Victoria Falls is the largest curtain waterfall in the world - about a mile long and over 100m high. The Zambezi River plummets down into a deep, narrow ravine known as the Batoka Gorge, which continues to zigzag downstream from the waterfall and provides some of the best whitewater rafting in the world. About two-thirds of the waterfall, including the main falls, can be seen from the Zimbabwe side, while the Zambian side provides great views of the remaining third and also lays claim to the famous Livingstone Island, from where Dr David Livingstone first viewed the falls.
The town on the Zimbabwe side is called Victoria Falls, and on the Zambian side, the town is called Livingstone. Each has a busy international airport, good infrastructure and many hotels and lodges to choose from. Just downstream of the falls, the bridge over the Zambezi River connects Zambia to Zimbabwe.
So which side should you visit?
The Zimbabwe side
The Zimbabwe side is considered by many to offer the best vantage point for viewing the falls, particularly in the low water season. Access to the falls is via the entrance to the rainforest, where visitors first have to pay their park fees. At the entrance, there is a curio shop, information centre and restaurant. A network of paved footpaths takes you to the various viewpoints at the edge of the gorge. These paths are wheelchair friendly, while the Zambia side has a lot of steps.
There are many different viewpoints, and a tour of the falls will typically take about 1-2 hours. At some points, especially during the high water season between February and July, you can expect to get wet from the spray. At the peak of the high water season (March to June) the falls are a mighty and thunderous spectacle, but the spray is often so much that you can hardly see the falls themselves from most viewpoints. Also, be aware of slippery pathways and rocks.
Apart from having the best views of the falls, Zimbabwe is popular because of the large choice of accommodation options, easy access to nearby safari destinations, and good value for money. In general, the Zimbabwe side is slightly less expensive than the Zambian side and has some of the best budget hotels in the region, such as the ever-popular Kingdom Hotel, a large four-star resort within walking distance of the falls.
The Zambian side
The Zambian side received a major tourism boost during Zimbabwe's economic crisis years between 2000 and 2010. Many new hotels were built and Livingstone became the preferred destination for travellers to Victoria Falls. One benefit of the Zambian side is the number of fantastic lodges and hotels that are built right on the edge of the Zambezi River, upstream from the falls. On the Zimbabwe side, there are only a couple of hotels with direct access to the Zambezi River.
The best time to see the falls from the Zambian side is during July and August when the water level has begun to drop but the Zambian side has not dried up yet. During the low water season, from September to early December, the Zambian side is virtually dry and there is nothing to look at except a dry rock wall. Unless you visit Livingstone Island. But during the peak of the high water season (March to June) the spray is so much that most of the Zambian side is a white-out - it's like walking in a rainstorm with no visibility. There are raincoats available at the entrance, but the pathways are very slippery during the high water season.
Although the Zambian side only offers a dry rock wall during the low water season, there is one unique viewpoint on the Zambian side from where you will get amazing views of the falls - Livingstone Island. The island is situated next to the main falls, opposite some of Zimbabwe's best viewpoints, but it falls within Zambia and can be reached for most of the year (with the exception of peak high water season). A visit to Livingstone Island is highly recommended. Enjoy a tour of the island followed by breakfast or lunch, and if you are brave enough, follow the guides to Devil's Pool, a natural rock pool on the edge of the falls, right next to Livingstone Island. Here you can lie on your tummy and look over the edge of the falls. Not for the fainthearted!
So which side is better?
This depends on the time of year, your budget and your interests. Both sides have their advantages. In general, the views of the falls are better from the Zimbabwe side, especially during the low water season. But low water season is also the best time to visit Livingstone Island and Devil's Pool or Angel's Pool, which you can only do on the Zambian side. The Zimbabwe side has better accommodation options for clients on a tight budget, while the Zambian side has better accommodation options for clients on a higher budget.
One logistical advantage of the Zambian side is that there is a direct flight between Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (in Nelspruit, close to Kruger Park) and Livingstone, on certain days of the week. This means you don't have to travel via Johannesburg when combining Kruger Park and the Zambian side of Victoria Falls.
If you plan on visiting both sides of the falls, be sure to obtain a Kaza Univisa which allows you multiple entries to both Zimbabwe and Zambia and makes crossing the border much easier. Alternatively, consider a double-entry or multiple entry visa from your point of entry. This costs less than getting two single-entry visas.
Victoria Falls offers a host of different activities, and apart from a few unique experiences on each side, most of the popular activities can be done from both sides.
To make the most of your trip, however, we recommend visiting both sides. If you spend 2 or 3 nights at Victoria Falls on either side, you will have enough time to include a day visit to the other side, and experience the best of both!
Planning a trip? Take a look at some of our safaris that include Victoria Falls. Keep in mind that these are merely trip ideas. We'll be happy to design a custom itinerary to suit your interests and budget.
Have you visited Victoria Falls? Which side did you prefer? Let us know in the comments below.
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About the author
Onne Vegter is the managing director of Wild Wings Safaris. He has a deep love for Africa's people, wildlife and natural heritage. Onne has travelled to most of Africa's top safari destinations and his writing is based on years of personal experience in the safari industry. Follow him on Twitter at @OnneVegter.