Tanzania is by far one of the most popular destinations for an African safari. The diverse landscape, wide variety of wildlife, multitudes of luxury lodges and camps, and rich culture have all contributed to it being a beloved region for all types of travellers, from first-timers to seasoned safari-goers.
Although multi-country safari adventures in Africa are the preferred way to travel, visitors could easily spend their Tanzania safari trips enjoying the incredibly vast wilderness areas. With a total land area of 947,300 km² (365,754 mi²) and a coastline that stretches up to 1,424 km (884.8 mi), a comprehensive Tanzania safari that covers all of the country’s top national parks and cities could easily take up to four weeks to complete.
Since few people in the world have both the time and money to fund a journey that long, most people opt to either enjoy a safari experience in the northern circuit or southern circuit of Tanzania. Here, we look at the differences between the two routes so you can find out which one suits you best – be warned, you’re likely to walk away from this wanting to do both!
What Are the Northern and Southern Circuits in Tanzania?
If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear that Tanzania was designed with safari in mind. And with so much to see and do around the country, it’s nearly impossible to explore every inch of it unless you have an unlimited budget and time.
This is why Tanzania is generally divided into two safari routes – the northern circuit and southern circuit. These two circuits refer to the geographical coverage of the country’s national parks. Whichever circuit you choose to explore, you’re sure to enjoy authentic safari experiences, exceptional wildlife encounters and incredible views of the natural landscapes.
What Is the Difference Between the Northern and Southern Safari Circuits in Tanzania?
There are no major differences between Tanzania’s northern and southern circuit safaris – both routes offer incredible game views, picturesque scenery, luxury accommodation and unforgettable experiences.
The biggest divide between the two is that one route is more easily accessible than the other. This is because national parks on the southern circuit are situated in extremely remote areas of the country. This means that you’ll need to travel by light aircraft to get from place to place as the parks are not accessible by road. The northern circuit, on the other hand, provides easy access to national parks. Not to mention, that the wildlife parks are located closer to each other, which saves time and cuts out long journeys.
Since the southern circuit is so remote, it requires fly-in safaris, meaning that travelling on this route will cost more. Fewer flights to this region and longer distances to cover between parks push up the price. The northern circuit is easier to access and there are more flights to this part of the country, making it the cheaper option of the two.
Between the two routes, the northern circuit is much more popular as it is cheaper and has well-known drawcards. The high popularity of the circuit means that you’re sure to see many other travellers vying to enjoy the same attractions and experiences as you. When on the southern circuit, you won’t have this problem – in fact, you might feel like you’re the only one there at times.
Tanzania’s northern national parks have higher concentrations of game, and the animals in these regions are used to seeing safari vehicles daily so they are not scared off easily. Wildlife is more spread out in the south and are harder to spot on game drives. And because the region sees little visitors, the animals are skittish and will run off when vehicles show up. However, both circuits offer incredible game viewing opportunities for all your favourite African wildlife, from the Big 5 (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino) to big cats.
What Destinations Are on the Northern Circuit in Tanzania?
Tanzania’s northern safari circuit is the more popular of the two routes as it includes some of the country’s world-famous attractions:
Arusha National Park
The idyllic rolling green farmlands and temperate climate of Arusha is the gateway to Tanzania’s northern safari circuit. There’s a good chance that you’ll spend a night or two in one of the luxury accommodations situated on a scenic coffee plantation before heading deeper into the country. While here, you’ll want to take the opportunity to explore Arusha National Park, an underrated park in Tanzania that is home to a wide range of wildlife, from hippos to elephants to leopards - thanks to its diverse landscape.
Serengeti National Park
An undisputed giant in the safari industry, the Serengeti National Park is one of the highlights on the northern Tanzania route. It’s no secret that the Serengeti is one of the biggest reasons why people visit Tanzania for safari. From the annual Great Wildebeest Migration and incredible year-round game viewing to breath-taking hot-air balloon rides over the plains and cultural interactions with the Maasai, the romance and magic of the Serengeti is unmatched.
Ngorongoro Conservation Area
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is home to the world’s largest intact volcanic caldera, Ngorongoro Crater. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is not only one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa but is also offers some of the best safari experiences in Africa. The floor of the ancient volcanic caldera is home to 30,000 animals, including the sought-after Big 5. And when not on all-day game drives, there are plenty of other exciting activities to tickle your fancy. This includes walking the crater rim, hikes on paths through the wilderness, picturesque views of the lush greenery, cultural visits and mountain biking, to name a few.
Mount Kilimanjaro & Mount Meru
Two highlights on your northern Tanzania safari are sure to be seeing Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru. The snow-capped peak of Kilimanjaro is known the world over for being Africa’s highest mountain – it’s also one of the most popular treks. Travellers flock from all corners of the globe to summit Mount Kilimanjaro (a trek that ranges from 5 to 8 days). And if the thought of scaling Kilimanjaro is a bit too daunting, you can start off with Mount Meru. Fortunately, both summits offer the most beautiful views.
Tarangire National Park
Often eclipsed by its better-known counterparts, the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, not many safari-goers know that Tarangire National Park offers one of the most rewarding safaris in the country. This works to your advantage though as there are no crowds – meaning that you’ll get prime seats to some of the best game viewing. Keep an eye out for Tarangire’s most famous residents: the large elephant herds and tree-climbing lions.
Lake Manyara National Park
Lake Manyara National Park rounds off the string of destinations on Tanzania’s northern safari circuit. Lying at the foot of the Great Rift Vally escarpment, this park encompasses a diverse range of habitats, such as forest, wetland, floodplain and acacia woodland. Add to that its namesake, the massive Lake Manyara, and you have a wonderland for impressive populations of wildlife. You’ll find many of Africa’s most popular animals roaming the park, but Lake Manyara is especially great for the avid birder – large flocks of flamingos and many birds of prey are regularly spotted.
Rubondo Island is a hidden gem along the northern circuit in Tanzania. Located in southwest Lake Victoria, Rubondo Island is Africa’s largest island national park, offering an exclusive private oasis experience in a sanctuary relatively untouched by tourism. And with only one accommodation in the entire region, Rubondo Island Camp, you’re all but guaranteed complete seclusion and privacy in an unspoilt, wildlife-rich paradise. To top off your visit, Rubondo Island’s tropical rainforests are one of the best destinations for chimpanzee trekking. Guided by a professional ranger, you’ll hike through lush vegetation in search of these fascinating primates.
What Destinations Are on the Southern Circuit in Tanzania?
Southern Tanzania safaris are a little less popular than the northern route, but it has just as many thrilling experiences. You can expect to visit:
Dar es Salaam
Tanzania’s largest city and logistics hub is the doorway to both the southern circuit and the idyllic beaches of Zanzibar. Like Arusha on the northern route, you’ll most likely overnight in this historic town at the start or end of your safari trip. Dar es Salaam is a vibrant city with bustling streets, but all the attractions that pull in the travellers lie outside the confines of the urban area.
Nyerere National Park
Previously known as Selous Game Reserve, Nyerere National Park is Africa’s largest national park and a real highlight on the southern circuit. The lifeblood of this remote, raw and wildlife-rich region is the great Rufiji River – a reliable water source that attracts a wide variety of animals. From the Big 5 to the largest populations of endangered wild dogs, Nyerere offers some of the best game viewing on the continent in an off-the-beaten-path destination.
Ruaha National Park
Being one of Tanzania’s best-kept secrets, Ruaha National Park only sees about 1% of visitors to the country. Yet this region promises unhurried, uncrowded game viewing in a remote, unspoilt landscape. In addition to seeing the largest elephant herds in East Africa and all the big cats, you’ll be privy to luxury experiences and excellent hospitality at riverside lodges and tented camps.
Mahale Mountains National Park
Known for its lush forests, lakeside beaches and chimpanzee treks, Mahale Mountains National Park is a magical hidden gem on Tanzania’s southern circuit. The park was born out of a need to protect the thousands of chimps that call the region home. Today, it’s one of Africa’s premier destinations to spend time with primates in their natural habitat. And with Lake Tanganyika (the second-largest lake in the world) as its neighbour, you can also expect the most incredible sunset views as the last bits of light disappear on the water’s surface.
Katavi National Park
Remote and secluded, Katavi National Park is brimming with some of Tanzania’s luxury safari lodges and camps, picturesque landscapes and incredible game viewing opportunities. This Tanzanian hidden gem might be relatively unknown to most people, but the little-visited park is a hotspot for prides of lions preying on unsuspecting buffalo. Best visited in the dry season, Katavi might not be easy to access, but once there, you’ll never want to leave.
Zanzibar is not technically part of typical southern Tanzania safaris but is an easy logistical add-on to your itinerary. It also makes for the perfect reward after a week in the bush. Rest and relaxation are the name of the game when spending time on Zanzibar’s pristine shores. Enjoy spice tours, delicious local cuisine, colourful markets that line cobbled streets, stunning beaches, luxury resorts and a wide variety of water-based activities during your stay.
Top Accommodation Picks on the Northern Circuit
Top Accommodation Picks on the Southern Circuit
Itinerary Ideas for the Northern Circuit
Our team of Africa Safari Experts are well-versed at crafting personalised itineraries that are tailored to your every want and need. But for some inspiration, here are our favourite itinerary ideas for the northern circuit:
Itinerary Ideas for the Southern Circuit
The Tanzanian safari trip of your dreams can be crafted by our African Safari Experts, with a personalised itinerary that caters to your interests. Take some inspiration from our favourite itinerary ideas for the southern circuit:
Which is Better For Safari: Northern or Southern Tanzania?
The answer to this question depends on what you want out of your safari experience in Tanzania. The northern circuit is perfect for first-timers who want the quintessential Tanzanian safari and includes the country's heavy-hitter destinations, like the Serengeti and Mount Kilimanjaro.
But for the seasoned safari-goer or traveller who prefers a more off-the-beaten-track experience, the southern circuit is a great option. Filled with hidden gems in remote, unspoilt regions, like Ruaha and Nyerere, you’ll have an authentic yet exclusive safari experience in some of the most magical, uncrowded destinations.
However, if you have the means to do so, it is highly suggested that you combine both the northern and southern circuits into one blockbuster luxury safari in Tanzania.
Ready to Book Your Safari in Northern or Southern Tanzania?
Get in touch with our team of Africa Safari Experts to start planning your epic safari on Tanzania’s northern or southern circuit. With over two decades of experience and knowledge, we are professionals in crafting tailor-made itineraries that are sure to be the trip of your dreams: