Whether you’re looking for somewhere to relax after climbing Kilimanjaro or just want to hang out in an island paradise, Zanzibar Island has a lot to offer!
This island is located off the Eastern coast of Africa and it has a rich history as a trading outpost and a colony, meaning there are many more things to do in Zanzibar besides just hitting the beach.
1. CHECK OUT STONE TOWN
People have been living on the island for over 20,000 years, but Stone Town is the central point of Zanzibar. Because of its location off the coast and its sheltered harbor, Stone Town turned from a fishing village into a trading center. The island also was governed by many colonial rulers, from Portugal to Oman to Great Britain, until it became independent in 1963.
As a trading center, the island has plenty of cultural influences from colonizers and traders from India and Arab countries. Slavery also affected the island as it was used as a port to send slaves abroad while hundreds of slaves also worked on plantations on the island.
It’s a mix of African, Arabic, and colonial styles all packed into one city. Because of all the unique influences, Stone Town has actually declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000!
The best way to get a feel for this city is to wander around the narrow maze of streets. You’ll definitely get lost, but that’s half the fun!
You’ll also probably be able to tell quickly that a lot of things haven’t been properly maintained since the colonial era. The older facades of the buildings are part of what gives Stone Town its the unique charm!
Stone Town itself is fairly small with a population of just 16,000 residents living inside the city in 2016. The town’s economy is now primarily based on tourism and it is one of the most prominent tourist attractions in Tanzania.
FUN FACT: Stone Town is actually one part of Zanzibar City. The other area of the city is called Ng’ambo, which is more modern. Stone Town is the more historical section. So if you see the two names used interchangeably, it’s because Stone Town is part of Zanzibar City!
Things to do in Stone Town
Besides just wandering around the streets, there are lots of things to do in Stone Town. This is the perfect city to really get a better understanding of Zanzibar people and culture.
Here are a few things I recommend checking out in Stone Town:
TAKE A GUIDED WALKING TOUR
Most hotels offer guided day tours around the city and I definitely recommend doing the tour with a guide. All the tourists you’ll see walking around are led by guides. You will learn so much more information with a guide and it’s not that expensive either! I definitely recommend it – you won’t regret it! Your guide can also tell you about the dark past of the island.
ADMIRE STONE TOWN’S INTRICATE DOORS
The fascinating architecture of the buildings starts with their doors! As you wander through the streets, make sure you look around at the beautiful, carved doors that are a special feature of the city.
The designs and carvings of the doors tell about the residents who lived there. You can also tell whether the doors are Swahili, Indian, or Arab based on the shape and design!
SEE THE BIRTHPLACE OF FREDDIE MERCURY
If you love Queen, don’t miss out on the chance to see where Freddie Mercury was born – it is located right in the city center, so you won’t miss it! (Or just search Freddie Mercury’s birthplace on Google Maps). Some people say this might not be the real house (because his father moved several times when Freddie was young), but it’s still a great opportunity to learn a little more about the background and upbringing of this amazing singer!
ADMIRE THE OLD FORT
This is exactly what the name says it is! Take a look around a unique piece of history and check out The Old Fort. This is an old fortification built by the Omani Arabs in 1699. It is also one of the oldest buildings in town.
A more recent addition to the fort is an open-air amphitheater where you can watch local shows or other events. You can ask at the tourist information desk at the fort if there are any upcoming events that could fit into your Zanzibar travel plans.
VISIT THE HOUSE OF WONDERS
This was unfortunately closed for renovation while I was there, but I’ll definitely be visiting on my next trip to Zanzibar!
This is the tallest and largest building in town and was originally a palace facing the town’s central square. The building is now home to the National Museum of History and Culture.
LEARN ABOUT THE SLAVE TRADE AT THE SLAVE MUSEUM
As I mentioned before, the island has a dark past. This market was the last functioning slave market in the world and it only closed in 1873. Although this might seem like a bit of a downer, it’s an important part of the history of the region.
Thousands of Africans were brought to the island as slaves to work on plantations. Slave traders also used the island as a base camp before sending slaves on the long journey to the East to be sold in Persia, Arabia, the Ottoman Empire, and Egypt.
At the Slave Museum, you can tour chambers where they kept slaves before they were sold.
We went down to see the “rooms” where slaves were kept – a 12 by 12-foot basement with one tiny window near the ceiling. They kept over 30 people in these types of rooms. Although this happened hundreds of years ago it still gave me shivers as I stood there!
You might need a pick-me-up after, but it’ll help you understand more about the island and its people.
The museum is open every day from 8 am to 6 pm. There is a $5 USD entrance fee and you can expect to spend about an hour in the museum.
VISIT ONE OF THE ROOFTOP RESTAURANTS
After a long day of taking in the sites and the culture, I recommend finding a rooftop restaurant for dinner and a drink as the sunsets.
- I recommend The Tea House Restaurant. It’s a great place to see the sunset, but make sure to make a reservation in advance! The restaurant gets busy with other tourists who want to enjoy the view as well.
- Another option is The Beach House Restaurant, which has an amazing outdoor balcony overlooking the water. The food is a mix of Italian, French, and Mediterranean and it’s delicious!
- You can also check out 6 Degrees South, which is perfect for a romantic dinner looking out at the ocean.
WANDER AROUND DARAJANI MARKET
While you’re there, why not wander around the main bazaar in town? You’ll definitely get a taste for life in Zanzibar – and a whiff as well! I found the market to be a really authentic experience.
There is an indoor section of the market, but also a lot of pop-up vendors on the surrounding streets. You’ll be able to experience a lot of traditional Zanzibar food and ingredients, as well as admire clothes, shoes, and traditional hats.
NOTE: Be prepared for the smell since part of this market is a fish market!
Although I wouldn’t call these actual “gardens,” this is the central square of Stone Town. It has lots of trees and is a hotspot for locals and tourists alike. I recommend going after sunset and enjoying the street food market. To get the full experience, look around for the stands that have the longest lines of locals and try some authentic Zanzibar dishes here (this means the food is good!).
PRO TIP: Locals recommend avoiding the seafood here though – it’s not always fresh!
PRO TIP 2: As a central spot for tourists, be careful of people trying to overcharge you or pretending to be waiters. Some tourists have had issues with “waiters” trying to charge them ridiculously high prices!
DRINK COFFEE AT JAWS CORNER
It might take you a while to find it as it’s among the narrow streets, but Jaws Corner is a small plaza. You can stop by and try the Arabic-style local coffee. Just be prepared – it’s definitely not like a cup of coffee with cream and sugar like you might be used to! It’s typically served black and bitter, and it is VERY strong.
DO SOME SHOPPING
There are so many little boutique stores all over Stone Town. There’s a bunch on Ginzenga Street, Kenyatta Road, and Changa Bazaar Street. You’ll also be sure to see some great stores for souvenirs as you’re wandering around.
I wasn’t planning on buying anything, but I loved the jewelry so much, I bought myself a pair of earrings! There are excellent places there where you can get some Zanzibar souvenirs to bring home!
NOTE: Zanzibar is a predominantly Muslim island. As a female traveler visiting Stone Town, you might want to dress conservatively.
2. TAKE A BOAT TRIP AND ENJOY SNORKELING IN ZANZIBAR!
If you want to do a safari in Zanzibar, you can consider a sea adventure safari as well! Safari Blue is a company that offers full-day tours where you can swim or snorkel. Leaving Stone Town, these tours are one of the best ways to experience snorkeling in Zanzibar. You might also get a chance to swim with dolphins!
Depending on which tour you choose, you will be taken to several different places, from a sandbar to a lagoon. You’ll also get a full buffet lunch, which is usually grilled right on the beach! You can also sail in one of the traditional Dhows (boats used by Arabs and Indians that have large triangular sails).
There are a bunch of companies that offer similar tours, but Safari Blue is the most well-known. It’s also the most expensive and, while you can find identical ones for much less, they might not be of the same quality.
If you’re looking for something more exclusive, you can book your own Dhow (at $450 USD for two people) or even charter a private yacht! There are plenty of other options to choose from as well, depending on your preferences and budget.
Also, be sure to book directly through the company, as some places charge you extra for the booking!
NOTE: You may have heard of dolphin tours in Zanzibar. These tours typically use the boats to scare the dolphins and prevent them from leaving an area so that tourists can swim with them. It’s dangerous and scary for the animals. Safari Blue doesn’t offer a specific “dolphin tour,” so you can see and swim with dolphins if they happen to be around where you are, but they don’t scare the animals or do anything unethical!
3. TRY SOME LOCAL DISHES – EXPERIENCE AUTHENTIC ZANZIBAR FOOD
You can get these local dishes anywhere on the island if you know where to go, but Stone Town might be the easiest place (and most authentic!) to try them.
For you foodies out there, there are also several food tours you can take, in case you don’t want to discover everything by yourself or if you are short on time. For example, the 3-hour “Taste of Zanzibar” guided tour will bring you to various local stalls and restaurants where you can try authentic flavors. You can also do a 2-hour Afternoon Food Expedition which includes a traditional lunch, as well as other samples.
If you want to go around the city and try some authentic food by yourself, here are some traditional dishes I can recommend:
You might be thinking that you’ve had pizza before, but not like this! This isn’t like any pizza you’ve ever seen. It’s more like a pancake or pupusa. The dough is folded up so that all the ingredients are inside and then it’s cooked on a hot metal pan. You can get these with chicken or beef, and they usually also include an egg, cheese, onion, bell peppers, and mayo. You can also get it with chili if you like spice! If you’re looking for a sweet treat, some vendors even make these with Nutella or mango and cheese.
Biryani and pilau
There are two rice dishes that are traditional on the island – biryani and pilau.
To make biryani, the rice is cooked separately from the meat and sauce. Once everything is finished, then everything is combined and it’s served with an amazing sauce.
Pilau is cooked all together with all the ingredients in the same pot, giving the rice an incredible flavor. You can get it either with your choice of meat or without any meat. I recommend that you try both and see which you like better!
This is a flour-based soup with mango and lemon flavors. It also usually has potatoes served three ways in it – cubed, fried mashed potatoes, and potato shavings- along with lots of spices and meat. With a slightly sour flavor and a lot of tangs, this soup is something you definitely have to try! It’s a lunchtime favorite of Zanzibar people.
Zanzibar isn’t known as the “spice island” for nothing! When I came back from my hike to Kilimanjaro, I was feeling a bit under the weather. This tea was a really amazing blend of spices and helped me clear my throat!
Mishkaki (maybe with an octopus!)
Mishkaki is a meat kabob where the meat is marinated in spices and then grilled. These are common snack food and you can get them with any kind of meat you like.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even try them with an octopus! The island is known for its “octopus hunters”, so octopus is a common addition to lots of dishes.
PRO TIP: Be careful where you get these, as some places reheat them after they’ve been sitting out. It’s best to watch them grill yours so you can see that it’s fresh.
Mandazi is a fried dough, a bit similar to a donut, but not as sweet. These are eaten alone or with dips and accompany a lot of dishes.
Learn to Cook Zanzibar Food
If you completely fall in love with the flavors of Zanzibar, you can take a cooking class and learn how to bring the food home with you! Most tours will take you out to the market to collect the ingredients and then show you how to prepare traditional Zanzibar food. You’ll end the day with a full belly and a lot of new knowledge! Some classes also include a spice tour so you can do both on the same day. Prices start at $41 USD a person.
4. TAKE A SPICE TOUR IN ZANZIBAR
Early settlers soon learned that the island was perfect for growing a variety of different spices. As a result, there are lots of spice farms on the island. You’ll also taste the spices in the food, of course!
One fun thing to do is to take a spice tour where you can visit a spice farm and learn about how they grow and process all the different spices.
I did a spice tour combined with a town tour of Stone Town. It was a long day (and it involved a bit of walking!) so you can consider doing them separately, but it’s up to you! Plus, this is also a great Zanzibar attraction if you’re traveling with kids.
The spice farms are free to visit, but the guides work for tips. You can also book a 3-hour tour for $36 USD a person if you want a private experience. If you’re short on time and want to see the town and a spice farm, the 6-hour Sultan Panorama Tour will show you everything you want to see in Stone Town – you’ll visit a spice farm, and you’ll get to see a local village!
NOTE: Please note that spice tours are a VERY touristy thing to do. The guides will start making your crowns out of palm trees or other accessories before you know it. If you’re not a fan of these kinds of things, you might be better offer to avoid these tours. On the other hand, if you don’t mind something touristy, you’ll actually get to learn a lot about spices! We got to see cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, and cloves.
5. VISIT JOZANI FOREST
These monkeys are black and white with red backs and you’ll be sure to see a few if you visit the forest. You’ll also see lots of birds and unique butterflies, too!
The park is open every day from 7:30 am to 5:00 pm. There is an entrance fee of $8 USD that includes a brief tour. Then you can wander around the mangrove boardwalk on your own. You can tip your guide if you like, but it’s not mandatory.
When I visited Zanzibar, we had just come back from an amazing safari, so we opted out of visiting Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park only because we didn’t think there was any chance it could compare to our epic safari adventure!
It’s best to hit the forest if you’re heading from Stone Town to Paje Beach (or the other way around). That way you can stop along the way and not make a detour for a quick visit.
NOTE: Tanzania is full of national parks. In fact, 45% of the country’s territory is a protected area! But there’s only one on the island so you really should visit it if you want the chance to see some unique Zanzibar wildlife!
6. TRY KITESURFING IN ZANZIBAR!
If you are searching for some adventurous things to do in Zanzibar – try kitesurfing! It’s one of the best spots in the world to do it!
Kitesurfing is a sport where you ride standing up on a small surfboard or kiteboard and let the wind drag you along while you hold onto a kite. This is a full-body sport
and you’ll definitely be feeling a bit sore the next day!
Page is considered to be the best place to kitesurf, but you can also take lessons at Nungwi beach or Jambiani beach. In fact, most tourist beaches offer kitesurfing lessons, so if you’re just starting out you can pretty much give it a go anywhere!
PRO TIP: The best time to go if you want to kitesurf is from January to February or June to September. If you’re there during this time, you might also get to see some expert kite surfers doing tricks and jumps!
There are plenty of different instructors and centers where you can learn to kitesurf, so shop around based on where you are and see what works for your timeframe and budget. One option is Kite Centre Zanzibar, which offers lessons for beginners (all equipment included) starting at around $330 USD per person.
NOTE: By the way, if you want to check out a place in Zanzibar to surf, most kitesurfing places also offer surfing as well.
7. HEAD TO THE NORTH OF THE ISLAND – NUNGWI BEACH
Most of you are probably already planning on hitting this popular beach and, if it’s not on your must-see list, it should be! This is the island paradise you’re dreaming of – picture-perfect soft, white sand beaches and clear turquoise water.
NOTE: Zanzibar beaches that aren’t part of a hotel or resort aren’t really well taken care of and there tends to be a lot of garbage on them so don’t waste your time visiting them. Instead, go to the beaches that have some infrastructure. If there is at least one restaurant nearby, that’s a good indication that the beach around it is probably swimmable.
Kendwa beach is right around the corner (10 minutes by car) from Nungwi Beach. You should check it out too and, while you’re there, don’t forget to watch the amazing sunset!
8. EAT AT THE ROCK RESTAURANT ZANZIBAR
Zanzibar doesn’t have a ton of attractions in the typical sense of the word, but The Rock Zanzibar might just be one of them! It is something that you’ve probably already seen on postcards as well!
This is a unique restaurant that is off the coast of Pingwe, located on an actual rock. Depending on the tides, you may have to wade out into the water to reach the restaurant.
To get the full experience, the best time to go there is during the day for lunch. For dinner, it will usually be too dark to really see all the surroundings (and it gets dark quite early – around 6 pm).
NOTE: Because of its popularity, the restaurant has pre-set seating times. You must book in advance and arrive to eat either at 12pm or 2pm (for lunch).
The Rock Zanzibar prices are a bit higher than some other restaurants in the area because of how unique the dining experience is. Expect to pay at least $60 USD per person for a proper lunch.
9. VISIT PRISON ISLAND
This island is off the coast of Stone Town and is also known as Changuu island (don’t mix it up with Canggu in Bali!). Although Prison Island in Zanzibar seems like an intimidating name (and like it might not be a fun day trip!), it’s a bit of a misnomer. There never actually was a prison on the island. They used the island to house rebellious slaves in the 1860s and as a place to quarantine people with yellow fever.
Nowadays, the island is a tourist destination because it is home to giant tortoises. It’s a peaceful sanctuary for this vulnerable species. Some people estimate some of the tortoises on the island are more than 150 years old!
To get to Prison Island, you have to take a 25-minute boat ride from Stone Town. Most hotels can help you book a tour or you can head to the beach and look around for someone advertising one. If you want a more in-depth tour with a chance to snorkel, you can book a private tour! If you want a tour that takes you to all the sights in Stone Town and Prison Island all in one day, consider this tour instead. That way, you’ll get to see a bit of everything that Stone Town and Prison Island have to offer!
The island is open every day from 9:00am to 4:15pm. You can plan to spend about 2-3 hours there during your visit (or longer, depending on the tour you’ve booked). The island does have a $4 USD entrance fee, which may be included with the cost of your tour (make sure to check or ask beforehand!)
10. TRY SNORKELING OR DIVING IN ZANZIBAR AT ONE OF THE ATOLLS
If you’re a fan of snorkeling or diving, there are some great places to do this in Zanzibar as well. Mnemba Atoll, located right off the north-east coast, is considered to be the best spot. You’ll see all sorts of colorful fish!
NOTE: Divers, remember – you should have at least a 24-hour rest between your dive and your flight (for your safety!).
If you’re near Mnemba (Kigomani or Matemwe beach village), you can hire a boat from someone right on the beach. This is the cheapest way to do it, but don’t expect luxury! These boats are not fancy and are about as simple as they come. Also, if you do it this way, don’t forget to bring your own snorkeling mask!
NOTE: Please do not touch the coral while diving or snorkeling. They are really sensitive and it takes years for them to regenerate if you disturb them. Treat the coral with respect. Remember, you are a guest there, so just look, don’t touch!