Zanzibar, also known as Spice Island, is a tropical paradise located off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa. The island is known for its beautiful beaches, clear waters, rich culture and history, and diverse natural environments. Whether you’re looking to relax on the beach, explore historical sites, or take part in water sports, Zanzibar has something to offer to everyone. Let’s explore it all!
The island is located in the Indian Ocean, just a short flight from the mainland of Tanzania. It has a tropical climate, with temperatures ranging from 27°C to 35°C, and a rainy season from March to May and from October to December. Dry seasons in between these are the best time to visit Zanzibar. The island has a diverse culture, with a mix of African, Arab, Indian, and European influences. The official language is Swahili, but English is also widely spoken.
Stone Town, also known as the old town of Zanzibar City, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most popular destinations in Zanzibar. It is known for its winding streets, ornate doorways, and historical buildings. Visitors can explore the markets, shops, and museums in the area, and see the House of Wonders, the Arab Fort, and the Palace Museum. The town is a great place to experience the island’s rich culture and history, as it has a mix of multicultural influences and lets you easily access some of them.
House of Wonders
House of Wonders is one of the largest buildings in Stone Town, originally serving as a palace, later a museum. Its name originates from being one of the first buildings in East Africa to have access to electricity. In recent years, the building has suffered due to misrepair, and sections of it have collapsed. Because of this, it is currently inaccessible to visitors as it undergoes extensive restoration efforts.
Make sure to explore the town with a guide that can tell you more about its history as you walk through the Arab Fort, which had several uses throughout its lifetime – serving as a prison, slave market, barracks, defensive fort, but also a station for Zanzibar’s railroad long since disassembled.
Old Slave Market / Cathedral
Zanzibar was used extensively as a slave trading hub in the past, and the old slave market is by far the saddest place you can visit on the island. You can step down under the ground to see the claustrophobic chambers slaves were kept in, and feel the atmosphere of landmarks that have seen a lot of pain and suffering. The area nowadays hosts a cathedral and museum educating people on the history of slavery, which is well worth visiting. The trip through the old slave market will leave you feeling heavy and depressed, yet this is exactly why it is an important sight to see and not ignore.
Freddie Mercury’s House
Freddie Mercury’s house is a must-see destination for fans of the iconic musician and visitors to Stone Town. The house is located in the heart of Stone Town and is where Freddie Mercury was born and spent his childhood. It has been turned into a small hotel with a museum next door dedicated to the iconic musician. The house is located in a central area of Stone Town and a tour around it is a great way to explore an interesting neighborhood.
Darajani Market, also known as the “Central Market”, is a must-see destination for visitors to Stone Town, Zanzibar. It is located in the heart of Stone Town and is considered one of the oldest markets on the island. The market is a bustling hub of activity, where locals and visitors alike come to buy and sell a variety of goods. It is split into several sections, each selling different products such as fruits, vegetables, spices, fish, meat, textiles, and souvenirs. It offers a unique way to experience the island’s culture and see the daily life of the locals. The market is currently in operation and it’s open every day of the week, however, it’s most active on weekends.
While not a landmark of its own, it is well worth looking for a place to try authentic Swahili Food in Stone Town. On an island otherwise dominated by resorts with cuisine tailored to make tourists comfortable, finding a place to try authentic local food is not trivial. Stone Town does offer a few possibilities, and I can heartily recommend checking out Lukmaan restaurant close to the Old Slave Market. If you end up liking what you eat, Stone Town is also a great place to look for a half-a-day Swahili food cooking class.
Prison Island, also known as Changuu Island, is a small island located about a 30-minute boat ride from Stone Town. It is known for its giant tortoises, which were brought to the island in the late 1800s. Visitors can take a tour of the island and see the giant tortoises in the sanctuary. The island also has a history as a prison for slaves and later as a hospital and quarantine station. As you take a tour through it, you will see remains of its old legacy.
The vibe is not all gloomy though, as you’ll be surrounded by coral reefs and marine life, making it an excellent spot for snorkeling. The island is also known for its peaceful and tranquil atmosphere and is a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of Zanzibar City.
Spice farms on the island of Zanzibar have a long history and are considered an important part of the island’s economy and culture. Spices such as cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, black pepper, and ginger were traditionally grown on the island and were a major export. The island’s warm climate and fertile soil make it an ideal location for growing spices. In the past, spices were the main source of income for the island, and the trade of spices helped to shape the island’s history and culture.
Today, many spice farms are open to visitors, and they are popular tourist destinations. Visitors can take guided tours of the farms, learn about the history of spice growing on the island, and see various spices growing in the fields. Visitors can also taste and purchase the spices, and learn how to use them in cooking. Some farms also offer cooking classes where visitors can learn to cook traditional Zanzibari dishes using spices.
Spice farming has an important place in Zanzibar, not only because it was a significant source of income for the island in the past but also because it’s an important part of the island’s culture and heritage. The spices grown on the island are known for their high quality and unique flavor. Visiting a spice farm is an interesting and educational experience that allows visitors to learn about the island’s history, culture, and economy.
Maasai World is a cultural center that was established to provide visitors with an opportunity to learn about the Maasai culture and customs, and to promote cultural exchange between the Maasai people and visitors. The center offers visitors a chance to experience the traditional way of life of the Maasai people, who are known for their unique customs, dress, and rituals.
Visitors to Maasai World can take guided tours of the center and learn about the history and culture of the Maasai people. They can also witness traditional dances and ceremonies, and learn about the customs and traditions of the Maasai people. Visitors can also purchase traditional Maasai crafts, textiles, and jewelry. The center also provides visitors with the opportunity to interact with the Maasai people, learn about their way of life and ask questions.
Jozani Natural Reserve
Jozani Forest Reserve is the only national park on the island of Zanzibar and it is a must-see destination for nature lovers. The reserve is home to a variety of wildlife, including the endangered red colobus monkey, which is found only in Zanzibar. Visitors can take guided tours of the forest and learn about the conservation efforts in the area. The forest has a few hiking trails, but you may only walk them with an official guide assigned to you by the reserve at the entrance.
Additionally, the reserve is home to a mangrove forest, a unique ecosystem, often partially submerged in seawater, that supports a variety of plant and animal species. All in all, the reserve offers an excellent opportunity to experience the island’s unique flora and fauna and to gain a deeper understanding of the island’s ecology and biodiversity.
Cheetah’s Rock is a privately owned animal sanctuary known for its cheetahs and other animals. The sanctuary was established in 2014 with the aim of providing a safe environment for cheetahs that were rescued from being kept as pets or from illegal trade. The sanctuary also provides a home for other animals such as monkeys, bush babies, lions, tigers, hyenas, and lemurs.
Visitors to Cheetah’s Rock can take guided tours of the sanctuary, and learn about the history of the rescued animals and the work done to care for them. Visitors are taken into the immediate vicinity of some of the animals and are able to interact with them under the guidance of their caretakers. The experience can range from cute when feeding bushbabies to anxiety-inducing when lion pups are led right next to the visitors and curiously look considering whether the visitors are a toy or a meal.
Zanzibar is a paradise for snorkelers, offering a wide variety of snorkeling opportunities to explore the island’s rich marine life. The island itself is on top of a reef that spreads itself outwards from underneath Zanzibar in all directions. It is home to a diverse array of colorful fish, dolphins, starfish, and other marine creatures. Popular snorkeling spots include Chumbe Island, a privately-owned island located off the southwest coast of Zanzibar, known for its coral reef which is a protected marine park, and Mnemba Island, which is a small island located off the northeast coast of Zanzibar, known for its beautiful coral reefs and clear waters.
Visitors can also snorkel off the beaches of Nungwi, Paje, and Kendwa, which are popular tourist destinations on the island. Additionally, Prison Island and Menai Bay are also popular spots for snorkeling and swimming. Snorkeling in Zanzibar is an unforgettable experience that allows visitors to explore the island’s rich marine life and enjoy the crystal clear waters and the beautiful coral reefs.
Kitesurfing and Surfing
Zanzibar is a popular destination for kitesurfing due to its warm weather, clear waters, and consistent waves. The most popular spots for kitesurfing are located on the east coast of the island, specifically in the areas of Paje and Jambiani. These spots are known for their long stretches of sandy beaches and consistent waves. The beaches have a good wind direction for kitesurfing especially from June to September.
Additionally, there are some opportunities to practice surfing as well, though the spots with good waves are rare. Reaching them will require a fishing boat taking you there and the conditions will not be ideal due to the sharp reef under your feet and big colonies of sea urchins.
There are several surf and kitesurf schools on the island that offer lessons and rentals for visitors. These schools provide equipment, and instructors and usually have a good safety record. They also provide accommodation options for surfers and kitesurfers. Visitors can take lessons to learn how to surf or kitesurf, or they can rent equipment and go out on their own.
Nightlife and parties
If you stay around the most popular areas of Nungwi and Kendwa, you’ll be surrounded by restaurants and beach resorts which offer some nightlife possibilities. Very famous is Fullmoon Party at Kendwa Rocks, which is a beach party that takes place monthly since 1996. Compared to some of the nightlife in other resorts, the Fullmoon Party at Kendwa Rocks feels very authentic and local. You’ll get to hear a lot of local musicians and Swahili tunes and mingle in groups mixed half-half of tourists and locals.
Where to stay at
When organizing your trip to Zanzibar, you want to consider some differences between various popular areas of the island. Zanzibar offers a variety of locations for visitors to choose from when selecting their accommodation. The most popular areas for tourists to stay are Nungwi, Paje, Kiwengwa, and Stone Town.
Nungwi is located on the northwest coast of the island, and it’s known for its beautiful beaches and lively nightlife. This area is popular among young travelers and party-goers who are looking for a vibrant atmosphere and a wide range of bars and restaurants. The lively and crowded atmosphere does mean however that you will need to deal with annoying beachboys trying to get money out of you at every step. Nungwi also offers a variety of water sports such as snorkeling, diving, and kitesurfing.
Paje, located on the east coast of the island, is popular among sports enthusiasts and those looking for a more laid-back atmosphere. The area is known for its long stretches of sandy beaches, and it’s an excellent spot for water sports such as kitesurfing, windsurfing, and stand-up paddleboarding. Paje also offers a variety of local restaurants, cafes, and bars.
Stone Town, located on the west coast of the island, is the historic heart of the island. It’s known for its unique architecture and rich cultural heritage. The area is popular among visitors looking to explore the island’s history, culture, and architecture. It’s also a great spot for shopping, dining, and nightlife.
Kiwengwa, located on the northeast coast of the island, is another popular area for tourists to stay. The area is known for its beautiful beaches, crystal-clear waters, and luxury resorts. Kiwengwa is a popular spot for visitors looking for a luxurious and exclusive vacation experience. This area offers several high-end resorts and private beach clubs, some of them with all-inclusive options. Visitors can enjoy a variety of activities such as snorkeling, diving, and boat trips to nearby islands. Kiwengwa is also known for its tranquil atmosphere, making it an ideal spot for couples and families looking for a relaxing vacation.
In summary, Nungwi is a great option for those looking for a lively atmosphere and nightlife, Kiwengwa for a more luxurious vacation, Paje is perfect for sports enthusiasts and those looking for a more laid-back atmosphere, and Stone Town is ideal for visitors interested in history, culture, and architecture.
Planning your adventure in Zanzibar
All of the locations and activities mentioned above are adventures that will occupy you for roughly half a day. You can easily string together two of them a day if you can deal with minor ad-hoc stress. Plans and appointments in Zanzibar tend to get delayed, which may force you to spontaneously have to replan. This is never a problem, as the whole island lives a culture of flexibility. You will always be able to find an alternative plan, driver, time for an activity, route to travel, etc.
The island itself is also relatively small. Most places are half an hour to an hour away from each other, so transfer between them is not a problem. Even if you decide to change from one side of the island (say the surfing-oriented Paje) to the opposite (party and nightlife-rich Kendwa or Nungwi), this will only take you an hour and a half.
To give you an idea, here’s an example itinerary that puts together sport, culture, party, and exploration into seven day stay at the island.
First Day, Hello Zanzibar!
- Morning: Arrive at the Zanzibar airport and take a transfer to a resort in Paje.
- Afternoon: Chill, and explore the calm and beautiful beaches. Maybe go out to eat at the Restaurant of the Rock (reservation necessary) or at a very local and authentic Sativa Cafe (highly recommended).
- Morning: Take a surfing or windsurfing course at Paje (e.g. Zanzibar Aquaholics), and be done by lunchtime.
- Afternoon: Take a trip to the Jozani Forest Reserve. This is about half an hour’s drive from Paje with a couple of hours of activities in Jozani. Stop by Kuza cave on the way back.
- Morning: Second day of your surfing or windsurfing course at Paje.
- Afternoon: Organise a trip on a local fishing boat to snorkel at the reef and look for starfish.
- Morning: Last day of surfing or windsurfing at Paje.
- Afternoon: Transfer to the Nungwi on the other side of the island. During the transfer, stop for a few hours for a tour of a local Spice Farm.
- Morning: Drive to Cheetah’s Rock (reservation required) and spend a few hours learning about and interacting with the animals.
- Evening: Walk along the beaches of Nungwi packed with restaurants and markets. Enjoy good food and nice nightlife vibes.
- Morning: Drive to Zanzibar City and spend the day exploring Stone Town. Take a fishing boat from Stone Town to Prison Island for a short one-hour tour.
- Afternoon: Visit Arab Fort, Freddie Mercury’s house, and Old Slave Market. Have a delicious Swahili meal at Lukmaan.
- Evening: Party at the Kendwa Rocks or just organize a dhow trip watching the sunset and chilling after all the adventures.
Seventh Day, Goodbye Zanzibar!
- Say your goodbyes and leave from Zanzibar airport. If you want your adventure to continue, stop over at Kilimanjaro airport nearby or head to Dar es Salaam.
In conclusion, Zanzibar is an island that offers a lot of variety. It’s easy to organize your days to be full of activities and experiences. You’ll find Zanzibari culture being very relaxed, positive, and open to spontaneity and ad-hoc requests. You’ll experience a mix of various cultures that may feel like quite an exotic mix all in all. And to top it all, Zanzibar is a very traveler-friendly destination, easy to reach and easy to move around. You won’t regret deciding to explore the Spice Island.