Give Dar es Salaam some time and you'll probably fall in love with it. A lively waterfront city that blends African, Indian and Arab influences to create a unique urban culture, Dar has sprawled chaotically in all directions in recent decades, but still has plenty of charm.
With a city centre sprinkled with attractive colonial buildings, streets lined with bougainvillea and a plethora of palm-fringed beaches, Dar has a laid-back feel that makes it hard to believe that the population is now over four million.
Despite being located on a coast with centuries of urban history, Dar es Salaam’s story is relatively short. When the Omani Sultan of nearby Zanzibar started building a new city here in 1865, the existing town was little more than a fishing village. Given a new, grand Arabic name (Dar es Salaam means “haven of peace”), the city later became the capital of the nascent country of Tanganyika (now Tanzania), firstly under the Germans and then for a rather longer period under the British.
Following Tanzanian independence in 1961, the country’s capital eventually moved inland to Dodoma, but Dar es Salaam still remains Tanzania’s largest city, and its most prominent commercial and cultural centre by far.
This history is written clearly in Dar’s diverse population, which still contains a large South Asian community who, after centuries of trade with cities on the same coastline, moved here during the colonial period.
Some Arabic districts also thrive and there is evidence all around of Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs coexisting peacefully. If anything, it’s the British influence that has faded – the city’s landmark churches were built by the Germans and Swahili has largely displaced English as a language of officialdom and education.
The city’s appearance is as eclectic as its population. Dar es Salaam’s city centre, referred to locally as “Town”, may have sprouted many steel and glass towers recently, but it also has many early 20th century art deco buildings. These often bear inscriptions in Arabic and Hindi and have been painted up in pastel colours.
Add to this Dar’s fringe of beaches, with their bars, palm trees and the occasional old sailing boats gliding past, and a lot of its old-world charm still remains among the chaos of what has become a decidedly modern city.
Dar es Salaam’s transition to modernity hasn’t been entirely smooth, however. Traffic is terrible and those with a plane to catch need to add plenty of leeway to schedule for any delays.
Still, spending a few days here is well worth it. While most non-business visitors only tend to stop briefly en route to Mount Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti or Zanzibar, there’s enough on offer to make it worth lingering.
The clean, sandy island beaches at Bagamoyo and Mbudya are superb, while just inland, the Pugu Hills Forest Reserve offer a remarkably pristine tropical forest landscape for a site so close to a major metropolis. Within the city, Dar’s fine varied restaurants and good music scene are also worth exploring in their own right.