Dar Es Salaam’s existence dates back to 1865 when the island of Zanzibar’s Sultan realised the strategic location of the mainland’s natural harbour. He built a town and named it Bandar as-Salam – Harbour of Peace in Arabic – a name which has since been abbreviated to Dar Es Salaam, or ‘House of Peace’.
In the 19th century, Imperial Germany conquered modern-day Tanzania and incorporated it into German East Africa. In 1887 the German East Africa Company arrived in Dar Es Salaam and established the town as their administrative and commercial centre, a presence which would result in continued growth for the following three decades.
During World War One, the British captured German East Africa and renamed it Tanganyika, with Dar Es Salaam the capital. The city maintained this role throughout Tanganyika’s successful 1961 bid for independence, and the subsequent 1964 merger with Zanzibar which formed the new country of Tanzania. However, in 1973 the city lost its capital status to Dodoma, a more centrally-located Tanzanian city.
Whilst Dar Es Salaam is no longer the capital, its thriving port and trading economy has ensured it remains the largest city in Tanzania. Today, the city’s 2.8 million residents welcome more than 1.4 million tourists annually, many of them on their way to Tanzania’s natural wonders such as the wildlife of the Serengeti National Park or the 5,893 metres of Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain.
Despite its beautiful Indian Ocean location, Dar Es Salaam is often rushed through by travellers eager to witness the startling Serengeti migration or trek the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro. Whilst these are worthy reasons to visit Tanzania, it is worth spending a few days in Dar Es Salaam to discover Africa’s ‘Harbour of Peace’.
For an insight into Tanzania’s 18 ethnic groups, pay a visit to Makumbusho Village. Eight kms out of the city on the New Bagamoyo Road, the diverse tribal homesteads of this living museum demonstrate traditional methods of painting, carving and weaving alongside dancing and other tribal customs.
A more conventional museum experience, the National Museum of Tanzania houses archaeological discoveries such as the cast of 3.5 million year old footprints, trapped for eternity in volcanic ash. Other collections include Tanzanian village artefacts and exhibits on the German occupation, while the nearby Botanical Gardens feature concerts and traditional plays within their beautifully landscaped grounds.
Just 20kms north of the city is the Dar Es Salaam Marine Reserve. It consists of four uninhabited islands - Bongoyo, Mbudya, Pangavini and Fungu Yasini – with several important tropical ecosystems; coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds. Popular for snorkelling, scuba diving and hiking, the four islands make for an active day out.
Dar Es Salaam is home to a wide range of restaurants and a vibrant nightlife scene. Unfortunately after dark the city is best avoided by tourists unless they are regular visitors or accompanied by trusted residents.
Dining out in ‘Dar’ offers everything from Tanzanian and African cuisine (found on every corner) to numerous international options. The city has a large South Asian population and exceptional Indian restaurants are scattered everywhere, although Zanaki Street is one of the more popular areas. Zanzibar’s historic influence on Dar has ensured a wealth of Arabian heritage and excellent Middle Eastern food is also prevalent.
Dar Es Salaam’s bars and nightclubs play music from Tanzania to the Congo, dance to hip-hop. Oyster Bay, a predominantly Anglo-German expat district, is a Western nightclub venue, while live music is centred around the Peninsula. For up-to-date information, read the weekly 'What's Happening in Dar' listings magazine.
One hundred kms north of Dar – overlooking the sea towards Zanzibar – is Saadani Game Reserve. Whilst not as famous as the Serengeti, Saadani is the only game reserve in Tanzania which borders the ocean, ensuring its bush, beach and river ecosystem is unique in East Africa. The reserve is home to numerous giraffe, hartebeest, waterbuck, wildebeest, buffalo, hippos and crocodiles, and the elusive lion, leopard and sable antelope. The wildlife is known to visit the beach and it’s not unheard of to see them in the surf. North of the reserve is a Green Turtle breeding beach, while Saadani’s estuary features flamingo-filled salt pans.