Walvis Bay/Swakopmund will feature on most itineraries for Namibia. The first time I went there, I found this to be a bit odd. I mean Swakopmund is a nice enough town, but it isn't somewhere I would typically add to an itinerary, especially one that is pushed for time to see other more beautiful destinations in Namibia. I soon learnt that the reason for this inclusion is logistical as opposed to being a 'must-see'.
The extremely long distances involved in driving to/from Sossusvlei mean that for the majority of visitors, staying in Walvis Bay or Swakopmund is necessary to avoid an excessively long and dangerously tiring day.
Walvis Bay and Swakopmund are actually a 45 minutes drive apart. If you are coming up from the South then you will arrive first into Walvis Bay, and from the north it will be Swakopmund. On our recent self-drive we ended up staying one night in Walvis and then two in Swakopmund. The typical recommendation is to spend two nights in this area, although one is fine if you don't plan to do any activities. I do strongly suggest though that unlike us, you pick one or the other though otherwise you will just spend your time checking in and out and switching lodgings, without actually having time to see any of the area.
Should You Stay in Walvis Bay or Swakopmund?
When deciding which town to stay in it is a good idea to research what activities you want to do during your time here first, as different activities depart from different areas. We made the mistake of only deciding once we arrived. This meant we ended up staying in Walvis Bay, transferring over for our stay in Swakopmund, but then having to travel back to Walvis Bay to do our tours. It really wasn't a huge inconvenience, it's just better if you do the activities where you are staying. Obviously if you are planning to do a few different activities the commute between the two areas will most likely be inevitable.
Walvis Bay is most famous for the thousands upon thousands of flamingoes (lesser and greater) that are resident in the lagoon, and can be viewed right from the path. It is a lovely place to go for a walk/jog, or to just sit around mesmerised by the sea of pink in front of you. The other key destination here is the quaint Walvis Bay Harbour. There are a number of quirky bars/restaurants where you can enjoy a refreshing drink or meal overlooking the water, and there are a few tourist shops and stalls where you can pick up some traditional crafts. Parking can be a little limited as this is the starting point for a number of the tours, so if you can walk here it might be less hassle.
I recommend staying at one of the small boutique hotels that are a short walk from either the lagoon or Walvis Bay harbour, as everything you will want to do will then be within a reasonable walking distance. During my recent visit (Aug 2019) we stayed at Iris Boutique Hotel. It appeared this hotel has recently changed ownership, and simply put, it isn't really ready. There was a lot of building work going on, and unfortunately we had a freezing (3 layers to bed) cold room that smelled of damp, which got worse when we used the shower. The staff were all friendly, and the location is perfect so hopefully things will iron themselves out as they settle in. One other thing to note is that the rooms are VERY open plan, in some you can see your partner on the loo whilst you are relaxing on the bed, and the shower is completely open! The open decor looks good, but this isn't a style that will suit every one, so it's just something to note. One excellent perk of this hotel though is the modern attached restaurant, with absolutely delicious fish dishes and a lovely fireplace to sit around.
If you are looking for somewhere to eat in Walvis Bay then The Raft Restaurant is an absolute must. Set out on a small jetty you get outstanding sunset views, made even more magical by the pelicans flying by, the flamingos wading directly below and seals popping up and down to say hello. If you want a lively evening with a cold beer and maybe a pizza or burger then you should book a table in the friendly bar. If you are looking for something a little quieter then the restaurant is the place for you. Don't forget sunset is likely to be around 6-6.30pm, so you will want an early dinner to catch all the action!
One thing I was warned about was that it can be a little smelly at times in Walvis Bay! The smell has even been affectionately named the 'smell of money' as it is largely attributable to the thriving fish trade that has operated here for decades. However, we didn't notice it at all during our visit so it certainly shouldn't be a reason not to stay here.
Swakopmund is typically the destination most tourists stay. It is a bigger city with some beautiful German architecture just waiting to be explored. There is a lovely craft market where you can try your hand at bartering for some great local crafts, or you can simply while the day away in one of the great cafes or by browsing the many different shops. If you enjoy museums, there are a variety on offer to suit different tastes. However, I preferred to spend my time surrounded by nature at the beach, watching the gentle crashing of the waves and catching up on some reading. We stayed at The Strand Hotel, which has a great location on a head with beach views on either side. We even slept with our balcony door open so that we fell asleep to the calming swishing sounds of the ocean. Perfect. The hotel is big and has a corporate feel, but there is everything you need, and the breakfast has a wide range of delicious dishes. There is a great rocky pier right next to the hotel, which makes an excellent spot to watch the bright African sun go down, to signal the end of another amazing day. I certainly wouldn't discount a stay here, as it was lovely. However, there are also a good number of friendly and cosy B&B's that offer great value and a true Namibian welcome. My favourite is The Cornerstone Guesthouse as it has simple elegant rooms, and great gardens.
We had a meal at the highly popular Jetty 1905 on our first night in Swakopmund. If you are looking to dine here I would advise booking around a month in advance to ensure you get a good table for sunset. The food was mouth-wateringly delicious, and the sunset truly spectacular. However we were disappointed that a not insignificant number of dishes were unavailable, making the choice quite limited. We understand this was because we visited on a Sunday, and the restaurant is closed on Mondays. Therefore if you can avoid it I would advise not dining on a Sunday. Another great restaurant offering right next to the pier is the Tug Restaurant, where you still get captivating sunset views over the ocean, great quality food and there is a full and varied menu available. This restaurant is also a great place for lunch as there are great views across the beach from both the inside and outside seating areas.
Whichever destination you choose to stay in, you will have the same choice of available activities. The overall area is famed for its adventure activities, with Parachute Jumps, Sand-boarding, Quad Biking and Kayaking some of the most popular pursuits in the area. If you love this type of activity then you will certainly want to spend a couple of days here. For the slightly less adventurous a Sandwich Harbour 4x4 tour should be on your list of to-do activities. You can either do a half day adventure with a 4x4 drive, or make it a full day activity by adding in a catamaran cruise in search of dolphins and whales.
We opted for the 1/2 day 4x4 tour and were not disappointed. The trip started with a quick drive past the bright pink salt lakes. The bird life in the area is phenomenal and it is great to have the opportunity to photograph birds next to the unusually pink water. Next it is onto Sandwich harbour, which forms part of the Namib Naukluft National Park. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but the advertising is true - the giant sand dunes literally do run straight into the ocean, creating breathtaking sceneries and unique landscapes. Driving through the dunes with a qualified guide who knows the area is an exhilarating experience, and one I really do recommend. You slide and glide across the sands, often heading over unknown peaks simply to find an even bigger dune, or a steep drop on the other side. All the while on the lookout for some of the wildlife that inhabits this region, including seals, ostrich, springbok, oryx and jackal. We were extremely lucky to see most species on our tour, and one of my favourite images is of two ostriches trekking across the sands seemingly forever. I still have no idea where they were going!
How Long Should I stay?
Having now visited the region twice in the last couple of years my view is that one night is enough. This allows you to arrive late afternoon and have a wander round the craft market and the centre before heading out for sunset and dinner at one of the beautiful seafood restaurants. You can then do the 4x4 half day tour the following morning before heading on to your next destination. There really is nothing wrong with either Swakopmund or Walvis Bay, and as stated at the start it is logistically necessary. However, I love the more isolated destinations in Namibia and of course the wildlife spotting in Etosha, so the longer time spent here the less time I can spend in other more preferable locations. This is just my personal opinion, based on my particular travel likes. If you love adrenaline sports, or want to chill out near a beach then you will certainly want 2-3 nights in either Swakopmund or Walvis Bay, as you will definitely manage to keep yourself entertained.