DAR ES SALAAM — Tanzania has a lot to offer: safaris, mountains, tropical islands. But hardly anyone knows about Dar es Salaam. The country’s largest city offers not only culture but also beautiful beaches.

In the early evening, before the tropical night sinks into the Indian Ocean’s deep blackness, the beach at the Oyster Bay fills up. Tanzanians arrive with their plastic chairs to chat, enjoy the colors of the waves at sunset and taste the specialties of different peddlers.

“You have to try the cassava. It tastes very good,” says Santay Uka, who works as a Dar es Salaam city guide. The potato-like tuber, which is also known as manioc, is cooked on an open fire and served with coleslaw and a spicy tomato-chili sauce. 

Amid all the white sand, blue sea and relaxed atmosphere, it is hard to believe that the center of this dynamic business city is just six kilometers away.

Unofficial capital 

Dar es Salaam counts about three million inhabitants and is by far Tanzania’s largest city, but inland, Dodoma has been the official capital since 1974. Nevertheless, the government, diplomatic missions and international organizations are still based in “Dar,” as the city is called colloquially. 

The literal translation of Dar es Salaam is “House of Peace.” And that it is, with the exception of its bustling center. As in most African cities, armies of cars struggle to make their way through the streets.

But Dar is often ignored or downplayed in tourism guides and among Tanzania experts, who tend to attract customers with safaris in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Area or by offering ascents of Kilimanjaro or holidays in Zanzibar (a semi-autonomous region in Tanzania).

Most people pass by Dar because the ferries sail from there. But those who decide to stay for two or three nights will be amply rewarded and will have the chance to discover the true Tanzania.

History exhibition and more

The sightseeing tour should start with a stop at the National Museum, a temple of culture that first opened in 1940. It displays not only interesting historical exhibits that explain the history of the country, but also scientific discoveries. 

Among these are the bones found by Louis and Mary Leakey in 1959 at the famous Olduvai Gorge site of the Nutcracker man — “Australopithecus boisei” — who lived 1.7 million years ago in East Africa.

Above all for German tourists, it is interesting to see the exhibits and photo expositions related to colonial history. After all, Tanzania (Tanganyika) was, together with Burundi and Rwanda, part of the so-called German East Africa from 1885 to 1918.

A natural harbor-like fishing village

“The city center of Dar es Salaam is still mostly shaped the way the city was once planned by the Germans,” says German designer Annika Seifert, who has lived and worked here for several years.

The Sultan of Zanzibar had originally created Dar as a fishing village because of its fantastic natural harbor, but only the Germans recognized the strategically advantageous location and transformed the place into a typical three-part colonial city.

First, there is the old German residential and administrative district with long avenues, large properties and historical buildings that have been preserved. Then, almost as a buffer zone, there is a dense labyrinth of narrow streets, which is where the Indian community lives. They were once accepted by the Germans as “foreigners.”

At the end, a wide green belt expands into a kind of park, and then there is the African residential area, today called Kariakoo, Seifert says. 

Buildings from colonial times

Among the interesting and well-preserved buildings from the colonial period are the imperial government buildings in front of the Kivukoni area. The Catholic St. Joseph’s Cathedral built between 1897 and 1902 and the Lutheran Evangelical Church of Azania are also worth seeing. The altar still bears the German inscription: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you.”

After so much culture, it’s also nice to get an idea of daily life in Dar with a visit to the fish market in Kivukoni’s Ocean Road.

The smell is strong, and on the floor is a mix of water, blood and chopped fins. A few meters further a cloud of smoke rises. Over an open fire, tiny fish — heads included — are fried in iron pots and eaten immediately. 

The beach in Dar el Salaam Photo: David Berkowitz via Flickr

The beach at Dar el Salaam Photo: David Berkowitz via Flickr

Here, far from the luxury resorts, is where the real Tanzania can be discovered. Nevertheless, the impressive Indian Ocean is omnipresent, determining the rhythm of people’s lives.  

Almost deserted beaches

Once past the tropical plantations, palm trees and small houses, Sunrise and South beaches appear, no less beautiful than the ones in Zanzibar. The sand is white and almost deserted as a Maasai sells traditional jewelry made of pearls, with the waves lapping gently onto the shore.

“The further you go, the more beautiful and empty the beaches are,” says the city guide Santay. 

Suddenly, a sign appears on the roadside: “Caution! Falling Coconuts!” Not many cities in the world have such exotic problems. 

At sunset the hungry and thirsty get ready to move to northern Dar, in the direction of Oyster Bay and Coco Beach. Here, on the classy Msasani Peninsula, is where many expatriates live. A breathtaking 180-degree view of the sea opens up at the Karambezi Café, where fresh seafood and tuna steaks are served.

As the African sun sinks into the sea, the waiter serves an ice-cold Karambezi Sunset: Campari mixed with lemon and cranberry juice. A good day is slowly coming to an end, a day in an underestimated, beautiful city.