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Written by: Juan Proll on 15 February 2023

Is Arusha worth a visit? Things to do in the safari capital in northern Tanzania

Arusha city - Safari capital

Arusha is known as Tanzania’s northern safari capital. It is of course the town where our operations office is located. From here, we organise your safari, mountain climb and beach holidays. But there is much more to it! So is Arusha worth a visit? We share some tips and advice on what to do in Arusha.

Is Arusha worth a visit?

We must admit, our office close to Arusha would be a tourist attraction all in itself. Even if I personally am not a regular visitor. And even if my colleagues in Arusha are too modest and would not want to see anything written about themselves in an online blog post. But this friendly, very motivated group of international people represents exactly what Arusha is all about: a colourful collection of lifestyles, coming together and making the best of their lives, while at the same time making sure travellers are having a great time.

Arusha is not an attractive city by European and American standards. At least not for those who think of architecture like you see it in Amsterdam or have a city as diverse as New York in mind. Arusha stands more for a special African vibe. It is not for nothing that the locals proudly refer to their own city as A-Town. But first things first – let’s take a look at what makes Arusha worth a visit.

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Is Arusha worth a visit? – Its history

The agro-pastoralist Arusha Maasai, who settled in the area in the 1830s, gave Arusha its name. Over the following decades, the town developed into a regional trading centre. In 1896, a dramatic turn in history followed: The Germans conquered Arusha. They claimed that two missionaries had been murdered when they tried to settle on nearby Mount Meru.

Four years later, the German Schutztruppe built a military fortress here. To build it, they evicted the locals from their ancestral land and forced them to dig lime and carry stones. In 1916, the British took over and expelled German officials, police, and soldiers. After the First World War, the British introduced civilian administration and moved the seat of the regional administration to Arusha. For missionaries from the United States, this was an opportunity to convert the “lost souls” among the African population. At the same time, British and Greek settlers occupied the former German farms. Once again, the locals were left to fend for themselves.

In the years that followed, Arusha developed into a polyglot, perhaps overly Westernised town. Later, it became an important place in the history of modern Tanzania. It was here in 1961 that representatives of the United Kingdom and the newly independent Tanzanian government signed the independence agreements. In 1967, the Arusha Declaration led to the nationalisation of banks. In 1994, the UN Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha. In 2015, the Arusha Agreement created the framework for the reunification of the fragmented ruling party in Southern Sudan. Today, Arusha is a large town with a population of well over 400,000 (2012 census). It is the centre of Tanzanian tourism and is often jokingly referred to as “Dar es Safari”, in reference to Tanzania’s largest city Dar es Salaam.

Is Arusha worth a visit? – The city life

It suits the city that from 21st to 27th May of this year the “FESTAC AFRICA 2023 – DESTINATION ARUSHA” will take place. It is Africa’s largest cultural festival in 2023 and aims to highlight and nurture the burgeoning talent from and within Africa. The organizers see it as a celebration of cultures, sharing African heritage in the form of art, fashion, music, dance, storytelling, poetry, film, tourism, hospitality, and gastronomy. In addition, artists from different countries in Africa and around the world present the richness of their cultures in live performances.

Arusha shows that a place can be interesting even without beautiful buildings, because of its people and street life. In this sense, A-Town is an atmospheric, picturesque, and also contradictory city that promises a variety of impressions.

Arusha City Tanzania

On the one hand, there are those who fight a daily struggle of survival, roaming the streets in the search of food. On the other hand, there is the vast majority of those whose work-life-balance means spending day in and day out on the lively markets, trading their goods. And then there are those who appear to have achieved a life filled with a certain level of ease and comfort. They spend time in cafés and restaurants or hop into taxis. But in the end, it quickly becomes clear: Life is different here than what you likely know from home. But people here welcome tourists, who have become part of their lives.

What is there to do in Arusha – Sightseeing

When it comes to sightseeing, the best way to see a city like Arusha is on a guided tour. This will give you an idea of what a multi-faceted and historically rich safari metropolis is like. For those who prefer to travel without a guide, the following places might be fun:

  • Arusha Clock Tower
    Standing somewhat lost in the surrounding area, the Clock Tower is where locals and tourists alike gather. It is said to be halfway between Cairo and Cape Town. A glance at the map, however, does not seem to confirm this.
  • Cultural Heritage Center
    More on the outskirts than in the city centre, but somehow different, is the Heritage Centre. The design of the exterior of the building with a drum, a shield and a spear represent typical African symbols. They represent Africa’s cultural heritage, which is displayed inside the centre in the form of jewellery, antiques, local handicrafts, an art gallery and more.
  • Arusha National Natural History Museum
    This museum is housed in the old German fort, also known as a “boma”. In keeping with its location, the museum provides interesting information on German colonial history and the independence movement in the country. There are also exciting exhibitions on the history of human and animal evolution, mainly through informative display cases. At the end of the day, you can sit in the museum’s pleasant café and philosophise about humanity.
  • Declaration Museum
    The museum is housed in the building where the Arusha Declaration was proclaimed in 1967. It set the course for Tanzania’s new independence and socialist policies. Understanding this period, the political decisions and challenges and their impact on the present is the theme of the museum.
  • The Tanzanite Experience Museum
    Everything here revolves around the exclusive gemstone tanzanite. The museum provides a great overview of the mining, history, and processing of the blue-violet gemstone, which is only found in Tanzania in this quality.
Clock Tower Arusha
Arusha Clock tower, Foto: R Boed/Flickr

But those who do not travel to visit museums will certainly enjoy two very special markets:

  • Kilombero Market
    This is the biggest market in Arusha. Perfect for strolling and gazing. Watch out for vendors pushing bulging handcarts through the crowds. Inside you will find fresh fruit and vegetables from the region. But the stalls also offer all the usual market products: Meat, fish, spices… a true gourmet’s paradise and a feast for the senses.
  • Massai Market
    Not far from the Clock Tower is Arusha’s trendy Maasai Market, a highlight for Tanzanian handicrafts: masks, paintings, jewellery, shoes, clothes, and Maasai spears. Plus, colourfully wrapped Maasai vendors ready to bargain.

And for more of that special Arusha feeling, I recommend the bustling bus station.

Day Trips from Arusha – The Surroundings

The Arusha National Park, which is near the city centre, is worth a visit. There are not as many elephants here as in Serengeti, for example. And you won’t find any lions at all. But the park is the “natural” counterpart to the civilisation of “Dar es Safari”. On a guided day tour in a 4×4 safari vehicle, you can explore a beguiling variety of habitats and enjoy breathtaking views of Mount Meru and Kilimanjaro in just a few hours. Open savannah, forests, lakes and swamps to rocky peaks offer a range of extraordinary landscapes.

Giraffen Arusha National Park worth a visit

As you enter the southern part of the park, giraffes and zebras welcome you to the grassy savannahs of the “Little Serengeti”. From there, you enter a shady mountain forest inhabited by curious monkeys and colourful turacos and trogons. Nowhere else on the Northern Circuit are the sleek black-and-white colobus monkeys so easy to spot. In the middle of the forest is Ngurdoto Crater, whose sheer cliffs shelter herds of buffalo and families of warthogs. To the north lies the plateau of Lake Momella. The various shades of blue and green of some of the lakes turn a soft pink when thousands of flamingos visit. A splash of colour for the hippos that live here.

Even Mount Meru is part of Arusha National Park. With its varied paths and trails, along streams and past waterfalls, climbing Mount Meru is one of the trekking highlights of Tanzania.

Arusha is worth visiting. We will be happy to answer any questions you may have and help you plan your trip to Tanzania. Tanzania-Experience is a reliable partner at your side. So get in touch with us!

Author: Juan Proll

Traveling has always been Juan Proll's great passion: three years in Latin America, two years in Southeast Asia and Oceania as well as short trips of up to nine months in Europe, Central America, and North Africa. In 2010, he decided to quit his job in Germany as an adult education teacher and head of department for migration issues and to become a ranger in South Africa. Juan has been traveling across Africa since 2011, traveling to southern and eastern Africa and also climbing Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Beforehand, he completed his nature guide training in South Africa and worked in a Big Five game reserve. With further training and intensive self-study to become a cultural guide, Juan has since expanded his field of activity beyond the natural world to include the countries, cultures, and its people. In mid-2013 he joined Africa-Experience and has been guiding travelers through Africa as a safari guide ever since. Juan is a member of the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa.

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