Visitors from around the world arrive in Arusha, Tanzania, and quickly head out on their safaris. With an international airport and a wide range of accommodations, it’s the perfect place for weary travelers to rest for a night before venturing to the Serengeti and other national parks.
However, Arusha is so much more than a launching point for safaris. It’s a bustling city filled with vibrant markets, art galleries, cafés, and restaurants. Drive through the city streets and you’ll see brightly colored bajaj moto-taxis, Maasai men wrapped in plaid shukas, and vendors pushing their wares through the streets in wooden carts.
Before departing for my seven-day safari, I decided to add an extra day in Arusha to explore all that it has to offer. Not only did I find ample souvenir shopping opportunities, but I also had a glimpse of local life in Tanzania.
1. Swahili Art Group Studio And Gallery
Set in a public park, the Swahili Art Group is an outdoor studio and gallery. Founded by Elishy, a young man with both a talent and passion for painting, the group is made up of formerly impoverished young men and women. Through Zoe Empowers, these young people have learned to generate income and care for themselves and their families. They are no longer desperately poor, but instead are thriving. Now they sell their art to well-off tourists looking for a souvenir with special meaning. They also give back to the community through art classes for young children.
I had the chance to visit the studio and watch several artists at work. Elishy explained how they had built themselves a studio out of recycled plastic soda bottles. The studio is stocked with canvases, paint supplies, and long, round packing tubes ready to hold recent purchases.
Paintings of all sizes are displayed along a park path, many depicting the animals that visitors will see on safari. In addition to paintings, the group has also crafted notecards.
Pro Tip: If you can’t make it to Arusha, the Swahili Art Group sells some of their art on Etsy.
2. Cultural Heritage Center
Among the best-known tourist destinations in Arusha is the Cultural Heritage Center, a vast property filled with larger-than-life sculptures that sells handicrafts and fine art.
Most guests are dropped off in front of the building selling Tanzanian-made items, so this was where I began my visit. At the entrance are demonstrations of local music and artwork. Inside, items sold range from small key chains to sculptures, jewelry, baskets, and clothing. At the back is a small shop selling Tanzanite, a blue gemstone found only in the Northern region of the country.
Unlike some of the markets in town where these items might be purchased for less money after negotiating, haggling is not permitted here — everything is sold for the price marked. English-speaking staff is plentiful, making it easy to inquire about the items or request assistance.
Pro Tip: The Cultural Heritage Center is located on a large property and it can take a couple of hours to explore it all. If you get hungry or thirsty — or just need a caffeine boost — there is both a café and a sit-down restaurant on site.
One Of The Largest Art Galleries In Africa
After stocking up on a few souvenirs, I strolled across the grounds of the Cultural Heritage Center to the imposing building that houses fine art. Designed by the owner and inspired by a drum, shield, and spear, this certainly is one of the most unique gallery settings I’ve ever seen.
Spread among several levels is an impressive collection of photography, sculpture, paintings, masks, and textiles from all over Africa. While everything here is for sale, it felt more like a museum since many of the pieces included bios of the artists as well as information on the genre of art.
On the first level, you’ll see the largest piece of ebony art in the world. It depicts an old Maasai (one of Tanzania’s tribes) tradition of a young male warrior killing a lion to prove his manhood so he could subsequently be married. These massive sculptures can take years, and even decades, to complete.
3. Arusha Coffee Lodge
Whether or not you stay at the Arusha Coffee Lodge, you’ll want to pop in for a meal here. As the name suggests, the resort is set amidst a coffee plantation on the edge of town. Their restaurant can be found in an expansive garden with tables set on wooden platforms and protected from the sun by large umbrellas.
Complimenting the lovely setting is delicious food served family style. I ordered their vegetarian lunch, which included a variety of salads and bread. Dessert is included, which on the day I visited, was a refreshing mango passionfruit sorbet.
4. Coffee Plantation Tour
While you’re visiting Arusha Coffee Lodge, take advantage of their coffee plantation tours, especially if you’re a coffee lover like I am.
My one-hour tour began with my guide, Anuary, walking me through the coffee plants and sharing the history of coffee. Then he explained how coffee is planted, cultivated, and harvested. Finally, we returned to the nearby coffee shop where he roasted beans and finally brewed a pot of coffee using a French press. After a lifetime of drinking coffee, it was so much fun to learn all about it.
The tours are not regularly scheduled. Check in with the concierge to request a tour.
Pro Tip: The coffee throughout Tanzania is seriously good and makes a great souvenir for fellow coffee lovers. I brought some home for my parents and they already want to know how to get more.
5. Shanga (An Opportunity To Support Disabled Artisans)
Also on the grounds of the Arusha Coffee Lodge is a social enterprise called Shanga. Men and women with disabilities receive training to make jewelry, glass, and textiles, which are in turn sold in their shops. A free tour is offered to visitors through the weaving, crafting, and glass-blowing studios.
I began in the weaving area where a young woman demonstrated how she makes fabric on a loom. Then I was led to the jewelry area and had the chance to string beads to make myself a colorful bracelet. Next, I watched as two men demonstrated glass blowing. Even the gift bags used in the shop are made here of recycled newspaper.
I was impressed by the Shanga shop, which is bright and beautifully styled. The prices were quite reasonable. I went home with two necklaces, one for me and one for my sister. I wanted to buy much more, but the size of my suitcase is always a limitation.
6. Sidai Designs Jewelry
The presence of the Maasai tribe is felt everywhere in Tanzania. Brightly colored beaded jewelry made by Maasai women is a staple at every market. However, with much of the jewelry looking identical, visitors haggle for the lowest possible price and don’t appreciate the craftsmanship.
Sidai Designs set out to change this narrative by combining the skills of Maasai women with contemporary colors and materials popular with consumers. Instead of multi-colored plastic beads, the Sidai jewelry is made with glass beads in neutral tones. The designs honor traditional patterns marking important life events. Five Maasai women are employed full time and over one hundred are paid by the piece and work as their schedules permit.
The jewelry is attractively displayed in a stylish boutique in Arusha. Portraits of the Maasai women employed in the business hang on the wall along with their life stories. Sales staff are well versed in the shop’s history as well as the jewelry-making process and materials. Purchases are wrapped in handmade cloth bags that are perfect for gift-giving.
Pro Tip: Sidai Designs is not yet on the radar of drivers and tour guides. If you plan to visit, be sure to share the address of the shop with them. Also, if you can’t make it to Arusha, feel free to shop online instead — they ship all over the world.
Tips For Exploring Arusha
To explore the town of Arusha, I hired a driver for several hours. This can be arranged through your safari company or with the help of the front desk at your hotel. My driver, Franklin, waited for me at each stop and I was allowed to stay as long or as little as I liked. In between the different stops, Franklin pointed out some of the other sights in town including government buildings, churches, and markets. He also gave me a bit of Tanzania’s history and a brief rundown of the country’s politics.
Half-day tours of Arusha are also available online through companies like Viator or GetYourGuide. These tours include some, but not all, of the places I’ve mentioned.
Be sure to have plenty of cash while visiting the different shops. The larger places do accept credit cards, but the smaller ones do not. It’s also nice to have cash available for tipping.