As one of the most stable, friendly, and touristed countries in the entirety of Africa, let alone region, Tanzania has unlimited potential for adventure and fun. Whether you want to soak up rays on the beach, get up close and personal with wildlife, delve into traditional cultures, or explore sunken coral reefs, Tanzania has it all, and at affordable prices, too! We know planning to visit a new country, especially one with so much to offer, can be intimidating and at times, overwhelming. But fear not, like always, we’ve got you covered. So, without further ado, here are the top 15 essential experiences in Tanzania.
1) Summit Kilimanjaro
One of the ultimate symbols of Africa, let alone Tanzania, Mount Kilimanjaro has painted our memories since we first learned of Africa. With treks ranging from six days to two weeks, now is the best chance to see one of only three receding glaciers in Africa. Even if you don’t make it to the top of the 5,896 meter (19,341 feet), you can appreciate the picture perfect views from almost anywhere in northern Tanzania if you don’t have the leg strength, time, or money!
2) Explore Swahili culture
While the Swahili Coast extends from southern Somalia to northern Mozambique, the beating heart of Swahili culture was Zanzibar after the arrival of Omani sultans in the 1700s. However, the Kenyan and Tanzanian coasts still maintain a rich and unique culture, not to mention food, traditions, and language (which is used throughout East Africa). There are countless opportunities to learn about the rich history whether it’s through eating or visiting museums. It’s simply unavoidable, so dive in head first!
3) Lake Tanganyika
One of the least explored areas of the country, Lake Tanganyika (where the modern nation got its namesake) and western Tanzania are criminally undervisited. With white sand beaches devoid of tourists and ample opportunity for water activity, the lake is the second largest and deepest freshwater body in the world! It’s the perfect jumping off point for the less visited yet equally impressive Mahale Mountains, Katavi, and Rukwa National Parks.
4) Ngorongoro Crater
Part of the essential northern circuit, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is one of Tanzania’s many UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Ngorongoro Crater is the world’s largest unfilled and inactive volcanic caldera. The entire area is literally teeming with wildlife and the best way to experience it is to get up close and personal on a game drive. There are even a few stunning (albeit pricey) opportunities to lodge in the crater.
5) Take a spice tour
One of the essential experiences in Tanzania, there is plenty to do in Zanzibar besides soak up the sun. One of the reason the sultanate was so wealthy and powerful was its crucial role in the spice trade. There are plenty of tour operators who can give you the full experience, taking you to the inland plantations where spices like clove, nutmeg, pepper, vanilla, and coriander are still produced.
6) Get close with chimps
On the northern shore of Lake Tanganyika, near Burundi, you’ll find Gombe Stream National Park, the smallest in the country at only 20 square miles (50 sq km). However, if you want to follow in the footsteps of Jane Goodall and track chimpanzees in their natural habitat, this is the place to do it. Get up early to make sure you catch them in the morning when they’re most active.
7) Scuba dive off Mafia Island
The Swahili Coast is known for its palm-lined beaches, white sand beaches, and idyllic sunrises. Mafia Island is one of Tanzania’s smaller and less visited islands. It’s also the first to be almost entirely dedicated to a protected marine park, and the largest in the Indian Ocean! There are plenty of opportunities for diving and snorkeling and you can even swim with whale sharks if you time your visit right.
8) Get lost in the ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani
The ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani are some of the best preserved Swahili ruins in the world. Once the seat of sultans and a vast trade network that spanned East Africa, Persia, India, and even China. Now, the ruins sit in quiet isolation on a small island off the coast. Head here for a history lesson and a break from the hustle and bustle of the main tourist circuit.
9) Visit the Serengeti
One of Africa’s most famous parks, Serengeti is usually on top of everyone’s itinerary. And for good reason, too. With excellent chances of spotting the big five, many also visit for the impressive wildebeest migration which usually happens in June. Hook up with a local outfitter on a one or multi-day game drive or go big and take a different perspective from a hot air balloon!
10) Maasai cultural tour
An inseparable part of Tanzanian culture, the Maasai are the noble, indigenous warriors that occupy much of northern Tanzania and southern Kenya. Known for their grace, distinctive red and blue cloths, jewelry, and hunting prowess, there are several community-focused tour companies who can bring you to traditional Maasai villages, make sure your visit is sustainable, and also make sure that a fair share of profits go to the local community, ensuring that you have an eye opening visit and that the Maasai you interact with aren’t being exploited.
11) Pemba Island
Pemba Island has been unfairly overshadowed by nearby Zanzibar for most of its history. That’s unfortunate because the island has just as many charms with less than half the number of tourists. A greener, hillier, much more laid back, and traditional Swahili island, Pemba is closer to what “normal” island life is like for Tanzanians. With just as many great beaches, food, and water activities, it is markedly more conservative and traditional than Zanzibar culturally.
12) Get lost in Dar es Salaam
With over three million inhabitants, Dar es Salaam is the center of commercial and cultural life in Tanzania. East Africa’s second largest seaport and one of the largest cities on the coast, Dar sprawls and seamlessly meshes African, Arab, and Indian cultures into one big Swahili pot. With several great museums, an unbeatable culinary scene, unrivaled music, and a pulsing nightlife culture, you could spend days (or months) here and never become bored.
13) Boat safari in Selous Game Reserve
Covering over 50,000 square kilometers (20,000 sq mi), Seluous Game Reserve covers over 5% of the entire country. Elephants, hippos, buffalos, crocs, wild dogs, and some of Tanzania’s last remaining black rhinos can be found here amongst many other animals. One of the reasons for the abundance of wildlife is that the Tanzanian Wildlife Authorities allow no permanent settlements in the area. With extensive rivers, channels, and lakes, the area is well known for its aquatic life and a boat safari is the best way to experience this amazing park.
14) Lake Victoria
Africa’s largest lake receives far fewer visitors in Tanzania than in Kenya or Uganda. For those that make the trek, you’ll be able to experience Tanzania’s second largest city (Mwanza), unexplored island paradises, and Rubondo Island National Park, one of the best in the region known for its hundreds of bird species.
15) Stone Town, Zanzibar
Last but certainly not least, some would argue that Zanzibar is the crown jewel of Tanzania. Once a powerful independent sultanate, the island kingdom joined with Tanzania decades ago. Tourists flock here for its idyllic beaches, Swahili history, prime diving spots, and of course, Stone Town. Honestly, there is so much to do and see in this paradise, we could do a separate list just on Zanzibar (and probably will)!
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This article was originally published on November 11, 2014.