Zanzibar is an idyllic spot with the perfect environment for pure relaxation with its silver powdered sands, crystal clear waters, and towering palm trees. But it’s not just a one-dimensional postcard kind of a place. Zanzibar also features exceptional cultural and adventure experiences to satisfy both the heart and soul. So sit and read about the best things to do in Zanzibar.
What is Zanzibar and Where is it?
Zanzibar is an archipelago, an island, and a city. How can it be all three? Well, the Zanzibar Archipelago comprises more than forty islands, also known as the spice islands, off the tropical east coast of Africa facing onto the Indian Ocean a bit south of the Equator but north of Madagaskar. About a dozen of these islands have been settled, but only three of them are of any size. Of these, the largest one, Unguja island is the place that most people know simply as Zanzibar Island. The island is 85km long and about 30km wide. It has a population of about 850,000, most of whom live in Zanzibar city. With its neighbors, Unguja forms the Semi-Autonomous Zanzibar region of Tanzania.
Inhabited since the stone age and with one of the few deep water natural harbors on the East African, coast, Zanzibar has a rich and varied history linking such diverse nations as Oman, Britain, and Portugal. Formally with economies based on spice trading and slavery, Zanzibar’s main industry now is tourism, which has grown substantially from only about 20,000 visitors in 1984 to a targeted half-million in 2020.
Introduction for Visitors to Zanzibar
The first thing you should do when you land in Zanzibar is to explore the unique old section of the city, Stone Town, which boasts narrow alleys, magnificent architecture, vibrant traditional markets and several museums.
If you are itching to get to the beach, the Island is blessed with countless beautiful beaches including Kendwa and Nungwi. There is also snorkeling at Mnemba Atoll to the north of the Zanzibar. Perhaps, one of the most unusual attractions are the giant turtles on Prison Island.
Without further ado, here are the things you should be looking to do in Zanzibar.
What to Do, Where to Go
Explore Zanzibar Stone Town
There is no better way to learn the history of the Island than exploring the old city Stone Town. Steeped in history and packed to the brims with Swahili charm, Stone Town is the old section of the Zanzibar City. The locals know it as Mji Mkongwe, which translates loosely to “Old City.”
Stone Town is home of about 16,000 people and is nestled on the west coast on a small peninsula protruding into the Zanzibar channel. Narrow alleys form your charming route to most of the points of interest of the town, including craft shops, fabric stalls, art galleries, and quaint coffee shops. The layout of the city makes it perfect to be explored by foot as you experience the unique charm of Swahili culture.
The atmosphere of Stone Town is out of this world. The moment you start walking down the streets, you feel the aura of a city that has something for everyone.
Stone Town is on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites due to its unique architecture that is influenced by the Indians, Europeans, and Arabs. This is so because, from the 1500s, the Island was part of the Portuguese, Oman, and eventually British Empire. Visit to Stone Town is a must while in Zanzibar
- House of Wonders
- Near the main street of the town is the House of Wonders, a masterpiece of local architecture befitting its name. The house served at one time as the palace of the sultan of Zanzibar. Today, House of Wonders is the National Museum of Culture, housing extensive collection of artifacts including a large traditional boat known as mtepe in the courtyard as well as two 16th century bronze cannon, left here by the invading Portuguese.
- Fresh and Fish Market
- If you arrive at Stone Town in the morning make sure you will visit the Fish Market and witness fish auction. Not that it’s easy to understand what the men are screaming, but it’s for sure entertaining to observe it
- Slave market
- Another place to explore in Stone Town is the slave chambers. If you are already familiar with the corners of the city, slave chambers are located between St. Monica’s Hostel and the Anglican Cathedral. The site serves as a reminder of the gruesome history of the people of the town in the hands of colonial oppressors.
- Forodhani Gardens
- Forodhani Gardens is a great place to chill in Stone Town. It is where the Island’s night market is held and you can find just about any type of seafood, all cooked with Swahili spices.
- Freddie Mercury
- Did you know that Freddie Mercury – bandleader and vocalist of The Queen was born in Zanzibar? In Stone Town you can see his family house which works currently as the Freddie Mercury Museum
Take a spice tour or visit Spice Plantation Tour
Zanzibar Archipelago is known as The Spice Islands, and during your visit to a plantation, you will learn all bout it and see how many different spices grow here. We have visited spice farm in Phu Quoc, and we learnt a lot about spices in Morocco. However the plantation in Zanzibar was the most impressive of all, and I really enjoyed seeing and learning how my favourite spices including cloves, nutmeg, menthol, paprika, tamarind, cinnamon, pepper and, menthol grow.
At the end of the tour, you can of course buy spices or other souvenirs. Even if you don’t buy here, the next time you are in the market, you will be more knowledgable on what to buy and how much pay for it.
A spice tour takes around 2,5 hours and its one of the best things to do in Zanzibar.
Visit North of the Island – Nungwi and Kendwa Beaches
Nungwi and Kendwa beaches are the pearls of the Zanzibar Island. The shores are lined with beautiful resorts and white sands.
Nungwi itself as a settlement has about 5,500 people; it is located on the northern parts of the Island, while Kendwa is a smaller settlement, situated on the west coast overlooking Daloni and Tumbatu islands. Both regions are located just an hour’s drive from Stone Town.
While still in the area, make good use of your chance to sample as many Swahili dishes as you can, from fine restaurants, hotels, and bars that line the coast.
Perhaps, the real draw is the gold-yellow sand beach, Ranked by CNN in the top fifty best beaches in the world (2014).
Regardless of where you stay – and there are plenty of options, you will still have access to a bountiful collection of coffee shops, restaurants, massage parlours, and bars overlooking the Indian Ocean.
Nungwi beach is typically quiet during the day despite hosting a number of watersports such as scuba diving, paragliding, jet ski, as well as other activities such as craft lessons, beach volleyball, and tour of the villages nearby.
Kendwa beach is another great place to chill and wait for evening to fall. The resort is generally quiet with a very low population. But the beach is expansive, creating the illusion that you have the beach for yourself.
If you time your trip well, you might take part in the monthly Full Moon Party held at Kendwa Rocks Hotel. Other than this small monthly chaos, the resort is usually quiet and peaceful for the rest of the month, making it an excellent place for sunset cruises and sunbathing.
Last but not least, the two beach resorts are connected by water channels and can be explored on the same day using a water taxi.
Snorkelling at Mnemba Island
Mnemba is an isolated island located about 3 kilometres off the northeast shore of Unguja. Snorkelling at this atoll is probably the best luxury value for money activity in the world.
Sailing from Unguja to Mnemba is also a treat on its own. The dhows glide slowly over the calm morning waters of the ocean as a gentle breeze sweeps across the deck. The boat crews are usually super-friendly and forthcoming with pleasant chat, and you begin to realise that the journey can have almost as much to enjoy as the destination. Swahili people are hospitable, and some can put together a few English sentences, so the entire trip will be full of laughter and cracking of jokes, but the crews also seem sensitive to when you want to be left alone.
Along the way, you will spot dolphins and when you are about to reach Mnemba, you will be greeted by mesmerizing coral reefs. The Island is home to a spectacular variety of fishes, including yellow snappers, trevally, eels, barracuda, and many more.
Mnemba Island is private and so, you will be dropped off near the water edge, which also allows you to explore the colourful reefs up close. The boat operates on a two-way basis, so if you want you can just bask in the deck and gentle breeze pass through until the time to go back arrives.
Watch the sunset
The sunset in Zanzibar is like no other, and there are several locations where you can enjoy the perfect evening.
Stone Town is the first location, and the best for that matter, to watch as the sun sinks in the Indian Ocean in the late evenings. The ideal place is the Africa House Hotel, with luxurious decoration, and a perfect view of the horizon. The balcony at the back of the hotel has a great atmosphere with comfortable seating arrangements and the ideal vantage point to watch the sunset.
Alternatively, you can choose a hotel or lodge with access to the rooftop, and besides Stone Town, you can also enjoy the sunset at Nungwi and Kendwa beaches as both resorts face west.
Finally, why not book a sunset cruise on a sailing boat, most of which usually feature a stocked bar? Enjoy the sunlight on long stretches of golden sand on one side, and the flaming-red sun sinking down over the African Mailand Ocean to the other side with nothing to block your view.
Watch Capoeira dancers
Very often at the beach during the sunset you can see young Zanzibari men doing acrobatics. First time when I saw them I thought that they were just doing it as a show for the tourists in the beach bar, but that wasn’t the only reason. The acrobats turned out to be a Capoeira group practising their beautiful fusion of dance and martial arts in the evening on the beach. Trust me, sipping pina colada in the sunset watching young fit guys making backflips over breakers in the surf is a sight to give lifelong smiles.
Visit Jozani Forest – Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park
While in Zanzibar you must go to the only national park on the island – Jozani Forest (Jozani Chwaka Bay). One of the park’s main attractions is the endemic population of 6,000 red colobus monkeys. Walking through the woods we felt as if we were in a jungle full of monkeys.
How do you get to Jozani Forest? You can easily get to Jozani National Park by local bus “dala dala.” Or you can book the tour. Admission to the park costs around $ 8 / person. The price includes a walk with a guide in the woods (short or long route to choose from) and a walk on the footbridges among the mangrove trees.
Watch Giant Turtles on Prison Island
Prison Island or Changuu Island is a small island of just 800 by 200 meters about 6 kilometres northwest of Stone Town.
While there are plenty of beautiful reefs to snorkel around on this Island, the real deal is watching the giant turtles on the beaches near the Slave Trade Museum. You can book a tour which includes taking part in feeding the animals and as long as you are gentle and respectful, you can touch and interact with the turtles, some of which are over 180 years old.
Join a Full Moon Party at Kendwa Rocks
Every month, a full moon party is held on a well-known beachfront hotel in Kendwa Resort. And for an entry fee of $15 as an entry fee, you can experience one of the most fabulous nights in Zanzibar.
The party showcases some of the most popular singers from the Island as well as DJs and acts not only from Zanzibar but also in mainland Tanzania. This event is a destination not only for tourists, but also for locals and visitors from mainland Tanzania and Kenya.
Go on a Village Tour
While staying in the Smile Beach hotel, we were approached by one of the local guys offering to show us around the village. At first, I was wary, with memories of scammers in Jamaica a few years earlier but this turned out to be good-natured fair trade. He showed us around with entertaining stories and charged a reasonable fee.
As much as a learnt about the village it made me sad to compare my situation with that of the locals. We were staying in a hotel where I could have as many showers as I wanted – the houses located 100 meters away didn’t have water or any other commodities. Their women had to walk over 4 kilometres to carry heavy water vessels, while the men were snoozing in the shade.
We entered different households including the one where our guide lived, and I was really shocked by the poverty and lack of hope for a better life.
Eating Swahili dishes
The food in Zanzibar is one of the best you will ever taste. Some of the popular dishes are crab spaghetti, homemade tagliolini, jumbo prawns, fish, calamari, lobster, and cigal. Here are some restaurant recommendations:
The Rock – The Rock is situated on the east coast of the Island and about an hour from Stone Town and 90 minutes from the furthest point of the island. The idyllic setting of the restaurant is a bonus – nestled on a rock perched above the ocean with a beautiful horizon and clear water below and great Zanzibari food
The Tea House – Located in Stone Town, The Tea House is usually packed and the only way to make a table reservation is by physically going there a day before. Despite the hassle of getting a table, the experience you will get, plus the top services will make up for it.
The Langi Langi – Langi Langi is located in Nungwi, on stilts perched up over the blue waters of the Indian Ocean.
FAQ about Zanzibar holidays
Is Zanzibar safe for tourists?
Here it’s difficult to give a straight answer. I felt safe, but at the same time I was constantly cautious to keep eye on my belongings. When I arrived at the airport in the middle of the night, although my hotel was nearby – (looking at the google maps – walking distance) I still decided to get the taxi as it didn’t feel safe to walk in the middle of the night even 500 meters. So if you arrive anytime after dark, do book airport transfer in advance.
What to pack when you go to Zanzibar
This time the answer is really easy – everything. For example, I forgot the SD card from inside my camera – (silly me) I couldn’t buy one anywhere so I have only iPhone photos of my visit.
Money and ATMs in Zanzibar?
As soon as you arrive, do withdraw the money you may need. Be aware that in the south of the island you won’t find any ATMs, and outside the biggest hotels, card payments are unknown.
How many days do you need in Zanzibar?
To see the whole island you need at least 3 days, then add an additional day for Stone Town and then add as many as you want to spend on the beach or doing diving and watersports. I stayed a week on Zanzibar and by the time I left I was still hungry for more.
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