Tanzania is home to some of Africa’s most famous national parks and the majestic Mount Kilimanjaro rising above the Serengeti. Most visitors will find themselves passing through Dar es Salaam and heading out on safaris and various wildlife viewing adventures. For those who want to take a break and spend some time soaking up the sun, the beautiful beaches of Zanzibar beckon. Off Pemba and Mafia islands is a whole other kind of natural wonder, one most appreciated by the scuba divers and snorkelers who come here from around the world to experience the coral gardens, colourful fish, and crystal clear waters.
1 Mount Kilimanjaro
One of the most frequented attractions in Tanzania, Mount Kilimanjaro National Park is home to Africa’s highest mountain peak. Unlike other parks in northern Tanzania, this one is not visited for the wildlife but for the chance to stand in awe of this majestic snow-capped mountain and, for many, to climb to the summit. Mount Kilimanjaro can be climbed at any time, although the best period is from late June to October, during the dry season.
Kilimanjaro, a World Heritage Sites, was formed over 1 million years ago by volcanic movement along the Rift Valley. Three points – Shira, Kibo, and Mawenzi came to be about 750,000 years ago. The highest point is Uhuru Peak on Kibo, which is one of the Seven Summits of the world.
The mountain rises from farmland on the lower level to the rainforest and alpine meadow and then barren lunar landscape at the peaks. The slopes of the rainforest are home to buffaloes, leopards, monkeys, elephants and land. The alpine zone is where bird watchers will find an abundance of birds of prey.
Accommodation: Where to Stay near Mount Kilimanjaro
2 Serengeti National Park
Serengeti National Park is a vast treeless plain with thousands, even millions of animals searching for fresh grasslands. As the largest national park in Tanzania, the Serengeti attracts thousands of tourists each year. The best months for wildlife viewing are between December and June. The wet season is from March to May, with the coldest period from June to October. The annual migration of millions of zebra and wildebeest takes place in May or early June. This migration is one of the most impressive natural events and the primary draw for many tourists.
Large herds of antelope, as well as lion, leopard, cheetah, hyena, bat eared fox, hunting dog and jackal, are also found in Serengeti National Park. Nearly 500 species of bird have been recorded on the Serengeti. Many of these are attracted to the swamp area. ‘Serengeti’ means an ‘extended place’ in the Maasai language.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Serengeti National Park
3 Zanzibar Beaches
The Zanzibar archipelago consists of the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba. The island of Zanzibar, also called Unguja, is a major holiday destination known for its beautiful beaches. This island has some of the best beaches in the world with varying surf depending on what side of the island you are on. Visitors will find soft white sand and clear shallow water, along with traditional boats. Stone Town is located in the heart of Zanzibar and features old Arabian townhouses, narrow alleyways and a busy port.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Zanzibar
4 Ngorongoro Conservation Area
Located between the Serengeti and Lake Manyara, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is home to the famous volcanic Ngorongoro Crater and one of Tanzania‘s most popular wildlife viewing areas. This huge volcanic crater has a permanent supply of water which draws all kinds of animals who stay in this area rather than migrating. Visitors come here primarily for viewing the large game and bird watching, but also of interest in the conservation area is the Olduvai Gorge. This important archaeological site has revealed the ancient skull and bone fragments that have delivered critical information about early mankind.
The Ngorongoro Crater is the largest intact ancient caldera in the world, nearly three million years old. The Ngorongoro volcano was one of the world’s tallest mountains before it exploded and collapsed. Thousands of wild game can be seen on the crater floor, including lions, elephants, rhinos, Thomson’s gazelles, and buffaloes, but wildebeests and zebras account for over half of the animals that call the Ngorongoro Crater home. Bird watching is superb, especially around Lake Migadi, which attracts flocks of flamingoes to the shallows. Hippos are content to submerge themselves during the day and then graze in the nearby grass in the evening.
The Olduvai Gorge is an archaeological site situated on a series of fault lines, where centuries of erosion have revealed fossils and remnants of early mankind. As early as 1911, a German professor found some fossil bones while looking for butterflies in Olduvai Gorge. In a later expedition, the Leakeys collected skull fragments, a skull, and bones determined to be approximately 2 million years old. Tools and hunting weapons from 1 to 1.5 million years ago were also discovered in Olduvai Gorge. Another exciting find were the famous footprints of a man, woman and child at Laetoli, near Olduvai. These and other discoveries provide more evidence to the theory that at least three hominid species were in this region over 2 million years ago.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Ngorongoro
5 Lake Manyara National Park
Lake Manyara National Park is comprised of forest, woodland, grasslands, and swamps. Two-thirds of the park is covered by water and Lake Manyara is host to thousands of flamingoes, at certain times of the year, as well as other diverse bird life. The highlight of Lake Manyara Park is the large population of elephants, tree-climbing lions and hippos that can be observed at a much closer range than in other parks. This park is also home to the largest concentration of baboons in the world.
Wildlife drives, canoeing (when water levels are high enough), mountain bike tours and bird watching are the most popular activities in Lake Manyara National Park.
Accommodation: Where to Stay near Lake Manyara
6 Mafia Island
Mafia Island draws divers and snorkelers from around the world to the undersea world protected by the Mafia Island Marine Park. The best months for diving are October to March but the best weather on Mafia Island is May to October, March and April are months of heavy rain. Mafia Island Marine Park has excellent coral gardens, an abundant variety of fish and a relaxed diving atmosphere. Countless birds and over 400 species of fish can be seen in the area. Mafia Island is also a traditional breeding site for the green turtle, which are unfortunately close to extinction.
Mafia is also a desirable location for deep-sea fishing, especially tuna, marlin, sailfish and other big-game fish.
This island paradise first saw settlers in the 8th or 9th C, but Mafia became a more important settlement during the 12th to 14th C when it held a key position in the East African trading routes.
7 Tarangire National Park
Tarangire National Park was established in 1970 and is best visited in the dry season from July to September when the animals gather along the river. During the dry season, Tarangire National Park has one of the highest concentrations of migratory wildlife. Wildebeest, zebra, buffalo, impala, gazelle, hartebeest and eland crowd the lagoons. One of the most noticeable highlights of Tarangire National Park is the baobab trees that dot the grassy landscape.
The park is excellent for birdwatching, with more than 300 species recorded in Tarangire. These species include buzzards, vultures, herons, storks, kites, falcons and eagles.
8 Pemba Island
Pemba Island is the northernmost island in the Zanzibar archipelago. Around Pemba are many desert islands and some of the best scuba diving in the Indian Ocean, with visibility that is unparalleled. Lush coral gardens, colourful sponges and sea fans are all found in the underwater haven. The city of Chake Chake, the main population centre on Pemba, is a popular base for scuba divers.
Pemba is less visited than Zanzibar and as a result, has a more laidback atmosphere. From December to February visitors can watch traditional bullfighting; a sign from the days of Portuguese dominance in the 16th and 17th C. The island is hilly with deep valleys so it has become popular with mountain bikers who are drawn to the 1,000-meter peaks.
Pemba is a major world clove producer and is also well known for the juju traditions of medicine and magic. People come from throughout East Africa to learn from the voodoo and traditional healers or seek a cure.
Accommodation: Where to Stay on Pemba Island
9 Stone Town
Stone Town is the cultural heart of Zanzibar and little has changed in the last 200 years. The grand old Arabian homes lining the narrow streets and winding alleys give the city its own unique charm. The majority of homes in Stone Town were built in the 19th C when Zanzibar was one of the most important Swahili trading towns in the Indian Ocean. Visitors will notice the bras-studded, intricately carved wooden doors on many of the houses.
As the world’s oldest functioning Swahili city, many of the landmarks in Stone Town have been restored to their original glory. Some of the historic buildings are now museums which can be visited. The town also has a couple of interesting old churches of historical significance. A walk along Creek Road takes visitors to the original Stone Town area and the location of the Central Darajani Market, Beit el-Amani, City Hall, and the Anglican Cathedral. Some of the other key highlights include the Forodhani Gardens, the Old Dispensary with its carved wooden balconies, the former home of the sultans known as Beit el-Sahel or the People’s Palace, the Hamamni Persian Baths built in 1888, and the oldest structure in Stone Town, the Old Fort.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Stone Town
10 Selous Game Reserve
Selous is the largest game reserve in Africa. Established in 1922, it covers 5% of Tanzania‘s total area. The southern area is a forbidden zone that is undeveloped, heavily forested, and contains a series of steep cliffs. Travellers are limited to the area north of the Rufiji River. This area of the Selous Game Reserve has large open grassland, woodlands, rivers, hills and plains. The best time to visit is July through October.
The Rufiji River bisects the Selous Game Reserve and has the largest catchment area of any river in East Africa. The river is an important feature of the reserve providing the opportunity to watch the diverse water-based wildlife. A broad range of game can be found including elephants, hippos and rhinos as well as buffalo, antelope, giraffe, warthog, wildebeest, lion, leopard and cheetah. The diversity of bird life in Selous includes over 350 recorded species.
11 Arusha National Park
Arusha National Park, although smaller than most in Tanzania, has a range of habitats that consist of the forest of Mount Meru, Ngurdoto Crater in the south-east section of the park, and Momela Lakes, a series of seven crater lakes. Black and white Colobus monkeys are easily spotted in the forested area while the marshy floor of the crater is dotted with herds of buffalo, zebra and warthog. Momela Lakes is home to a large selection of resident and migrant waterbirds. People come here to see wildlife and also to climb Mount Meru.
Mount Meru is one of the most beautiful volcanoes in Africa and the second highest mountain in Tanzania. The summit is reached by a narrow ridge, which provides stunning views of the volcanic cone lying several thousand feet below in the crater. The ascent is steep but the route passes through parkland, forest, a giant heather zone and moorland.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Arusha
12 Ruaha National Park
Ruaha National Park is the least accessible park in Tanzania and as a result, the landscape remains relatively untouched. Birdwatchers can enjoy over 400 species of bird that are not found in northern Tanzania, and the river, spectacular gorges, and majestic trees are especially appealing to photographers. As Tanzania‘s second largest park, Ruaha has large herds of buffalo, elephant and gazelle. The concentration of elephants is some of the largest in Tanzania. The Great Ruaha River is the main feature of Ruaha National Park providing magnificent wildlife viewing on the banks. The river also provides much of the electricity to Tanzania through a hydroelectric dam at Kidatu.
13 Katavi National Park
Katavi National Park is located in a remote location offering unspoilt wilderness. A predominant feature in Katavi is the enormous flood plain, split by the Katuma River and several seasonal lakes. The lakes support enormous groups of hippos, crocodiles and over 400 species of birds. One of the spectacles in Katavi is the hippos at the end of the dry season when as many as 200 try to squeeze into a pool of water. The male rivalry heats up causing territorial fights.
The dry season brings Katavi National Park to life, herds of impala, reedbuck, lions, zebras and giraffes can be seen at the remaining pools and streams. An estimated 4,000 elephants and several herds of buffaloes in the thousands also converge on the park when the flood waters retreat.
14 Gombe Stream National Park
Gombe Stream National Park is primarily for those who want to get a little off the beaten track and see chimpanzees. This is the smallest national park in Tanzania and is famous for the work of Jane Goodall. This British researcher arrived in 1960 to study the wild chimpanzees and her work turned into what would become the longest running behavioural research program of its kind in the world. Guided walks take visitors into the forest to observe chimps in the wild. Many species of primates and mammals live in the park. Over 200 bird species have been recorded in the tropical forest, including barbets, starlings, sunbirds, crowned eagle, kingfishers and the palm-nut vulture.
Hiking and swimming are other popular activities; a trail leads into the forest to a waterfall in the valley.
15 Lake Victoria
Lake Victoria is the largest freshwater lake in Africa and is bordered by Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. This lake is the source of the White Nile and provides an income for millions of residents along its shores. The Tanzanian section of Lake Victoria is one of the least visited regions in the country, however, the towns of Bukoba, Musoma and Mwanza have a number of attractions. Near Mwanza and Musoma are many islands, some have become wildlife sanctuaries. Bird watching and fishing trips are popular excursions, and boat trips or hikes can be arranged around Lake Victoria.
Rubondo Island National Park, which includes several other smaller islands, is on the south-west shores of Lake Victoria.