“It is a land of contrasts; a place to delight the senses.” Emerson Zanzibar
Lying of the East coast of Tanzania, the Zanzibar archipelago is a popular destination with UAE residents due to its accessibility in around five hours. There are fifty islands but only Zanzibar (also knowns as Unguja or The Spice Island), Pemba and Tumbatu are inhabited. Zanzibar has had a turbulent past with its many explorers and traders each leaving their own legacy. It’s awash with history and influences from many different nationalities and cultures.
A maze of narrow streets and alleyways await you in historic Stone Town, an UNESCO World Heritage offering visitors a first hand glimpse into the history and culture of the island. Wandering the streets is an assault on your senses as you take in all the colours, sounds and aromas. Assertive street vendors (know as Papasi) attempt to entice you into their shops, those more persistent may follow you down the street with their wares and stories. An assertive ‘No Thanks’ usually does the job.
Take caution if offered anything likes trip sot hotels by Papasi as they can be directing you to the places where they get a financial reward or using unregistered trip providers. Book trips via your hotel or online (I used Viator via Lonely Planet – slightly more expensive but you have peace of mind and confirmed bookings/transfers). Most locals are friendly greeting you with a jovial ‘Jambo’ and more than happy to assist you with directions.
Landmarks to see include Freddie Mercury’s house (late lead singer of Queen in case you weren’t aware), House of Wonder, Forodhani Gardens night food market, several museums and plenty of local art. Once a sign of wealth and status, Zanzibari wooden doors are everywhere, some are centuries old and beautiful carved works of art. Miniature versions are available to purchase to take home, what can I say I’m a sucker for a souvenir (file under more sh*t we don’t need from our travels – guess who said that?).
One of Stone Town’s highlights is the traditional Emerson on Hurumzi, a lovingly restored quirky palace and it’s popular rooftop teahouse (meaning open-sided room). Climb to the top of the steep staircases and make yourself comfortable on the low seating. Enjoy the sunset across the roofs and the Indian Ocean beyond while you feast on traditional Zanzibari cuisine (reservations are recommended as space is limited). Alcohol is also served alongside the set-menu which changes regularly, it’s a social affair where you get to meet fellow travellers and listen to taarab music.
Sister hotel Emerson Spice, itself a restored Merchant’s House, is just up the street and also serves a set-menu at its rooftop teahouse which is seafood based. Zanzibar Coffee House is good spot to enjoy a specialty coffee and a slice of their delicious homemade banana bread. They also serve savoury snacks, have rooms above and you can buy some coffee beans to take home from the in-house roastery.
If you are looking for a first-rate Stone Town dining experience visit the Beach House, the standalone restaurant of the Park Hyatt Zanzibar. Fabulous waterfront location, a well-stocked gin bar and delicious food await you at this gem. Other suggested bars for sunset drinks are the Africa House Hotel terrace (I wasn’t impressed) which was once the British Club and Up North @ 6 Degrees South rooftop bar.
Take a traditional wooden dhow over to Prison Island (Changu Island) to see the giant tortoises, visit the original prison site where slaves were once detained and enjoy a spot of snorkelling in the clear waters. This is a half day trip (morning or afternoon) that can be combined with a visit to a nearby sandbar.
If you want to explore further book a full-day sea adventure with Safari Blue that starts from the Southern village of Fumba. The excursion had a bit of a hairy start with an overloaded small boat ( luckily we didn’t capsize) used to transport passengers to a larger traditional dhow. The trip explores the Menai Bay Conservation area. First stop was a deserted sandbank followed by snorkelling, dolphin spotting and swimming in the warm waters of a shallow mangrove lagoon. Lunch was a traditional Swallhi seafood BBQ served on Kwale Island.
Hoisting the sail and sailing back to shore was definitely a highlight as opposed to the slow outward trip by motor. Snorkelling equipment was provided in the price as was all drinks, snacks, lunch and hotel transfers. Beware other operators posing as Safari Blue – click HERE for the official website, I booked via Viator.
The Rock restaurant and bar is a major tourist attraction that sadly is overhyped. Yes, it’s photogenic, it does have a stunning location and it’s certainly a one off, I for one have never before been to a restaurant perched on a coral formation in the sea. You walk across a series of stepping stones during low tide or get a boat at high tide.
While the location is undoubtedly impressive the food and decor are distinctly average and it’s expensive. It did have a lot of seafood on offer which we didn’t try so maybe that’s a better option. You must have a lunch or dinner reservation (click HERE) and can’t just go for a drink. Travel is about experience so therefore go and get that coveted photo, it’s a Zanzibar box-ticker after all, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Away from Stone Town there are many luxury resorts and villas located around the palm tree fringed coastline. Accommodation varies from large scale all-inclusive resorts to more intimate boutique style properties, my advice would be to research well so you are not disappointed. These gated resorts don’t have anything tourist friendly around them so opting for all-inclusive is necessary.
The East coast beaches of Kiwengwa, Pongwe and Paje are certainly stunning, many of which offer over water dining options that are not to be missed. Plenty of watersports are on offer along this coast including kayaking, windsurfing and kite surfing to name a few.
Two popular excursions are located in this area. Firstly, a spice plantation tour to see, smell and taste first hand the spices, herbs and fruits grown on Zanzibar, and secondly a visit to Jozani Forest. Expect to see indigenous and endangered red colobus monkeys in their natural habitat as well as birds, hushbabies, duikers and native butterflies. The sea turtle sanctuary is also nearby.
Zanzibar is also a favoured dive destination with several areas to explore including Mnemba Island, East Africa’s most popular dive site. The island itself is privately owned so cannot be visited (unless you’re a guest at the exclusive Mnemba Lodge) but the coral reef can be explored by anyone. Its popularity is causing damage to the reef so some companies will take divers to alternative locations. You should see plenty of turtles, reef sharks, dolphins, plenty of tropical fish, tuna and barracuda as well as hump back whales if it’s migration season.
The majority of visitors, especially backpackers, head North to Nungwi to the beaches and many hotels there. Once known for fishing and dhow building it’s now more of a party place with full moon parties attracting a younger crowd. Many watersports and diving centres are located there too.
- Zanzibar is predominantly Muslim, a traditional and conservative island so remember to dress and act respectively.
- Tanzania introduced an online tourism visa system in 2018. Apply and pay for your visa online before travelling HERE. We paid $50 each and received an e-mail with our visas.
- If you have a Priority Pass travel card, show it on arrival where you will be taken to private lounge. Immigration will be processed here quickly and your luggage taken care of for you (should be a member of staff with a sign as you disembark the aircraft)
- Book any excursions either online before you travel or via your hotel to ensure you are paying the right price and using registered providers.
- Negotiate taxi fares as they can try it on (we were quoted 50% more by one hotel receptionist who was offering his friend – he soon halved his original offer).
- Only use registered taxis as police stop unlawful carriers – we saw lots of police stopping cars as we travelled out of Stone Town
- Everywhere accepts US Dollars as well as Tanzania Shillings – have a currency convertor handy on your phone to check conversions from shillings to dollars.
- Take care wandering around at night. We didn’t personally have any issues.
- Book a central hotel in Stone Town so you can explore everywhere on foot.
- Zanzibar has a tropical climate, take plenty of sunscreen and a hat.
- Take a deet spray to combat the mosquitos. Some advice recommends you take malaria tablets and get a yellow fever vaccination – we did neither and are perfectly ok (so far).
- The airport is old and not really geared up for the number of visitors it receives. There’s a small number of check-in desks, antiquated systems, limited seating and expensive retail outlets. Expect long queues and maybe take snacks with you (incase of delay) especially if travelling with young children. The ‘lounge’ was interesting.
Zanzibar is an interesting and diverse place to visit, it offers visitors a chance to explore both the old and the new. Historic Stone Town is a must do, definitely exeperience a boat trip of some kind and then relax at one of the many beautiful coastal resorts.
We travelled to Zanzibar via Muscat with Oman Air. We stayed at the Park Hyatt Zanzibar – read more about that in my review HERE. Read more about our trip in previous post In Pictures | A Postcard from Zanzibar
The views in this post are all my own based on my experience. Unless otherwise stated all photos © Jo Brett 2019. All rights reserved.