of birds, many insects, and an impressive array of plants. About 54 kilometers of roads allow self-guided game drives, and due to the absence of lion or elephants, guests are free to enjoy safe hikes here on the walking trails, which range from short 1.5 kilometer hikes to full-day treks. Fishing is also popular. Accommodation consists of a campsite, luxury en-suite tents, and a cottage. The reserve also borders Mbuluzi and Simunye Nature Reserves and the Hlane Wildlife Sanctuary.

8 Mantenga Reserve

Mantenga Cultural Village
Mantenga Cultural Village thomas

In the picturesque Ezulwini Valley, Mantenga Nature Reserve offers a fun taste of Swazi nature and culture. This compact 725-hectare reserve is home to the Mantenga Cultural Village, a recreation of Swazi life in the 1850s. Here, visitors can take guided tours to learn about Swazi culture and customs, participate in activities such as plaiting mountain grass and grinding grains, and watch impressive performances of traditional song and dance. A highlight of the reserve is the stunning Mantenga Falls, Swaziland's most famous falls with the biggest volume of water. The reserve also protects wildlife such as baboons, vervet monkeys, bushbabies, porcupine, rock hyraxes, serval, leopard, and various species of antelope, as well as an abundance of birds. Visitors can explore the reserve on foot, in their own vehicles, or on mountain bike. Day visitors are welcome, and overnight visitors can stay in the reserve's lodge.

9 Swaziland Festivals

Reed Dance

Experiencing Swaziland's rich culture and friendly people are highlights of a visit here. Travelers are welcome to watch some of the celebrations of the two main festivals. Umhlanga, the animated Reed Dance ceremony, is Swaziland's most famous festival. It takes place during the last week of August or first week of September when young women from around the country come here to participate in a joyful song and dance performance. In December and January, Incwala is an impressive kingship ritual lasting about three weeks. At the beginning of the celebrations, representatives of the Bemanti people bring water from all the main rivers of Swaziland, gathered at the new moon. Young men then build a royal kraal at Lobamba from branches of the lusekwane tree and other plants. The climax is reached on the "great day," when the king, clad in his finest robes, symbolically tastes the first fruits of the harvest followed by cheerful song and dance.

10 National Museum

Set in beautiful gardens, the small and modest National Museum in Lobamba hosts fascinating exhibits on the history, culture, and nature of Swaziland. The displays include examples of traditional dress with explanations of the significance of each piece as well as a few exhibits on the native wildlife and dioramas with typical highveld and lowveld habitats. Outside the Museum, visitors can explore a recreation of a Swazi kraal (village) with thatched huts. This is a great place to gain a feel for the country and its customs.

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