Zanzibar is one of the jewels of Africa – a place that fairly seems to teem with mystery and a magic all of its own. Once an important stopping off point along the spice route, and having the more dubious honour of having been at the centre of the Arab slave trade, Zanzibar City is a melting pot of different cultures and influences making it a charming and fascinating centre. Zanzibar City is considered to be an ancient town but is full of life and colour. It has also been declared a UNESCO world heritage site. Enjoy the hustle and bustle of the markets or step back in time in the streets of the old quarter.
WHAT TO DO IN ZANZIBAR CITY
Zanzibar City is a feast for the eyes – watch intrigued as old styled Persian houses fight for space with modern shops. Look inland for a rich cultural history and look out towards the ocean for some of the most picturesque scenery in the world. You would be hard-pressed not to believe that time had stood still when looking at the graceful dhows plying the waters, much as they would have done centuries ago.
The water is warm and inviting and crystal clear. It is the perfect place for snorkeling – visit the Mafia Island Marine Park and get your fill of the local reefs. Enjoy sundowners looking over the stunning view and top it off with your own freshly caught seafood feast.
If the sun and sand get too much for you, let us arrange a day tour for you so that you can see where the amazing spices of Zanzibar come from. Then spend some time bartering in the spice markets and let your senses come alive. Be sure to allow at least a day to visit Stone Town. Here are some of the stops not to be missed.
THE EMERSON SPICE HOUSE
This is now a restaurant and hotel but was once home to the last Swahili chief. When the property was restored, there were tons of shells found – this must then have housed a jewellery shop. There are plenty of legends about the house as well – it is said that an Indian trader used to dry out carpets of money on the floor. For the modern traveler, the place has an opulent, old world feel and is very comfortable – eat on a selection of cushions on the floor and look out at the amazing view of Stone Town.
THE CAPITAL ART STUDIO
This is one of the fixtures in the town – it originally opened its doors in 1930. The original owner, Ranchid Oza, was considered the photographer for Sultan Khalifa. Today the store is now kept up by Rohit, Ranchid’s son. What is of especial interest here is the number of historical portraits and pictures garnered over a period of eight decades.
THE FORODHANI FOOD MARKET
Situated in the gardens on the waterfront, this is a popular spot for visitors and locals. This evening market offers the most amazing sampling of the cuisine on offer in Zanzibar. If you are feeling adventurous, why not try some octopus kebabs? If you are looking for something a little tamer, why not have the Zanzibar Pizza – Pita bread with a mince, egg, mayonnaise and chilli filling.
THE PALACE MUSEUM
This building was once home to some of the most powerful people in Zanzibar. It has since been converted into a museum honouring the Sultans of Zanzibar. There is a fun mix of furniture from different periods, and each floor is dedicated to a different era. For the romantics out there, Princess Salme’s tale will prove delightful – she ran away to join the man she loved in Hamburg. It is here memoirs that help the visitor see what life in that era was like.
This is a great little restaurant offering the visitor a unique take on Swahili food – salads offer a tantalizing blend of exotic fruits and chicken. The iced coffee is a Zanzibar original and infused with cinnamon from the spice market.
THE SPICE TOUR
Get to see where real cooking begins – with actual spices. Get a chance to get up close and personal with fragrant vanilla vines and lemongrass fields. This trip is essential for any foodie worth their salt and also for people who love to experience the more sensual side of living. Zanzibar Island is one of the few remaining places in the world where Saffron is produced.
Sailing on a dhow is the quintessential Arabic experience in Africa. Surprisingly sturdy and strong, these vessels could travel for thousands of miles. A lot of them are still in use to this day for trade purposes. For the tourist though, it is essential to take at least one dhow tour. Enjoy the sights and sounds of Zanzibar City by day and glide gently past the other islands in the group. Alternatively, pick a sunset cruise and watch as the town comes alive with light and as Dar es Salaam winks at you from afar.
ST JOSEPH’S CATHEDRAL
This is just another of those exciting little surprises that you will enjoy in Zanzibar – despite the strong Arabic influence, Christians also made their mark here. This Roman Catholic Church offers a respite from the heat of the day. The cathedral is characterized by its stunning biblically themed murals and imported stain glass windows.
Stone Town has been called a labyrinth by some – the high walls, narrow alleys and historic buildings lead you on a journey of discovery further and further into the heart of this historic quarter. Take some time to just move as the mood strikes you and find yourself lost in time and space.
THE DHARAJANI MARKET
This is on the outskirts of Stone Town and is a feast for the senses – just about every type of food in Zanzibar is available here – whether you fancy dried squid or fresh, ripe fruit, you will get it here. Be sure to take advantage of the local cooking classes so that you can really immerse yourself in what it means to live in Zanzibar – start with the hunt for the best ingredients and end up with a fantastic meal that you made yourself. There really are not many better ways to immerse oneself in another culture than cooking there.
THE OLD FORT
Be sure to stop off at the Old Fort – this was built in the 18th century as a means of protection against Portuguese invaders so step back in time and keep a look out for trouble on the horizon. The fort has been turned to more peaceful purposes now and acts as a community theatre and has a cute little café and art gallery.
THE SLAVE MARKET
It is worth hiring a guide to explain what is going on in the museum itself – the information provided is pretty scarce. The museum consists of the monument, the slave chambers and the Anglican Church – built to try and put a more positive association to this space.
This is a typical old colonial club – it has seen the likes of Livingstone and Stanley.
THE BEIT EL-AJAIB (HOUSE OF WONDERS)
As one of the most largest buildings in Zanzibar and now home to the National Museum of History and Culture, this one time ceremonial palace should be on the top of your to see list.
ALSO CONSIDER THE REST OF ZANZIBAR
Zanzibar has a great selection of wildlife. Make sure to visit Jozani Forest – the native Red Colbus Monkeys are really cute and not at all afraid of humans – they have even been known to pose for photographs. The forest itself has a number of different weird and wonderful trees. As part of the entrance fee to this forest, you will also be allowed to access the adjacent Mangroves – be sure not to miss these.
Not that far from the Jozani Forest is the Butterfly Centre – it is well worth putting on your to see list.
The Mtoni Palace Ruins are often the site of evening concerts and really look great at night – the lighting is carefully chosen and you get a real sense of the ruined grandeur.
For the sports fisherman, it doesn’t get much better than at Ngunwi. Deep sea fishing tours can be arranged.
If you are more adventurous, you can try your hand at kite surfing at Paje Beach. Paje Beach is also rated as one of the best beaches on the island and is so well worth a visit. The beach is stunning and the water is warm year round.
If the beach is more your thing than cultural villages, head over to the east side of the island.
Kendwa Beach is where it is hip and happening – full moon parties here can attract quite a crowd.
The Kiwenga Caves are not as well known in tourist circles and this is a pity – they are really beautiful in addition to having historical significance – they were used to hide slaves in times gone by.
WHEN TO GO
Zanzibar has a milder climate and is basically good any time of the year. It is better to avoid it during the rainy season though – from March to May.
HOW TO GET THERE
There are regular flights and ferries from Dar es Salaam, as well as several water taxis. Be careful about where you buy your tickets from though – be sure only to buy at a ticket office and select one without assistance – the porters will often try to persuade you to either buy from them or to go to someone they know – this could end up in you paying more than you need or not getting what you thought you were. Ignore the porters and be on your guard for pickpockets here. You will also need your passport for entry to and from Zanzibar – it is a semi-autonomous region and so travel is controlled.
WHAT TO PACK
The weather is pretty good year round so leave the warm stuff at home. One or two light sweaters should be more than sufficient. Be sure to pack your swim suit and snorkel – the water here just begs to be swum in.
Be sure also to pack suntan lotion and something to cover your head with – the sun here is great but it can be a bit much for those not accustomed to it.
The locals are pretty friendly but poverty is rife, so be on your guard for pickpockets. Street vendors, etc. can be pretty pushy. It is best to be firm and polite – do not engage in a discussion unless you want to buy something and avoid eye contact if at all possible.
The local “Papasi” are an alternative way to book tours but be very careful when using them – you should never pay any money upfront, at least not until the tour starts, and should always shop around a bit. Some of these “papasi” are scam artists so if you have a bad feeling, steer clear completely. Ask us for advice on tours to take and where to book these to be on the safe side.
The police here have been known to invent offences so that they can elicit bribes. The usual form is that you will be “charged” with something and you will be asked how it should be handled. This is your cue to offer to pay a fine. Ordinarily this is not a huge amount of money.
The most important thing on your Zanzibar holiday is to relax and enjoy life at a more sedate pace – Africa time here means things are more unhurried – the perfect way to get away from the rat race of your everyday life. You may never want to leave!