Sun-drenched shores, picturesque sunsets, and palm-fringed beaches blend seamlessly with chaos of the best kind – meet Zanzibar, an archipelago of four major and several small islands with charisma to spare. Located 35km off the Tanzanian coast, Unguja (more commonly known as Zanzibar) is the largest and most populated of these islands. And to say Zanzibar is the ultimate Indian Ocean experience is an understatement.
Ride aboard a traditional sailing dhow, stop to admire weathered doors with intricate carvings, and explore the heady scents of the many spices that have earned Zanzibar its nickname, ‘Spice Island’. Here, diversity reigns supreme. The Assyrians, Egyptians, Indians, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, English, Omanis, and Shirazis have all been here, some settling down and marrying into local families – thus turning Zanzibar’s modern-day residents into true symbols of its colourful heritage.
Any trip to Zanzibar should be anchored in exploring Stone Town, its historical capital and the only functioning ancient town in East Africa. Located on the island’s central-west coast, its cobbled streets and crumbling 19th century architecture make it easy to see why it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. While you could simply stroll around its bathhouses, craft centres, mosques, and colourful backstreet markets at your own pace, a guided tour comes highly recommended for true insights into this traditional society – and tidbits that you would undoubtedly miss on your own. For example, Zanzibar’s iconic doorways are not only functioning works of art, but they’re also storytellers, revealing the origin, occupation, religious beliefs, and social status of their original owners.
The town has changed little during the past 200 years, and boasts a multitude of important architectural highlights. History buffs should start at the imposing Palace Museum. Once the official residence of the Sultan of Zanzibar, it was renamed the Peoples’ Palace following the revolution in 1964 and turned into a museum in 1994. Another defining feature is the Old Fort, the first defensive structure erected by the Omani Arabs when they seized the island from the Portuguese in 1698. The structure once performed double duty as both a prison and place of execution. These days, its restored rooms house offices for the Cultural Arts Centre Zanzibar, while the open-air amphitheatre provides a dramatic screening venue for the Zanzibar International Film Festival. On the lookout for authentic souvenirs? Be sure to make a pitstop at the Cultural Arts Gallery – which is housed within the fort – to watch local artists in action and purchase their works.
The most attractive landmark in the cultural heart of the island, however, is the Old Dispensary. This late 19th century building was commissioned by prominent Indian merchant Tharia Topan, and has been successfully restored after falling into disrepair in the 1970s, so a visit to admire its peppermint-green latticework balconies is a must-do. But no trip is complete without exploring Zanzibar’s beleaguered past, as the island remained a hub of slave trade in East Africa for several centuries. Christ Church is built on the site of the world’s last open slave market, its altar marking the spot where slaves for sale were lashed. While you’re here, be sure to walk over to the poignant slave memorial outside that depicts five slaves standing in a pit wearing original neck collars and chains, their haunting expressions serving as a grim reminder of a not-so-distant past.
An evening spent at the waterside Forodhani Gardens comes highly recommended. Here awaits a carnivalesque atmosphere, courtesy of the al fresco food market that comes alive every night. This is the place to sample everything from crab claws and calamari steaks to the hearty Urojo soup, hand-pressed sugar cane juice, and Zanzibar’s take on pizza – all on a budget, too. Celebrating a special occasion or in the mood to splurge? Head to Tea House Restaurant at Emerson on Hurumzi hotel. Pairing authentic Swahili cuisine with expertly made cocktails, it’s the magical setting of this restaurant that you’ll long remember – think: vibrant floor cushions, dimly lit lanterns, live taarab music, and views over the motley roofs of Stone Town. Just be sure to book ahead and get there in time for sunset.
What Lies Beyond
At least one day trip outside of Stone Town is needed for a change of pace and, considering Zanzibar is blessed with several offshore islands, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Prison Island, originally used by the Arabs to detain insubordinate slaves, is only a 30-minute boat ride away. You can sunbathe or simply gaze at the warm turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean on its powdery-white beach, or snorkel as it is also fringed with a beautiful coral reef. Prison Island is also home to a family of giant tortoises – some of which are over 100 years old – that were imported from the Seychelles in the late 19th century.
Another jaunt not to be missed is the Princess Salme & The Spices tour operated by Zanzibar Different. Because many of the islands produce nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon, it incorporates a guided tour through a spice plantation as well as tracing the footsteps of Zanzibar’s rebel princess by way of Mtoni Palace ruins, Persian baths, and a coffee ceremony amidst spice plantations. The company also runs Mrembo Spa, where employment is offered to blind and deaf therapists with a deft touch. The menu here spans everything from henna application to aromatherapy massages, but for a treatment rooted in tradition? Opt for the Singo Scrub that Swahili women undergo before their wedding day and is made using the likes of ylang ylang, sandalwood powder, rose petals, and rosewater – any excuse for a little R&R after navigating Stone Town’s labyrinth of alleys.