It’s brash, it’s colourful, 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 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 over here, but few actually take the time to get to know it.
At first glance, Arusha may not look like an attractive town, but dig a little deeper, and you’ll be surprised. Here’s a look at what you can do in and around Arusha.
What to do in Arusha
Get lost in the local markets
The best place to get a feel for local life in Africa is the market, and in Arusha, markets are as colourful and interesting as they get. You’ll find everything from Maasai handicrafts and jewellery 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 a smaller version that is a lot less overwhelming. Get ready to haggle — and beware of pickpockets.
Visit the Natural History Museum
This is an excellent spot to learn about the archaeological history of Arusha, and to pick up some 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.
Wander through the Cultural Heritage Centre
The best place to get an understanding of the 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 centre, 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.
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. Buying things here will mean you’re supporting this good cause and helping Maasai women get a footing in Tanzania. (Beyond Arusha, in Monduli, Tanzania, G Adventures and Planeterra have set up the Maasai Clean Cookstove, which is visited by G Adventures travellers to the country. Learn more about the program here.)
Beyond Arusha: Interesting sights around the city
Arusha National Park
For those looking to do day trips, Arusha National Park is a great distraction for a full- or half-day game drive. Although there are no Big Five animals here, the park has superb birdlife and other game wildlife. A typical day in Arusha National park is combined with 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 it 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 suitable for 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 reasons. You’re almost guaranteed to see the “Big Five” (elephant, leopard, lion, buffalo, and rhino) in these three national parks, but if you don’t, there are still spectacular landscapes and vast swaths of wilderness to take in.
Serengeti Plains National Park is most famous for the 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.
How to get to Arusha
Arusha has two airports: Kilimanjaro International Airport, about 60km (37 mi) from the city centre; Arusha Municipal Airport, which is on the outskirts of the city, only runs domestic flights, mostly from Zanzibar and Dar Es Salaam. Public coach services connect Arusha with other major cities in Tanzania and neighbouring countries. Arusha is six hours from Nairobi, Kenya, 12 hours from Dar Es Salaam, and 17 hours from Kampala, Uganda.
Getting around Arusha
The main mode of public transport in Arusha is the daladala. These minibuses are ubiquitous all over Tanzania, and are very cheap, at TZS400 (about 25 cents) for any trip around town. However, they tend to cram in as many people as possible, so safety is a real concern, and pickpocketing can happen quickly, so store valuables in bags on your lap. Taxis are also cheap and easily available, but make sure to agree on a price before leaving for your destination.
Want to see all Arusha — and Tanzania — has to offer? G Adventures can get you there. Our Tanzania Safari Experience, which is part of our Jane Goodall Collection of tours, begins and ends in Arusha, plus it offers the chance to see some of the region's most breathtaking animals — in a safe, sustainable and respectful manner. Learn more about the Tanzania Safari Experience here.