Tanzania’s largest city is many things: a major business center for east Africa; an international airline hub; and a transit point for travelers heading to safaris in the interior of the country. Whatever brings you to “Dar,” as it’s commonly abbreviated, it is possible to enjoy passing time in this hot, congested, sprawling metropolis with a little planning. Here are five ideas for things to do in Dar es Salaam and surrounding areas.
1. Explore the city
If you are stuck in traffic and melting in the humid, tropical heat, it can be difficult to appreciate Dar es Salaam’s charms. But, it is worth putting in a bit of effort, as this old port city has a long and fascinating history and several attractions well worth exploring.
A good place to begin is along the Kivukoni Waterfront. Lining the inland side of this shaded thoroughfare are several blocks of government buildings and courthouses, many dating to the colonial era, and many with red-tiled roofs and graceful, arched porticoes and balconies. Opposite is Dar es Salaam’s busy harbor with its massive tankers, heavily-laden container ships and small tugs.
Several blocks inland from the harbor area is the National Museum, with displays on the colonial era, early hominid fossils and artifacts from 13th- to 15th-century Shirazi-era settlements excavated at Kilwa (south of Dar es Salaam along the coast). Also in this area is the imposing State House. Entry to the State House is restricted, but it is possible to get a glimpse of the grounds as you drive past the gates, complete with peacocks strolling on the green, manicured lawns.
Just south of the old colonial administrative area along the waterfront are the Lutheran Cathedral and St Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral. Both date to the 19th century, both are still in active use, and both are worth taking a peek inside, with their German architectural influences and artwork.
In the center of Kivukoni Waterfront is the Hyatt Regency Dar es Salaam. Formerly the old Forodhani Hotel, one of the city’s original landmarks, it has been completely renovated, and makes a fine stop for lunch, or to enjoy views over the port from its rooftop terrace.
After lunch head up through Dar es Salaam’s diplomatic quarter to the tip of the Msasani Peninsula, stopping at the Slipway Complex, where there is a Saturday craft market as well as a bookshop and various boutique stores. Nearby Seacliff Village also has a good collection of western-style shops and eateries. Both places are near the water, and Slipway especially is an ideal spot to watch the sunset.
Practical Details: Arrange a taxi through your hotel with an English-speaking driver. Early morning rush hour begins to abate by about 9.30am, which is a good time to set out. For lunch, treat yourself to the sumptuous buffet at the Hyatt Regency Dar es Salaam or at the nearby Serena Dar es Salaam Hotel.
2. Visit historic Bagamoyo
Bagamoyo town lies about 60km north of Dar es Salaam along the coast, and makes a fine day trip or overnight excursion. Its history reaches back to the 12th or 13th centuries, when an area known as Kaole (just south of modern-day Bagamoyo) was an important coastal trading port. The roots of the modern town of Bagamoyo stretch back to the mid-19th century, when the settlement served as the terminus for inland slave caravans coming from distant Lake Tanganyika. In the late 19th century, Bagamoyo was briefly the capital of German East Africa. Many famous 19th century explorers passed through Bagamoyo, including Burton, Speke and Livingstone, and Livingstone’s body was laid briefly to rest here before being sent back to England.
The Catholic Mission on the edge of town is a good place to start exploring, with a small but fine museum filled with information on Bagamoyo’s history, especially the era of slave trading. At the entrance to town is the old Caravanserai building, which also has a small museum. In town itself are many buildings dating to the German colonial era, including the old Boma administrative offices and the Customs House. Finally, don’t miss a visit to the ruins at Kaole, about 5km south of Bagamoyo along the coast.
Practical Details: Taxis to Bagamoyo can be easily arranged at your Dar es Salaam hotel. Get an early start to beat traffic, and to maximize your time in Bagamoyo. If you decide to stay overnight, there are several beachside hotels on the outskirts of town.
3. Snorkel at Bongoyo Island
This wedge of land lying offshore, just northeast of Dar es Salaam, is part of a small marine reserve. Swimming from its modest beach is not tidal, and is therefore possible at any hour (in contrast with most beaches on the mainland) and the island makes an enjoyable, breezy getaway from the city.
Practical Details: A boat goes several times daily between the Msasani Slipway and Bongoyo Island, taking about 30 minutes. Once on the island, shade umbrellas and chairs can be rented. The small restaurant serves chicken and fish or chips, and has sodas and water for sale.
4. Shop for crafts
Dar es Salaam has some lovely crafts, and most upmarket hotels have good selections in their curio shops. For something more adventurous, head out to the lively Mwenge Carver’s Village. Here you will find stall upon stall of carvings, and can also watch carvers at work. The market was initially established by Makonde carvers fleeing turmoil in Mozambique during the 1980s, and it remains one of the best places to see their unique sculptures. Wonder Welders, closer to town, is considerably quieter, but equally fascinating. The workshop was established in 2005 in an effort to assist adult polio victims to earn their livelihoods. The level of craftsmanship is high, and it is possible to watch the welders at work, as well as browse in their shop.
Practical Details: Mwenge is about 10km north of Dar es Salaam along the road to Bagamoyo. Arrange a taxi with an English-speaking driver from your hotel, and ask the driver to accompany you while at the market. Wonderwelders is located in the Oyster Bay area of Dar es Salaam, enroute between the city center and Msasani Peninsula, and is easily accessed via taxi.
5. Get away from it all on Mafia Island
Mafia Island, just offshore and southeast of Dar es Salaam, makes a delightful getaway from the city for a night or three. Unlike busy and heavily-touristed Zanzibar, Mafia is a quiet backwater, steeped in Swahili culture, covered with coconut plantations and stands of mangrove and laced by sandy paths. There are a few patches of beach, idyllic offshore islets and sandbanks, dhows sailing on the horizon, Shirazi-era ruins and lovely island lodges. Snorkeling and diving is very good, and many visitors come just to appreciate the fish and corals. Another highlight is tiny Chole Island, just offshore from the main Mafia Island, and also part of the Mafia Archipelago, with 19th-century ruins and a fine tree house lodge.
Practical Details: Flights go at least three times weekly between Dar es Salaam and Mafia, and take just 20 minutes, one-way. Diving instruction can be arranged with the main island lodges, as can excursions to spot whale sharks in season (best between November and March).