Tanzania is most famous as one of Africa’s best safari destinations, thanks to its iconic game reserves like the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and Tarangire National Park. All of these play host to the annual Great Migration of wildebeest and zebra. However, there’s more to this East African country than its safari parks. It also boasts an incredible collection of idyllic beaches, whether you choose to go to lively Zanzibar or laid-back Mnemba. The Swahili coast is steeped in trade route history, while Dar es Salaam is a hub for contemporary culture. Here are some of the best ways to spend your time in Tanzania.
Follow the Herds of the Great Migration
Every year, approximately two million gnus, zebras, and other antelopes migrate from the plains of the Serengeti ecosystem in northern Tanzania to Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Because December to March is calving season, the best place to catch the migration at this time is in the Southern Serengeti. By June, the herds have moved into the Western Serengeti. Camps like &Beyond Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp give tourists a front-row seat to the drama of the Grumeti River crossings, which usually take place in July.
Take a Hot Air Balloon Flight Over the Serengeti
A trip to Tanzania would not be complete without a Serengeti safari. The traditional way to explore is in an open-sided Jeep—but for a truly unforgettable experience, consider booking a dawn flight in a hot air balloon. As the sun rises, the vastness of the landscape becomes apparent as animals pass beneath the basket, unperturbed by the balloon’s silent progress. Keep an eye out for elephants and buffalo, basking lions and gangly giraffes. Serengeti Balloon Safaris are highly recommended.
Tick Off the Big Five on an Ngorongoro Crater Safari
Ngorongoro Crater is the world’s largest intact and unfilled caldera. Its sloping sides resemble a natural amphitheater, creating a stage for more than 25,000 large game animals. This incredible concentration of wildlife makes it one of the best places in Africa for spotting the Big Five. In particular, the crater is home to the continent's largest tusker elephants and one of the biggest black rhino populations in Tanzania. Other bucket list species abound, too, from cheetahs to African wild dogs.
Look for Tree-climbing Lions at Lake Manyara
Lake Manyara National Park is famous for its tree-climbing lions—and it's one of only two destinations associated with this unusual behavior (the other being Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park). Scientists are unsure why Manyara’s lions choose to spend their days lounging high above the ground, but one theory is that they use the elevated vantage point to locate prey. Lake Manyara is one of the few Tanzanian national parks to allow night drives, and self-drive safaris are also permitted.
Brush up on Birds in Tarangire National Park
Like Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro and the Serengeti, Tarangire National Park is part of Tanzania’s Northern Circuit. It stands out from its neighboring parks for its exceptional birdlife, with over 550 species recorded within its borders. This abundance is due in part to the park’s Silale Swamps, which provide a reliable source of water all year-round. Special sightings include birds endemic to Tanzania like the ashy starling and the yellow-collared lovebird. During the rainy season, migrant species arrive from Europe and Asia.
Step Off the Beaten Track in Ruaha National Park
If you dream of taking the road less traveled, consider venturing south to Ruaha National Park. A pristine wilderness, East Africa’s largest national park sees far fewer visitors than its northern counterparts, so you’re likely to have wildlife sightings all to yourself. It’s famous for its predators, and is home to 10 percent of the entire African lion population. Cheetahs, leopards, endangered African wild dogs, and spotted hyenas all flourish here, too. Game-viewing is best during the June to October dry season.
Meet the Chimpanzees of Gombe National Park
Located on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, Gombe National Park covers just 56 square kilometers. Despite its small size, it has earned a global reputation due to the work of Jane Goodall, who founded her chimpanzee research program here in 1960. Today, the park’s chimpanzee families are well-habituated to humans, and you can trek through lush forests to meet them up close. Gombe is also home to colobus and vervet monkeys.
Explore Rubondo Island on Lake Victoria
Rubondo Island occupies the southwest corner of Lake Victoria, the largest lake on the African continent. Remote, unspoiled, and covered with dense forest, this island is protected as a national park. An incredible variety of wildlife can be found here, including elephants, chimpanzees, and rare sitatunga antelopes. The butterflies and birdlife are exceptional, while aquatic creatures like hippos and crocodiles can easily be spotted on lake cruises and fishing trips. Eco-friendly Rubondo Island Camp provides luxury beachfront accommodation.
Photograph Flocks of Flamingos at Lake Natron
At first glance, it seems impossible that anything could live on northern Lake Natron, a soda lake set at the desolate base of active volcano Ol Doinyo Lengai. Its highly alkaline waters are seasonally stained red by bacteria—yet it is the world’s most important breeding site for lesser flamingos. In 2019, over 1.75 million birds flocked to the lake to breed. These astonishing numbers make for fantastic photos. Breeding season is at its peak from October to December.
Learn About Zanzibar’s Trade Route History
Traders from Persia and Arabia first started visiting Zanzibar in the 8th century. In addition to gold, ivory, and slaves, they came to buy fragrant island spices from the mainland. From the 16th century onwards, the Portuguese and then the Omanis developed Stone Town as a trading center. The city's fabulous palaces and forts date back to this time and can be explored on a guided tour.
Explore the Ruins at Kilwa Kisiwani
Kilwa Kisiwani island is home to the UNESCO-recognized ruins of a great Islamic/Swahili port city that reached the peak of its prosperity during the 13th and 14th centuries. Today, the coral and lime mortar ruins include an 11th-century Great Mosque, a 14th-century palace, and many residential homes. The easiest way to get there is on a guided tour from Kilwa Masoko.
Experience Private Island-living on Mnemba
Beach lovers are spoiled for choice in Tanzania, but for the most exclusive experience, book a stay on Mnemba Island. With a circumference of 1.5 kilometers, it’s a paradise tract of Casuarina pine forest ringed by perfect white sand beaches. Just offshore, spectacular coral reefs await. The only accommodation is &Beyond Mnemba Island Lodge, which offers 12 luxurious thatched beach bandas situated just steps from the sand. Activities range from snorkeling and scuba diving to dolphin watching and fishing.
Swim With Whale Sharks off Mafia Island
Mafia Island is known as a hotspot for scuba diving, with teeming reefs protected by the Mafia Island Marine Park. From September to March, though, divers may want to swap their cylinder for a snorkel as whale sharks arrive in Mafia’s waters during their annual migration. The world’s biggest fish can be seen with reliable regularity as they feed on seasonal plankton upwellings, sometimes in large numbers. Swimming alongside them is a humbling experience facilitated by responsible operators like Kitu Kiblu.
Go Deep-sea Fishing off Pemba Island
Like Mafia, nearby Pemba Island is a haven for water sports. In particular, it’s a popular destination for deep-sea fishermen due to the location of the Pemba Channel off the island’s west coast. Here, the shore drops off suddenly into deep water, and nutrient upwellings attract an incredible variety of game fish including giant trevallies, dogtooth and yellowfin tuna, and six different species of billfish. Peak season depends on your target species, although September to March is best for billfish anglers.
Climb to the Summit of Mount Kilimanjaro
The snow-capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro stands at 19,341 feet (5,895 meters), making it the tallest mountain in Africa and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. Despite its superlative status, it is possible to climb Kilimanjaro without any technical mountaineering experience or equipment—although altitude sickness prevents many trekkers from reaching the summit. To increase your chances of a successful ascent, choose a route that offers plenty of time to acclimatize and travel with a responsible operator like Thomson Treks.
Hike to the Top of Mount Meru
Nearby Mount Meru is often used as a practice hike for Kilimanjaro and offers fantastic views of its sister peak. At 14,980 feet (4,566 meters), it’s the fourth-highest mountain in Africa. Summit treks usually take three to four days, with huts along the way offering simple accommodation. Guides are mandatory and porters can be hired to carry your equipment. For the best chances of success, climb during the June to October dry season.
Discover the Origins of Mankind at Olduvai Gorge
Olduvai Gorge is one of the world’s most important paleoanthropological sites. In the 20th century, it was here that the Leakeys discovered hominid fossils that confirmed that the entire human race originated in Africa. Their most famous finds include the 1.75-million-year-old Nutcracker Man and a set of fossilized footprints showing how our hominid ancestors walked on two legs during the Pliocene era. Visitors to Olduvai can tour the excavation sites and a fascinating on-site museum.
Shop for Souvenirs in Dar es Salaam
The vibrant coastal city of Dar es Salaam is Tanzania’s top destination for souvenir shopping. Skilled artisans create masterpieces out of local timber at Mwenge Woodcarvers Market, while expat shopping center The Slipway has boutiques full of traditional crafts and contemporary fashion. Tingatinga paintings and tanzanite jewelry (two of Tanzania’s most recognizable exports) are also available in abundance in Dar es Salaam. For the former, head to the Tingatinga Arts Cooperative Society. For the latter, head to reputable jeweler The Tanzanite Dream.