Dar es Salaam is certainly not the first destination that comes to mind when you think of a trip to Tanzania. For most visitors, the city only serves as a gateway to other more popular destinations, such as Zanzibar, Kilimanjaro, and Serengeti.
But that’s not to say that Dar es Salaam is entirely devoid of any charm. Walking around the city center and its chaotic markets is a great way to get yourself acquainted with the local culture. The fact that it is not touristy ensures a more authentic experience for discerning travelers.
Dar es Salaam, which means “City of Peace” in Arabic, is the largest city in Tanzania and East Africa, and the seventh largest in all of Africa. It is bordered on the east by the Indian Ocean.
The city was founded in 1862 by Sultan Seyyid Majid and started as a fishing village. Until 1974, it was the capital of Tanzania before the capital city began to move to Dodoma (the transfer was completed in 1996).
Despite no longer being the capital, Dar es Salaam remains as Tanzania’s economic center and plays an important role in the country’s arts, fashion, media, music, film, and television industries.
It is also the main arrival and departure point for most tourists visiting Tanzania.
There are many different tribes in Tanzania, each one of them with its own language. But the official language and lingua franca is Swahili, which is taught in primary school and spoken by over 90% of the population.
English is widely spoken in big cities like Dar es Salaam and is often used in foreign trade, diplomacy, and as a medium of instruction in secondary and tertiary education.
There are no reliable statistics, but according to a 2010 survey, Tanzania’s population is roughly 61% Christian, 35% Muslim, and 4% other religious groups including Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and animists. However, at least half of the population still practices elements of African traditional religions in their daily lives.
The currency of Tanzania is called Tanzanian Shilling (TZS). The current exchange rate is: 1 USD = 2,319 TZS.
Best Time to Visit Dar es Salaam
Due to its proximity to the equator, Dar es Salaam has a tropical climate, characterized by hot and humid weather, and relatively stable temperatures throughout the year.
In a typical year, there are two rainy seasons in Dar es Salaam: “the long rains” from March to May and “the short rains” in November and December. The peak monsoon season is in April.
Between December and February, temperatures can soar up to the mid-30’s Celsius. That, and the high humidity level make it less than ideal to visit the city during these months.
The best time to visit Dar es Salaam is between June and September, right after the rainy season, when temperatures are milder and the humidity relatively low.
How to Get to Dar es Salaam
Most visitors to Dar es Salaam arrive via Julius K. Nyerere International Airport (IATA: DAR), which is Tanzania’s main airport. You can fly there from many major cities in Africa, as well as Asia (Doha, Muscat, and Dubai) and Europe (Istanbul and Amsterdam).
Getting from the Airport to the City Center
The airport is located about 10 kilometres away from the city center. Most large hotels offer pick-up and drop-off service upon request.
Alternatively, you can take an airport taxi. The drivers will approach you as soon as you leave the airport building. Fares to the city center are fixed at USD 30 per person for foreigners.
To get the best price, pay in Tanzanian Shillings instead of US Dollars. Make sure you have some of the local currency with you, preferably before you arrive in Tanzania, as the ATMs and money changers at the airport are sometimes unreliable.
A cheaper option is to walk to the main road and flag a taxi or daladala (local minibus).
Long-distance bus travel in East Africa is generally quite comfortable, as most buses are equipped with A/C, safety belts, luggage compartments, and bathrooms.
However, they tend to drive fast and quite recklessly, and there’s often a TV or radio playing local songs at top volume.
2-Day Itinerary in Dar es Salaam
I arrived in Dar es Salaam on an October morning after two 8-hour Oman Air flights and one stopover in Muscat. My Couchsurfing host, Uo had kindly offered to pick me up from the airport. Since it was my first time in mainland Africa, I was only too happy to accept his offer.
To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew very little about Tanzania and East Africa, apart from the few articles I read on travel blogs. The African continent is often portrayed as a chaotic and unsafe place to visit, and I have to admit that I felt some trepidation about it.
The airport was clean but quite sparse. There was nothing much to see, so I only sat at one corner and charged my phone while waiting for Uo, who was going to take a while since he had to travel by bus from his home.
Soon, he arrived and after introducing ourselves, we left the airport building to take a local bus from the main road. It’s always an exciting feeling when you step on a new continent for the first time!
On the way home, we stopped by at the Kariakoo Market — the biggest and busiest market in Dar es Salaam that spans several city blocks. The place once housed the barracks of the British Carrier Corps, which was how the name “Kariakoo” came about.
Morning is the best time to go as there aren’t too many shoppers yet, and you get to watch the vendors unload their wares. This market sells pretty much everything, but I didn’t really get to look around, as it had started to rain and we were too busy trying to avoid the puddles on the ground.
To sit out the rain, we stopped at a small cafe owned by Uo’s friend and had a light breakfast of some fritters.
My Accommodation: Uo’s Home
After breakfast, we took a bus to Uo’s home, where he lived with his siblings, cousins, and aunt. I noticed that the houses in Dar es Salaam were not too different from rural houses in my own country, except that the kitchens and bathrooms were outside.
It was the rainy season when I visited, so the roads leading to his house was covered with huge potholes — one was as big as a small pond. It made for an interesting ride though.
On my second day, the weather had improved somewhat. Uo borrowed his sister’s car to show me around.
The first attraction we went to see was the Kigamboni Bridge — a 680-meter-long bridge that links Dar es Salaam to the Kigamboni district. This bridge provided an alternative transport link between the two districts, whereas previously, everyone had to use a ferry.
The bridge has six lanes (three on each direction) and two pedestrian/cyclist lanes.
The real reason Uo’s sister let him borrow her car that day was so that he could take it to a workshop in Kigamboni to get something fixed. So while waiting for the car to be ready, we had a lunch of nyama choma (grilled meat) paired with ugali (cornmeal mush), and some vegetables.
Our next stop was Coco Beach (a.k.a. Oyster Bay), located on the Msasani Peninsula. Apparently, the place is very lively during the peak season, sometimes even hosting concerts and beach parties.
But everything was quiet during my visit. There was no one else on the beach other than some street food vendors, who were quite persistent in trying to sell me something.
Our next stop was a supermarket. Visiting supermarkets is one of my favorite things to do when I travel abroad. It’s so cool to see what the locals eat and the ingredients they use for cooking.
For example, I was quite intrigued by these strange-looking lemons (I think). And the peppers. I had never seen them in those shapes before.
I was also amused to see that my favorite childhood snack from Malaysia was sold there.
Next, we drove around the city center, where Uo showed me some of the government buildings, embassies, and big hotels. But the main attraction there was the Askari Monument — a cast-bronze statue depicting a soldier in WWI uniforms with his bayonet pointing toward the harbor. The statue was built in honor of those who fought in the British Carrier Corps.
Situated at the center of the roundabout between Samora Avenue and Maktaba Street, it allegedly marks the exact center of downtown Dar es Salaam.
Along the way, we also stopped for some fresh coconut juice and a sweet snack with sesame seeds on it.
For dinner, we went to a row of street stalls to share some fried chicken and chips, and a dish called Zanzibar mix, which is a unique street food that combines elements of Indian, Arab, and African flavors.
It consists of potatoes, chickpeas, and peanuts swimming in a thick coconut gravy, topped with a dollop of coconut cilantro chutney, a dash of hot pepper sauce, kachumbari (tomato, onion, and cucumber salad) and some bhajias (deep-fried potatoes) for an extra crunch. For protein, you can also add in a medium-boiled egg and mishkaki (grilled mutton or beef).
Other Things to See in Dar es Salaam
Due to bad weather and time constraints, I didn’t get to see everything there was to see in Dar es Salaam. But I’m also the type of traveler who favor authentic local experiences over tourist attractions, so it wasn’t a big deal for me.
Here are some other places you can visit in Dar es Salaam if you have more time:
St. Joseph’s Cathedral
Home to the Archbishop of Dar es Salaam, this Roman Catholic church has an amazing Gothic-style architecture, featuring a shingled spire, vaulted interior, stained-glass windows, and a carved relief above the main altar. Visit on a Sunday to hear the choir and the English mass at 8:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.
Azania Lutheran Church
Another prominent church in Dar es Salaam is the Azania Lutheran Church, located at the harbor front. It was originally built by German missionaries in Tanzania. You can go up to the top to see the bell tower.
Kivukoni Fish Market
To get a taste of daily life in Dar es Salaam, make your way to Kikuvoni Fish Market. Like Kariakoo, the Kikuvoni Fish Market is best visited early in the morning, when the fishing boats arrive and the fish are auctioned to the public. Bargain hard if you plan to buy some. You can also enjoy a seafood meal there.
For those who wish to escape the hectic city life, Dar es Salaam can be used as a base to get to nearby islands, such as Mbudya, Bongoyo. These islands are only a short boat ride away from Dar es Salaam’s harbors and offer a perfect respite for a day of rest and relaxation. Just ask the local boatmen near the White Sands Hotel, the Slipway, or Kunduchi.
National Museum & House of Culture
National museums are always a good place to learn more about a country’s history and culture. Tanzania’s National Museum and House of Culture showcases a vast collection of fossils and artifacts, as well as a number of cars that belonged to the country’s first president.
Visitors also get to learn about the history of the slave trade and colonialism in the country.
If you’d like to learn more about rural Tanzania’s customs and traditions, visit the Village Museum, which is located about six miles north of the city center. It is an interactive museum that allows visitors to enter and explore different types of traditional Tanzanian huts (there are more than a dozen!). Dance and music performances are also available for an extra price.
How to Get Around in Dar es Salaam
Admittedly, getting around in Dar es Salaam can be a bit daunting for a first-timer. I had it easy because someone was there to show me around by car. But I did experience the local transports as well.
If you’re traveling independently, you have several options:
- By car – Car rental can be organized online or through most hotels. However, driving in Tanzania can be a stressful, difficult, and dangerous affair, due to poor road conditions, traffic congestion, reckless driving, and thefts. Only choose this option if you have experience driving in developing countries.
- By taxi – Certainly not the cheapest option, especially for a foreign tourist. Currently, there are no formal taxi companies in Dar es Salaam. The taxi drivers run their own business but are regulated by the government. Taxi fares are not fixed. Make sure you negotiate and agree on the price before you get in the car.
- By bus – The public buses in Dar es Salaam are actually quite clean, cheap, and convenient. Look out for these designated bus stops. Tickets are to be purchased at the bus stops, before boarding.
- By motorcycle taxi – Similar to the normal taxis, motorbike taxis also operate independently. I personally wouldn’t recommend this option as they don’t usually provide helmets.
- By daladala (minibus) – Daladala is the cheapest and most common form of public transportation in the city. The names of the first and last stops are shown in the front window or yelled out by the conductor. Main terminals include New Posta (the main post office), Kariakoo, Kivukoni, and the Central Line train station.
Where to Stay in Dar es Salaam
If you wish to stay near the beach, Dar es Salaam has three distinct beach areas: Kunduchi in the north, Ras Kutani in the south, and Oyster Bay (Coco Beach) within the city limits.
However, if you’d like to have easier access to public transport and the attractions listed above, it’s recommended to stay near the city center. Here are a few suggestions:
Chelsea Hotel – Conveniently located only 10 km away from the airport and 1 km from the Zanzibar Ferry Terminal, this three-star hotel offers unobstructed views of the city from its rooftop terrace. (From USD 34 per night).
Harbour View Suites – This hotel — which is located in Samora Avenue — features large, comfortable rooms that come with fully-fitted kitchens. On the ground floor is a well-stocked supermarket, and a few restaurants and cafes. (From USD 110 per night).
Hyatt Regency Dar es Salaam, the Kilimanjaro – Part of the internationally acclaimed Hyatt hotel chain, this luxurious hotel is located in the heart of Dar es Salaam, next to the ocean side, therefore offering you stunning views of the Indian Ocean. (From USD 230 per night).
Final Thoughts on Dar es Salaam
Is Dar es Salaam worth visiting?
Yes, although Dar es Salaam is often overlooked by tourists (or precisely because of that), I think it’s worth a visit, especially if you prefer veering off the well-trodden paths.
Before you go embark on your safari in the savannah, Dar es Salaam gives you the perfect opportunity to get a better understanding of the people whose country you’re visiting.
How long should you spend in Dar es Salaam?
To see all of the attractions listed above without feeling rushed, allow at least three days in Dar es Salaam — or longer if you plan to spend more time on the surrounding islands. It’s also wise to make room for unexpected weather change when you’re planning your itinerary.
How safe is Dar es Salaam for solo female travelers?
To be fair, I didn’t really travel alone in Dar es Salaam, as I had my host with me almost all the time. But from my observation, it was not quite as bad as I had initially imagined.
All the basic safety rules apply here.
- Do not flaunt your valuables and be aware of your surroundings.
- Getting on public transports can be a bit of a challenge, especially in the rain, when you have to shove your way in and out of the bus.
- When buying tickets for long-distance bus journeys, make sure you buy from reputable companies.
- Tanzania is also a little more conservative than surrounding countries, so you might want to dress modestly.
For a first-timer, it might be a little overwhelming. But as for me, since I had traveled alone quite extensively in Asia, it wasn’t that much of a shock. In fact, there are other countries I’d been to that I felt were more challenging.