80km (50 miles) from Moshi, 647km (401 miles) from Dar es Salaam, 255km (158 miles) from Nairobi, 190km (118 miles) from Ngorongoro, 130km (81 miles) from Lake Manyara, 335km (208 miles) from Serengeti

The first guidebook to Arusha, published in 1929, states somewhat condescendingly that the new visitor "will come into contact with some of the most interesting and picturesque tribes that inhabit Africa, each with their own quaint customs and histories," while The New Arusha Hotel advertised "modern sanitation" and "a teak dancing floor." The dance floor has fallen victim to time, but the Arusha Hotel still stands sentinel opposite the sandstone Clock Tower, built to mark the halfway point between the Cape and Cairo, and the bustling commercial activity you encounter -- mainly by the self-same "picturesque tribes" -- is a reminder of these heady frontier days, when the journey to Moshi by ox-wagon took a week and farm produce was auctioned in the Arusha Hotel's lounge.

Home to various governmental and nongovernmental organizations (including the headquarters of Tanzania National Parks, East African Community, and the African Wildlife Foundation), as well as the ever-burgeoning number of tourist operators catering to the needs of foreigners here to climb Kili or explore the Northern Circuit's National Parks, Arusha is known as the safari capital of Tanzania. Arusha's International Convention Centre is also where Rwanda's International Criminal Tribunal has been held, but while the 15-year presence of a relatively large and sophisticated foreign contingency has no doubt impacted what some (usually local tourism brochures) smugly refer to as "The Geneva of Africa," Arusha remains a busy but nondescript African town that would see little tourist traffic, were it not for its proximity to the national parks that make up the Northern Circuit.

Given the distances and complexities involved in reaching the Northern Circuit from the Northern Hemisphere, a day for recovery here is virtually essential; thankfully, there are a number of pleasant lodging options in and around town. Many options in the tranquil rural surrounds have views of Mount Meru (also known as Oldonyo Orok, "Black Mountain," as the Maasai call Arusha's towering backdrop), or, to the east, Kilimanjaro (known as "White Mountain").

Protected by Arusha National Park, Mount Meru is, at 4,556m (14,944 ft.), Africa's fifth-highest mountain; like Kilimanjaro, it is often swaddled in cloud cover, deigning to show its regal peaks -- dusted with snow from June to August -- for only a few hours every day. If you are planning to spend a few days in Arusha, make sure you set aside some time to explore Arusha National Park, a small (137-sq.-km/53-sq.-mile) but pretty reserve with dirt tracks leading through the montane forests, its dense canopy inhabited by black-and-white colobus monkeys that crash through the undergrowth, and occasionally opening up to reveal unexpected glades where giraffe, zebra, and buffalo graze. Arusha National Park even has its own crater, Ngordoto, with sweeping views across the caldera from its lip, as well as shallow alkaline lakes that attract a variety of waterfowl and can be circuited by car. Better still, explore the park on foot; like Kili, it will take 4 days to reach Mount Meru's summit, and many seasoned Kili climbers rate it as a more satisfying experience. With stunning scenery, many more wildlife encounters, far fewer people, and awesome views of Kilimanjaro from the mountain's eastern flanks, who can blame them?