Known as the Spice Island, the beautiful island of Zanzibar on Africa’s east coast is bursting with culture and history, seemingly at odds with its idyllic geography of white-sand beaches with palms swaying lazily in the sea breeze. Together this makes Zanzibar a fabulous place to explore as well as a dream to relax and unwind.
Zanzibar is the semi-autonomous part of Tanzania in East Africa. It is composed of the Zanzibar Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, 25–50 kilometres (16–31 mi) off the coast of the mainland, and consists of many small islands and two large ones: Unguja (the main island, referred to informally as Zanzibar) and Pemba. The capital is Zanzibar City, located on the island of Unguja. Its historic centre is Stone Town, which is a World Heritage Site.
Portuguese invasion and control of the Swahili Coast in the late 16th century ended the golden age of the archipelago, although the Omani Arabs returned to power less than a century later. Today, many of the winding streets and high townhouses of old Stone Town remain unchanged and visitors can walk between the sultan’s palace, the House of Wonders, the Portuguese fort and gardens, the merchants’ houses, and the Turkish baths of the old city. Day-long spice tours to working plantations offer visitors the chance to observe the cultivation of cloves, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon, and other spices that have made the island famous.
Zanzibar’s coastline offers some of the best beaches in the world, but sand and surf vary depending on what side of the island you’re on. On the east coast, waves break over coral reefs and sand bars offshore, and low tide reveals small pools of starfish, small minnows, and anemones. Up north, ocean swimming is much less susceptible to the tides, and smooth beaches and white sand make for dazzling days in the sun.
The port city of Stone Town dominates the west coast, and although the beaches of Mangapwani, where slave caves are visible at low tide and nearby Bububu are less than half an hour’s drive away, a night or two spent on the east or north cost is well worth the extra hour it takes to drive there. That said, the Chole Island Marine Park just off Stone Town – and nearby Prison, Grave, and Snake Islands – make a refreshing day-trip and a good break from exploring the winding passageways of the old city.
On the south coast of Zanzibar lies the Menai Bay Conservation Area, a sea turtle protection area for the endangered species that come to breed on the island. Roads to the southeast coast take visitors through the Jozani Forest, home to Zanzibar’s rare Red Colobus monkeys and a number of other primate and small antelope species.
Water activities Include: Snorkeling, Dhow cruise, Diving, Speed Boat, Surfing, Water Skiing, Hatch, Fishing, Dhow Sailing, Swimming, Dolphin Tour, Scuba Diving.
Stone Town Tour
Forodhani Gardens and Food Market
Set right on the seafront, you can pick up a beautiful breeze here as tens of late night food alfresco stalls serve up a delicious selection of local Zanzibar cuisine.
From the famous Zanzibar pizza to meat kebabs, local fish, coconut bread, grilled cassava, roasted corn, chunky sweet potato, garlic chapatti and amazing fresh fruit selections, you can eat your heart out for a few dollars here amidst a great atmosphere.
Old Fort Tour
The Old Fort is an art gallery and curio market, Stepping inside this old building is free, wandering around, marveling at the ruins, snapping them against the blue sky and enjoying some peace and quiet is a great free thing to do in Stone Town.
See the Giant Tortoise on Prison Island
The tour lasting roughly 3 hours, you should be able to make this trip for around $15 USD, which will include your boat ride there, $4 USD entrance fee to see the giant tortoises and some snorkeling gear so you can enjoy the blue waters around the island.
Also on Prison Island is an old colonial hospital / quarantine space. Built in 1893, it was originally designated as a prison (hence the name) but repurposed to contain the cholera and bubonic plague epidemics that authorities fear would spread to Zanzibar on ships sailing in from Bombay and Egypt.
Zanzibar’s Sultans at the Palace Museum
At just $3 USD, the entrance fee to Stone Town’s iconic Palace Museum is well worth it, given you’ll get a good hour’s worth of interesting history about the island.
As such, the Palace Museum is a great intro to the history of Zanzibar and I highly recommend heading here earlier on during your time in Stone Town to grasp the heritage of the island and its wealth of different influences.
Join the Fish Auction at the Darajani Markets
Taking place every afternoon, a trip to the fish aisle in the Darajani Markets, is a great local experience that always attracts plenty of action… watch as locals barter and bargain for the best fish price amidst a competitive atmosphere of banter and bravado!
If you’re not so up for the bustle, bartering and busyness of the fish auction, then the market in itself is also one of the best things to do in Stone Town.
Great for getting your hands on some fabulous spices, freshly baked bread, meat, fruit and vegetables (beautifully arranged in neatly stacked piles), you can easily buy tons of food here for just a few dollars.
Visit the Former Slave Market
This is definitely one of the absolute musts when it comes to things to do in Stone Town, Zanzibar.
Costing $5 USD, but worth every cent, especially given the free and highly informed guide you have the option of engaging, you’ll need at least a couple of hours to absorb everything in this UNESCO-funded museum.
Make sure you don’t miss the slave chambers located underneath the gift shop… seriously sobering stuff.
Snap a Doorway
No trip to Stone Town could ever be complete without photographing a memory card full of carved doorways!
Exquisite, even in their crumbling state, these wooden beauties somehow typify this city and its exotic sense of a lost world.
Get Lost in the Narrow Streets
While maps of Stone Town are available, they’re near-useless when it comes to navigating this ancient city. You will, therefore, get lost hundreds of times!
But don’t fret, getting lost is probably one of the best things to do in Stone Town, Zanzibar. In fact, I’d hasten to add it’s actually a crucial part of the experience.
So relax a bit, put down the map and just allow yourself to wander for a few hours.
Embrace the idea you’ll go round in circles, and don’t forget to greet the locals with a cheery “mambo” as you do.
Visit the House of Wonders
Unofficially known as the House of Wonders, Stone Town’s National Museum is located right on the seafront.
This is flagship building reflects the efforts being made to restore the city after it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is well worth a visit.
A Trip to the Old Dispensary
Stone Town’s former hospital, there sadly isn’t much to see in the Old Dispensary now, but the beautiful old building itself is well worth a look and a quick snap.
The Street Food
From covered doorways promising steaming chapattis, roasting corn, grilling kebabs and coffee carts on every corner, Stone Town is a street food paradise!
Freddy Mercury’s House
Did you know Queen’s Freddy Mercury was born and raised in Stone Town! It was the house where he grew up of course.
Even though it’s just a yellow façade, I still found it exciting to stand outside this building and read the little information board by the doorway that proudly marks the spot.
Peer into the Persian Baths
Officially you can’t enter the old Persian Baths in Stone Town, but peering through their gates and imagining what life was like hundreds of years ago is still one of the best free things to do in Stone Town.
Experience Coffee Roasting at the Zanzibar Coffee House
Stopping for a coffee in this great roasting house is an awesome way to sample one of Tanzania’s most famous products and one of its award-winning baristas to boot.
The coffee here really is sensational and the historic building is pretty awesome too.
Head up to the roof terrace to take in a view at the same time.
Take a Spice PlantationTour
Out of town, a Spice Tour is another great Stone Town day trip. As part of it, you’ll get to sample local spices, as well as learn about their history and production within the context of the great trading port of Zanzibar.
From locally-made bags to kangas (African fabrics worn by local women), carvings, t-shirts, trousers, purses and textiles, the souvenirs in Stone Town range from tacky to tasteful.
Either way there’s plenty on offer and supporting local businesses by grabbing some souvenirs here is a great way to take some amazing memories of this place with you.
Jozani Forest Tour
Venture into the jungle of Jozani Forest to spot the area’s red colobus monkeys as they swing and howl in the trees. Wander down a trail through this protected area and spot some of 50 species of butterflies, 40 types of birds, as well as few endangered animals.
Your guide meets you at your hotel, and then takes you to Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park, home of Jozani Forest. Walk down a nature trail and observe the vast canopy above, as well as the sub-canopies created by smaller trees and shrubs. Listen for the songs of some of the island’s native birds and keep a look for monkeys.
The Zanzibar red colobus monkey, a Jozani Forest resident, has been isolated from its mainland counterparts, producing distinct calls, eating habits, and coat patterns. With hair resembling Einstein’s, these fuzzy creatures are easy to hear as the make their way through the trees. Your guide helps you find the perfect spot for monkey viewing.