Planning a trip to Zanzibar soon? Looking for ideas about what to do while you are there? Then, you are in luck. Today, I’d like to share some of the things I’ve most enjoyed doing in Zanzibar over the past 10 years. That’s how long it’s been since my first trip to Zanzibar taken shortly after I first moved to Tanzania. These tips cover both the historic part of Zanzibar, Stone Town, as well as other areas of the island.
This is not an exhaustive list. Rather, these are simply some pointers shared with love from me to you. I hope you find them useful!
I’ll start with the two things that I think are not to miss in Zanzibar: 1) visiting the UNESCO world heritage site Stone Town and 2) visiting at least one of Zanzibar’s idyllic beaches elsewhere on the island.
Tips for Stone Town
1. Go on a Guided Walking Tour on Stone Town
Some travelers like to travel in a structured way and go on formal tours. Others like to wander around, get lost, and just discover whatever they chance upon.
When you are in Stone Town, I strongly recommend going on a guided walking tour.
Why? Because it’s easy to miss the most interesting and charming things in Stone Town if you do it any other way.
Getting someone to guide you through the winding roads of this charming historic town, all the while telling you little tidbits about the places you see—tidbits you won’t find in a guide book—will truly help you get the most out of what Stone Town has to offer.
To organize a walking tour, simply inquire at your hotel.
2. Eat at the Forodhani Gardens
During the day, Forodhani and the waterfront right by it is a beautiful place to relax, admire the beauty of the Indian Ocean, and observe the activities of everyday Zanzibar. This you can do while enjoying a coffee or ice cream from one of the eateries nearby.
It’s at night, though, when Forodhani Gardens really comes to life, with the peaceful park giving way to a fully fledged night-time street food market.
The food may or may not be the greatest, depending on what you choose to eat and which stall you buy it from.
Still, this is one of the best places to soak up Zanzibar’s unique vibe.
Watch out for this particularly late at night.
Other than seafood, I recommend that you try something uniquely Zanzibari.
For example, try a Zanzibar Pizza (which is not a pizza at all, rather more like a crepe stuffed with fillings of your choice), or Zanzibar Mix (a delicious tangy soup—known locally as urojo—made from green mangoes and gram flour, filled with bits of potato, bhajias, fried mashed potatoes, and more), or freshly pressed sugarcane juice with ginger and lime.
3. Experience Sunset at the Africa House Hotel
The building that now houses the Africa House Hotel served as the English Club for Royal Navy Officers in the late 19th century.
Before then, it was a guest house for members of the Omani Royal family.
The original parts of the building are over 340 years old.
The history of this building is visible in its décor, in details such as the marble used on the staircase, which is marble from original Omani palaces, and the many pictures and placards on display on the walls.
Speaking of the staircase at the Africa House Hotel, if ever you happen to go there, please stand at the center of the staircase and look up.
What you’ll see on the ceiling always makes me smile because it’s so unexpected!
It is a good bar, in its own right, with a beautiful view of the Indian Ocean.
The sunset you experience there, though? All I can say is WOW!
4. Climb to the Top of the Emerson on Hurumzi Hotel
My absolute favorite place in Zanzibar is the rooftop of the Emerson on Hurumzi hotel, a boutique hotel in the middle of Stone Town.
Made up of two restored 19th-century buildings still decorated with a lot of their original furniture, climbing to the top of the Emerson on Hurumzi—up three and a half flights of very steep stairs—makes you begin to wonder what it must have been like to live in the Zanzibar of yore.
When you finally get to what is now the Tea House Restaurant, a gazebo-like structure that sits on the roof of the hotel, the 360° view of Stone Town and the Indian Ocean beyond will take your breath away—or at least it does mine.
I have never actually eaten at the Tea House Restaurant—I’ve heard mixed reviews about the food—but have been there a couple of times for drinks or simply to see the view (when I’ve found the bar/restaurant not operational).
The Tea House Restaurant currently opens only for dinner (though guests can arrive early enough for sundowners). Since the restaurant only seats a maximum of 30 guests, reservations are required.
As of June 1, 2017, the Tea House Restaurant will also open in the afternoon for lunch.
5. Sample Tanzania’s Exotic Fruits
Yeah, neither had I until I visited Zanzibar with someone who’d spent a lot of time there since childhood.
He gave me a quick tour of Zanzibar’s fresh produce, and gosh was that an experience!
If you are keen to try some of these fruits, you can buy them from fruit carts on the streets of Stone Town or head to Darajani Market to see the full fare of fresh produce that Zanzibar has to offer.
When you do, leave me a comment to tell me what you thought of these fruits!
6. Visit the Hamamni Persian Baths
Although this may be included in a guided walking tour of Stone Town, I am listing the Hamamni Persian Baths separately because I never got to see them when I went on a walking tour.
Instead, I had the pleasure of discovering them by accident while walking through Stone Town and greatly enjoyed visiting them.
These baths, built in the late 19th century and used until early in the 20th century, were public baths open to both men and women (though at different times).
Although there is no longer any water in the baths, it’s easy to visualize, from what remains today, the hive of activity that these baths must have been in their heyday.
7. Eat or Have Evening Drinks at the Zanzibar Serena Inn
The Zanzibar Serena Inn is generally regarded as the best hotel in Stone Town.
Though you might not stay here, it’s worth a visit for its beautiful Ocean views, good food, and nightly live Taarab music.
I can attest to the fact that they serve a mean brunch!
Visiting Zanzibar’s Beaches
Despite the stunning historic experience that Stone Town is, it is still a very lived-in everyday city and doesn’t boast particularly nice beaches.
If you really want to see the best Zanzibar has to offer in terms of beaches, you’ll have to travel an hour or two away from Stone Town.
My personal recommendation is Nungwi, which was recently named the 43rd best beach in the world by CNN.
With deep turquoise waters, white sand, the characteristic calm of the Indian Ocean, and adorned with chic hotels, bars, and restaurants, Nungwi beach often gives me a mind boggle about what country I am in when I’m there.
The water at Nungwi is amazingly clear. When I am standing nose-deep in the Ocean at Nungwi, I can look down and still see my toes clearly.
Until the 1990s, Nungwi was a large traditional fishing village and dhow-building centre.
Today, it is the most visited tourist destination in Zanzibar.
The centuries-old trade of dhow building is still practiced in Nungwi and you can visit dhow boat yards while you are there.
At these boat yards, you’ll see skilled craftsmen making dhows of all sizes, the smallest of which are made without using any nails at all!
Visit a Spice Farm
In its heyday, Zanzibar was known as the Spice Islands for its numerous spice plantations and the variety of spices grown there.
At a time when cloves traded like gold—not only for their taste but also for the crucial role they played in curing and preserving meat before the advent of refrigeration—Zanzibar was the number one producer of cloves in the world.
Some of these spice plantations still exist today and are open to the public.
A commonly available tour on Zanzibar is a Spice Tour, where you get to visit such a plantation.
All this in the context of the local history, local culture, and the use of these spices across the world today.
Fruit is also grown at many of the spice farms, so you’ll be able to sample local fruit here too.
Trust me: this is one of the most interesting things I have ever done in Zanzibar!
Check it out if ever you get a chance.
The Festivals of Zanzibar
Zanzibar usually hosts three international festivals each year: Sauti za Busara music festival in February, the Zanzibar International Film Festival in July, and the Jahazi Literary & Jazz Festival in August/September.
Of these three festivals, I have been to Sauti za Busara and the Zanzibar International Film Fesitival.
Sauti za Busara
I LOVE Sauti za Busara! This music festival features artists from all over Africa. Even more interestingly, though, it features international collaborations of artists from very different countries with very different musical styles. The result? Amazing, melodious, and eclectic music!
You can read more about my experiences at Sauti za Busara here.
The Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF)
I attended the Zanzibar International Film Festival more out of curiosity than anything else.
Although I can watch a movie or two, I am not a big film buff.
That said, I greatly enjoyed ZIFF.
Not only did I enjoy it because of the great films I watched on African issues—films made by Africans—but also because, unbeknownst to me until then, ZIFF is not just about films nor does it only focus on Africa.
Another name for The Zanzibar International Film Festival is The Festival of the Dhow Countries.
I found it interesting to learn more about the non-African cultures that have had a great influence on Zanzibar’s culture.
Another activity I greatly enjoyed at ZIFF was dhow racing. Watching a dhow race felt surreal.
Not only was it beautiful to watch, but the excitement of this unusual sport is also strangely contagious!
A Caveat About Visiting Zanzibar During a Festival
Zanzibar during a festival is VERY different from what it is normally.
This is particularly true for Sauti za Busara.
I often jokingly say that during Sauti za Busara, all of Dar es Salaam ships out to Stone Town. While that is not actually true, I am sure you get the idea.
If what you want is to get a sense of everyday Zanzibar, and/or enjoy some peace and tranquility in an enchanting environment, DO NOT visit Zanzibar when there is a festival going on.
If instead you want to experience all Zanzibar has to offer, plus the added excitement of a huge event going on, then you know when best to schedule your trip to Zanzibar.
(Sorry, I can’t tell you anything more about the Jahazi Literary & Jazz Festival because, as I mentioned earlier, I haven’t been…yet.)
If You Are Travelling to Zanzibar from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania Should You Take a Flight or the Ferry?
Without a doubt, take the ferry!
Why? Because that’s where the magic of travelling to Zanzibar begins.
Sailing across the Indian Ocean, the wind and a little refreshing spritz on your face….what’s not to love? (As you probably can tell, I love to sit on the ferry’s outdoor deck whenever I travel to Zanzibar.)
Plus, given the traffic to and from the airport in Dar es Salaam, it’s unlikely that you are going to save yourself any time by flying.
If you take the ferry to Zanzibar, though, I recommend that you only use Azam Marine or Coastal Fast Ferries. These are essentially the same company and have a good safety record.
In the past, other ferries on this route have capsized due to overloading. Personally, I don’t think it is worth the risk.
So there you have it.
That’s what I have to share about travelling to and visiting Zanzibar.
Now, over to you.
What Are Your Recommendations for Zanzibar?
Have you ever been to Zanzibar? If so, what did you think of the experience? Do you have any recommendations to share with soon-to-be travelers to the archipelago? If so, please let me know in the comment section below.
Until the next time,
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Photo Credits: heleninwonderlust.co.uk, Rene Mayorga, Olivier Lejade, Rod Waddington, africahousehotel.com, en.tripadvisor.com.hk, Zanzibar Retreats, maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com, africanmeccasafaris.com, MoongateClimber, mygola.com, David Berkowitz (CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons, ziff.or.tz