The youngest city along the Swahili coast, Dar -- which doesn't register a blip in pre-19th-century history -- has grown into Tanzania's economic powerhouse. Although no longer the capital, Dar remains Tanzania's largest city and its financial hub. Although it's almost impossible to get a grip on the size of the population, estimates stand somewhere between 3 million and 3 1/2 million, and Dar is the third-fastest-growing city in Africa (after Bamako and Lagos) and the ninth-fastest-growing city on the planet, its office blocks going up as quickly as its periphery is expanding outward. Today it is a regional economic fulcrum, with clusters of high-rise buildings, traffic jams, and an ever-burgeoning surfeit of international hotels and fine restaurants, not to mention a huge expatriate population. Despite its cumulatively busy and chaotic atmosphere, Dar never feels too dense or overpopulated -- shambolic, perhaps, but not really crowded. This has much to do with the sprawl, and despite having what feels like a relatively compact center, it can take forever to get from one end of Dar to the other -- or, indeed, to figure out where the city begins and ends.
Still today, though, the sight of weather-beaten dhows remains as a clue that, some 150 years ago, Dar was still a measly fishing village, hardly an alluring prospect in the global economy. Although the first European, a German named Albert Roscher, arrived here as recently as 1859, it was this foreign presence that would later revive the fledgling port town, which had immediately gone into decline after the death in 1870 of founding ruler Sultan Seyyid Majid, a man evidently hypnotized by Dar's magical setting. Before the Zanzibari sultan's infatuation with the port town, Dar had been little more than a simple fishing village. Even today, behind the veneer of rapid modernization, that fishing culture lives on -- check out the fishing market at dawn for a sense of Dar's relationship with the ocean's bounty, or head up or down the coast where village after village is sustained by daily toils of fishermen who set out on their simple mashua dugout canes or small ngalawa catamarans powered by tanga sails. Dar might, in fact, have looked a bit like that today had it not been resuscitated from the ashes to become an economic and administrative center servicing the East German Africa Company. Today you'll see more remnants of European influence -- particularly in the photogenic colonial structures in the immediate vicinity of the Kivukoni seafront -- than buildings built in the Arab-influenced medina style that typifies Swahili architecture.
If you do want to get into the swing of things, there's little harm in meandering through the center and bumping shoulders with Dar's interesting cosmopolitan hodge podge -- thrown into the mix of Swahili coastal people and Africans from diverse tribes who've come to seek their fortunes from the interior of the country are sizeable Asian and a Western expatriate communities. A few Tanzanians of European extraction -- many of them German -- cling to the land of their birth. People say that, despite the prevalence of crime and the overt corruption, life in Dar is good. Indeed, if you're here for a few hours or in transit for a day, you'll probably feel the same way.
For my money, though, it's the beaches north and south of Dar that make a stop-off here truly worthwhile. Head an hour south of Dar's heady traffic, and you'll be traveling over dirt roads past increasingly remote, ridiculously small villages on your way to some epic coastline. It's like disappearing into a virtually undiscovered paradise where every single person you pass will look up and stare. Here you can experience the simple joy of watching fishermen put out to sea or watching the ocean turn many shades of gold, silver, and blue as the sun rises over the horizon; or examine a glittering starscape as the moonlight turns the sea's mirrorlike surface silver.