Zanzibar at a Glance
The epitome of exotic, Zanzibar has captured the imaginations of explorers for centuries. Known in local dialect as Unguja, Zanzibar is a Tanzanian archipelago in the India Ocean, just 15 miles off the coast of East Africa known as the Swahili Coast. It’s generally visited by people who are already in Tanzania for a safari or to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. In addition to the idyllic Zanzibar beaches, the island has a rich history as a colony and trading outpost, and an eclectic mix of African, Indian, Islamic, and European culture and cuisine.
Known as “the spice island, Zanzibar’s main industries are spices (cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and black pepper), seaweed, raffia (palms), and tourism.
- Area: 950 mi²
- Founded: December 10, 1963
- Population: 1.304 million (2012) United Nations
- Capital: Zanzibar City
- Electricity: The local current is 220- 240 VAC 50Hz. Most plug sockets take the three ping British plugs. Be sure to pack a universal travel adaptor so you can still use all your electronic gadgets.
When to Visit ZanzibarResting near the equator, Zanzibar enjoys a year-round warm, tropical climate, making it the perfect island getaway. The island does experience monsoon weather which is the worst from November-December as well as March-May (southwest monsoon (known locally as kusi). During these times it’s humid with more mosquitos, so it might not be the best time to go.
We visited during October and loved it. The weather was warm but not unbearably hot and we experienced gorgeous sunsets. It was dry except for the late afternoon short-lasting shower, and I never saw a mosquito or the dreaded tsetse fly.
Because Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous, there has been some discussion about whether the island should be considered part of Tanzania or not. As of now, it is, even though it has its own entry stamp. Americans need a Tanzania Visa which can be purchased online ahead of time.
How to Get Around Zanzibar
The main way to get around is by taxi or hired driver, but this is not budget-friendly because most taxi drivers will be stationed in Stone Town.
It is not customary to tip your taxi driver in Tanzania but it is always a nice gesture.
If you’re on a tight budget, another option is to take a local bus called a dalladalla. These can be a challenge because of the random schedules, lack of air-conditioning, and crammed with locals.
If you’re staying more than just a few days, you might want to consider renting a car and exploring the island at your leisure. But if you do, take note that some of the roads are earthen and rudimentary at best with lots of deep potholes.
Brief History of Zanzibar
The presence of microliths suggests that Zanzibar has been home to humans for at least 20,000 years, which was the beginning of the Later Stone Age.
Vasco da Gama’s visit in 1498 marked the beginning of European influence. In 1503 Zanzibar became part of the Portuguese Empire.
In 1698 Zanzibar came under the influence of the Sultanate of Oman.
In 1832 Said bin Sultan, Sultan of Muscat and Oman moved his capital from Muscat, Oman to Stone Town.
During his 14-year reign as sultan, Majid bin Said consolidated his power around the Arab slave trade. Malindi in Zanzibar City was the Swahili Coast’s main port for the slave trade in the Middle East. In the mid-19th century, as many as 50,000 slaves passed annually through the port. Control of Zanzibar eventually came into the hands of the British Empire; part of the political impetus for this was the 19th-century movement for the abolition of the slave trade.
In 1890 Zanzibar became a protectorate (not a colony) of Britain. This status meant it continued to be under the sovereignty of the Sultan of Zanzibar.
In 1963 the United Kingdom abolished the Protectorate and Zanzibar became an independent constitutional monarchy under the Sultan.
In April 1964, the republic merged with mainland Tanganyika, and the two regions became known as Tanzania.
CultureZanzibar is almost entirely Muslim, so females should take note of that and be respectful by choosing a conservative wardrobe. Bikinis and coverups are fine at your resort, but I was advised to cover my shoulders and knees when walking around towns and villages.
All local women I saw wore head coverings – mostly scarfs, although I did see the occasional burka. We’d been in Doha, Qatar just a couple of weeks prior to our visit to Zanzibar, but unlike the vast majority of women almost entirely covered in black, the women in Zanzibar displayed a rich variety of fabrics in their dresses and head scarfs which showed their beautiful faces. The riot of colors and patterns was a feast for the eyes! Note: I never wore a head covering and even with my blonde hair, never felt out-of-place.
Swahili is the official language of Zanzibar, although many locals speak Arabic and at least some English. Here are some basic words that it would be beneficial to learn before visiting.
- Hello – jambo
- Thank you – asante
- Welcome – karibu
- Slow – polepole
- Okay – sawa
- How much? – pesa ngapi
- There are no troubles – hakuna matata
- Toilet – choo
- Goodnight = lala salama
- I’d like = nataka
The currency used across the island is the Tanzania Shilling, however, US Dollars are widely accepted across the island and can be exchanged in many places. There aren’t many ATM’s (most are in Stone Town). We brought an adequate supply of US cash which was accepted everywhere and we never had to exchange money.
At the time of this writing, the exchange rate was approximately 1 USD = 2305 TZS.
Zanzibar is generally a very safe destination, especially since tourism is its main source of income, so there is a desire to continue to benefit from tourist money. However, much of the island is third-world economically, so be wary of petty crimes such as theft.
Foreign tourists also need to be aware of the conservative nature of Zanzibar. The predominant religion is Islam, and locals dress and act very conservative, especially women. Be respectful and appropriate in your dress or enjoying drinks out, as what may be fine where you live, might be frowned upon in Zanzibar.
Festivals and Public Holidays
- New Year’s Day – 1 January
- Zanzibar Revolution Day – 12 January
- Easter March/April – Good Friday and Easter Monday
- Karume Day – 7 April
- Union Day – 26 April
- Labour Day – 1 May
- Ramadan – April—June
- Saba Saba (Peasants’ Day) – 7 July
- Nane Nane (Farmers’ Day) – 8 August
- Nyerere Day – 14 October
- Independence Day – 9 December
- Christmas Day – 25 December
- Boxing Day – 26 December
Top Things to Do
1 Kendwa Beach
It makes sense for me to start with my favorite of all the Zanzibar beaches… Located on the northwest coast of Zanzibar overlooking Daloni and Tumbatu Islands, Kendwa is more laid back then popular and nearby Nungwi (below) and is sometimes referred to as the “little sister” of Nungwi Beach,
The impossibly iridescent-turquoise water is almost surreal, and the calm, clear water is quite warm due to the fact that the tide here doesn’t really change. You can find colorful starfish just offshore (but please just observe and do not pick them up or disturb them in their natural habitat).
You’ll still find some activity here and a small number of food options, but there’s plenty of space to chill out on the wide idyllic beach. There are places where you can rent loungers and hammocks right next to the beach.
Because it faces west, Kendwa also has some of the most romantic sunsets in Zanzibar which tourists often take advantage of via a sunset cruise on a traditional dhow sailing boat. Alternatively, guests can enjoy a cozy land-based sunset cocktail from a beach bed at the Kilindi Resort or from hammocks at the bar of the Sunset Kendwa.
If your visit happens to coincide with the full moon, Kendwa has a legendary once-a-month party on the beach of the Kendwa Rock Hotel, frequented by both locals and tourists. When the sun dips below the horizon, the beach comes alive with an African soundtrack and lots of dancing.
If you’re staying in/near Stone Town, it’s well worth taking the 1.5-hour drive to explore the northern beaches of Kendwa and Nungwi
2 Nungwi Beach
Nungwi, at the northern tip of Zanzibar, is the most popular of the Zanzibar beaches and arguably the best beach in Zanzibar, offering shimmering turquoise waters and palm-lined golden sand. With a population of around 5,500, Nungwi is the third-largest settlement on Zanzibar.
It was ranked as one of the Top 25 Beaches in the World by TripAdvisor’s 2018 Traveller’s Choice Awards, as well as #43 on CNN’s 2014 World’s Best Beaches with the following commentary:
“At sunset, white-sailed dhows leave from the boatyard, making for a great photo op.”
Nungwi has a lot of things to do; during the day, visitors can partake in a variety of beach activities such as jet skiing, paragliding, beach volleyball, and tours to a local village. There are many restaurants and beach bars. In the evening, the nightclubs and beach bars are known for their lively party atmosphere.
Shallow water makes it a great place for snorkeling and scuba diving, as close as right off the beach. The Nungwi coast is fringed with coral reefs and it’s sometimes possible to spot dolphins, sea turtles and, and the occasional whale shark.
The abundance of amusements also means that there are a lot more people at Nungwi, including the sometimes-annoying touts pestering you to buy their trinkets. So if you’re looking for romance, seclusion, and R&R, this isn’t the place. But if you’re seeking for a vibrant, lively beach, look no further.
3 Paje Beach
- Located on the southeast coast, Paje Beach is a long stretch of turquoise water and swaying palms. Once a sleepy fishing village, still peaceful Paje is a nice alternative to the sometimes frenetic Zanzibar beaches in the north.
The windy coastal conditions of Paje entice people to its watersports, especially known for its excellent kitesurfing conditions which draw both amateur and professional kitesurfers from all over the world. If you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at this sport, there are lessons offered for beginners.
Clear waters and offshore reefs make it perfect for scuba diving. Sea turtles, starfish, trumpet fish, and moray eels are just some of the marine life in the area.
At Paje Beach, you might also see local women collecting seaweed at low tide; the seaweed is used to make soap which is sold locally Locally-made seaweed soap comes wrapped in banana leaf and is a nice, sustainable way to support the community, as well as the health benefits for your skin. Seaweed is also exported in bulk.
Paje is popular with backpackers because of the inexpensive hostels and beach bars found here.
4 Stone Town
Zanzibar is not only a tropical paradise, but its sheltered harbor makes it a long-standing port town as well. Steeped in history, Stone Town is a historic fishing-village-turned-trade-center with Swahili and Islamic influences and the heart and soul of the island. Due to the mix of African, Arabic, and European colonial styles all packed into one city, Stone Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
Historic Stone Town and modern Ngambo make up the larger Zanzibar City, the capital of Zanzibar. With a population of just 16,000, Stone Town’s economy relies heavily on tourism, making it one of the most prominent tourist attractions in Tanzania.
Winding alleys meander past minarets, once beautiful but now decaying Arabic architecture, intricately carved doorways, pungent food markets, and vibrant souks selling handicrafts. It’s easy to get turned around strolling through the narrow labyrinth of alleys which can only be explored on foot, so an introductory walking tour is always a good idea.
One of the first things you’ll notice is the somewhat run-down facades of the older buildings. It reminded me of parts of Mumbai, and to a lesser extent, Havana, Cuba. For me, I actually adore the unique charm of the crumbling buildings.
Pay particular attention to the fascinating and intricate doors on the colonial and Arabic buildings. The carvings are specific and tell stories about the people who live(d) within. Shapes and designs indicate whether the doors are Swahili, Indian, or Arabic.
Queen’s lead singer, Freddie Mercury, was born in Stone Town, and many tours will take you past the house where he lived, although there is some debate as to whether or not the building is actually the place.
5 The Old Fort
The ruins of the Old Fort are the oldest building in Stone Town, built by the Omani Arabs in 1699 to protect Stone Town from Portuguese invaders. A more recent addition to the fort is the open-air amphitheater which hosts live productions, including the Zanzibar Film Festival, which showcases films and cultural performances from East Africa and beyond. When we were there, there was a men’s dance troupe in practice.
In the fort’s courtyard, you can enjoy local products being sold by the citizens of Stone Town. The site has a tourist information desk where you can find any upcoming events at the fort that might fit into your travel plans.
6 House of Wonders
Facing the town’s central square, the majestic House of Wonders, a former sultan’s palace, is the tallest building in Stone Town. The building is now home to the National Museum of History and Culture. The exhibitions in the House of Wonders offer a detailed insight into the Swahili and Zanzibar cultures.
Highlights of the collection include a traditional mtepe (Swahili boat) in the courtyard and two 16th-century bronze cannons captured from the Portuguese.
Note: The building is still undergoing major repairs and is currently closed.
7 Old Slave Market
Zanzibar has a long and fascinating history, including a dark period as an active slave port. The haunting ruins of the one of the world’s last slave markets are viewable in the Slave Museum in Stone Town. The British closed the trade down when they gained control of the island in the 19th century.
You can take a tour of the slave chambers (between the Anglican Cathedral and St Monica’s Hostel), a haunting, heartbreaking reminder of some 50,000 slaves passing through Zanzibar’s slave markets each year.
8 Rooftop Panoramic Views
Whenever I visit a new destination, I head straight to the highest point for a birds-eye view. Zanzibar was no exception. There were two places where I really enjoyed two very different but both amazing views.
Africa House is an old colonial hotel, with luxurious décor reminiscent of a bygone era. From the rooftop, there is a clear view of the coast and horizon beyond. The Sunset Lounge Balcony at the back of this unassuming hotel has a vibrant atmosphere and a great place to enjoy the sunset.
You might have to climb six flights of stairs (the elevator was broken when we were there) but it’s worth it – the Swahili House rooftop terrace has the best 360° panoramic views over Stone Town and the sea! There’s also a restaurant where you can dine and enjoy the splendid sunset.
9 Foods to Try
Zanzibar has long been a melting pot of cultures from Arabia, the Middle East, India, and Europe and as such, is reflected in its delicious food.
Mishkaki was one of my favorite foods in Zanzibar. It is a meat kabob where hunks of meat are marinated in spices and then char-grilled to perfection. These are a common snack food and you can get them with any kind of meat you like, or even with octopus.
Biryani is one of the most popular dishes in Zanzibar. It consists of rice that is cooked by itself with a concoction of spices such as cinnamon, ginger, chili, cumin, cardamom, nutmeg and cloves, and then mixed together with goat, beef or fish curry.
Zanzibar pizza is not like American or Italian pizza. This most famous street food is more like a pancake where the dough is folded up with beef or chicken, cheese, onions, bell peppers, seasoned with chili stuffed inside then cooked on a hot metal pan. Some vendors also sell sweet pizzas made with Nutella, fruits, or cheese.
The seafood in Zanzibar is known to be so fresh it’s almost still swimming in your plate. Much like spices, you will be able to find an incredible variety of seafood. Lobster, prawns nearly the size of lobsters, tuna, marlin, calamari, octopus, and snapper, are just some of the sumptuous seafood treats that are served on Zanzibar.
Deep-fried delectables include mandazi – fried dough similar to a donut, but not as sweet and eaten with dips, and kachori – deep-fried balls of mashed potato that arespiced with ginger, lime, and chili.
10 Daranjani Market
Head here for authentic sights, sounds, and smells of Zanzibar! The main bazaar in Stone Town sells traditional Zanzibar street food, spices, clothing, and souvenirs.
Part of it is a fish market that is both visually and aromatically challenging but worth a quick walkthrough.
11 Jaws Corner
In the middle of the Stone Town warren, you’ll come to a small plaza. You can’t miss the large painting of the shark on the side of one of the buildings. It’s a great place for people-watching with a steaming mug of strong Arabic coffee at the outdoor café. Be prepared – it’s served black and bitter, similar to expresso, but you can’t also get sweet ginger tea as well.
12 Changuu Island
Prison Island, also known as Changuu, is a small, white-sand island about a 30-minute boat ride off the coast of Stone Town.
It looks like paradise, but has a dark history, with ruins that were used as a holding center for rebellious slaves in the 1860s as well as a quarantine center for people with yellow fever. If you’re interested in exploring the history of the island, go to the Slave Trade Museum, where you can learn about the island’s past.
The main attraction on the island is the giant sea Aldabross tortoises. We were told that we’d see a large sea turtle colony. Much to my chagrin, the so-called colony was a population of giant tortoises that were given as a gift to Zanzibar in 1919 by the Seychelles and have been confined (repopulating) within the island ever since. Even though they say the turtles have flourished and actually allow you to hand-feed them, I’m opposed to wild animals held in captivity (hence Prison Island is still aptly named), so I cannot recommend this excursion.
There are lots of places to snorkel (or dive) in Zanzibar. Mnemba Atoll, located right off the northeast coast, is considered to be the best locations to see a diversity of marine life. The pristine, ring-shaped coral reefs are home to dolphins, yellow snapper, barracuda, and eels in the crystal-clear waters. It’s possible to book a great-value but no-frills traditional Dhow sailing boat to take you out (bring your own mask), or alternatively you can find a higher-end tour online.
You can also snorkel at Prison Island, just offshore from Stone Town. If you choose this option, beware of the below scam we ran into from a local tour operator:
While in Stone Town, before we got on the boat to Prison Island, we were fitted for fins and masks for snorkeling. We asked if we would have a place to change into swimsuits for snorkeling (we are female). Our guide said yes.
We got to Prison Island and were taken to see the “colony of sea turtles” which wasn’t in the wild as we were lead to believe, but nothing more than a zoo! We oppose animals in captivity, so this was distressing.
But it got even worse. Much worse. We asked again if we would have a place to change into swimsuits and our guide said yes. We got into the boat, assuming we would go around to another part of the island where we could change and then snorkel from the beach.
After 5 minutes of heading out to the open water, our boat stopped. I asked where were we going to change, and the guide said “right here on the boat” with a sleazy smile. Our boat only had a top canopy and was open to everyone in and around the boat with no privacy, including the male guide and male boat driver.
SERIOUSLY! He expected us to strip naked and put our swimsuits on!!!!! Bad enough, but we’d been cautioned over and over to respect the customs of Muslim Zanzibar and to wear clothing that covered our shoulders and knees.
We told him that under no circumstances would we take our clothes off in this situation. He didn’t seem to care, and we were not able to snorkel.
This situation was sexual harassment and inappropriate to the highest degree. We contacted the tour operator and got an immediate and full refund. We’re savvy travelers and did not allow the guide to intimidate us, but I wonder how many naïve female tourists felt compelled to succumb, so in order to help circumvent this in the future, we also alerted the Zanzibar Tourism Board.
14 Spice Farm
Since Zanzibar is often called the “spice island,” a tour of a local plantation is a nice way to see how Zanzibar’s once most profitable industry became an important stop on the trade routes from the 18th century.
Flavorful spices still grown on the island include cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, cardamom, and pepper. Most spice tours include lunch along with an opportunity to see, touch, and sample the produce, as well as learn how to cook with and/or the medicinal uses for some of the plants. Plantations are located between Stone Town and the northern beaches, so a spice tour can be a great place to take a break.
15 The Rock
- Located on the east coast of Zanzibar, this iconic and popular Instagram-worthy restaurant is situated on a, well, rock perched over the ocean. Depending on the tides, you may have to wade out into the water to reach the restaurant.
Best experienced during daylight, The Rock is known more for its unique setting than for fabulous food. Having said that, it’s best to steer towards the fresh seafood – lobster, calamari, jumbo prawns (shrimp), etc.
The Rock can be pricey and is popular with tourists so make sure you make a reservation as it fills up fast.
NOTE: We visited Zanzibar after a 2-week safari in Kenya, so we opted out of visiting Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park because we felt there was no way it could compare to our mind-blowing 10-day safari experiences there. But if you’re not going on a safari in Tanzania or Kenya, you can still see some of the Tanzania wildlife with a safari adventure at Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park.
BEST Place to Stay
The unique configuration of the resort consists of 15 secluded, white-domed pavilion guest suites all set in 50 acres of lush tropical gardens for the most intimate ambiance imaginable. The complex was originally designed for Benny Andersson – one of the members of the 1970 pop group ABBA, incorporating a successful fusion of minimalist Scandinavian and Middle Eastern architecture.
The pool area has beach beds swathed in luxurious cloth that sways in the breezes as well as keeps the sun from blazing too intensely.
From the spacious second-floor master bedroom, white wooden-slatted shutters embrace wide-arched glassless windows which open to spectacular views over the Indian Ocean and magnificent multi-hued sunsets.
Each pavilion has a private plunge pool surrounded by tropical gardens and comes with its own private butler to attend to your every need and make you feel like royalty.
The food at Kilindi is divine, including lobster eggs benedict available every morning. Our porter arranged for us to have a special, not-on-the-menu on our final evening that consisted of succulent grilled lobster and the most enormous grilled prawns that I’d ever seen! That dinner was out-of-this-world and etched on my memory banks forever!
If you are planning a honeymoon or dream vacation, then a stay at the Kilindi is a must!
What to Pack
For American electronics and chargers to work, a combination adapter/converter is a must-have. Don’t leave home without it, and make sure it has the converter within it.
Bikinis are fine at your resort, but if you plan on swimming elsewhere, you might want to consider a cute one-piece.
I never travel without a sarong. It’s my essential go-to item that I’ve used as a beach cover-up, sundress, head covering for religious sites, scarf, wind shawl, towel, pillow or seat covers, makeshift purse, privacy curtain, window shade, and packing padding.
God forbid, but it could also be used as a bandage, sling, tourniquet, or to tie a splint until you can get proper medical attention.
I love these so much I probably have at least 20, with no regrets.
Don’t forget to protect your eyes from harmful UV rays. I always make sure my glasses are very fashion-forward since you can see them in basically every photo that I’m in.
You’ll definitely need a tote when off to the beach. When forced, I can always use my daypack but prefer to have a large beach tote with pockets to store my towel, phone and/or camera, sunglasses, snacks, and sunscreen. I use a lightweight one that doesn’t take up much space or weight in my suitcase.
I love to carry a compact rain jacket in my daypack in case of a random downpour (as we certainly experienced every afternoon in Zanzibar).
This had multiple uses in Zanzibar. I used it at the beach, at night walking around the resort, and exploring Muslim Old Town. It was comfy and it fit right in with the colorful female dress of the island.
Because Zanzibar is near the equator, the sun rays are quite strong. A packable sunhat is always a good idea.
Multi-use Walking Sandals
As we’d just come from a safari in Kenya with very limited luggage weight, I was glad to have my Teva sandals. I’ve had these exact same leather sandals for years — they’ve been with me in many countries and adventures. They are extremely comfortable for walking and also looked good with my long, flowy dresses and caftan.
Filtered Water Bottle
Plastic pollution is a problem in southeast Africa, so it’s best not to contribute to the problem. The water is questionable in many remote places, but rather than buying plastic water bottles everywhere, filtered bottles are great for purifying unsafe water when you are away from your resort.
I love the beach but do not like staying in direct sunlight for long periods of time. During my sun exposure, I use an eco-friendly sunscreen that does not pollute the water or harm marine life. Win/win scenario.
It’s a great idea to bring one with you in case you don’t have access to WiFi, as well as to do research before you leave.
Enjoy your stay in Zanzibar!
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of The Elewana Collection during her stay in Zanzibar, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning blog Luggage and Lipstick. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal.
Read more about Patti Morrow.