Things to Do in Swakopmund
History buffs will love this small museum in the heart of Namibia’s favorite coastal city. Friendly staff members greet foreign travelers and serve as knowledgeable guides through an extensive collection of rare fossils, handmade artifacts and traditional clothing installations.
Swakopmund Museum’s permanent collections extend beyond the borders of this colonial town to include prehistoric pots used by the San people, a history of Namibian transport, explanation of the once thriving diamond mining industry in the south and an informative look at the cultures and traditions that make this sparsely populated nation so unique. Visitors who spend a couple of hours exploring the Swakopmund Museum halls will leave with a better understanding not only of the city, but of the rich history and diverse people that have made Namibia a destination for world travelers.
Petrified forests are a hallmark of any great American road trip. But in the desolate landscapes of sparsely populated Namibia, it’s the picturesque backdrop of Deadvlei that marks the overland journey of any intrepid traveler.
Located in an orange-tinted valley inside the Namib-Naukluft Park, the vast planes of Deadvlei are scattered with skeleton trees where a rushing river once flowed. This natural wonder ranks high on the country’s list of breathtakingly beautiful sights—which is no small feat in a nation known for its incredibly landscapes. Travelers say the gray clay riverbed, golden dunes and brilliant blue skies make Deadvlei like no place else on earth.
In the local language of Otjiherero Katutura means “The place where people do not want to live”. In 1961, when apartheid practices took hold and black Namibians were moved from their homes into this far flung location, its name not only stung—but also rang true. Roughly 7,000 people were forced to give up land they owned and move to Katutura, where all homes were rented from the municipality and public transport was essential to travel to work.
Today, this once oppressed area of Windhoek is a thriving neighborhood that’s alive with energy, traditions and culture. Visitors can explore Sam Nujoma Stadium, tune in to Katutura Community Radio, or visit Katutura State Hospital—one of two public hospitals in the city. While the area is mostly residential, travelers will find food stalls, guesthouses and city tours throughout the neighborhood.
Opened in 1971, Skeleton Coast National Park was named for its nearly inaccessible shores that serve as a modern-day graveyard to dozens of tattered shipwrecks, old whale bones and sometimes even human remains.
Intrepid travelers can navigate the treacherous stretch of rocky road beyond Khorixas, which leads directly to the southern section of the national park. Adventurers need an sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicle to manage the difficult pass, but it's also possible to fly in to the northern portion of the park, which is otherwise in-accessible by road.
Built in 1894 and declared a national monument in 1976, the historic Woermannhaus is one of Swakopmund’s most iconic buildings. Its traditional green and gold latticework and multi-story tower prove an easy-to-spot landmark for travelers to this seaside town. Seamen once used its distinguished spire to navigate the rough waters of the Atlantic en route to Namibia’s sandy shores.
Woermannhaus has transformed throughout the years—from functional water tower to public school dormitory to a thriving headquarters for local businesses. But today, visitors can snap photos of the classic colonial architecture before wandering the stacks of what is now the Swakopmund Public Library.
The scenic shores of the Erongo region—from the Germanic Swakopmund to the traditional port town of Walvish Bay—showcase some of the aquatic wonder this deeply diverse but still mostly desert country has to offer. And while travelers to these coastal hot spots will experience some of Namibia’s most breathtaking views, a kayaking trip to Pelican Bay remains one of the most unique ways to experience the Namibian coast.
Hire a 4x4 or embark on a guided tour through saltpans and coastal flats where seapipers and greater and lesser flamingos populate smooth, sandy beaches. Spend the afternoon kayaking through the placid bay where thousands of seals splash and play in the water and dolphins nudge up against plastic-bottomed boats.
In the late 1400s, explorers stumbled upon this rocky stretch of coastline while en route to India’s Spice Islands. Today, Cape Cross has become a popular destination for travelers to Namibia’s Atlantic coast because of its scenic views, beautiful bay and colony of Cape Fur seals. Cape Cross is a protected area, thanks to the country’s stringent conservation laws, making the three kilometers of shoreline a well-populated spot perfect for capturing incredible photographs of the some 200,000 seals that call Cape Cross home. Travelers warn that orphan seal pups and a history of seal harvesting can sometimes make for a sad trip, but the playful personalities and sheer number of mammals still make for a memorable visit.
For all its beauty, Namibia can still be a rather unforgiving place. And while the vast deserts and arid plains of this diverse nation have challenged even the most intrepid of adventurers, few places put travelers to the test like hiking Fish River Canyon.
This impressive gorge reaches some 550 meters deep, spans 27 kilometers in width, and stretches more than 150 kilometers in length, making it the second largest canyon in the world. And while navigating the rugged terrain at the canyon’s base can make for a serious challenge, even the most experience hikers warn the descent is not for the faint of heart. The half-mile trail can take upwards of two hours to complete and while embedded chains in the mountain’s rock face alleviate some of the burden, travelers agree this is still the most difficult part of the adventure.
Still, picturesque views, incredible scenery and evening skies that put all others to shame are just part of what make hiking Fish River Canyon a truly memorable Namibian experience. The sulfur pools of Palm Springs offer a perfect place for a rejuvenating footbath. From there, the less technical trek to the Three Sisters rock formation offers a bit of a break on an otherwise strenuous journey.
During apartheid, Namibia’s bigger towns were divided between the “town,” where wealthy whites lived, and the “location,” where blacks were forced to stay. While independence and the end of apartheid rule have banished these now archaic laws, it’s still possible for visitors to Namibia to take a location tour to learn how life used to be.
Visitors to Mondesa, a location in Swakopmund, say that owners of these small houses tend to offer travelers a very big welcome. Exploring the streets of this famous location put visitors up close with history, and expert guides can explain how segregation—not only based on skin color, but also based on culture and tribe—determined the lay of the land. See the traditional dress, sample traditional food and even hear the Khoe-Khoe, the famous clicking language spoken by Namibia’s Damara and Nama people.
In 1907, the arid plains and vast savannahs in Namibia’s northwest Kunene region were designated as the country’s second game reserve. Today, what’s known as Etosha National Park has become one of the most popular attractions for travelers to this southern African destination. Visitors can spot all of the continent’s famous Big Five on self-guided tours or sunrise, sunset and night game drives. Luxurious rest camps offer modern amenities and their well-kept watering holes provide some of the best game viewing and photo ops during dry season. Massive elephants, graceful gazelle, proud lions and striped zebras sip from the same swell side by side, in what may be one of the country’s most spectacular sites.
Etosha spans slightly less than 9,000 square kilometers, with vast saltpans, natural watering holes, sweeping savannahs and expansive grasslands. The Dolomite Hills, a known habitat for predators like leopards, are located near the Andersson entrance gate, and similar hills near western Etosha are the only place in the park where mountain zebra roam.
More Things to Do in Swakopmund
This popular raised boardwalk reaches out into the Atlantic Ocean some 300 yards (270 meters). And while construction started in 1911 with the intention of it extending more than 650 yards (600 meters), the start of World War I forced local builders into other tasks and the jetty was never really completed and eventually became unsafe to walk on.
In 2010, after some additional work and a few updates, the jetty was deemed safe. Today, travelers can walk out onto it and head into the ocean for uninterrupted views of the vast sea and incredible sunsets. There’s even a popular high-end restaurant at the end of the jetty, serving up traditional German fare, as well as plenty of seafood dishes. It’s one of the few places in the country where visitors can sample fish beyond just the local hake.
The famous Kalahari Desert spans some 900,000 square kilometers of desolation between the borders Namibia and Botswana. Its semi-arid savannah is home to more vegetation than the Namib Desert to the west, so after heavy rains it’s possible for travelers to catch gazelle, kudu and springbok grazing the plains. Because the desert lacks any permanent source of water, wildlife tend to flee in search of sustenance during the dry season.
The Kalahari Desert is home to several private game reserves including the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, which is the second largest protected wildlife area in the world. Visitors to this park will find plenty of wildlife, including hyenas, jackals, gemsbok, and giraffes, as well as a number of indigenous species of birds and reptiles. The Kalahari’s limited vegetation and lack of water does little to support the existence of Africa’s Big Five, though lucky travelers may spot an elephant or two after seasonal rains.
Though wildlife may be one of the main draws for visitors making the trip to Namibia, the San people, a group of nomadic hunter-gatherers who have called the Kalahari home for some 20,000 years are part of what makes a voyage to this desert so unique. Travelers can learn about how these people have survived off this unforgiving land for thousands of years by gathering edible berries and plants and burying sparse water supplies in ostrich eggs.
Namibia is known for its vast savannahs and open plains, but as visitors inch closer to the north, deeper in the south and further to the west they’ll find rocky cliffs and steep passes that speak to another kind of beauty in this sparsely populated nation.
While most of the roads that lead through these passes curve over the mountaintops, providing incredible views of the lands below. But the road at Kuiseb Pass, in Namibia’s south, descends through a river along a tar and dirt strip. Though the pass can become impossible to navigate during rainy season, it’s an easy voyage most of the year. Just after the pass, visitors can stop at an impressive viewpoint overlooking Kuiseb Canyon and Carp Cliff,. The latter served as a shelter for two well-known German geologists who sought safety in the desert to avoid interment camps during World War Two.
Namib-Naukluft National Park—one of the most photographed (and visited) destination in the entire country—straddles the Namib Desert, what’s considered by many to be the world’s oldest desert, and the Naukluft Mountain Range. Its bright orange dunes, ever-changing towers of sand, arid landscape and impressive collection of African wildlife make it a destination among travelers. And while dune boarding, sand-surfing and 4x4-riding prove popular activities for adrenaline junkies who venture to this part of the coast, it’s Sossusvlei that’s the real show stopper of the Namib-Naukluft. This well-known area of the park is home to some of the tallest dunes in the world, and a favorite activity among travelers is a sunrise or sunset drive and hike to this incredible natural wonder.
While iconic pictures juxtaposing dark shadows with sun-kissed sands are available in every town in the country, travelers agree nothing is more breathtaking than seeing the real thing.
Namibia ranks high on the world’s economic disparity list, as the income gap between its richest residents and the nation’s poorest people is one of the largest on record. The difference between the haves and the have-nots is particularly evident on a visit to Swakopmund, where well-paved roads, modern streetlights and beautifully constructed colonial buildings sit next to quiet cafes and restaurants dishing up international cuisine. But just beyond the city limits lies an informal settlement called the Democratic Resettlement Community. Once a temporary holding ground for people awaiting government housing, some 6,000 people call the thriving DRC home, an area built from reclaimed trash discarded by the city’s rich.
Visitors to this impoverished but thriving neighborhood can see how the other half of Namibia’s city dwellers live—those who often work in the service industries that supply the country’s elite and international travelers with all the comforts of home. Tour the DRC’s active youth center, free health clinic and home for orphans and vulnerable children while wandering the streets of this informal settlement.
Namibia may be a relatively young country, but there’s still plenty of history in this South African nation. Duwisib Castle, located on the edge of the Namib Dune Desert, is one of the most famous buildings in Namibia. Built in 1909 after the German-Nama War by a famous European Baron, Duwisib’s architecture gives a strong nod to military culture and looks out over an arid valley.
Although the 22-room castle was constructed entirely in Namibia, many of the materials were shipped from Germany and traveled by oxcart from the port city of Luderitz. Legend has it that the Baron’s favorite horse escaped to the wild after his death—the first of the country’s famous feral horses. Today, Duwisib Castle is open to the public and visitors can wander through the many rooms that house antiques from the 18th and 19th centuries. Shaded picnic tables and well-kept campsites make it an ideal stop for travelers en route to the Naukluft Mountains.
Located 70 kilometers north of Windhoek, the city of Okahandja is home to roughly 24,000 Namibians. Commonly referred to as the Garden Town of Namibia, Okahandja is home to several popular landmarks, making it an easy stop for those venturing to the north. The town is home to a military post that was established back in 1894, around the same time the city got its name. And famous colonists and Namibians like Maharero, Jan Jonker Afrikaner, Hosea Kutako and Clemens Kapuuo are buried in Okhandja.
In addition to plenty of western amenities like a local pizza joint, large grocery store and bustling main street, one of the largest open-air craft markets in the country lies on the road that passes outside of town. Travelers will find a wide selection of well-priced handmade works from every region of Namibia, as well as from neighboring countries in southern Africa.