UPDATED AUGUST 2021
Everything, barring the intensely turquoise waters of the Indian ocean, felt startlingly familiar. The sultry weather, the spicy coconut infused curries, the colourful attire, the ornately chiseled doors. Even the traditional game of Bao.
My Indianness, the fact that I had grown up watching monsoon winds billowing the lateen sails of Arab dhows, diluted much of Zanzibar’s cliched otherness for me.
And yet, my fascination wasn’t diminished.
For the labyrinthine alleyways of Stone Town, the historic urban centre of Zanzibar island (Unguja in Swahili) evoke a history of cultural confluence like no other. A common, cosmopolitan identity forged over centuries of intermingling between indigenous tribes, early Arab settlers, Persian Shirazis, Portuguese conquerors, Omani Sultans, Indian traders and British colonialists. Along with a number of European explorers lured by the wealth of the archipelago and the mystique of the dark continent.
The name, redolent of romance, is believed to be derived from the Persian Zanj – a corruption of Zinj – for ‘Black’ (people) and Bar for Coast.
The religion is largely Muslim. Unlike Mangalore or Goa, where Portuguese surnames are common, colonial influence on culture, speech and attire seems minimal here.
The imprint of the Indian merchant community, however, is hard to miss. Especially in Zanzibari cuisine.
Most people come to Zanzibar for the pearl white beaches of the many islands that make up the archipelago. With just three nights on hand at the end of our long safari, we opted to spend all our time in Stone Town. Apart from one blissful afternoon at the Rock.
Our frustratingly inefficient receptionist at the Kisiwa House somehow teamed us up with a surprisingly capable guide for a three hour walk around town.
Abdul filled us in on the nuances of local culture while deftly walking us through the narrow souk like alleys and bustling markets teeming with life and produce and people.
Post independent socialist leanings aside, Zanzibar clearly lives off its former opulence and the sustained appeal of its decaying palaces and mansions.
The weary but beautiful coral rag structures with ornate wooden balconies hark back to a time when the city was the hub of Indian ocean maritime trade in spices, gold, ivory, animal skins and yes, human beings.
The nicest have been fashioned into hotels. Stone Town’s few landmark structures are arrayed along Mizingani road facing the waterfront. Most in varying states of disrepair.
A map we picked up from a bookshop near our hotel on our last evening, set us off on a photo hunt of Stone Town’s famed carved doors. One of the doors graced the Capital Art Studio founded by Ranchod Ojha, the sultan’s royal photographer and now owned by one of his sons.
“Are you Hindu?” inquired Ranjit Ojha, as we pored over the fascinating sepia chronicles of the island’s political history. “Would you like to attend the Vijayadashami celebrations tonight?”
We hiked up to the temple later that night through hushed, dark alleys accompanied by the lilting muezzin calls of “God is Great”. We hoped to capture a colourful and noisy Indian festival in full swing.
But with festivities showing no signs of taking off until well after nine and an early flight to catch the next morning, we returned disappointed.
Still, who would have imagined we would be paying obeisance to Durga on the ‘tenth day of victory‘ in a Hindu temple in Islamic Zanzibar?
Read on for a detailed travel guide featuring the best things to do in Stone Town.
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THINGS TO DO IN STONE TOWN
EXPLORE STONE TOWN’S CRUMBLING ALLEYS
Getting lost in inner city streets is my favourite thing to do in any destination. Stone Town’s narrow alleys and the array of aesthetically decaying architecture lend themselves perfectly for such an exploration on foot.
Absorb the eclectic culture of this UNESCO heritage urban setting and witness life as it has been lived unchanged for centuries.
SIP ARABIC coffee with locals at Jaws Corner
The ‘square’ that gets its name from the mural of a shark is the hub of social activity in Stone Town. As in most such urban spaces across the world it is men who gather around to gossip and exchange news or just hang out.
By evening, the activity moves to the waterfront where younger people and children gather to play games or dive from the sea wall.
STONE TOWN WATERFRONT ATTRACTIONS
Two Omani era palaces and a couple of 19th century buildings facing the waterfront along Mizingani road can be visited in under an hour. The entire area was restored a few years ago by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. These are best viewed from a boat from across the water. (See panorama below.)
HOUSE OF WONDERS
Chief among the waterfront landmarks is the European inspired Beit el Ajaib with its tall clock tower and slender double height metal pillars. It was the ceremonial palace of the second Sultan of Zanzibar: Barghash bin Said. He is reputed to have kept wild animals chained to the metal pillars out front for effect!
The Beit el Ajaib is also referred to as the House of Wonders because it was the first building in Zanzibar to have electricity and also the first in East Africa to sport an elevator.
*This heritage building collapsed partially in December 2020. It is currently under restoration and out of bounds for tourists.
The squat, Omani style Beit el Sahel or Sultan’s (residential) Palace next door is now a museum evoking the opulent lifestyles of the sultans. One room is dedicated to the memory and romantic legend of Princess Sayyida Selme, the sister of the second Sultan who eloped with a German professor. Her book: Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar, on sale at the palace, is a fascinating account of life in the Zanzibar royal household.
Hours & Entrance: Museum: 8:30 am – 6 pm daily | 5,000 TZS.
OLD CUSTOM HOUSE
Just ahead, the tall, narrow building with the wooden balconies is the Old Custom House. It houses the Dhow Countries Music Academy where you might be able to watch young musicians practising or witness a Taraab performance in the evenings.
Further north along Mizingani road is a building with a delicate filigreed facade. It was built in 1899 as a charity hospital by Indian merchant Tharia Topan. It is now a preserved heritage structure occupied by commercial offices but continues to be referred to as the Old Dispensary.
Adjacent to the People’s Palace Museum towards the south west is the imposing Old Fort. It was built over the foundations of a Portuguese fort after the Arabs seized Zanzibar. It makes for a pleasant stroll although there isn’t much to see inside except for some souvenir shops and an open air amphitheatre added in 1990 which is the venue for Stone Town’s annual cultural festivals.
ZANZIBAR DOORS OF STONE TOWN
The famed Zanzibar doors are hard to miss wherever you go in Stone Town. Read more in my post about these striking reminders of the town’s affluent pas:
Explore Darajani Market.
Darajani market on the edge of the old town is a mini, less affluent version of the grander bazaars of Cairo or Istanbul. The main covered market was built in 1904. Stalls now spill out and around the building and are all worth strolling through if you enjoy markets. Colourful printed fabric section was my favourite.
The fish auction – there wasn’t a lot of fish left by the time we reached (well past ten) – was interesting from a people watching perspective.
Old Slave Market/Anglican Cathedral
It is sobering to consider that Zanzibar was the last place on earth where human beings were bought and sold like cattle nearly half a century after the practice was banned in the rest of the world and on the West coast of Africa.
The Anglican Cathedral Christ Church marks the site of one of the largest open slave markets in this part of the world. More details and photos in this post.
Entrance: 7,000 TZS
The Forodhani gardens right on the seafront that was once the landing point for the Sultans, transforms each evening into a lively food market. We were wary of the grilled meats but returned two evenings in a row for delicious ‘Zanzibari Pizza’ (essentially a stuffed paratha (Indian bread) with a wonderful assortment of sweet and savoury fillings) and (Babu’s) spiced tea.
CAPTURE A ZANZIBAR SUNSET
Grab a table at a waterfront restaurant/bar to watch Zanzibar’s magical sunset. Africa House Hotel is a popular (also pricey) spot. Or get to one of the rooftop restaurants with a view. (See Where to Eat section below).
We enjoyed our small sail boat ride much better. Skip the touristy group tours and request your hotel or guide to recommend a boatman. It isn’t fancy but is way more authentic. You could walk up to the seafront and get on a small fishing boat by yourself but you risk getting one without safety gear.
OTHER PLACES TO VISIT BEYOND STONE TOWN
We didn’t venture out of Stone Town except for one whole afternoon at The Rock restaurant – read post linked to below – so this is a listing from my pre-travel research saved for a repeat visit.
- Take a spice tour to discover how oriental spices such as vanilla, turmeric, nutmeg and cinnamon are grown or harvested.
- Spot red colobus monkeys on a Jozani forest walk.
- Visit the former slave island of Changuu also known as Prison Island. The main attraction are the giant Aldabra tortoises imported from the Seychelles. It is also a great spot for snorkelling.
- Stay in an eco lodge on Chumbe Island Coral Park, a private reserve and coral reef off the coast of Zanzibar.
- Spend a few days on a pristine beach. There’s a wide variety to choose from:
- Nungwi & Kendwa – Luxury beach resorts
- Michamvi Peninsula – Exclusive beach resorts & The Rock restaurant
- Matemwe – For quieter beach resorts and a local vibe. We seriously considered Asilia’s Matemwe Retreat but ran out of time.
- Bwejuu – For budget to mid range accommodation with a local vibe. Beautiful village with not so great beach.
- Paje – For best kitesurfing and beautiful beach.
- Want a mind-blowing experience? Stay in an underwater room in the Manta Resort in Pemba Island.
ZANZIBAR TRAVEL GUIDE
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BEST TIME TO VISIT ZANZIBAR
Zanzibar is practically an all weather destination. Mid December to Mid February is peak travel season reflected in prices and availability. April, May, June and November are the wettest months and therefore low season. Balance months are high season. September or October would be my pick to avoid the summer vacation surge. We were there early October.
How Much Time do you need In Zanzibar?
Depends on your interests. One full day for Stone Town and three to unwind in a beach resort is the minimum.
HOW TO GET TO STONE TOWN, ZANZIBAR
A few African and Asian international airlines as well as some European charters fly direct to Zanzibar airport.
Alternatively, fly into Dar es Salaam and then take a 15 min domestic charter into Zanzibar. Most popular domestic airlines on this sector are Precision Air and Coastal Travel. We flew Coastal both ways: inbound from Kogatende in northern Serengeti and outbound to Dar es Salaam.
Note: The Zanzibar exit tax (domestic flights: US$11; International: US$48) is usually built into the price of flight tickets.
By Fast Ferry From Dar es Salaam To Zanzibar:
Several fast ferries depart from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar on a regular basis. Azam Marine Fast Ferries seem to be the most reliable and recommended. They have four departures each way. Journey time is around 2 hours. Price ranges from US$35 to $60 depending on travel class.
Reservations can be made on the website, at the ferry terminal booking office ( on waterfront opposite St. Joseph Cathedral, Sokoine Drive) or through travel agents.
Please note: Foreigners are required to pay in foreign convertible currencies.
If you need to take a car across you’ll need to book on their Sealink cargo ferries via email.
Visa & ENTRY REQUIREMENTS
- Citizens of eligible countries – Check Here – can avail single entry visas on arrival or apply for Evisas beforehand here. VOA is available in Zanzibar airport as well. Multiple entry visas can only be availed online.
- Information on requirements for EVisa application for Indian citizens can be found here.
- Proof of yellow fever vaccination is mandatory if you are arriving from or have stayed in a yellow fever endemic country prior to arrival.
Wifi connectivity is good in hotels and restaurants across Stone Town.
Local sim cards valid for 10, 15 or 30 days can can be picked up at the airport upon arrival. Zantel has the best coverage across the island. Price depends on how much data you need.
WHERE TO STAY IN STONE TOWN
We stayed in Kisiwa House and had issues with our room as well as service. I’d pick one of the following if I were to return:
CHECK FOR MORE OPTIONS TO FIT YOUR BUDGET HERE
WHERE TO EAT IN STONE TOWN
Lukmaan is an institution that features on most Zanzibar best restaurant lists. It’s a quick walk from Darajani market. Their octopus curry is the dish to try. The biriyani was too bland for our Indian taste buds.
Zanzibari ‘pizza’ at the Forodhoni night market was always good.
Cafes: Puzzle coffee does justice to its name.
The rooftop cafe at Zanzibar Coffee House is worth it for the views alone. Great for breakfast or light meals (crepes/ wraps), cake and their spicy coffee and iced vanilla lattés.
Best views: Taraab Restaurant, Beach House Restaurant and Tea House at Emerson Spice.
Tap water is not safe to drink in Zanzibar. While bottled water is plentiful and reasonably priced in most places, carrying refillable water bottles and portable water filters would be eco friendlier.
Knowing Zanzibar is a conservative Islamic country expect to dress modestly. Kaftans, long dresses, skirts and loose pants in natural materials will be most comfortable. Restrictions do not apply around hotel pools and beach resorts.
Flying a drone is legal in Tanzania but be aware of and compliant with drone regulations.
Be sure to ask for permission before photographing people. Locals are not comfortable being photographed. Little girls seemed especially wary.
Public display of affection is best avoided. Homosexuality isn’t technically illegal but LGBT travellers are advised discretion.
106 thoughts on “Stone Town – Zanzibar’s Historic Heart (Complete Guide)”
Thank you for another great post! I really didn’t know much about Zanzibar, and appreciated your including the history, as well as a beautiful series of photos that capture the local flavor and colors. Now I have to go follow some of the links that have caught my curiosity!
Glad you enjoyed this Naomi. Achieving the right balance – between the history of a place and my experiences there – is always a challenge for me. Hope you found the links just as enjoyable 🙂
You always strike a perfect balance!
What an interesting post, Madhu! Lovely photographs as ever, and a most fascinating insight into the place. 🙂
Thank you Sue 🙂
The paratha looks and sounds divine Madhu. What a brilliant post, Zanzibar is one of those places that has always seemed exotic and very appealing to me, but I doubt I’ll get there so thank you for sharing 🙂
The banana/cheese/honey combination was my favourite Gilly. A cross between a French crepe and a paratha! Thank YOU for reading 🙂
There is something magical when I think of Zanzibar ~ I name I have read about in history, and a place teeming with life. Over the past week, I’ve bumped into stories, posts and photos of Zanzibar and it is becoming more real and your writing (and great photos) and it all brings this place more to the forefront for me in the sense that “hey, I really can go their and experience it…” I like your description of the “opulence and the sustained appeal of its decaying palaces and mansions” I think that would be fascinating to see. Well done Madhu, wish you safe travels!
Thank you very much Randall. I hope you get there soon….it would be an absolute delight to revisit Zanzibar through your lens!
A dream I hope to realize 🙂 Take care Madhu!
A fantastic country to discover – wonderful photos that illustrate the life there – thank you
Thank you for reading Pat.
We loved Zanzibar…I would love to go back.
Us too. For all its decay it had a wonderful, laid back vibe. I would have loved to have had a few more days to relax on one of the beaches.
Oh you make me want to go there!
Ha, I have no doubt you will get there someday Alison! 🙂
Fabulous post Madhu!
Thanks Nicole. This took a while coming with all my personal commitments in the past few weeks. Looking forward to catching up with blog reading 🙂
It looks like such an exotic place, with so many different sides to it. I would love to explore that abandoned fort, for one thing. 🙂
There isn’t an awful lot to see inside that fort sadly. They do hold concerts there during the annual music festival which must be very atmospheric.
Very interesting … yet the paragraph below the market image provided a lot of sadness to me. Thanks for sharing your journey.
A visit to the dungeons where they were held was far worse Frank. I plan to feature it in a separate post. Zanzibar’s dark history, and the horrific massacre of Arabs and Indians during the 1964 revolution is usually glossed over by most travelogues.
Lovely post. Thank you.
Thank you for reading 🙂
Madhu, so good to see you. I really enjoyed the trip around Zanzibar with you, a place that seems so exotic to me. Thanks!
A pleasure to see you too Janet! Thank you for hopping on board 🙂
Janet, tried to comment on your blog but it seems to vanish into thin air. Would you check if it has been marked as spam and restore it please? Facing this issue with many blogs!! Have contacted support but they are flummoxed as well.
I’ll check, Madhu. WP issues are such a pain!
Thanks. It terribly frustrating.
Thank you Madhu,what an interesting place – I enjoyed learning of the history and your beautiful photographs of the surroundings.
Thanks Mary. Have a great day! 🙂
I had heard so many stories about this place but never had a chance to see it. I doubt whether I could have a better tour! 🙂 Happy March, my dear Madhu!
Thank you for your lovely comment 🙂 Happy March to you too!
Your last sentence lingers and is full of irony. You were on familiar ground, Madhu and yet so far from home. You bring back so many memories of our two days in Stone Town and believe me, we weren’t in a familiar culture. We dined in a Muslim home one night and ate in an Indian restaurant the next. I can still taste the memorable dishes. I do wish we took a sunset ride on a dhow. I would have liked to have seen Zanzibar from the water. Lovely post.
Thank you Lynne. I can imagine how exotic it must have felt to you. Eating in a local home must have been a wonderful experience. Being invited to a Durga festival in Zanzibar was the last thing we expected 🙂
Zanzibar, a vivid description of their daily life, their culture, the market…nice snapshot to add up to your lovely narration. Historical significance and the connection of Indians…the place appears tempting to make a visit.
Yes, Zanzibar is well worth a visit. Thank you Nihar.
Great to know about Zanzibar, your endorsement…
We’ve been toying with the idea of visiting Zanzibar for a few years, but never made it there. I found your post really fascinating and informative. Looking at your photos, the one of the slave sculpture really captured my attention. What terrible times they must have been.
I can’t believe you haven’t been there Sylvia! Then again, I am yet to visit Sri Lanka, which is just across the straits from us 🙂 You would love the beaches especially.
Great post as always Madhu. I am still learning about the world from your posts. Thank you for sharing them. -Max-
You are most welcome Max. That is the best compliment for a travel blogger 🙂
Lovely post and photos. Brings back great memories of my visit to Zanzibar in November.
Thank you. Glad this stirred fond memories 🙂
That picture of slavery reminds us that even in today’s so called enlightened world millions are still in positions of slavery. That food looks really yummy!
You are so right. Ban or no ban, human trafficking is till a huge issue in many parts of the world.
Wow, the way you discover about places, and then capture them in words…simply wow..I am now a fan of yours
Oh thank you very much! 🙂
Reblogged this on BGK Globe.
Fascinating – so interesting text and captures, really did enjoyed it… 🙂
The now past away lead singer Freddie Mercury
from the rock band The Queen was born there… 🙂
Thanks Drake. Yes, he was Indian as well. I forgot to include a photo of his house. Shall add it right away 🙂
Wonderful post, Madhu. Loved it.
Glad you did. Thank you Niranjan 🙂
Beautiful pictures. I especially enjoyed Jaws corner.
Jaws corner reminded me of the little squares and street corners where local men gathered in many small towns in Greece! Must be quite common in the middle East as well. Appreciate your stopping by Shimon. Have a great day!
This is a post that makes me dream, Madhu! I had no idea of the strong Indian influence in Zanzibar – it is amazing how globalisation took place centuries before we even came up with a term for it.
The evolution of Swahili culture is truly fascinating James. I started out writing a more detailed historical piece but decided to stick to our experiences in the end. Didn’t want to bore the daylights out of my readers 🙂
I have not even heard of the place .. beautiful pic’s.. Thank you for introducing such a lovely palce ..
I am surprised you haven’t Bikram. Every explorer worth his salt has been there at some point or the other. Including, it is believed, Sindbad! 🙂 Thank YOU for reading.
You really took me back there with this post. We spent a week in Stonetown, and then another on Nungwi Beach in 2012. I never made the connection with the “Indian-ness,” but looking back now, it makes total sense. The food I had there was some of the best in the world…and the spiced coffee. Wow! 🙂
Lucky you! I would have loved to have had a few more days to relax on one of those stunning beaches 🙂 Glad this stirred fond memories Shelley. Thank you for stopping by to share your thoughts.
My favorite picture = Jaws Corner. I generally shy away from taking pictures of people (I think Hungary has passed a law forbidding it), but it’s beautiful when people are ‘captured’ living their day to day life.
I did too, but am more comfortable shooting people these days. Hadn’t heard of that Hungarian law… I better be careful when I do get there 🙂 Thank you for your visit and comment Jen. Have a great day!
Gosh thats so so beautiful!
Thank you James! Just popped over to your blog and discovered you are an Indophile! You would love Zanzibar 🙂
I’m a huge Indophile! Thanks for stopping by
Another fascinating account of a place that has only been an exotic name for me. As always you weave information beautifully with your own experiences. And I was amused by ‘stereotype alert’! Thanks you.
Stereotypes are rather hard to avoid in a country as diverse as ours 🙂 Thank YOU Meg for reading and for your thoughtful comment. Always a pleasure to see you here.
The name Zanzibar conjures up images of the orient and the mystique that surrounds it. Your post didn’t disappoint Madhu and I was taken on a mystical journey with your images and descriptions.
Thank you joining me on this journey Pauline 🙂
You’ve done it again, Madhu! Beautiful post – writing and photos. When I saw the title Zanzibar, immediately I thought of spices 🙂 Thanks for sharing, it helped me to go on a mythical journey which I hope one day I actually get there!
Thanks Kat. I am sure you will 🙂
Imagine that… celebrating Vijayadashmi in Zanzibar! Sometimes, more than the “otherness”, it is the discovery of old connections, that I find so alluring about travel.
So true. That invitation was most unexpected, and we were disappointed we couldn’t stay. They were just warming up by the time we left past nine!
Madhu, as you said in one of my earlier posts that Indians and Chinese were already on the moon long before Armstrong set foot there, and Zanzibar must have been one of the places the Indians went before they eyed the moon. 🙂 Now you got me thinking, had the Indians not come to the Indonesian archipelago in the 4th century, we wouldn’t have had Borobudur, Prambanan, and all those dishes we’re now so familiar with. Thanks for taking us to see Zanzibar with this perspective, Madhu.
Ha, I would think so, considering Zanzibar is just across the seas from us 🙂 I can’t wait to explore the familiar in Indonesia……..the connections there seem deeper somehow. Thanks Bama.
It’s wonderful to hear about your trip to Zanzibar’s Stone Town and to see your great photos, Madhu. Zanzibar was one place I regret not visiting while I lived in Oman. Oman and Zanzibar had many ties in the past and still do today. 🙂
Yes, Zanzibar was the capital of the Omani Sultanate for a while. I hope you manage to get there someday Cathy. Pleasure to see you. Are you back home?
I hope to get there one day. Maybe if I return to Oman to teach! I’m back “home” in China, where I have one more semester to teach. I’ve been traveling for the last 6 weeks, through Hunan, Yunnan and Myanmar. 🙂
Sunset from the dhow, please! Can I have just that one memory, Madhu? 🙂
With pleasure lovely lady! I have nicer Zanzibari sunsets saved for another post 🙂
You must be busy, Madhu. I saw that your Orange challenge was an earlier post? I was whizzing past in the Reader so I didn’t stop to say hi. Have a good weekend! 🙂
Thanks Jo, you too 🙂
Busy with some repair work needing attention around the house and dealing with infuriating workmen who don’t turn up when they are supposed to! Aarrgghh!!
We are in the throes of decorating (or rather, Mick is 🙂 ). Poor house hasn’t had a lick of paint since the Dark Ages. You have my sympathy.
Just saying the word “Zanzibar” conjures the exotic, the mysterious. If we return to Africa, Zanzibar will again be on the itinerary for sure. Your great post has reconfirmed that.
It will be on ours too. Thanks Ron.
I can always be transported to a wondrous place via your wonderful photography, Madhu. Thanks for sharing Zanzibar.
Thank you for reading Ruth! Have a great weekend.
Its always so wonderful to see all these beautiful pictures from place I have never visited.
Many thanks dear Madhu.
Thank you Dilip. Happy Holi to you and your family 🙂
A great post. And every great post deserves a great hook in the title, and a great first paragraph, which you have provided here.
Ah, thank you for the lovely compliment Tom! Much appreciated.
Just the name ‘Zanzibar’ conjures up so many extoic images in my head that I wonder if I went there, I might be disappointed that it didn’t match up to my ridiculously over the top expectations. In reality, I’m sure I’d find it fascinating. It certainly sounds it from your post and lovely photos. Hope I get there one day.
Kathryn, if you liked India you will like Zanzibar. It is cleaner for one and not half as complicated 🙂
I was supposed to spend New Years Eve of 2000 on Zanzibar. Didn’t work out. Been thinking about getting there ever since. Hasn’t worked out. Yet. Your blog is good stuff. Your photos are too.
I hope it will the next time around! 🙂 Thank you very much for your lovely comment.
I’ve never used the word “bucket list” but I do understand the concept.
Phew … I am amazed at all of the wonderful things you’ve shown us. Stellar post, Madhu. But, I wouldn’t expect anything less.
You never disappoint. : )
Isadora, you are too kind..always! 🙂 Thank you very much.
Jaws corner? JAWS CORNER? I swear, bud, one of these days, you are going to wake as me and I as you. And oh boy, I will run like hell. Love the charmed life you have leading, and that you are documenting it. Jaws corner! Sorry, that just sounded so amazing.
Your words came to life with the matching, beautifully captured, images on the slideshow. Well done, as always.
Awesome post. Once this Place was popular among Finnish travelers!