Regional capital of northern Tanzania and gateway to the country’s best-known safari areas, Arusha is the traditional starting point of many a classic ‘Northern Circuit’ Tanzania safari. A lot of travellers opt to stay here just long enough to get over the jetlag before making their way to the likes of Tarangire, Lake Manyara, the Ngorongoro Crater, and the Serengeti. However, those who choose to linger a little longer will find a surprising number of things to do before even beginning the main safari.
Top Things To Do in Arusha
Not just a gateway to the country’s northern safari areas, Arusha has a lot to offer travellers to Tanzania. Here YZ’s Matt discusses the top things to do in the city when you have some time to spare.
So why delay your safari?
Tanzania offers what could be described as the quintessential African safari! Here you can see all the Big Five in some of the vastest expanses of wilderness still left in Africa. Famous sites include the Ngorongoro Crater, with its abundance of wildlife and one of the largest and best-protected populations of black rhino in the country, and of course the world-renowned Serengeti, home to the Great Migration for most months of the year. So, with such experiences waiting for you, why would you stay in Arusha?
Well, there are buckets of things to do here – from visiting the Arusha National Natural History Museum to enjoying a round of golf within the Kilimanjaro Golf & Wildlife Estate:
Experiencing Tanzania’s culture in Arusha
I’d argue that most of us do not travel to Africa for the wildlife alone. We also go for the people – for the chance to see another way of life and another culture’s art and history. The Maasai, in particular, are foremost in most people’s overall impressions of Africa. Although the Maasai heartland is in the Ngorongoro region, there is plenty to absorb in Arusha too.
The city’s Maasai market, where local tradespeople sell traditionally made curios as well as other souvenirs, is a great place to start. If you are good at haggling, you can get a reasonable deal on some lovely pieces of local art, while giving back to the community at the same time.
Some of the shopkeepers can be a bit aggressive with their sales style, but they value your business and will look out for you. Many of the shops now take credit and debit cards, so you don't have to risk carrying cash.
However, the most impressive attraction showcasing Arusha’s cultural heritage is the multi-storey art gallery. This spiralling building houses the largest collection of art in East Africa. On entering, you’ll be quickly awed by the immense ebony tree carvings, enormous canvas paintings, and exquisite statues of animals made of solid bronze. All of this is for sale, and you can buy without being hassled by local tradesmen as at the Maasai market. Staff will even Fedex your purchases back to your home. For an art collector, a trip to the gallery is a dream afternoon of shopping, but everyone can appreciate the beautiful fruit of local artists’ labour.
During my time in Arusha, one of the biggest surprises was The Cultural Heritage Centre, a massive building that seems part gift shop and greater part museum.
The front of the building features a menagerie of locally and traditionally carved souvenirs. Many of these have been painstakingly carved from solid trunks of ebony trees and feature the swirling patterns of migrating wildebeest. With others, you can find yourself staring into the intricately carved and infinitely expressive faces of Maasai elders.
Local paintings and tanzanite jewellery can also be bought here.
The most recent addition to the centre is the newly built Jane Goodall Tribute Centre. Opened by Dame Goodall herself in 2018, it’s a small exhibition that explores her achievements, her contributions to primatology, and her impact on the conservation movement overall.
Arusha and its surrounds provide a fantastic introduction to safari
This vibrant city also has a lot to get you into the mindset for a wild adventure. Lake Duluti offers just such a taster. The gorgeous mass of water is perfect for bird lovers and it’s an ideal spot for canoeing as well as tranquil walks around its forested edge.
The most obvious introduction to a safari is of course an actual safari, or a pre-safari if you like. Arusha National Park is one of Tanzania’s smaller parks and provides thrilling opportunities to spot forest species, like the elegant black-and-white colobus monkeys, that can be elusive elsewhere in the north, as well as the safari staples such as zebra and lion.
For travellers who have a few days to fill before they begin their safari and are looking for a bit more of a challenge, there is Mount Meru, the dormant remnants of a volcano. To climb to the summit of Tanzania’s second-highest mountain (the better-known Kilimanjaro being the biggest on the continent as well as in the country) takes three days, and it can be a tough climb through the forest-clad base and onto the rocky slopes. However, the climb is a big kickstart to your safari, a real adventure!
If you’re a snake lover and your safari takes you to Lake Manyara or Tarangire, then 45 minutes outside Arusha on your route is an appealing stop-off for you – Meserani Snake Park. Spend an hour or two here, and you’ll have the chance to learn about some of Africa’s most beautiful and dangerous reptiles.
Additionally, many of the properties in Arusha offer their own activities. For example, Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge provides canoeing, horse riding, and nature walks.
Easing into it
If your perfect safari is one that involves plenty of relaxation, then an excellent alternative to diving straight into the safari experience is to enjoy the more laidback aspects of Arusha. You could take a nice walk around Lake Duluti and the local plantations, perhaps, or go for a serene morning horse ride on the slopes of Mount Meru, capped off with a cup of delicious locally produced coffee.
There are several coffee plantations in the local area. Arusha Coffee Lodge is one of the best known, and you can stop there for coffee and lunch or a tour of their onsite community-support workshop Shanga, which helps local people, especially young women, to get skills as crafts workers – and you can support them by buying their homemade crafts. The cake and home-made fudge are particularly prized, and I can highly recommend them!
So, if you do decide to spend an extra few days in Arusha before your safari, you will certainly not be twiddling your thumbs waiting for the plane or car to take you to the Serengeti. If you’d like to add some time in Arusha to your Tanzania safari, just let us know here. Alternatively, just take a look at our selection of destinations and trips below: