Is there anywhere in the world that sounds more beguiling than Zanzibar? You can virtually feel the sea breeze, hear the rustle of palm leaves, and smell the spices just by saying Zanzibar. I had always been intrigued by this Indian Ocean spice island just by the name alone, but once I set foot there and watched the iconic triangular-sailed dhows on the ocean; sampled the cuisine; and experienced this interesting mix between African and Arabian cultures, I truly fell in love with it.
Zanzibar is an archipelago of four islands off the coast of East Africa; its main island, Unguja, is often referred to as Zanzibar. Because of its strategic location along spice and slave trade routes in the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar was a stronghold for many countries throughout its history. The country of Oman even declared Zanzibar its capital for 30 years in the 17th century. In the 1960s, the archipelago joined Tanganyika to form the country of Tanzania. (Tanzania lies just south of Kenya, with the iconic Mount Kilimanjaro practically straddling the border.)
Today, Zanzibar’s mainstays are spices and tourism, and English is widely spoken. Despite the tourism in the Zanzibar archipelago, finding people who have visited the islands is still quite rare, making this a dream location still very much off the beaten track.
1. How To Get To Zanzibar
None of the U.S. airlines fly directly to Zanzibar, but you can connect through Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar es Salaam (the largest city in Tanzania). If you fly into Dar es Salaam, you have the option to take a short flight to the island or take the ferry connecting the mainland with Stone Town, the old portion of lovely Zanzibar City.
Pro Tip: Finding Tanzanian shillings in the U.S. is virtually impossible, so hold out until you land in Tanzania and get the local currency from the ATMs in the airport. Make sure you always have plenty of change on you, as things are cheap and market stalls and cafes do not usually take cards.
2. Why You Should Visit Zanzibar
If the name alone doesn’t convince you, then visualize a perfect Indian Ocean island off the coast of Tanzania. You’ll see palm-fringed white-sand beaches protected by a healthy coral reef. You’ll see blue water, an interior that still has plenty of indigenous forestland, and a capital, Zanzibar City, that is full of amazing architecture — a mix of Omani palaces, Arabian arches, and Indian wooden balconies and studded doors. The town’s narrow streets are bustling with life, offering visitors a heady mix made up of local women offering you henna tattoos, Maasai warriors playing pool in a corner cafe, multiple colorful markets, delicious food, fabulous shopping, and plenty of varied history. And then there are the beach resorts.
The best way to experience Zanzibar, at least in my mind, is to have a two-stop vacation: a stay in Stone Town to enjoy all the town has to offer for a few days, then a drive through the interior to one of the many beach hotels and resorts to spend a few days relaxing on the beach. A week or two would not be too long.
3. The Best Time To Visit Zanzibar
Zanzibar is very close to the equator, and because of that, the temperatures are steady throughout the year, going from warm to hot (77 degrees to slightly above 85 degrees), with the advantage of a fresh sea breeze reaching you nearly everywhere on the island. Between March and the end of May, you have the so-called heavy rains, but even then, the days are mostly dry with only odd heavy showers. The short rains take place in November.
Zanzibar is predominantly Muslim, so do check what dates Ramadan and the two Eid celebrations fall on, as you will find many shops and cafes closed (although the beach resorts will offer business as usual).
Please note that there is malaria in Zanzibar, so you will need to get a suitable combination of malaria prophylaxis. Check with your nearest tropical diseases institute to learn which prophylaxis brands are recommended for the time you are planning to go.
4. The Best Things To Do In Zanzibar
The House Of Wonders
The House of Wonders (Bait al Ajaib) in Stone Town was once the ceremonial palace of Sultan Bargash bin Said, the Omani sultan who ruled Zanzibar between 1870 and 1888. The building incorporates most of the typical Zanzibari architecture: enormous wooden doors, a reminder of both Arab and Indian craftsmanship; tall columns creating shady verandas around the building; and rooms located on the outside of the building, creating an airy and cool courtyard inside. It is now a museum in dire need of a bit of love and care but has an intriguing and eclectic mix of artifacts from throughout Zanzibar’s history.
Please note that a large part of the House of Wonders collapsed in 2020, and while restoration efforts are being made, progress is slow.
Next door, you’ll find the old Arab Fort dating back to the 17th century, which is worth exploring.
The Darajani Market is the main market in historic Stone Town and, in fact, all of the main island. This is where everyone does their food shopping, exchanges gossip, and meets with friends. The atmosphere is electric; the colors, noise, and smells a feast for the senses. Obviously, with Zanzibar being the Spice Island, you shouldn’t miss the spice section. There is also a small souvenir market with local arts and crafts on sale next to the Old Fort.
At night, an absolute must-do is the food market in the Forodhani Gardens, just in front of the House of Wonders. Make sure you have plenty of small denominations of Tanzanian shillings in cash, as the food is cheap and cards are not taken.
The Jozani Forest
The Jozani Forest is part of Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park, and the only home of the rare red colobus monkeys. You can book guided tours from Stone Town (or any beach resort) to the reserve, and a guide will take you through the mature forest, full of teak, mahogany, raffia palms, and wild date palms. You will spot chameleons, elephant shrews, and bush babies if you are lucky. You will certainly spot the friendly monkeys, which you are not supposed to touch, but which will reach out for you. They are just as interested in the visitors as the visitors are in them.
The Spice Plantations
There are several spice plantations that are open to visitors; book a tour through your hotel, and you will learn so much. Even if you are a keen cook, you will be amazed by the cinnamon, ginger, lemongrass, cardamom, vanilla, turmeric, curry leaves, and many more kitchen staples that grow here. You’ll also find coconut, jackfruit, durian, guava, papaya, and 10 species of banana.
Shopping In Stone Town
In addition to the markets and the ubiquitous street stalls, Stone Town has superb shopping. The whole town is an interior decorator’s dream come true.
Gizenga Street is filled with art galleries selling native Tingatinga paintings and shops selling African carvings, colorful kangas, and Maasai beaded jewelry. The area around Shangani Street has a few more up-market souvenir shops.
5. The Best Restaurants In Zanzibar
The Tea House At The Emerson On Hurumzi Hotel
Formerly the Emerson and Green, the Emerson on Hurumzi Hotel offers typical Zanzibari food at The Tea House nightly. A small and cozy place on the roof terrace with fab views, you will sample the best Zanzibar’s food scene can offer here.
Forget restaurants and head to the Forodhani Gardens night market to sample Zanzibari street food. From freshly caught and grilled fish and shrimp to the Zanzibar pizza (a cross between an omelet and a pancake) you get extremely inexpensive and interesting food with a superb setting and atmosphere thrown in.
Did you know that Freddy Mercury was born in Zanzibar? Mercury’s, the bar named after him, is right next to the dhow harbor and not only offers great cocktails, but fabulous seats for the famous Zanzibari sunsets.
6. The Best Places To Stay In Zanzibar
The Serena Inn
The Serena Inn is a luxurious hotel in the place to be in Stone Town. Perfect for sunset drinks on the terrace, great shopping just steps away, and all the conveniences you could wish for after a day’s dusty exploring.
Emerson On Hurumzi Hotel
Emerson on Hurumzi Hotel is my personal favorite. It’s a converted townhouse right in the heart of old Stone Town with a roof terrace, from which you can look out over the higgledy-piggledy roofs of the city all the way to the ocean. Superb personal service and gorgeous interior design.
Breezes Beach Club
Along the coast of Zanzibar, you can find accommodations ranging from five-star luxury resorts to hostels, but for a nice resort, not too pricey but with all the amenities and a great spa, Breezes Beach Club and Spa is a good choice. Plenty of water sports and activities, including scuba diving and snorkeling, are available, but it still remains a relatively small and cozy place.