Zanzibar Island visit came to me as a dream come true destination I never thought I would ever visit fact to be said. Due to the Amount of advertisement about this beautiful Paradise Island, I personally used to call it East Africa’s Luxurious Island and never in a day thought I could ever managed to live there or even write about it. But due to outbreak of the global Pandemic, Jan 2020, I saw my way into this beautiful astonishing island. Ohk let’s get this started!
It’s already 4:40am Early morning ,I wake up to the sound of Azam Marine link Ship Hooting ,the early ferry that leaves for Pemba Island, Followed by another sound from the nearby Mosque . Indeed that welcomed me to amazing Stone Town, in my mind there is nowhere on earth like Zanzibar.
Let’s first begin with a brief history about Zanzibar Island. Zanzibar Archipelago lies ………. Miles away off the coast of East Africa and Mainland Tanzania. It’s made up of three major Islands (Unguja, Pemba and mafia) plus are small number of other various tiny islands spread miles from each other. The most Famous Island is Unguja(in Swahili meaning bowl of fruits) and that’s what most tourists commonly refer to as Zanzibar whose capital city is Zanzibar City the home to the famous UNESCO world heritage city Called Stone Town are historical old city and also a tourist hub . Related: Zanzibar travel Guide.
Stone Town city is where the ancient world meets the modern civilization, traditional dhow sailing boats line the harbor along with yachts and the old city where getting lost is a must happen fun and adventurous happening due its unending connecting alley narrow streets filled with young boys playing street soccer and scooters racing through – hope you don’t beat me for that, once a flourishing trade hub including slave trade which was one of the major source of income for the early Arab Oman Settlers in the 19th century when men, women and Children were forced into slavery ,raped, brutalized and sold to merchants . It continues to be a melting pot of traditional African Swahili people, Arab, Indian and Some European culture (mainly influenced by the rapid flow of European tourist each and every day) all of which have left a mark of contribution whether it be in the beliefs, religion, dress code, architecture, be it the customs or more upon the way people live and work.
Stone Town was my first destination and also the first check in for most of the tourist who visit Zanzibar Island. I recommend you stay here for at least 5 to 7 days before heading to the beautiful white sand beaches and crystal blue waters of Zanzibar. Here is the brief guide to exploring Stone Town, Zanzibar in order to dive into its hidden Gems like a local.
WHEN TO GO
Even in these times when globally the world is fighting against the wide spread of Covid, countries’ various borders closed, Zanzibar island has still be open for travel and tourism and that has attracted more European tourist trying to escape their respective country lockdown traumas into the beautiful east African Paradise Island Honestly speaking whether you planning your visit from Jan to August or September to December, Stone town is always open to welcome you no matter what season you may visit in. Personally I visited Stone Town and Zanzibar in general by the end of Jan 2021 but I enjoyed it more than how I had thought it would be. Get there now!
STONE TOWN CULTURE AND LAUNGUAGE.
Stone town is a melting pot of Swahili African, Arabs, Indians and European Culture but though this may be like this, having been Under Arabic-Oman Sultan rule in the 19th century, there influence has lived till now through the left behind architecture Old buildings, the colorful hijab dress code for women and Kansu for men, traditional chai, that are actually became a custom to not only Stone town inhabitants but also thought out the all island in general.
Zanzibarian people are generally Muslims plus some few minority Christians and Hindu and the major languages spoken in Stone Town and throughout the Islands at large is Swahili which is their culture Language and English that they came to adopt with due to now high everyday rapid flow of tourists from various Countries. TIP: It’s of high respect to the culture of Zanzibar and its people, as a tourist to dress appropriate, respectful and responsible traveler.
NAVIGATING AROUND STONE TOWN
Stone Town is made up of narrow, winding streets connecting through, the most recommended to navigate through stone town is by walking but though if you manage to access a bicycle or scooter it could ease your movement from point A to B. It’s of high advantage when visiting Stone Town with plans of riding a car or Motorcycle to pack your international driver’s license because surprising in one way or other, you may be stopped by the police and that’s the first thing asked. Pro Tip: prepare yourself to accidently race with local scooter riders through those narrow and tiny streets and also meeting in almost every corridor young boys playing football through the streets.
Apparently being a tourist destination, it’s of best if you bring only “new “US dollars and you can either exchange them during arrive or either not because I realized almost every established business you will approach accepts both Tanzania Shillings and US dollars. This applies to the all Islands not just stone town whether Pemba, Mafia and Unguja. Pro Tip: please remember to bring only new US dollar bills, I knew I had to bring dollars but without no idea that nobody could even accept any older bills which are not from year 2000 and above. 1 USD = 2300 TSH.
PAYING MORE THAN THE ORIGINAL PRICE
Unsurprisingly Stone Town, Zanzibar in General is no different from other destinations when it comes to sky rocketing fares and differentiating them between local and tourist prices. Living as a digital nomad moving from one country to another, my first tip in the bag is bargaining and its of wise to always haggle and negotiate when buying anything be it from souvenir shops in Stone town, the market or even in personal custom tailored tour fares. Never accept the first price given to you unless if you don’t mind.
The whole Island isn’t cheap in general basing on tourist side, the prices actually compared to US dollars and in some cases you’ll never be sure how much you’ll pay in totally for example, I was meant to take a shared boat trip with others to Picnic Sand bay for 35$, surprisingly, when I showed up for my boat the boat pilot last minute sky rocketed the price to 45$ basing on an excuse that fuel prices had risen-just a day after my first price negotiation. Pro Tip: So my advice, no matter what anyone tells you about leaving a deposit, if you really unsure about the prices and the schedule, do not pay anyone anything in advance but instead pay in full in person on spot.
WHAT TO DO DURING YOUR VISIT.
Zanzibar Island has an unending what to-do more than what you may expect when planning your trip and I sure you, everyday you will discover something new to keep you busy during your visit. These are some the list long dos that you can get through our day with when visiting stone town:
Get lost in the alleyways, and narrow streets of Stone town: I call it (a narrow street maze) it’s a must to get lost in stone town if you finding your way through without a local but on the other hands its quite amazing when strolling around and taking in the culture, admiring the beautiful old soon to collapse architecture and the daily life of locals and eventually you will find yourself. If you have ever visited Medina in Marrakech Morocco, then surely you will know what I mean. The streets are narrow and winding, every corner filled with African craft and Souvenir Shops at you call to buy from them in a polite manner.
On my first day I got lost 20 times sometimes coming back to where I was from. I highly recommend on your first day of arrive to book a Stone Town city walking tour in that way at least it can help you to try to be familiar to the corner the next time when you walking through alone, learn about its history. Pro Tip: Avoid anyone so called street guide you may find along Forodhani Street offering to take you around unless it’s a shot you call for yourself.
Watch the Acrobatics boys jumping off the pavement into Water: Every day from 5:30pm to sunset at Forodhani gardens, don’t miss to watch young and amazing local boys jumping from the pavement into the waters while performing acrobatics. They draw a lot of attention to by passers due to the way they amazingly dive into the waters.
Plan a visit to the Prison Island: Prison Island might not be that a good attraction to every one due to its haunting past when it used to be a torture destination for rebellious Slaves in which many during that course lost their lives and also was once a small pox quarantine center during the early 18th century. Amidst all its history , it continuous to draw attention to also every tourist who visits Stone Town being the moment you walk along Forodhani Street, every person will be trying to sell you its tour at different prices. But definitely a must-see thing in Zanzibar because it’s just located 30minutes boat ride away from stone town and a home to over hundred friendly tortoises Pro Tip: I recommend you to organize the tour with a recognized Zanzibar tour company like Eco&Culture Tours who are the mostly used Tour guide because if you go in person to book the boat, they always charge you (mzungu\high prices)compared to what a tour company will and there prices are not guaranteed because they will always charge according to how you have come.
Look for a Zanzibarian Chai: Zanzibar Island is also known for its traditional Chai served in a slight tiny cups in company with a small slice of cake-just some times. Personally the first time I took it was when a local friend called Ahmed convinced me that it’s such a great addictive experience If I could once try and test their traditional Chai, if I did and truly it was sip of a life time . This Chai (tea) is made up of strong ginger, cinnamon, secret spices to increase the aroma and water and the only way to know its magic is only by testing it during your visit to Stone town. Its costs only 500tshs per small cup and easily on every corner of the narrow and winding streets in stone town, you will glance at a group of men seated with 2 kettles busy enjoying it. Pro Tip: it’s truly worthy testing and please don’t fell skeptical to ask for directions to where you can buy it or you can also test it at Spice Emerson hotel along Hurumuzi Street with a rooftop view company.
Admire the Zanzibarian Culture Doors: Wait don’t think am crazy- Lol, these are not the commonly designed wood doors but these can only be found in Stone Town, Zanzibar only due to their uniqueness and meaning that dates back in the early days of the Oman Sultans. Why I recommend that you admire doors is because they are beyond just being unique doors but also a strongly preserved culture. You can find various types of these doors, those influenced by Indians, Arabs, mixed and many more and all can be recognized by the unique characteristics such as flower motifs and studs (once used as a defense against challenging war elephants) by the Indians and chains on the Arab doors which symbolized a slave merchant or owner by in the days. Guess know you realize why I recommend it!
Go for a free personal or guided market tour: Markets globally are not only places where foods and other things are sold but also a place where people from all walks of life congregate to socialize, meet make friends and eat. Darajani market is of Zanzibar’s central market located just on the edge of the ancient lanes of stone town. It’s always likely, when walking through the narrow winding streets to suddenly emerge and find yourself in the middle of the market of which happened to me multiple times otherwise if you use the help of stone town map, you can find the market pretty easily and navigate your way to there.
Navigating yourself through the narrow, confusing and winding streets on your way to the market, is sort of like emerging from the cave though quite a great experience but before actually entering the market, the outside streets of the market is where often most actual happens. You will find vendors selling plastic carry in bags from china, fruit, and bread vendors all trying to sell you something to the local nice aroma Zanzibaris Spices and delicacies. Truly this is Unguja! Pro Tip: Darajani market walking tour is actually all worthy visiting forget the confusing narrow winding streets.
Wander around for street food testing: Zanzibar is a home to various exotic and Cultural street foods. I recommend during your free time to wander around Darajani Market to test the different fruits that can only be grown in Zanzibar and don’t miss out from 6:30pm till late to visit Forodhani Gardens night food Market the only place in Zanzibar where first you can test Zanzibaris Pizza, Zanzibar’s most famous food called Urojo a mix of eggs, cassava, coco nut, Irish potatoes, vegetables and many more which only costs like 1$, smooth up your thirsty with sugarcane juice and many more.. Almost all types of street foods including sea foods can be found and purchased at this night market, the choice is yours!
Visit the Freddie mercury museum: I guess you some tourist don’t know who Freddie Mercury was, Hakuna Matata, that’s how I was too because barely didn’t know who he was and why famous hence attracting many tourist for a photo op at Freddie mercury Museum. Ohk! Let’s dive into the real thing, when walking along shangani Street on your way to post office stone town, you’ll come across unexpected place, a monument to Freddie mercury, the famous vocalist and songwriter for the rock band Queen in London, UK. This monument is in form of a house also housing the Freddie mercury Museum was also a place where he spent much of his childhood.
Freddie Mercury house is quite a modest tourist attraction with displays and sings honoring this singer on the two windows outside this building. When it comes to his birth, some data shows he was born there another totally contradicting, so there is a lot of mystery around the mercury house even being that this is his birth place, even Mercury House itself doesn’t claim to be Freddie’s birth house.
The question of where he actually lived while in Zanzibar doesn’t have a definitive answer due to a handful of locations claiming to be the spot where he was born and lived but non can be confirmed 100% accuracy at least the Freddie mercury house which is semi recognized by even Google continuous to travel every day.
Visit the Palace museum: Stone Town’s Iconic Historical museumis all worthy you visit. At only 3$ entrance fee you get a good hours’ worth of interesting history about the Island, is heritage, learn about the stories of the Oman Sultan rulers and also dive into it’s the Island dark days when it used to be a trade destination for African Slaves who were sold to merchants and forced work in sugar cane plantations and more, for those who rebellion where either killed, brutalized or exiled to Prison island to face more hash and brutal conditions until there death.
As such, the stone town palace museum is a great place where you can learn more about Zanzibar Island including why it’s called Zanzibar. I highly recommend you to visit during morning hours so that you can have enough time to grasp the heritage of the island and its wealth influences. Definitely this is a must see place and it’s of great benefit if you go on a guided tour.
Spoil yourself by visiting the souvenir shops: From your starting point along the famous Shangani Street all the way into deep stone town, you will witness in every corner there is a shop that sells African Fabric clothes, Ornaments, Bracelets designed with Tanzanite stones, African Voodoo Statues, Zanzibar Post Cards and many more. Being Stone Town is the first entry point into Zanzibar, almost every tourist can’t spend a day without walking through these alleyways filled with Souvenir shops to purchase something and sometimes you will be call up by various merchants to come and have a free look late propose to you what to buy and negotiable prices. It’s such a great experience in case you a person who loves wandering and eye feeding you self with African Souvenirs hence you can end up purchasing one or two.
Visit the Former Slave Market : Along your way to Darajani Market just few meters away from Stone town’s famous eat out called Luukman Food market, you will glance your eyes to big church on your left at the same place there is what then was the Former Slave market . At only 5usd, but truly worthy every cent, especially if you go with a highly informed guide. You’ll at least need like a couple from 1-2 hours to absorb everything in from this jam packed full of interesting well put together info slave market museum funded by UNESCO and please make such you don’t miss the slave chambers located underneath the gift shop though seriously sobering stuff.
Spending your evenings at the beach: This is one of the free must dos you can’t miss during your visit to stone town. Spending your evenings at the beach sunbathing , walking along the beach and taking a dive into the cold crystal clear waters is something I can’t miss and a must do for you as well . Stone town beach isn’t that a long stretch beach like others around Zanzibar but it’s all worthy because you will enjoy watching morning sunrises and purely beautiful sunsets.
NB: The only negative but not dangerous event I have witnessed at the beach, for mostly women travelers, you will get called and approach by mostly young beach boys desperately trying their luck on you. They are not violent but sometimes quite annoying and yelling.
Stone Town instantly enthralled me, enchanted me, wrapped me in an exotic love affair, and won’t let me go as you walk through the narrow, winding streets you’re bound to experience some sensory overload-scooter crossing through, children playing football in the narrow alleyways, early day through calls to prayer and Ferry horning sounds at the port, deep smells of spices lingering in the air, beautiful and colorfully dressed women and men deeply engaged in mancala. What’s not to love about Stone Town? Then let’s continue from where we stopped.
WHERE TO EAT
Let’s get this straight am a guy who loves, street food and home cooked meals no matter what country am in but in stone town, I guess it was barely hard for me to storm the market and go home and cook because of a lot of cheap and good street foods in every corner, everyday throughout my 2months stay there, I was almost eating from a new place every day.
Though to add on that, there are couple of established eat outs that you can dine in from breakfast to dinner with different kinds of menus filled with sea foods-remember this is an island. Below are some of my recommendable eat out places
Forodhani Night Market: Located along Forodhani Street the same street where Palace Museum and Ngoma koge (old fort) are found. The Night market takes places from Forodhani gardens, the only place in Zanzibar where first you can test Zanzibaris Pizza, Zanzibar’s most famous food called Urojo a mix of eggs, cassava, coco nut, Irish potatoes, vegetables and many more which only costs like 1$, smooth up your thirsty with sugarcane juice, the 3$ meat and chicken swarhama and many more.. Almost all types of street foods including sea foods can be found and purchased at this night market, the choice is yours!
Cape Town Fish Market: You have heard me right, Cape Town fish Market restaurant is a South Africa owned Food chain also located in stone town at Forodhani gardens. Its white restaurant building located just opposite the Gardens. It’s quite a fancy place by looks, they sell almost all sea foods, those who love burgers and pizzas plus many more the menu is at your wait. At Cape town Fish Market you dine yourself while enjoying a deep smooth ocean air , dhowing sailing boats , amazing sunsets and also every Fridays , they treat there visitors with amazing melody songs performed by a live band. Quite worthy your visit!
Luukman Food market: Am quite sure almost every tourist who goes on a free or guided stone town walking tour quite knows this place. Honestly speaking on my side I learnt about this place from a friend of mine from south Africa called Bright living here as a Nomad when he took me there to grab some thing for dinner. Surely quite an impressive place fully packed with travelers from all angles of life enjoying their self-order cheap and amazing all kinds of foods from Chapatti to Pillawo (Arabic rice mixed with meat) and many more. The foods here start from 2$ and I assure you it’s all worth checking out.
There are couple of many places where you can go and eat either its breakfast, lunch or dinner on the list like, Emerson hotel on Hurumuzi, Zanzibar Serena Hotel, Mizinjani Hotel and restaurant plus others.
WHERE TO STAY
For my chase I was kind of lucky enough during my stay in Zanzibar , I never had to pay for any accommodation because before flying to the island, I reached out to one tour company and offered to help with managing there digital platforms in exchange for accommodation and truly that’s what it was-how lucky I was! But it may not be the same case with you, meaning you will need to book either accommodation at a hotel, bread and breakfast, hostel in advance or in person when you arrive. During a low season like these times where we all grappling with Covid-19 pandemic , everything is totally slow and down so for many with intention of finding a room on arrival have quite high chances though prices may be slightly differ than one who has booked directly online. These are some of Stone Town accommodations I would highly recommend on to go for.
Jafferji House Hotel: Located just 5minutes from Zanzibar ferry port, this accommodation offers romantic and authentic Zanzibarian décor with it look of a miniature palace with 10 suites and each single one different from the rest. Other accommodations include, Emerson spice and Emerson on Hurumuzi, Mizinjani Hotel, Lala hostel, Zanzibar Serena Hotel, Upendo Hotel the list is endless.
Stone town night life.
Night life in Stone town isn’t that epic like in other areas around the island but though also quite serving filled with young boys riding down there bicycles in style along Forodhani Street front of Palace museum to the club, bar life. There are couple of free places that I loved visiting during the night like chilling in Forodhani Gardens witness tourist and merchants negotiating prices to also chilling at Garden water pavements facing the ocean to glace at night stars and sailing night boats. Stone town being the main center of Zanzibar Islands, and also being a major Muslim place, you may think beer is forbidden but not really just strictly monitory regulated and only sold at bars and clubs plus one liquor store you will find along Shangani street opposite Post Office just next to Memories Souvenir shop.
There a couple of bars and clubs I could recommend on to visit when interested to grab a beer and chill and these include:
Upendo rooftop pool Bar located along Hurumuzi Street is quite a good place to night chill, enjoy rooftop views, and swim at the rooftop pool plus also for those who love mingling with fellow travelers that you place to go. Others places include Tatu bar and 6 degrees bar.
Spending time in Stone Town is somehow like teleporting back in the 18th century, a place where faded colonial and Arabic building and ruins rub shoulders with vibrant, bustling markets where donkey and scooter navigate tiny narrow, winding streets as children dashing home from home in Islamic dresses and uniforms weave in and out of them and also a place where ancient carved doorways sit slightly ajar, their secrets just out of reach—-Honestly this is the only place where you will both feel like you leaving entwine times (old days and today modernity).
Truth to be, Zanzibar Island or Stone Town might not be every travelers must visit destination but to me, I realized it’s the place that will continuously fascinate me more than any other destination I have ever visited. Remember travel Safe and also be are responsible tourist. Hakuna Matata!