Planning Your trip To Tanzania
Despite Tanzania's vast size, the checklist of main attractions is relatively short. If you only have three days or so, you'll probably want to fly into Zanzibar for beach lazing and watersports, with the benefit of cultural exploration in Stone Town. Zanzibar is the preferred add-on to a seven-day (or longer) safari trip. Tanzania's big-ticket draw is its vast wealth of wildlife, where its 32 game reserves comprise almost 40 percent of the country. They are concentrated in three regional zones: the hugely popular "Northern Circuit," and the far less visited "Southern Circuit" and "Western Circuit."
You'll want a minimum of one week for a safari experience. Although each of the game reserves has its distinct draw, you can see pretty much all you'll hope to see in the northern circuit, where the parks are more or less contiguous to one another: Serengeti National Park is unique for its great annual migration of two million wildebeest, zebra, and various species of antelope; Ngorongoro Crater has the largest concentration of permanent game in the world; Tarangire has enormous herds of elephants; Lake Manyara National Park boasts vast flocks of flamingoes. Elsewhere, pristine Nyerere National Park (Selous Game Reserve), in the south, has one of Africa's largest populations of black rhinos; and, in far western Tanzania, mountainous Gombe and Mahale national parks are famed for their chimpanzees.
Two weeks would be a preferred time to combine two or even three regions if you want to maximize your species sightings and experience distinct ecological habitats. If you have more time at your disposal, then you can really do Tanzania justice, taking in almost all the key wildlife viewing experiences. Active travelers keen to trek to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro will need a minimum of one week, depending on which chosen route.
Factor in travel time between regions. In the northern circuit, travel between most game parks can easily be done by safari vehicle, but the western and southern circuit parks are more dispersed. Fortunately, almost every reserve is served by an airstrip, and flying between destinations is considered routine.
Tanzania in 3-4 Days
A perfect weekend getaway begins with your arrival at Zanzibar International Airport before transferring to a resort hotel on the beach-lined eastern shore. Relax after your flight by lazing on the beautiful white sands, with breaks for swimming and snorkeling in the teal-blue Indian Ocean. The next day, explore Zanzibar's historic quarter—Stone Town—a former trading port reflecting its thousand-year history of Africa, Arab, India, and European influence. There are scores of architectural sites to see, teeming markets, and narrow alleys vibrant with local life.
Take more beach time on day three, perhaps adding a scuba diving trip to the coral gardens and/or a sunset dhow cruise. Depart for home on day four.
Tanzania in One Week
With one week, it's best to dedicate seven days to a 4x4 safari experience. Or combine a 3-day beach vacation in Zanzibar with a 4-day safari in either Tarangire National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area or Serengeti National Park (or one of the less-visited game parks of the Southern or Western circuit).
Arrive at Arusha's Kilimanjaro Airport and transfer to Tarangire National Park, boasting the largest elephant population in Africa. In dry season, it’s possible to see herds of up to 300 individuals gathered at water sources. Spend two days here before moving on to Lake Manyara National Park, in the Great Rift Valley, on day 3. This is a good place to spot tree-climbing lions, while the large alkaline lake supports large populations of hippos and flamingos. Continue to Ngorongoro Crater for an overnight on the crater rim. Descend into the crater on Day 4 for a full day of wildlife viewing of 'The Big Five' and myriad other plains animals.
On day 5, continue west the short distance to Olduvai Gorge, made famous by paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, who discovered many early hominin fossils here. After visiting the museum, continue to the southern Serengeti for two days of safari viewing. As in Tarangire and Ngorongoro, you’ll typically spend each day wildlife viewing with an early morning and late afternoon 4x4 safari. Begin Day 6 with a sunrise hot-air balloon safari. The best time here is December-March, when the migratory herds have returned and the wildebeest are calving in the southern Serengeti (read this article for more info on the best time to visit Tanzania.) Return to Arusha on Day 7.
If seeing the migratory herds (and especially their dangerous and dramatic river crossings) is your priority, consider visiting in June/July, when the herds are on the more remote western Serengeti. It would be best to begin your itinerary by flying from Arusha to Grumeti for two full days on safari from your camp, then drive the above itinerary in reverse, returning to Arusha on Day 7. In August/September, when the herds are crossing the Mara River in the far north, fly from Arusha to Kogatende for two full days on safari from your camp, then drive the above itinerary in reverse, returning to Arusha on Day 7.
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.
Tanzania in 10 Days
Option 1: If you have 10 days, combine the 7-day "northern circuit" safari and 3-4 Zanzibar beach vacation above, with a direct flight to Zanzibar immediately after returning to Arusha on Day 7, or on the morning of Day 8.
Option 2: If you’d rather forgo the 3-4 day Zanzibar beach vacation, preferring instead to extend your time in the northern game parks, add two days for cultural experiences that provide an insight into the lifestyle of the local tribespeople. By adding a third night at Ngorongoro, you can thereby arrange to spend a day on a traditional hunt using hand-made bows and arrows with the Hadza tribe of the Eyasi Valley (one of Africa’s few remaining hunter-gatherer peoples, their language incorporates clicking and popping sounds). A fourth night at Ngorongoro, or an extra night in Serengeti National Park, permits a day to engage with the Maasai and learn about the lifestyle of these pastoralists and fierce warriors, plus time perhaps for a nighttime safari.
Option 3: Adventurous travelers who have their sights set on ascending Mt. Kilimanjaro (at 19,341 feet, Africa’s highest mountain) can combine a 5-night/6-day trek with the first four days of the 7-day itinerary above. On day 5, depart Ngorongoro early to return to Arusha to begin your ascent of the mountain via the well-trodden Marangu Route. Day 3 will be an acclimatization day. You’ll attain the snow-clad summit on day 5 of your hike and return to Arusha the next afternoon.
Tanzania in 2 Weeks
Using your choice of the three 10-day options above as a base, with four extra days to play with you have time to add a visit to either of Tanzania’s two western game parks acclaimed for the ease with which you can see chimpanzees in the wild. They're very different from any other game park in Tanzania.
The first is Gombe National Park, situated on the wild, hilly eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, near the border with Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The smallest of Tanzania’s national parks, it’s world-renowned as the site where resident primatologist Jane Goodall spent many years studying the behavior of this area’s endangered chimpanzees. The park’s 100 or so chimpanzees are habituated to human visitors. The July-October and January-March dry seasons offer the best photography, although chimpanzees are more nomadic and harder to find at these times of the year. They’re more sedentary in the wet seasons (April-May and November-December). Other primates you may encounter here include blue monkeys, olive baboons, red colobus, red-tailed monkeys, and vervet monkeys.
The alternate location is Mahale Mountains National Park, also on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika but south of Gombe. Much larger than Gombe, it has a much wider range of elevation and habitats and harbors Tanzania’s densest population of primates. About 1,000 chimpanzees inhabit its forests. It is more easily visited.
Having completed your 10-day itinerary, on day 11 fly from Arusha to either Kigoma (for Gombe National Park) or to Mahale (for Mahale Mountain National Park). In either case, you’ll be transferred by boat to your safari lodge for three nights, with your days given to chimp treks in the forest. On day 14 fly back to Arusha or Dar es Salaam.
Tanzania in 3-4 Weeks
With a third week, you can really explore Tanzania’s game parks in-depth, adding two “Southern Circuit” game parks plus another gem in the “Western Circuit” to the 2-week itinerary above.
We recommend beginning with your selection of one of the 10-day itineraries above. Then on Day 11, fly to Nyerere National Park (formerly Selous Game Reserve) for three days in Africa's largest stand-alone National Park. Much of its varied terrain resembles Botswana’s Okavango Delta following the seasonal rains. Here your activities should include boat safaris on the Rufiji River and seasonally flooded lakes, with their large populations of crocodiles and hippos. Buffalo, elephant, and lion are also present in great numbers, and the park is considered the last true stronghold for African wild dogs.
On Day 13, fly to Ruaha National Park, one of Tanzania’s best-kept safari secrets. Except for rhinos, it has all the wildlife of the popular “northern circuit” bucket-list destinations, including large prides of lions—often with 20 or more individuals—and more than 570 bird species. With two full days here, you have time for a walking safari, hot air balloon safari, and early morning and late afternoon 4x4 safaris.
On day 15, fly to Katavi National Park, a pristine wilderness that’s home to the largest herds of buffalo in Africa. Its marshy, seasonally-flooded plains lend it a resemblance to the Okavango Delta, and teem with hippos and crocodiles, plus some 4,000 elephants. After two days here, transfer to Mahale, from where a short dhow cruise on Lake Tanganyika delivers you to your camp on the lakeshores of Mahale Mountain National Park for three nights, with your days given to chimp treks in the forest. (Alternately, make Gombe National Park your last visit; see the 2-week itinerary above) To end, fly back to Arusha or Dar es Salaam.
If you're lucky enough to have a fourth week in Tanzania, we recommend adding a gorilla trek in either Rwanda or Uganda.
More Great Tanzania Itineraries
Looking for more inspiration for your trip to Tanzania? Check out these other Tanzania itineraries, with trekking trips, cultural adventures, and best-of trips to hit the highlights.