The once small town of Arusha has grown to a city of 400,000 people on the strength of its strategic location, near many of Tanzania’s (and to some degree, Kenya’s) finest attractions. The entire Arusha region has now grown to 1.5 million people.
Loaded with both legitimate guide companies and itinerant guides (some of questionable merit), Arusha is ground zero for most travelers heading off to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro or Mt. Meru, as well as safari-goers preparing for trips to the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Tarangire National Park, Lake Manyara National Park (known for its flamingos). and Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve and Mt. Kenya, among other destinations.
Almost everyone ends up spending a day or night in Arusha either before or after their safari, or both, so -- while it might not otherwise be a prime destination by itself -- Arusha has seen a multiplying of accommodations (both of hotels in the city as well as luxurious lodges and camps on the outskirts), eating places (try the Indian food) and attractions of its own. The climate tends to be pleasant due to its elevation on the slopes of Mt. Meru.
The center of the city is dominated by the clock tower, which is said to stand in the center of the continent as well, midway between Cairo and Cape Town. While the geography is probably off a bit, it makes a nice photo op, as does the Central Market nearby, where fruits, vegetables and clothing items are for sale.
An amble down Sokoine Road, Arusha’s main street, is well worth the time, especially for a first-time visitor to Africa. On School Street, which leads off of Sokoine, you’ll find the Masai Market, or at least the most interesting Masai Market in town, where you can buy souvenirs, handicrafts, jewelry and local fabrics, such as batiks. Bargaining is expected at all the markets; you should pay about half the original asking price, if that.
Nearby National Park
The nearest safari destination to Arusha, Arusha National Park, is just 45 minutes northeast by car, and protects parts of Mt. Meru, the 15,000-foot peak that rises behind the city. This attractive park of forests and lakes won’t make you forget the Serengeti or Ngorongoro Crater for wildlife, but it does have leopards, giraffes, zebras, buffalo, flamingos, some elephants, and black-and-white colobus monkeys, which are more visible here than just about anywhere else in northern Tanzania.
A day visit to the national park might be of special interest to those who have arrived to climb Mts. Kilimanjaro or Meru and aren’t planning on taking additional wildlife safaris. You can hike around the slopes of Mt. Meru or all the way to the summit. At nearly 15,000 feet, Mt. Meru itself can serve as a three-or-four-day warm-up for a Kilimanjaro (19,000 feet-plus) climb or -- as Africa’s fifth highest peak -- as a climbing destination in itself. The two peaks are just 30 miles apart.
If Arusha is serving as your introduction to Africa, make sure you consult Stride to make the most of your stay there -- and the African adventures that are sure to follow.