Zanzibar. Just the name is enchanting – and the place itself is even more so. Located just a short ferry trip from mainland Tanzania, life on Zanzibar is slower, but no less exciting. It is an island with a fascinating history, delicious food and unique culture that blends African and Arabic influences. And then, of course, there are the beaches – and they sure are delightful on Zanzibar.
Zanzibar is ‘semi-autonomous’, meaning that although it is technically part of Tanzania, it is quite independent – in fact, you’ll need a different stamp in your passport to go there! It is made up of several small islands, although most visitors base themselves on the main island of Unguja. Unlike Tanzania itself, Zanzibar has a population that is nearly entirely Islamic. As a result, as well as the official Tanzanian language of Swahili, Arabic is also widely spoken. As tourism is a major industry for Zanzibar, most people in the hospitality industry also speak English – although a few words of the local dialect (‘jambo’ = hello) will always get a kind smile!
What to do in Zanzibar
A common phrase on Zanzibar is ‘pole, pole’, meaning ‘slowly, slowly’. It seems ‘island time’ is a phenomenon all over the world, so be sure to take a deep breath and relax as you set foot on Zanzibar. It’s a place best explored leisurely. That is not to say there is a shortage of things to do – far from it! Most visitors to Zanzibar arrive in Stone Town, the largest town on any of the Zanzibar islands. Located on Unguja, it is UNESCO World Heritage listed and extremely charming. It is a myriad of narrow, meandering streets with colonial architecture to each side. Be sure to keep an eye out for the famous doors that are beautifully ornate.
Although simply spending time walking the streets and enjoying the kind hospitality of the locals is lovely, there are also many activities to enjoy from Stone Town.
The island is famous for its spices, which have been one of Zanzibar’s main industries for hundreds of years. There are many tours where you can view the plantations and learn about the process for creating delicious spices. Many of these tours end with a traditional meal prepared with the spices you have just tried, and there are ample opportunities to buy spices as a souvenir of your trip to Zanzibar.
A more somber tour is to the historic Slave Market, a place where human beings were once traded. Zanzibar was once one of the largest slave ports in the Atlantic Ocean and the relics of this dark time are a moving sight in Stone Town. Another place to discover the history of Zanzibar is at the Palace Museum, which houses an interesting selection of artefacts relating to Zanzibar’s history. It is an excellent way to be introduced to the place, and begin to understand how different countries and religions have influenced modern Zanzibar.
Perhaps the most popular daytrip from Stone Town is to Prison Island. Not only does this place have an interesting history, having previously been a colonial hospital and a prison (hence the name), but perhaps most exciting is visiting the many giant tortoises that call the island home. The tortoises make for wonderful photo opportunities, but so too does the boat ride over the clear ocean.
Beyond Stone Town there is Nungwi, which is the second largest town in Zanzibar and also happens to boast some of the islands’ best swimming beaches, complete with white sand and beautiful azure waters. These beaches also offer watersports including kayaking, stand up paddle boarding and snorkelling. Nungwi also has its fair share of elegant nightlife, with nice restaurants and chic bars to enjoy. There is also a turtle sanctuary, and many dhow (traditional wooden boat) cruises, including to the nearby town of Kendwa. Kendwa itself is a beautiful, relaxing spot that is blessed with many gorgeous beaches – as is all of Zanzibar, really.
Where to eat in Stone Town
For a relatively small place, Zanzibar boasts an impressive selection of culinary delights. On the seafront you will discover the Forodhani Food Market, which is nestled along the seafront and is a bustling food market selling street food including seafood and freshly squeezed juice. There are also traditional dishes such as garlic chapatti and coconut bread.
Another option for sampling authentic and delicious local food is at the popular restaurants Lukmaan Restaurant or Passing Show Hotel. Both are popular with both locals and visitors (so you know it must be good!). The restaurants are no-frills, however the food is delectable.
For a more upscale meal with a beautiful view, try Zanzibar Serena Inn or the Emerson Spice Café. Both serve up incredible seafood (as well as other dishes) with panoramic views over the ocean and excellent service.
If you are seeking a unique and unforgettable dining experience, look no further than The Rock, literally located (as the name would suggest) on a rock in the ocean, located around a 50-minute drive out of Stone Town but is most definitely worth the trek. Beautifully and tastefully renovated from a former fisherman’s hut, The Rock has just 12 tables that each have an amazing view. The seafood here is world famous, so it is advisable to book ahead.
Finally, don’t forget to stop by the famous Jaws Café, which is a local institution that serves delicious Zanzibar coffee. Not only is the coffee delicious, but the people watching is brilliant as the café is “the place” for locals to play board games and discuss anything and everything.
Just a short trip from the mainland, Zanzibar feels a world away from the bustling streets of Dar Es Salaam or the wide-open plains of the Serengeti. It boasts rich culture, delicious cuisine and of course, stunning beaches. It is the perfect place to get lost in – at least figuratively, although those streets can be a maze! - and simply enjoy the atmosphere of this special place. Whether it’s sipping coffee in a café in Stone Town or dipping your toes in the azure waters near Kendwa, you are sure to adore amazing Zanzibar.