Tanzania at Its Finest- Arusha: Your One-Stop Safari Town
Tanzania is a renowned safari mecca; this country is being known for its abundant wildlife, multiple National parks and being the home to few of Africa’s highest peaks. Almost everybody that comes to Tanzania for safari trip will stop by Arusha, a major tourist hub located at the northeastern part of Tanzania.
The reason that Arusha becomes the major transiting spot for Safari groups, hiking tours and Zanzibar island goers is because it serves as the perfect midpoint among all destinations, days long or week longs tour stop here to refuel and get their patrons some rest at nice hotels. Not to mention that one of the country major airport- Kilimanjaro International Airport is conveniently situated 45 minutes drive away from Arusha city center.
As a result of the needs of tourism development and due to the significant expat community living in town, Arusha town is equipped with several expat restaurants, grocery stores and other activities to fill in the blank between national park visits. This is actually what brought me to the area and I stayed there for several weeks, which gave me a good feel for the area–and I’ll share that with you now!
What’s the weather like in Arusha?
Arusha is located at the foot of Mount Meru and with the altitude of about 1300m, Arusha town is blessed with temperate climate. The average temperature is 19°C (66°F) for most of the time but expect to see a slight drop in temperature during the “winter” season, which is May to September with average temperature of 15°C (59°F).
The winter season in Arusha is essentially the raining season, so expect to have days of murky weather. Beside the raining season, the climate at Arusha is often dry and hot. The outfits you will need for visiting Arusha throughout the year wouldn’t be too different despite the slight temperature difference. Bring clothes made of breathable materials, long pants and light jacket for nighttime, hat or cap for daytime use. It is vital to bring along some mosquito repellent as well.
What vaccination do I need before arriving at Tanzania or Arusha?
Although there is no mandatory vaccination, but there are a long list of recommended vaccination, including diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, hepatitis B, hepatitis A, rabies and typhoid. One important thing to take note of is that although yellow fever vaccination is not required, but if you are coming from a yellow fever infested region (or even just for a short layover), you could be refused to entry at immigration if you do not have an up-to-date yellow fever vaccination card.
What do you have to know before going on a Safari or hiking trip in Arusha?
I would highly recommend hiring a guide for your entire trip in Tanzania prior arriving.
For arrangement like this, the guide would pick you and your companions up from the airport, arrange all your accommodation at every national park and transiting stops, take care of your transportation and meals. In most cases, you are going to be driven around in the same safari car that could occupy up till 8 passengers, that come with a cook that will travel with you to make your meals.
This will be including lunch boxes for you to eat in the national park, breakfast and dinner at resorts, or if you are going hiking, the cook will make you your 3 meals with utensils and food he/she carries in his/her bag pack to whip up something edible. Your driver is also your tour guide; he will be explaining everything from history, animal facts to providing you entertainment during your trip.
If you are wondering “Why not just do it yourself,” then remember that it is just safer and easier to let your tour guide take over your itinerary completely as local roads are not the easiest to make sense of, and although Tanzania is thriving on tourism these days–and folks in towns like Arusha speak good English–it is still better to save time and hassle from getting lost or getting wrong information that could slow down your itinerary.
Lastly, pick your tour according to accommodation preference; it ranges from luxurious resort to campsite, and this is often what affects the tour price the most. There is also option for people that is not too ambitious about getting all wild and dirty in safari campsite or do not want something too fancy like a 5-star safari resort, affordable lodge houses with attached shower would be the best choice.
What are the main attractions around Arusha?
1. Ngorongoro Crater
The Ngorongoro Crater is the world’s largest caldera that is still remained fully intact and hasn’t yet filled with water stream into becoming a lake. The crater is formed two or three millions year ago when a humongous super volcano exploded and caved into itself into a caldera. There are water streams and sufficient food in this deep-bowl-like habitat, hence wildlife that get attracted here are trapped in here and do not get out (except for animals that are involved in great migration which we will talk about it next).
You can spot all the big five games here, including lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and Cape buffalo. The only thing you could not see here is giraffe. And that is because the height of giraffes does not allow them to get down to the steep slope of the crater. Every year during December till March, the great Wildebeest Migration would occur, passing through Lake Ndutu as the Ndutu woodlands surrounding the lake is able to supply them with cover from predators and also food.
If you want to see the magnificent view of millions of wildebeest, zebra and gazelles galloping through this vast plain, be sure to plan your visit during the migration period. The panoramic view at the crater itself is spectacular with all the flora and fauna you could find here. The unique landscape with baobab trees in the background alone is already a view to behold. Remember to bring along light jacket, as it could get pretty chilly at the crater due to high altitude.
2. Serengeti National Park
Many visitors that plan safari trip to Tanzania makes Serengeti National Park their main destination and often time spend a week long there as there are just so much to see and to do.
You can spot all the Big Five there, and one thing to take note of is that Serengeti is the home of largest lion population in Africa. It is believed that more than 3000 lions live in this ecosystem. Hence, it is not a rare sight to see lions and lioness lazily spawning around or playing with each other right in front of your safari car. Yes, it is almost effortless to spot them!
For bird lovers, Serengeti also houses more than 500 bird species including the secretary bird, vultures, Maasai ostrich and southern ground hornbill. And yet what Serengeti is best known for is the Great Migration that involves millions of wildebeest accompanied with zebras, elands and gazelles moving across plain. The Great Migration happens all year round in Serengeti, you just have to research on which part of this vast 14750 square kilometers land that the herds has already arrived to witness its greatness.
The migration herds move in circular motion through the whole year; July- October is when you get to see the spectacular scene of wildebeest crossing the Mara river at the northern Serengeti plains while December-March is the calving season, and the herds will be heading to the south, which is the Ndutu area that is actually in Ngorongoro Crater.
3. Lake Manyara National Park
Lake Manyara is situated between Arusha region and Manyara region and is known best for the pink flamingos that made the lake their home. The soda ash lake provides the perfect habitat for the most colorful array of bird species. Not a rare sight to see thousands of vibrant pink flamingos stoop to graze in the mineral dense grey water shore.
You can also see herons gliding gracefully midair to join the pink party and yellow-billed storks just so content to be in its element. Lake Manyara also features tree-climbing lions and having the largest baboon population in the world.
4. Tarangire National park
Tarangire is known for its large elephant population and large density of baobab trees in the park. It is not difficult to see big herds of elephant with adults and babies alike hanging out in plain sight. It is important to not anger them though. A local guide told me that elephants are very spiteful animals and can be very violent when they feel provoked.
You can also find ‘poacher’s hide’ here, which is a hidden cavern inside baobab tree that poachers used as shelter and places to hide their games during illegal game hunting day. Some of this hideout spots are big enough to occupy up to 20 people, how crazy is that!
5. Arusha National Park
Arusha National Park is a relatively smaller safari park compared to the others in the region. However, it serves as weekend hangout spots for many expats as it is just right in town and the park entrance fees is not as pricey as the others. It is pretty chill in this park and you can even drive your own car inside.
You can also take a walking tour here and I personally know people that did their marathon training in the park. Although this park lacks of big predators, you still can see a great deal of other wildlife, like giraffe, elephant, zebra, cape buffalo and flamingo. It is a great spot to spend a day if you happen to come by Arusha for other purpose than Safari trip to fill up your time.
6. Mount Kilimanjaro
The highest mountain in Africa is surprisingly not too much of a mission impossible to conquer like what you might think.
Yes, you do have to make sure to be in good heath and have the physical strength before the hike, but hikers range from 7 to 80 year olds have successfully complete the trails in the past! A hiking trip normally made up of a tour guide, a porter, a cook and sometimes a helper to assist you with your bags and act as a emergency carrier to transport people back to the nearest stop in case they just cannot make another step forward.
There are as many as 7 official trekking trails, they all offer different difficulties that compromise with the scenic views you will get from hiking the trails. So, it is important to discuss with your tour guide to figure out what level of difficulties you and your companions are willing to go for and the views that you will be expecting.
Trekking duration ranges from 5-9 days depending on the route and accommodation types are mostly camp or sharing huts at designated trekking stops. You will need to bring winter jacket, extra socks, fleece layer, it gets pretty chilly ascending to the top!
7. Maasai Market Curios and Crafts
This market is where you can get all your souvenir shopping done; you can get Maasai blankets, tingatinga paintings, sculptures, utensils, and many more.
The vendors often times do their painting or carving works on site too, which is always fun to watch. This is also a great place to have conversation with the locals albeit the fact that the conversation will always circle back to sales, which is understandable as you are coming to them as a consumer. It is fun to bargain with vendors, they might come off as aggressive at first but normally pretty amiable to meet you in the middle.
8. Tingatinga painting class
Despite buying tingatinga artworks made by other people, you can bring home a tingatinga painting that is made by you!
If you happen to spend a day or two in Arusha town, taking a break from safari or in town for some meetings, or you are an expat wanting to learn something new, you can take painting class at this tingatinga hut that is located next to Blue Heron restaurant (there is no address and name for this place).
From personal experience, this is the closest experience to real interaction with locals you could get despite working in an organization or company in Arusha. You can have interesting conversation with painting instructions to know about the history of tingatinga as well as their life stories. They are always very welcoming and pleasant to talk to.
What is there to eat in Arusha, Tanzania?
1. The Blue Heron
The Blue Heron might just be the most picturesque restaurant in town.
It was built in the garden of a house with colorful giant cushions and garden tables set up spawning around a water fountain which is situated in the center of the garden, and a bar and a wood fired oven on the side. The living room of the main house is a quaint little souvenir boutique that sells artwork of local artists, and the back part of the house is the kitchen.
The restaurant’s laid back side provides patrons a relaxing ambience to take in birds that fly by the garden area, not to mention with so many national parks around, bird sighting in this open aired garden restaurant can be an unusual experience itself.
The Blue Heron is known for its wood fired pizza, but their smoothie options are pretty impressing as well. I highly recommend ordering a baobab tree fruit smoothie to go with your meal, it is packed with nutrients and delicious to taste!
2. George’s Tavern
This cute Greek restaurant is a hot spot for dates, and if you just take a glimpse at it then you will know why.
A Greek beach side inspired wooden roof is rested upon where the sitting and bar area are, with white wooden chairs and tables covered with blue and white color checkered tablecloth.
They serve authentic Greek food, anything from hummus and pitta to moussaka. There is this amazing three courses dinner deal for 2 people, which you get more food that 2 persons can consume. It includes various types of dips to go with pitta bread, several cut of grilled meat for entree and dessert. You can also get carafe of wine to share!
3. Wraps Tasty Grills
This place is an absolute gem!
A burger stall by Njiro Road that is so popular among locals that it has become a landmark. You can tell your cab driver: “my hotel is 2 junctions after Wraps burger” and they sure know what you are talking about.
Juicy beef patty with some mayo and ketchup filled between two soft buns; pretty simple, nothing crazy. Remember to get a side of fries to complete your meal!
4. Flame Tree Restaurant
This might be the most underrated restaurant in Arusha town, but speaking from experience, they sure serve great Chinese cuisine as authentic as you can get in Mainland China.
The restaurant itself is situated around a garden, where you get to take in the view of vibrant looking flowers while enjoying your meal.
Oh, and Bill Clinton actually came here when he visited Arusha back in 2000.
5. Fifi’s restaurant and café
Fifi’s might be the most popular meeting place in town, and it is situated in the very center of Arusha town–so if you ever need to meet somebody just tell them to come to Fifi’s.
Everybody knows this place! You can get great coffee drinks, smoothies and juices made from fresh local fruits at Fifi’s. Meal selection includes a mix of American cuisines (burger, pasta, sandwiches, etc.) and local delights (‘kuku choma’ grilled chicken, grilled fish and beef).
It also has a bakery attached where you can pick up some fresh loaves of bread to go.
Overall, Fifi’s a great lunch and meeting place, or a place to grab great coffee and do some people watching.
6. Abyssinia Restaurant
This Ethiopian restaurant is a little far off from the main road but it is not too hard to find once you find the right way with the restaurant signboard, but it is not too obvious for people who are not specifically looking for it though.
Due to its location that is pretty far off all tourist hangout spots, only locals and expats know to come here for a very well done Ethiopian meal. They have extensive menus here with tons of dishes to choose from. You can get unlimited supply of injera too!
7. Mississippi Lounge
There are two main things to get here: grilled tilapia and grilled chicken.
Fresh whole tilapia wrapped in aluminum foil with handful of cabbage, carrot, tomato, sprinkle with some salt and set to grill till it is cooked. It’s as simple as that, no other seasoning needed. All you can taste is the sweetness of the fresh tilapia meat and vegetable combining into great gastronomy sensation.
Grilled chicken on the other hand is some juicy local chicken marinated with herbs and grilled to its perfection.
Also, do remember to have some Kilimanjaro beers to go with your meal!
8. Njiro Complex
The Njiro Complex is a one-stop convenience hub for expats and tourists alike, comprising of an expat grocery store where you can get imported goods, gym, hair saloon, nail parlor, florist, movie theater and a food court.
Several expat residential compounds are nearby and so this place has become where they come to get everything they need.
Safari tour guides often bring their tour members here as they can pick any food from the wide selection of restaurants. There is a Mongolian restaurant, an Australian bistro, a Chinese restaurant, an everything restaurant (they sell Mexican food, American food and Italian food) and a few Indian restaurants.
I recommend going for the Indian cuisines, they are all pretty comparable, and so no matter which ones you pick it will all turn out good. I personally know expats that come to Njiro Complex everyday to sort out their meals.
Where can I stay in Arusha?
There are actually plenty of hotels to choose from in Arusha so it is easy to choose, but as many come with a tour, your hotel arrangements will probably already be made for you.
If you are coming with a tour group, they do normally have the accommodation sorted out beforehand–you will just have to communicate with them what your priority is prior to arriving.
As for individuals coming into town for business meeting, Kibo Palace will be a good spot as it is situated in the center of town and not far from literally everywhere. As for expats looking to live in Arusha, a gated apartment compound with 24 hours security is your best bet; I would personally recommend SunPark Estate for this matter.