It’s brash, it’s colorful, it’s full of energy. Some call it a dusty town while others find it a breath of fresh air, with its green patches and stunning views of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Welcome to Arusha, the gateway to the popular safari circuit in northern Tanzania. Sitting snugly at the foothills of Mount Meru, the small town is surrounded by some of the most famous national parks in Africa. Virtually everyone visiting Tanzania’s northern parks will stop in for a while, but few will take the time to get to know it. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll be surprised at what you can see and do in and around Arusha.
Explore the Cultural Heritage Centre
The best place to get an understanding of Tanzanian culture and pick up some souvenirs is the Cultural Heritage Centre on the outskirts of Arusha. This unique attraction is a combination of mask museum, curio shop, spice center, antique store, and precious stone counter. The Centre has hosted many famous people in the past, including former U.S. president Bill Clinton and his daughter, Chelsea.
Visit the Local Markets
The best place to get a feel for local life in Africa is at the markets, and in Arusha, they are as colorful and interesting as they get. You’ll find everything from Maasai handicrafts and jewelry to fresh fruit, spices, carvings, and local textiles. Even if you’re not a shopper, visiting the markets is an unforgettable experience.
The Central Market on Bondeni Street (also known as Soko Kuu or “Big Market”) in the heart of the city can be a sensory overload, while the Kilombero Market on Sokione Road is smaller and a lot less overwhelming. Get ready to haggle — and beware of pickpockets.
Shop at the Maasai Women Fair Trade Centre
If you’re looking to buy handmade crafts from the local community, head to this little shop on Simeon Road. It was set up by the Maasai Women Development Organization (MWEDO), a non-governmental women-led organization established to empower women through access to education and health. Shopping here means you’re supporting a good cause and helping Maasai women get a stronger footing in Tanzania.
Learn at the Natural History Museum
This is an excellent spot to learn about the archaeological history of Arusha and to pick up info on the city’s German colonial history. It’s housed in an old German boma (fort) that dates back to the early 1900s. The museum has three parts, including a wing dedicated to the evolution of humans; much of what we know about the topic comes from fossils unearthed in Tanzania.
Arusha National Park
For those looking to do day trips, Arusha National Park is a great distraction for a full- or half-day wildlife safari drive. You can’t see all of the “big five” animals (elephant, leopard, lion, buffalo, and rhino) here, but it is home to the world’s largest population of giraffes! Plus, there are zebras, elephants, flamingos, hippos, and more. A typical day in Arusha National park is combined with a canoe safari on Small Momella Lake.
Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru
Arusha lies just 100km (62 mi) from Mount Kilimanjaro, the world’s tallest free-standing mountain and Africa’s highest peak at 5,895m (19,341 ft) above sea level. The most popular route, known as the Coca-Cola route, starts from Marangu, which is just a two-hour drive from Arusha. The route is the oldest and most well-established and takes a minimum of five days to complete.
Mount Meru, while closer to Arusha at just 40 minutes away by car and shorter than Kilimanjaro (4,560m, or 14,961 ft), actually involves more of a technical climb and is suited to more experienced climbers only. It generally takes three or four days to complete the trek. If you want to take advantage of the altitude acclimatization effect, it’s advisable to climb Mount Meru and Kilimanjaro back to back.
Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and Lake Manyara
Of all the national parks that are near Arusha, this trio is the most commonly visited, for good reason. You’re almost guaranteed to see the “big five” and there are spectacular landscapes and vast swaths of wilderness to take in even if you don’t.
Serengeti Plains National Park is most famous for its annual migration, where huge herds of wildebeests and zebras traverse its plains; the Ngorongoro Crater has one of the highest concentrations of wildlife in Africa; Lake Manyara draws in thousands of flamingos during mating season. You can easily see all three on a four-day safari departing from Arusha.
Arusha has two wet seasons and two dry seasons. The long rainy season is from March to May, and most of the annual rainfall occurs in these months. The short rainy season is in November and December. The long dry season is from June through October, and August is typically the driest month of the year. The best time to visit is during the dry season.