10 Helpful Things To Know About Tanzania Before Visiting

Table of Contents

Introduction

Tanzania is one of the most beautiful and diverse countries in the world. In recent years, its tourism scene seems to have blown up. Whether it’s for the wild and expansive Serengeti, the diversely concentrated nature of Ngorongoro Crater, or the tranquil paradise of Zanzibar, tourists are finding endless reasons to visit. So here are the most important things to know about Tanzania before you visit.

For first time visitors, Tanzania can bring a culture shock. Tanzanian culture differs wildly from that of most tourists who visit, and that is part of the fun! Here are some things you really need to know, and some things that might surprise you.

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A sandy beach in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, fringed with palm trees and bordered with a brick wall
The beach in Dar Es Salaam

Things to know about Tanzania

1. Some of the best things to do in Tanzania are outside of the touristy areas

I know, I said I was going to come to this another day, but it’s worth stating again! Tanzania really has some amazing hidden gems that no tourists seem to see, because they visit on group tours or stick to the main tourist areas. Of course, Zanzibar and the safaris are amazing – that’s why they’re popular! But if you are brave enough to stray off the beaten track or visit independently, your reward will be some truly fantastic and unique finds, such as:

  • The mountains – Tanzania has so many! Choose from Kilimanjaro (the most popular but also the most expensive), Mount Meru (my favourite), Ol Doinyo Lengai and many others besides. Hiking each of these mountains is a unique and beautiful experience.
  • The diving and snorkelling – Zanzibar is of course one place to find incredible marine life, but you can also find it in other places. On the elusive Mafia island for example, whale sharks are one of the island’s biggest appeals!
  • Bioluminescence and beaches – the Swahili Coast is one of the best places for bioluminescent algae! Find it in Pangani, Tanga and many other places along Tanzania’s East Coast.
  • Ancient ruins – a really left-field suggestion, but Tanzania has plenty! Perhaps the most famous of these are in Kilwa down South, but there are also ruins in Tanga and near Singida
  • Lakes – Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika and lots of others to choose from! All beautiful, especially at sunset.
  • Chimpanzees – though you won’t currently find gorillas in Tanzania, did you know they have chimps?! Read all about our amazing experience in Gombe Stream National Park here.

I really did have to stop myself there as there is so much more, and I could have kept going for pages! However, if you want more, you can read our guide on the best things to do in Tanzania, which will be available here from this Saturday.

Ol Donyo Lengai mountain, behind the beautiful waters of Lake Natron
Ol Donyo Lengai Mountain

2. It’s actually really easy to get around now by public transport

Though Tanzania is huge (and we mean really, really huge), they have a great public transport network. When I first visited as an 18 year old, let’s just say it was pretty shocking. I had many a ‘typical African bus experience’ (so my Kenyan friend once called it). If you’re wondering what that is: delays of 4+ hours, buses breaking down overnight, goats getting on board the bus with us… you get the picture.

Nowadays, the experience is honestly really different! When we went back as a couple earlier this year, we were shocked at the difference between Tanzania and it’s tardy neighbour, Malawi. Where in Malawi it wasn’t uncommon for us to wait 4 hours for a bus to depart, every bus we took in Tanzania ran to time! Additionally, the buses were really comfortable (comparatively) and still great value. We actually found we were looking forward to our public transport experiences in Tanzania vs other countries.

So how do you get around? Well you can choose…

An adult chimpanzee in Gombe Stream National park carrying a baby
Chimps in Gombe Stream National Park

Big buses

Like most of Africa, Tanzania has large, coach-style buses services all major depots. It’s sensible to prebook these, you usually get a seat (stress on the word ‘usually’) and they’re comfy enough. You can book these buses at any large bus station, but not usually online (yet). There are exceptions, like buses to Kenya, most of which now have websites. These are a great way to get between large towns and take long journeys in Tanzania.

Dala dalas

Every African country we have visited so far (around 25 now) has their own version of a dala dala. Sometimes known as chapas (Mozambique), matolas (Malawi) or matatu (Kenya), dala dala are essentially Toyota Hiace vans with between 12-16 seats. Some countries also call them simply a ‘taxi bus’ in English.

If you’re new to African transport, you might considering giving this one a miss, but it is a very fun experience! Most have a driver and a conductor, whose job it is to get as many people as physically possible into this bus, wherever they need to go. Your bags will be stuffed wherever there is space if they can’t be put on the roof rack. It might be a little squashed but it’s certainly a very authentic way to experience Tanzania. Most people use dala dalas for short journeys (not often longer than an hour or so).

Bajajis

A bajaji is a tuktuk! In recent years, they’ve sprung up all over Tanzania. When I first lived out there, they didn’t exist, but now they’re incredibly popular with locals and tourists alike. People use them for zipping around cities, and they’re great because they can get down roads cars can’t. They’re definitely a safer alternative to…

Piki pikis

Though less popular nowadays with the arrival of bajajis, a piki piki is a motorbike taxi. It’s as it sounds – there’s a driver and you get on the back of their bike. They’re still popular around much of East Africa but I guess Tanzania (and Kenya) thought the bajajis were a safer mode of transport (and they were absolutely right).

Besides local transports, there are also many taxis.

As with most of Africa, delays are common, and you should expect journeys to take longer than planned.

A sunset over lake Tanganyika. There are palm trees in the foreground in shadow
Sunset from one of the beautiful Airbnbs we stayed in in Kigoma

3. It’s expensive in tourist areas and very cheap otherwise

We’ve noticed that people who travel to Africa (in general) and especially to Tanzania are often very surprised by ‘how expensive’ it is. As someone who backpacked around Africa for 6 months, I have drawn this conclusion: most of Africa is not expensive, but sometimes as a tourist, you need to spend money there. This is honestly just a fact of life when travelling in Africa. Most of it is much safer and easier than many Western tourists believe, but some of it just is not. Even if it is safe, sometimes it’s not easy, and it’s necessary to spend money to do something quickly.

Tanzania is much like this. The areas of Tanzania that tourists tend to visit are expensive. Why? Because most safari parks (sadly) are owned by foreign, wealthy Westerners, who understand the premium they can charge for beautiful accommodation in a very unique area of the world. This is also the case for a lot of the resorts in Zanzibar.

In this case, in order to invest money back into the local economy, it is often necessary to travel ‘like a local’. There are many locally-owned hostels, restaurants and bars in Tanzania, but they might be a little different from the style of the internationally-owned hotels and safari lodges. Local accommodation and eateries tend to be much more basic, but no less hospitable and delicious. Plus, they are a fraction of the price. To give an idea…

Food

In a local restaurant or bar, you can expect to pay between 1000-4000 TSZ (Tanzanian Shillings – around 50p-£1) for a main meal (4000 only if it contains meat), and 700-1000 TSZ (25-50p) for a fizzy drink or water. In a duka (local shop), drinks will cost you between 250-500 TSZ (10-25p) and street food between 500-1000 TSZ (25-50p) depending what you get.

Tourist-centric establishments will typically charge around $15-25+ for a meal with drinks. It is, sadly, rare that much of that money goes back to the local economy.

Accommodation

In a true Tanzanian local motel, a room should cost between 15-20,000 TSZ (£5-7.50) per night. That’s for a standard basic room, with fan and ensuite bathroom (usually a sit down toilet, not a squat toilet). You can find these on the side of the road in most towns, often by bus stations. A slightly more upmarket local hotel may cost you more but it’s a reasonably standard price.

Tourist-centric accommodations of course vary wildly, but for most safari lodges and Zanzibari resorts, you’d be looking at £150-350 per night. It can go up from there, though you might be lucky to get something cheaper.

I will say that there is a noticeable difference in quality between tourist and local accommodation, but it depends how fussy you are.

For everything else (taxis, transport, tours etc), it’s advisable to haggle to avoid paying ‘tourist prices’.

A beautiful blue lagoon fringed with trees
Maji Moto, a beautiful hot spring near Arusha

Of course, this varies from place to place, but as a tourist, it’s not advisable to wander around cities at night. Though most cities (Arusha, Singida, Dar Es Salaam) are perfectly fine during the day, night is a different story. This is not really unique to Tanzania, but we include it because it’s something about which our Tanzanian friends have always been quite insistent with us. While they’re perfectly happy for us to walk around, for example, Arusha, they’ve always cautioned us not to be out after sunset.

In terms of general safety in Tanzania, I wouldn’t consider it to be a dangerous country overall. When in densely populated areas (as with most of the world), you should watch your belongings. Again, this is not exclusive to Tanzania and is just to protect you against pickpockets. Likewise, as a tourist, it’s not wise to wear flashy jewellery or show off expensive tech, but again, this is very normal. Personally, I have rarely experienced issues in Tanzania as a tourist.

People are exceptionally friendly and very welcoming of tourists, so I often find that people want to stop and chat with me. This can be frustrating if I have somewhere to be, but it isn’t dangerous, even as a solo female traveller. It’s a little annoying if they’re also trying to sell me something!

A market vendor in Tanzania selling many different kinds of street food, including lots of meat on skewers
Night markets in Zanzibar

5. The food is delicious

Tanzanian culture is all about hospitality, and you will probably find that everybody wants to feed you… all the time. This is extremely endearing, and as a bonus, the food is so tasty. Swahili food is one that is seriously underrated in my eyes. Here are some things you must try:

  • Maindi – street food. You will see this everywhere, but it’s basically barbecued corn, and it’s to die for!
  • Mishkaki – more barbecue but this time a local meat, usually goat.
  • Chapati and chai – a morning staple with locals. You will notice chai and chapati in every restaurant for breakfast and it’s not to be missed. Tanzanian chai is generally served very sugary and milky.
  • Wali maharage – beans and rice. Every African country has their own version and all worth trying! Note: wali means rice and you can order it with anything (like kuku – chicken, samaki – fish, n’gombe – beef).
  • Njegere – a kind of green pea and lentil curry. It’s so good and also often (perhaps a bit weirdly!) served with chai and chapati in the mornings. That being said, you can get it at lunchtime too!
  • Vitumbua, half keki and maandazi – these are all different types of doughnuts and they are so worth a try! My favourite are vitumbua, not least because they are naturally vegan.

I recommend trying as much Tanzanian food as you can, especially if you visit Zanzibar, as it is extremely diverse and a huge part of Tanzanian culture. By the way, Tanzania is a surprisingly easy country to visit as a vegan! Check our full guide here.

Emma, a white woman is sitting smiling at the camera, next to Mereso, a Tanzanian Maasai. Emma is wearing a blue stripey top and holding Maasai jewellery which Mereso has made for her. Mereso is wearing a shawl (shuka) and smiling. She is wearing a lot of Maasai jewellery herself.
Gifts from one of our friends, Mereso

6. Not everybody in Tanzania speaks English

A misconception I hear often about Tanzania is that ‘everybody speaks English’. Though this is pretty much the case in neighbouring Kenya, this is far from true in Tanzania. There are plenty of local shop keepers and restaurant owners (especially the older generation) who only speak Swahili*.

*Note: if you are worried about this, in the main tourist areas, you will not struggle with just English.

Some interesting linguistic history, Swahili is not the first language of most Tanzanians. Actually, there are around 120 tribes in Tanzania, most of which have their own language. The largest tribe and best known is, of course, the Maasai, and there are around 450,000 in Tanzania. The language of Maasai is completely separate from Swahili and you will even find some older Maasai who cannot speak much Swahili at all, despite its prevalence throughout the country.

Nowadays, Swahili is the lingua franca that binds the different ethnic groups of the country together. As a tourist, it’s absolutely advisable to learn a few basic phrases before you go. In this case, the more you can learn the better, but honestly, a little goes a long way! I have a good grounding in basic Swahili, and it makes travelling in Tanzania so much easier when we go, but even when Murray uses very simple phrases, such as greetings and sporadic vocabulary, you can tell how much people appreciate it.

Basic phrases to learn in Swahili

Greetings

In Swahili, ‘hello’ can take a while. There are various greetings depending on the time of day, your relationship to someone, their age or social standing etc. and there are normally about 4 or 5 greetings (or more) to go through every time you see someone. However, the below three greetings will get you through most social situations:

Mambo – use this for people your age or younger than you, or for friends. This is an informal greeting, the equivalent of which in English might be something like ‘what’s up?’. The response is ‘poa‘ (poh-ah), which means ‘fine’ or ‘cool’

Habari (hah-bar-ee) – this is a little more formal and literally means ‘what’s the news?’. You can pretty much use it with anyone you meet. The response is ‘nzuri‘ (un-zoo-ree), which means ‘good’.

Shikamoo (shee-kah-moh) – this is a formal greeting, used for people older than you, or very well-respected. I don’t know the actual translation of the word, beyond demonstrating a lot of respect, but the response is ‘marahaba‘, an word of Arabic origin, which means ‘you are welcome’. If anybody does know how to translate shikamoo, please do leave a comment below, I’d love to know it!

Manners

Though politeness isn’t as necessary in Swahili as English speech, there are three phrases you really need to know:

Asante/asante sana (ah-sant-ay sah-nah) – this means thank you. For more than one person, use ‘asanteni‘ (ah-sant-ay-nee).

Karibu (kah-ree-boo). A vital Swahili phrase, which sort of means ‘you are welcome’, but it runs much deeper than this. It’s often used by hosts, hotel staff or restaurant owners to invite you inside and is an integral part of Swahili hospitality. People will often use it too to invite you to eat food. The plural is ‘karibuni‘ (kah-ree-boo-nee).

Pole (poh-lay). This is actually a really difficult word to translate. It literally means ‘sorry’ but you wouldn’t really use it to excuse yourself. Most Tanzanians use it as an expression of sympathy and it’s very common. You can expect to hear pole for something as simple as sneezing. You can also expect to hear it if you look especially tired (from travelling maybe) or unwell. It’s definitely not the best ego boost!

One phrase you should absolutely never use in Swahili: hakuna matata. Locals know that all tourists know this phrase, and they often use it to try and make you laugh. Local people actually use some completely different phrases to say ‘no worries’ so using it will instantly identify you as a tourist. In other words, prepare to pay tourist prices!

A city view over Arusha with mountains in the background
Views over Arusha

7. You can get a Tanzanian e-visa online

Of course, passport privilege does apply here and some countries are not as lucky. As always, please be sure to check the requirements for your passport specifically. Nevertheless, around 160 countries can now apply for an online visa or do not need a visa at all for Tanzania. This is a really high number! You can find the list of countries which cannot apply for the online visa here, and it is a small list.

The online visa process is a little confusing, as there are a few different types. Strangely enough, the ‘multiple entry’ visa seems only to apply to American/US passport holders and most other nationalities are free to come and go multiple times on the ‘ordinary visa’. We checked this multiple times on British passports and also put it to the test by leaving and re-entering several times. It worked!

Typically, visitors are granted 30 days entry, though, from experience, this is relatively easy to extend to 90 days. You need to visit a consulate in person (but they have them in most towns). The only time we had an issue was trying to re-enter a second time because our stamp was very faint. We were eventually let in and were told it should have been visible electronically anyway that we had an extension. It seems the person who helped us forgot to update it online! Frustrating but surmountable with some persuasion.

A view from a plane window. There are fluffy clouds.
Flying over Tanzania

8. It’s not that easy to fly to

OK, so Tanzania does have quite a few international airports, but the connections are pretty pitiful. The closest airport to most of the Tanzanian safari parks is Arusha, but there are few planes that go there. You’d have an easier time getting to Kilimanjaro, where you can fly with KLM (from Amsterdam), Qatar (from Doha), Ethiopian (from Addis Ababa), Kenyan (from Nairobi) and Swiss Air (from Zurich). These are the main international airports servicing Kili, but you can also get there via Dar Es Salaam (Tanzania’s administrative capital).

Zanzibar has a similar range of international connections, as does Dar Es Salaam. Of course, more than any of these, Nairobi has great options, and it’s only around 4 hours from the Tanzanian border. If you need to get anywhere else (such as Singida, Mbeya, Kigoma, Dodoma – the capital! etc.), you won’t find it as easy. Like we said, the public transport system in Tanzania is good, but the country is huge! It’s normally best to allow plenty of time to get to where you need to be so that you can travel overland, rather than needing to take lots of internal flights.

The Cathedral in Zanzibar

9. You should dress appropriately for the religion

Tanzania is predominantly a Christian country, but there is a very high percentage of Muslim inhabitants, particularly in the South and Zanzibar. The country sees a lot of tourists and the locals understand a lot of tourist cultures. That aside, it’s really important to respect the local culture too and many locals are not comfortable seeing tourists wearing little-to-no clothing in their country.

This is especially problematic in Zanzibar, and there have even been cases of locals there putting up signs asking tourists to dress more respectfully. Of course, Zanzibar has many beaches and it’s a fine line to be drawn. The thing is that, particularly in Stone Town and local villages surrounding the resorts, there are many local people living there. If you are visiting, be sure to cover up when off the beach. Wear clothes that cover your shoulders, knees, chest and midriff, and definitely no bathing costumes in populated areas.

On the mainland, it’s less common. Additionally, there are fewer Muslims, so it’s less of a problem, however it’s worth remembering that a lot of people, even Christians, in Tanzania are quite religious, so they still don’t really like seeing people wearing very revealing clothes, such as low cut tops or very short skirts/hot pants. Besides anything, you’re likely to get a lot of unwanted attention wearing these clothes, so stay covered up.

Giraffes near the Serengeti

10. Punctuality is not a thing in Tanzania

Anyone who has visited Africa, particularly East Africa, knows that African punctuality in general is a bit woolly. Tanzania is no exception. We had many an occasion where we’d arrange to meet up with someone at 6, only for them to turn up at 6:55, and claim it was completely fine because it was ‘within the hour of 6’… so upsetting by British time-keeping standards.

It helped us to understand that Tanzanians actually do tell time very differently from us. In Swahili, there are actually 12 morning hours, and 12 evening hours. The ‘first hour’ of the morning (saa moja) begins at 7am, and the first hour of the evening (confusingly, also called saa moja) is at 7pm. Time seems to run in hours, rather than in minutes, and as long as something happens within an hour or so of when it was scheduled, there’s no real cause for concern.

It’s difficult to acclimatise to this when it comes to things like public transport. For example, locals usually turn up around 10-20 minutes after the time a bus was scheduled to leave. What makes this more confusing is they will tell you to arrive 30 minutes before. This effectively means that many travel days are spent in bewilderment. All we’ll say is: it get easier with practice! The Tanzanian motto, pole pole (poh-lay poh-lay) or ‘slowly slowly’ is ever-relevant.

Other things you need to know

Tanzanian currency

Shillings (Shillingi). At the time of writing, 1000 TSZ is worth around 40 cents (USD) or 50p (GBP). You can use foreign cards to withdraw from ATMs, but pre-warn your bank. The only foreign currency we know you can definitely exchange in Tanzania is USD, though some banks may accept Euro.

Weather and best time to visit Tanzania

Like most places, Tanzania has something to offer all year round. The main rainy season is between March and May and it is a bit miserable. The rain comes in short downpours but it can be torrential. There is also a second rainy season between November and January but the rains are much lighter. November is also a good time to visit because you may catch the wildebeest migration in the safari parks. The dry season is May-October and this is also a nice time to go. Honestly, there isn’t any month which I’d say definitely avoid, except March-May if you really hate rain!

Malaria and vaccinations

Tanzania is a malaria zone, so you do need to take anti-malarials with you. Most hotels will provide mosquito nets as well for an extra layer of safety. If you take insect repellent, as responsible travellers, we beg you to take a natural repellent (non-deet based). Deet is terrible for the local ecosystems, and most traditional sprays contain very harmful chemicals. We use Incognito and we love it – it genuinely works better than traditional sprays. You also may need some vaccinations, such as yellow fever. You can check which vaccinations you need here.

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    Written by Emma

    Emma

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