The Goliath Heron is identified by its great size combined with its grey and chestnut coloration. It flies with slow, deliberate wing beats, with the wings markedly bowed. When the bird takes flight its head and neck are at first outstretched, but soon retracted onto the shoulders.

The Goliath heron is very aquatic, even by heron standards, rarely venturing far from a water source and preferring to fly along waterways rather than move over land. Important habitats can include lakes, swamps, mangrove wetlands, river deltas (including the Kariega River). It is typically found in the shallows, though can be observed near deep water over dense water vegetation. Goliath herons can even be found around small watering holes. They tend to prefer pristine wetlands and generally avoid areas where human disturbances are a regular occurrence.

Goliath herons are solitary foragers and are highly territorial towards other Goliaths entering their feeding territories. On occasion, two may be seen together but these are usualy a breeding pair or immatures. A diurnal and often rather inactive feeder, this heron often hunts by standing in the shallows, intently watching the water at its feet. This is a typical feeding method among large Ardea herons, and the Goliath can forage in deeper waters due to its larger size.

The Goliath Heron breeds in suitable habitat over much of Africa. It occurs along the east coast from Egypt and Sudan, Yemen on the Red Sea, Somalia, to Cape Province South Africa, and inland Africa west to the south west deserts, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, north to the Sahara. Their specific breeding locations within this larger range are not so well documented.