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Dar es Salaam Travel Guide

The Best of Dar es Salaam – What To See, Do & Buy

Often overlooked or passed-through on the way to Indian Ocean islands and wildebeest migrations, Dar es Salaam is a fascinating destination in its own right for those that spend a little time getting to know it. The city’s medley of Arabic, African, Indian, British and German influences have all left a mark on culture, cuisine and architecture, creating a city that is diverse as it is compelling. 

What was a fishing village a little over a century ago, is now Tanzania’s largest city. As the country’s hub of commerce and transport, one of the major ports on the continent and one of the fastest growing cities in the world, it is little surprise that the Dar skyline has risen upwards and the city has expanded outwards to house more than 4 million people.  

Even as the city grows, the fishing village charm of Dar es Salaam can still be seen, with the shows that fill the fish market, the women wearing kitenge and kanga, the bajaji and boda-boda zipping through narrow roadways and the spices and coffee.  Dar es Salaam might not have the picture-perfect appeal of Zanzibar’s Stone Town, the peaks of Kilimanjaro or the wildlife of the Serengeti, but scratch below the surface and you’ll discover a truly one-of-a-kind city. 

Our Dar es Salaam Travel Guide is designed to point you in the direction of some of the best attractions in and around the city, while our Tanzania Visitors Guide gives you the basics on money, visas, safety, getting around and more.

A Brief History

The modern city dates back to 1862 when the Sultan of Zanzibar, Sultan Majid bin Said began the transformation from the fishing village of Mzizima into a harbour town named it Dar es Salaam or ‘house of peace’. The fledgling town saw a brief decline until The German East Africa Company arrived in the 1880s and growth boomed. Indian traders meanwhile had become well established adding to the flair of the city. Post Great War the British took control and the city started to see a more formal distinction of cultural groups, with pockets of Colonial Europeans and Africans. Colonial rule was replaced with independence in 1961 and in1964 Zanzibar joined with the Tanganyika to form Tanzania. 

As the nation’s capital until the mid 1970’s, Dar es Salaam continues to remain integral to trade, commerce and even governance, while the full transfer to Dodoma (the new capital completed in 1996) grows into its new role. 

MUSEUMS, ART & CULTURE  SHOPPING  LEISURE  Historical landmarks  Dar Es Salaam City Tour

Museums, Art & Culture

National Museum of Tanzania - not one, but a collection of five museums preserving the history, nature and culture of Tanzania throughout the country. The main museum, the Dar es Salaam National Museum, features significant archaeological discoveries, as well as exhibits that look a little closer at colonial history, the dark days of the slave trade and the first people of Tanzania. Established in 1934 and located just a 5-minute walk from Southern Sun Dar es Salaam. 

Village Museum - (25-minute drive from the hotel) a collection of different homes in various styles from around Tanzania. Each home features items typical to the lifestyle of the resident and you have a chance to see traditional skills such as basket weaving, wood carving and pottery in action.

Nafasi Art Space - contemporary art in a collection of studios in the Mikocheni area of Dar es Salaam (30-minute drive from hotel). A place for visual and performing artists to collaborate, perform and exhibit. At just 10 years old it has grown to become a thriving hub of contemporary art in Dar es Salaam. Workshops, exhibitions, live music and dance performances add to the reasons to visit.

Shopping & Markets

Slipway Shopping Centre - a small mall and market with boutiques, crafts and restaurants. Worth a visit to pick up a souvenir or enjoy lunch beside the ocean. Located near to the Bongoyo Island ferry terminal slipway and Yacht Club (30-minute drive from the hotel).

Kivukoni Fish Market - a 5-minute drive from the hotel, this is a working fish market with real visitor appeal. Don't expect frills or an especially 'tourist friendly' vibe, but do expect a whole lot of fish buying, preparing unloading and selling. Especially impressive in the early morning, and for the most excitement head to the auction. The array of fresh fish is impressive, as is the smell and the noise. Or you could skip that part and enjoy the best of market fish at the restaurant.

Mwenge Market - this woodcarvers market has every imaginable wooden handcraft of typically East African style. (30-minute drive from the hotel). It’s perfect for getting take-home souvenirs, gifts or hard to find carvings. Work is carried out there and you can see the craftsmen at work.

Kanga & Kitenge - this distinctively Tanzanian fabric is known as ‘the fabric that talks’ and makes a treasured souvenir from the city. Many markets stock these beautiful fabrics in patterns and colours of massive variety. What makes them extra special is the Swahili phrases that make up part of the pattern. An opportunity to express how you are feeling or the feelings of the gift giver.

Kariakoo – the biggest market in East Africa spreads out across a large area with sections selling second-hand clothing, crafts or sacks of spices spilling out vibrant colours , strong aromas.  Bartering is a must and realistically the non-local’s price is going to be more expensive. But remember always be polite and good natured . The first price might not be the best, but most market sellers are hard-working and survive on a very low income. In many cases your support for them is helping feed a family.

Islands, Beaches & Leisure

Dar es Salaam Marine Reserve - the islands of Bongoyo, Mbudya, Fungu, Yasini and Pangavini are part of this Swahili Coast Marine Reserve. Uninhabited, but open for tourists to visit, Bongoyo and Mbudya are both beautiful tropical islands with sandy beaches, warm waters and resident wildlife on the beach and under the water. Diving and snorkeling is possible and can be very rewarding. Tours can be arranged that include the transport and landing fees. There's some tourist and restaurant facilities on Mbudya and Bongoyo, else talk to the team at Southern Sun Dar es Salaam about arranging a packed lunch to take with. Hike, dive , swim or just beach-lounge with a drink. The ferry terminal for Bongoyo and Mbudya is a 30-minute drive from the hotel. 

Zanzibar - While Zanzibar deserves several days spent there, you can also experience a little of this vibrant island on a day trip. Starting early in the morning, day trips depart from the Zanzibar Ferry Terminal near the hotel and tours often include visits to spice farms, Stone Town, Prison Island and more. Coral-reef-snorkeling, beach-lazing, fresh-fish-dining, spice-tasting - Zanzibar is all this and more.

Coco Beach - A long sandy beach in front of the Oyster Bay neighbourhood (20-minute drive from the hotel). It's one of the most popular beaches near the city and especially busy on weekends. There's a choice of restaurants, cafes and bars to make it easy to spend the day. Other beach options within a drive from the hotel include Kigamboni, Ras Kutani and Kunduchi.

Gymkhana Club – an 8-minute walk from the hotel, this multi-sport facility has golf, soccer, squash, cricket, tennis and even snooker as well as a large gym with fitness instructors, and swimming pool and pretty gardens. Great for long stay guests as an alternative to the hotel’s gym, pool and gardens. The golf course is not a world-class , but for an inner-city destination, it’s worth tee-ing off.  

Grand Buildings & History

St Joseph Cathedral – (10-minute drive from the hotel) explore this German built cathedral with its impressive facade, stained glass and spire. The stained glass is even more impressive as the sun dips in the afternoon, and the building comes alive with the singing on a Sunday. 

Nearby to St Joseph is the similarly impressive Azania Front Church. Red roofed , Gothic and over a hundred years old, this is well worth a visit even from the outside. The Gothic European styling contrasts dramatically with the Indian Ocean blues and swaying palms surrounding it.  

State House – (10-minute walk from the hotel) known as Dar’s White House, the State House or Ikulu, this impressive building is the official residence of the President. 30-acres of gardens, a mix of grand architectural styles and Indian Ocean views. While it’s not open for visitors, it’s an interesting spot to visit when exploring the neighbourhood .  

Botanical Gardens - bordering the hotel these gardens have a private key-card entrance for guests. While, like much of Dar es Salaam, some of the grander colonial-era buildings and established areas have lost some of their sparkle , there is still plenty under the surface. The Botanical Gardens are no exception with splashes of purple jacaranda, scarlet flame trees, pink bougainvillea, prehistoric looking cycads and even a Coco de Mer. Resident peacocks wander through the mostly forgotten park that was established in 1893 by Professor Stuhlman, the Director of Agriculture whose original intention for the gardens was a testing ground for crops.

Dar Es Salaam City Tour

Perhaps the best way to experience the city and discover everyday life in Dar is to join a walking tour, bicycle tour or even a tuk-tuk tour. These locally run tours for many visitors often a respectful and insightful look into the lives of Dar residents. The opportunity to support local businesses and meet locals adds to the appeal. Some highlights of a tour could include: 

  • Swahili Cinema – spend a moment watching a Hindi or other Asian language movie that has been translated into Swahili. The catch is that oftentimes the dubbing actors don't speak Hindi and neither do the scriptwriters. You end up with a dubbed movie that is a total one-off and has a special charm. 
  • Traditional Coffee - a giant pestle and mortar (often given as a marriage gift because of its versatility and to acknowledge motherhood potential) is used to grind up fresh coffee beans from the mountains of Tanzania. The coffee is roasted early in the morning and then brewed over hot coals on an ingenious metal carrying tray allowing the seller to come to you.  Coffee too strong? Look for the sellers with packets of peanut brittle. This sugary snack is the perfect 'sweetener' for coffee that is fresh and strong. 
  • Tour Etiquette - you might be going into someone’s home, business or place of relaxation. So, asking before you take a photo is always important. If there is something for sale that you would like to buy, spending some shillings at the business is also a polite way for you to give a little back, and get a souvenir with a story.