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.