Things to do in Arusha
Updated: May 24
After being in Arusha for almost two months, I thought I would put together a list of places that I think make the venturing list. I had tried to find something similar online, but kept getting inundated with things like Zanzibar, Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti. Not that those things aren't worth doing... cuz they are... but they're pricey and quite a ways out of Arusha.
This list concentrates on 'IN ARUSHA' only...
When the opportunity arose to visit the Arusha Cultural and Heritage Centre, I was more than slightly hesitant. For some reason, unbeknownst to me, I envisioned a stark museum with a multitude of literary panels.
Eeek. No, thanks.
I was mistaken.
Was I ever!
I loved it. Every second of it.
You can’t help but be impressed as you pull up to the Heritage Centre. I was immediately blown away. The majestic and compelling facade is a depiction of the three major African symbols; the drum, the shield and the spear. Surrounding the centre are a variety of wildlife statues, depictions of village life huts and an assortment of vendor booths.
The gallery is a full four floors of cultural artifacts, handcrafts and rich modern and tribal treasures, from all over Africa. It’s focus; history, wildlife and soul.
Entrance is free and time spent here really evoked the cultural significance of the relationship between people and nature over time. Everywhere you looked, there was something else to capture your attention, including an 18 foot family tree which took 20 years to carve.
My personal favourite was the beaded chairs. Not even JUST the beaded chairs... but the elaborate and exquisite bead work really captured my attention. The detail that went into the intricate decoration was nothing short of mind boggling.
... and how the hell, back in the day, did they make beads that small?
On the third floor, we found the African Mona Lisa. This wildlife painting of a resting lioness possesses the same phenomenon of da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa.' The gaze of the lioness follows the viewer throughout the room, and the artist perfected the illusion of this magnificent beast’s strong desire to be the centre of attention.
Highly recommended for anyone coming to Arusha.
*Plus, it's a fabulous place to purchase Tanzanite, if you have a spare $220,000 or so to spare. Good investment tip... as they have almost completely mined it out of existence.
The Gran Melia Hotel is the most posh hotel in Arusha.
This place really tops it all and if you're lucky enough, or you have the money, to stay at this exquisite place, make sure you give yourself the time necessary to enjoy it to the fullest. If you're more like me, and only have the time (and bank account allowance) for a quick visit, my suggestion is to head there during the late afternoon. Unfortunately, the view of Mount Meru is in the north, and not the west, so the sunset scene from the rooftop bar/restaurant isn't the greatest... but it's still absolutely spectacular. You can't help but feel quite glamorous, looking over the manicured gardens and plantations, with a glass of bubbly in hand.
As much as this hotel tops the bougie scale, and does provide visitors with one of the best views in Arusha, one can't help but have mixed feelings. I felt undeniably hypocritical being in such an extravagant setting, after spending so much time in impoverished conditions. Being surrounded by people that often go days without food, and then enjoying a meal in a first class hotel just doesn't fit, no matter how you look at it.
Economically, yes, the hotel does provide many jobs, but there is absolutely nothing about the Grand Melia that accurately represents Arusha and its people.
*Privilege is prominent. Keep that in mind.
3. Maasai Crater
You want to watch the sunset?
This is the place to do it.
The Maasai crater is a large volcanic caldera about 30kms outside of Arusha and was actually more of a quick, steep jaunt to the top. Some visitors are not impressed with the hike, and they either complain that it's either too steep or not lengthy enough to even be considered a hike, so to speak. You can't win. I thought it was refreshing to be temporarily out of the dusty city centre. The sunset wasn't as impressive as it could have been, due to recent rain and circulating storm clouds, but it was wonderful to be in the majestic outdoors.
There were a bunch of young kids at the crater and many of them accompanied us along the perimeter trail, holding our hands. I couldn't help but wonder where their parents were, as there didn't appear to be many houses nearby and I had read tales of wild animals roaming the area after dark. I'm sure these children had hopes of receiving a few shillings for their efforts and the many pictures they had taken.
*Take along some toothbrushes, stickers or wee toys for the kids!
Ok... this is a little bit outside of town and definitely a bit of a trek... but it's fun and you're guaranteed to get some absolutely fabulous Instagram-able photographs!
Their Facebook page presents it as an amusement and theme park, but nothing could be further from the truth. I also got a bit of a befuddled kick off their description of "Eco-Swing from the saddle of Meru hill with serenity, scenic & secure gateway for meditation."
I'll give it to you straight. It is a picturesque tiny, thin waterfall bounding into a small, green pond... and then a short trek up the side of Meru hill, to a large swing.
It's cool... especially being out of the city for the day.
*Words of advice:
#1 ~ Call in advance and let the guy know you're coming. You do not want to go all that way and have it be closed.
#2 ~ If you're in a group, you will probably be able to negotiate a better price than should you pay individually. The owner is really congenial, but he will stick to his price, arguing that he's a professional photographer... but we found that our photos were much, much better.
#3 ~ Take a taxi with decent tires (or a 4WD preferably) and request that the driver wait for you until you have finished your 'theme park' experience. The road is steep, dirty, rugged and rough... with pure puddles of dust. Seriously... it's treacherous... and too far to trek up off the main road.
5. Go Market Hopping
If there is one thing that Arusha is not short on, it's markets. The markets are great places to get the true glimpse of Tanzanian life.
It's really a shame to spend frivolously at corporate supermarkets instead of supporting the locals. These people often depend on even the smallest of sales to feed their family. Remember this... but don't let yourself get bamboozled. The vendors will see you coming a mile away and a lot of them will do everything in their power to sell you absolutely everything they have... at an exorbitant price!
Get lost in the hustle & bustle, but be a smart Mzungu!
Maasai Market ~ If you're in the market for beadwork, carvings, jewelry, paintings or traditional clothing, this is definitely the place for you. The Maasai Market has an enormous variety of touristy items and they are quite good quality... but... the vendors can be pushy. The lengths they go to in order to secure your attention borders on pure harassment. It can be downright invasive at times, but if you can maneuver your way through here with a calm, cool and positive disposition, then you can tackle anything. Keep in mind, the stall owners start 4-5 times higher than the price actually is, so this is definitely the place to hone your bartering skills.
Krokon Market ~ Krokon is more like a flea market and the place, it is, where all donated clothes end up. If you need ANY item of clothing at all... you are sure to find it in Krokon.
Soko Kuu Market ~ Soko Kuu, which translates to the 'Big Market,' is also referred to as The Central Market. It is right in the heart of Arusha and definitely worth strolling around. Watch out! It can be quite chaotic at times, but you'll have fun winding your way through it all.
Kilimambero Market ~ Another enormous market with a labyrinth of alleyways. Without a doubt, it is a sensory overload, offering up fruit & vegetables, assorted fish & meat, spices and legumes... plus jewelry and materials, amongst hundreds of other things.
NMC Market ~ This is a local market and a good place to find fresh vegetables and fruits. In addition, there are gimmicks, clothes, shoes... etc... Everything a local market should have and more.
Kwa Morombo ~ If you're looking for BBQ'd meat, this is the street to be! Yes, there are fruits & veggies too... but mostly goat meat.
*Beware of the Papasi (parasites)... these are guys that will try to make you believe they're helping you and guiding you... and even translating for you... but they are not to be trusted. Their alterior motive is to secure a commision from whatever you purchase. They may even demand a tip once you're finished shopping.
See Do a Food Tour... which ties into the Market Hopping...
6. Do a Food Tour
Highly recommended... wind your way through the chaotic labyrinth of the city’s dusty markets, and lose yourselves in the true hustle & bustle. This is where you will get a real taste of the culture. Literally. There is so much delicious food.
When I first arrived, a few friends and I set off on a market food tour for the day. We meandered through almost all of them, with the goal of only stopping to taste things that we'd never either seen before or tried before. We did it... spent an entire day eating in the local markets. It was a lively atmosphere and everyone we encountered was so friendly and welcoming. The 'mambos' and 'poas' were frequent and the locals were absolutely beaming.
Our first stop was Kilombero Market, a whirlwind of sound and a true sensory overload.
Women lined the dirty alleys, sitting on the ground with their fruit and vegetables piled in front of them. As we walked through the market, they would offer up their goods, begging for us to just stop and see what they had for sale. When sales were down or the exhaustion of the barter took over, they simply crawl under one of the vendor tables and have a nap atop a makeshift bed of bags, torn tarps and old clothes.
From Kilombero, we made our way to Soho Kuu, which translates to the 'Big Market.' It's difficult to imagine how something could be bigger than Kilombero, but Soho Kuu definitely did take the cake. Its lively and bustling atmosphere was almost magnetic, drawing us into the enchantment of it all, Without many mzungu's (white people) around, it became evident that these markets really thrive and survive off the local trade of fruit, coffee, nuts, spices and other assorted items. We were definitely in the minority. Although they appreciated our presence, they definitely were not relying on our patronage, like the Maasai market. Perhaps the pick-pockets were happy to see us... but no one else. I had read how important it was to be careful with possessions, but fortunately none of us suffered thievery.
Not that we've noticed anyway...
A few people followed us for a portion of our journey; some in an attempt to lead us to certain booths, others trying to secure an unwarranted guide tip. See above for more about these guys. We did buy a lot of candy to hand out, which attracted many of the young children. A few became quite greedy, thinking the gift of sweets gave them permission to hound us for money.
It got bad at one point.
Along the way, we stopped to feast on bits and bites of various products, such as yuca, tamarind, donuts, biscuits and bananas. We also took the opportunity to try some of the more bizarre and unidentifiable. Sometimes we would inquire about a particular product, and our simple English questions were met with a look of pure confusion.
It can be very easy to forget that not everyone understands English. These reminders are very good lessons.
Check out our Food Tour on YouTube!
7. Climb the fake Kilimanjaro
Arusha has its very own fake Kilimanjaro. And you can climb it.
Located in Sakina, the KiliTouch has the dream to;
"give everyone who visits Arusha the opportunity to not leave town without feeling touched by the highest mountain of Africa, Kilimanjaro, so we created a man made model."
It's made up of the same material that you often see on climbing walls; like a hard, foamy plastic. From my extensive Google research, I think it’s called polyurethane… but I can’t confirm that. Anyway - this fabricated peak is about as close as I’m ever going to get to climbing the real thing, so I find it quite a bonus to have it right in town. I actually advocate hard for this gimmick and I am always trying to drag some poor volunteer down to do a photo shoot with me. Anyway, you can wander to the top and get photos of your own ascent. It’s fun… it’s funny… and a good alternative to the real deal, when you're lazy, overweight and have bad knees. Hmmmm.... On one of my first visits there to do the tiny trek, we were met by a suspicious man who asked for money. Finally, not really in the mood to argue, I handed the man a little bundle of small bills, which did not even begin to equate to what he had originally asked for… but got him to go away. Of course, he immediately shoved it into his own pocket and disappeared. *If you are planning on visiting the fake Kilimanjaro, plan on dining in their establishment so that you are giving back... or else be prepared to pay the fee they charge for the ascent.
8. Go to the Arusha Coffee Lodge for coffee... and dessert
Watch out for the monkeys. Seriously.
We decided to split a pizza and some sort of charcuterie platter. We sat there, enjoying the serenity of the surroundings, as well as the delicious food... when suddenly, mid-chat, a cheeky little monkey had the audacity to jump up onto our table. In the process of his intrusion, he dipped his hand into our hummus, chucked one of the chips onto the floor, grabbed our bread... and took off. It was over before we even knew what was happening, and we were both left speechless.
The staff were horrified and immediately ran off to replace our monkey meal. When our waiter returned with new hummus and bread, he assured us, "Don’t worry, the security guard is here now." The security guard? What would the security guard have done?
I guess they come on duty equipped with slingshots to scare the monkeys away from the diners.
What would be more terrifying? A monkey jumping up on your table and stealing some of your food… or the fear of being sideswiped by a slingshot pellet.
What a job though, eh?
Apart from monkeys, this place is the ultimate in relaxation and the perfect serenity get-a-way. It is hidden amongst one of Tanzania's largest coffee plantations, hence the name. Pools, fireplaces, gardens, the Coffee Lodge is a true haven of coffee aromas, exquisite cuisine and immaculate landscaping.
The desserts are to die for. Definitely don't let the monkey get your dessert.
*Do not order without first seeing the prices! This can get you into a lot of financial awkwardness when the bill arrives. And yes, watch out for the monkeys!!!
8. Ride a Dala Dala
If you really want a taste of Arusha life, you need to jump on a dala dala.
What is it?
The dala dala is the city bus... but we would refer to it as a van or a minibus.
Ok... there is nothing new about any of these vehicles but they are reliable and believe me, they are in abundance. If you miss one, or it's too full to even attempt boarding, another will be along momentarily.
The dala dalas are all beautiful & brilliantly decorated, some more than others. Definitely worth a few photographs! I did an entire album of the ones I found particularly unique. You will find slogans splattered across the vans, everything from American basketball teams to British football teams, Dre to Drake, and insanely enough, Jesus to Hitler. And more... it's fascinating but totally bizarre.
There is no air conditioning, nor is there any air circulation as they fill the vans up to exceed any regulatory spatial requirements... if that even makes sense.
People squeeze in and there is absolutely no limit on capacity. Middle seats pop down blocking anyone in the backseat easy access for departure. In addition to people, the dala dala carts produce and often livestock. There is NO personal space. At all. I was on a dala dala a few times with over 30 people. It's crazy... but well worth the experience.
The dala dala is inexpensive and one ride, regardless of length, is a jero (500).
*Be very careful when you accept assistance from anyone while boarding. There will be a lot of people trying to help you get to the right bus, but they will want money!
10. Visit a Women's Empowerment Centre and get yourself a dress made!
It's always a great idea to support local and you have many opportunities while in Arusha.
One of my favourites is a women's empowerment non-profit called Perfect Vision. Here, the aim is to provide women with the necessary skills and means to live independently.
HIV remains extremely prevalent and stigmatized in Tanzania, especially for women who are often abandoned by their partners, families, and friends. Perfect Vision as a way for struggling women to support each other, stop the shame, learn new skills and improve their lives.
"Perfect Vision Women Tanzania focuses on providing education, resources, and support to empower women and communities to take control of their own health. Our primary focus is on reproductive health, specifically through the production and distribution of sanitary pads to promote menstrual hygiene and education on reproductive health. We also provide education on nutrition, specifically for people living with HIV, to help them manage their health and cope with the effects of climate change. Our mental health services include counseling for individuals and groups, such as those struggling with alcohol and drug abuse, and those living with HIV, to support their emotional and mental well-being."
Another fabulous reason to visit is to see their wide variety of handmade crafts... or better yet, get a unique outfit made!
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