This ancient isle once ruled by sultans and slave traders served as the stepping stone into the African continent for missionaries and explorers. Today it attracts visitors intent on discovering sandy beaches, pristine rain forests, or colorful coral reefs. Once known as the Spice Island for its export of cloves, Zanzibar has become one of the most exotic flavors in travel, better than Bali or Mali when it comes to beauty that'll make your jaw drop. Separated from the mainland by a channel only 35 km (22 miles) wide, and only six degrees south of the equator, this tiny archipelago—the name Zanzibar also includes the islands of Unguja (the main island) and Pemba—in the Indian Ocean was the launching base for a romantic era of expeditions into Africa. Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke used it as their base when searching for the source of the Nile. It was in Zanzibar where journalist Henry Morton Stanley, perched in an upstairs room overlooking the Stone Town harbor, began his search for David Livingstone. The first ships to enter the archipelago's harbors are believed to have sailed in around 600 BC. Since then, every great navy in the Eastern Hemisphere has dropped anchor here at one time or another. But it was Arab traders who left an indelible mark. Minarets punctuate the skyline of Stone Town, where more than 90% of the residents are Muslim. In the harbor you'll see dhows, the Arabian boats with triangular sails. Islamic women covered by black boubou veils scurry down alleyways so narrow their outstretched arms could touch buildings on both sides. Stone Town received its odd name because most of its buildings were made of limestone and coral, which means exposure to salty air has eroded many foundations. The first Europeans who arrived here were the Portuguese in the 15th century, and thus began a reign of exploitation. As far inland as Lake Tanganyika, slave traders captured the residents or bartered for them from their own chiefs, then forced the newly enslaved to march toward the Indian Ocean carrying loads of ivory tusks. Once at the shore they were shackled together while waiting for dhows to collect them at Bagamoyo, a place whose name means, "here I leave my heart." Although it's estimated that 50,000 slaves passed through the Zanzibar slave market each year during the 19th century, many more died en route. Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged in 1964 to create Tanzania, but the honeymoon was brief. Zanzibar's relationship with the mainland remains uncertain as calls for independence continue. "Bismillah, will you let him go," a lyric from Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," has become a rebel chant for Zanzibar to break from Tanzania. The archipelago also has tensions of its own. Accusations of voting irregularities during the elections in 2000 and 2005 led to violence that sent scores of refugees fleeing to the mainland. Calm was quickly restored. As the old proverb goes, the dogs bark and the caravan moves on. Zanzibar's appeal is apparent to developers, who are intent on opening restaurants, hotels, and even water-sapping golf courses. But so far the archipelago has kept much of its charm. It retains the allure it had when explorer David Livingstone set up his expedition office here in 1866. Zanzibar Island, locally known as Unguja, has amazing beaches and resorts, incredible dive spots, acres and acres of spice plantations, the Jozani Forest Reserve, and Stone Town. Plus, it takes little more than an hour to fly there. It's a great spot to head for a post-safari unwind. Stone Town, the archipelago's major metropolis, is a maze of narrow streets lined with houses featuring magnificently carved doors studded with brass. There are 51 mosques, six Hindu temples, and two Christian churches. And though it can rightly be called a city, much of the western part of the larger island is a slumbering paradise where cloves, as well as rice and coconuts, still grow. Although the main island of Unguja feels untouched by the rest of the world, the nearby islands of Pemba and Mnemba offer retreats that are even more remote. For many years Arabs referred to Pemba as Al Khudra, or the Green Island, and indeed it still is, with forests of king palms, mangos, and banana trees. The 65-km-long (40-mile-long) island is less famous than Unguja except among scuba divers, who enjoy the coral gardens with colorful sponges and huge fans. Archaeology buffs are also discovering Pemba, where sites from the 9th to the 15th centuries have been unearthed. At Mtambwe Mkuu coins bearing the heads of sultans were discovered. Ruins along the coast include ancient mosques and tombs. In the 1930s Pemba was famous for its sorcerers, attracting disciples of the black arts from as far away as Haiti. Witchcraft is still practiced, and, oddly, so is bullfighting. Introduced by the Portuguese in the 17th century, the sport has been improved by locals, who rewrote the ending. After enduring the ritual teasing by the matador's cape, the bull is draped with flowers and paraded around the village. Beyond Pemba, smaller islands in the Zanzibar Archipelago range from mere sandbanks to Changu, once a prison island, now home to the giant Aldabra tortoise, Chumbe Island, and Mnemba, a private retreat for guests who pay hundreds of dollars per day to get away from it all. To the west of Pemba, Misali Island reputedly served as a hideout for the notorious Captain Kidd, which makes visitors dream of buried treasure. In reality it's the green sea turtles that do most of the digging.
Zanzibar was the legendary Spice Island, so it's no surprise the cuisine here is flavored with lemongrass, cumin, and garlic. Cinnamon enlivens tea and coffee, while ginger flavors a refreshing soft drink called Tangawizi. Zanzibar grows more than 20 types of mangos, and combining them with bananas, papayas, pineapples, and passion fruit makes for tasty juices. When it comes to dinner, seafood reigns supreme. Stone Town's fish market sells skewers of kingfish and tuna. Stop by in the early evening, when the catch of the day is hauled in and cleaned. Try the prawn kebabs, roasted peanuts, and corn on the cob at the outdoor market at Forodhani Gardens (but not if you have a sensitive tummy). Try the vegetarian Zanzibar pizza for breakfast; it's more like an omelet.
Gratuities are often included in the bill, so ask the staff before adding the usual 10% tip. Credit cards aren't widely accepted, so make sure you have enough cash. Lunch hours are generally from 12:30 to 2:30, dinner from 7 to 10:30. Dress is casual for all but upscale restaurants, where you should avoid T-shirts, shorts, and trainers.
The breezy, open layout of this BYOB restaurant adds to the
casual feel but what it lacks in ambience it more than makes up for in the
simple yet tasty food. Check out the dry-erase board for the daily seafood
specials, such as BBQ swordfish with avocado gremolata or Swahili prawns in
coconut masala sauce, and, for dessert, a delicious sticky date pudding with
caramel sauce and some spiced tea or coffee. Arrive early for dinner or you
might have to wait for a table, as it's popular with tourists and locals alike.
They also serve breakfast and lunch. You'll have to climb up a flight of stairs
to get here.
The outside terrace, which has views of the ocean and Fordhani Gardens, provides a romantic setting. There's also seating inside at low tables with cushions for sitting on the floor. Some nights there's traditional Tarab music. The food, which is predominantly Swahili-style, can be a let-down, however, and its expensive; service can be slow and unfriendly.
House of Spices
As usual, you'll have to climb a few steep flights of stairs before arriving at this breezy, open-air terrace restaurant, but the effort is worth it. The décor is simple yet stylish, with walls painted in relaxing shades of blue and green, colorful woven place mats, dark wooden tables and chairs, and friendly waiters in blue shirts and prayer hats. If you're craving Western food, the pizzas and homemade pastas are good, and there are plenty of red meat options; otherwise there are enticing seafood dishes such as crab claws, prawns, calamari, and grilled fish with a choice of interesting sauces. There's a shop downstairs with attractively packaged souvenirs.
Emerson Spice Rooftop Restaurant
Be sure to book ahead at this charming but small rooftop restaurant, because there's just one seating for dinner at 7pm. Arrive early to enjoy a cocktail and the sunset and then enjoy a degustation menu of exquisite Swahili-inspired cuisine. Each of the five courses has three small portions that have distinct and interesting flavors, such as passion fruit fish ceviche, calamari-stuffed tomato, grilled mango with cardamom, or coconut-chilli fish baked in banana leaf. The menu changes daily and is only posted on a board outside around lunchtime, ensuring that fresh and seasonal ingredients are used. The eponymous Emerson himself is often in attendance to chat to customers about life in Zanzibar. You'll climb lots of steep stairs to get to the top.
The sights in Stone Town are all minutes from one another so you'll see them all as you walk. However, the old part of town is very compact and mazelike and can be a bit disconcerting, especially if you're a female traveler. Hiring a guide is a great way to see the city without stress, and a guide can provide information about the sights you'll see. Many tour operators offer a guided walking tour for approximately US$20-US$25.
This was the first Anglican cathedral in East Africa
and its crucifix was carved from the tree under which explorer David
Livingstone's heart was buried in the village of Chitambo. Built in 1887 to mark
the end of the slave trade, the cathedral's high altar was constructed on the
site of a whipping post. Nothing of the slave market remains, although nearby
are underground chambers in which slaves were forced to crouch on stone shelves
less than 2 feet high. The entry fee includes a guided tour of the chambers,
church, and monument.
Known as the House of Wonders because it was the first building in Zanzibar to use electric lights, this four-story palace is still one of the largest buildings in the city. Built in the late 1800s for Sultan Barghash, it was bombarded by the British in 1886, forcing the sultan to abdicate his throne. Today you'll find cannons guarding the beautifully carved doors at the entrance. Check out the marble-floored rooms, where you'll find exhibits that detail the country's battle for independence.
This gable-roofed structure built in 1904 houses a sprawling fruit, fish, meat, and vegetable market. Goods of all sorts—colorful fabrics, wooden chests, and all types of jewelry—are sold in the shops that line the surrounding streets. To the east of the main building you'll find spices laid out in colorful displays of beige, yellow, and red. On Wednesday and Saturday there's an antiques fair. The market is most active in the morning between 9 and 11.
The scent of cloves hangs heavy in the air as stevedores load and unload sacks of the region's most valuable crops. Every day you'll spot dhows arriving from the mainland with deliveries of flour and other goods not available on the islands. Fishermen deposit their catch here early in the morning. This is a seedy area, so be cautious.
Newly revamped in 2009 by the Aga Khan Foundation, this pleasant waterfront park is a favorite spot for an evening stroll both for locals and tourists. Dozens of venders sell freshly grilled fish under the light of gas lanterns. There's also a children's playground.
Built in the late 19th century by Sultan Barghash, these public baths still retain the grandeur of a past era. Entry includes a guide, who will accompany you in exploring the maze of marble-floored rooms and explain what each room was used for.
Built by the Portuguese in 1560, this bastioned fortress is the oldest structure in Stone Town. It withstood an attack from Arabs in 1754. It was later used as a jail, and prisoners who were sentenced to death met their ends here. It has undergone extensive renovation and today is headquarters for many cultural organizations, including the Zanzibar International Film Festival. Performances of traditional dance and music are staged here several times a week.
St. Joseph's Cathedral
Built by French missionaries more than a century ago, this ornate church is based on the basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde, in Marseilles, France. It's now one of the city's most recognizable landmarks, with twin spires that you'll see as you arrive in Stone Town.
Beit al-Sahel/ Palace Museum
This structure was known as the People's Palace, but for a long time the name was a bitter irony. It was here that sultans and their families lived from the 1880s until the revolution of 1964. It now exhibits collections of furniture and clothing from the days of the sultans. A room is dedicated to Princess Salme, daughter of Sultan Said, who eloped with a German businessman in the 19th century. On the grounds outside are the tombs of Sultan Said and two of his sons.
Jozani Forest Reserve
Jozani Chakwa Bay National Park, Zanzibar's only national park, is home to this reserve where you'll find the rare Kirk's red colobus monkey, which is named after Sir John Kirk, the British consul in Zanzibar from 1866 to 1887. The species is known for its white whiskers and rusty coat. Many of the other animals that call this reserve home—including the blue duiker, a diminutive antelope whose coat is a dusty bluish-gray—are endangered because 95% of the original forests of the archipelago have been destroyed. There's also more than 50 species of butterfly and 40 bird species. The entry fee includes entrance to the forest and a circular boardwalk walk through mangrove swamps, plus the services of a guide (tip him if he's good). Early morning and evenings are the best time to visit.
Zanzibar Butterfly Centre
This center is well worth a half hour visit. It's a community development project, and your entry fee pays for local farmers to bring in cocoons (most of which are sent to museums overseas) and helps preserve the forest. Guided tours end in a visit to an enclosure filled with hundreds of colorful butterflies.
Between the Tanzanian coast and the islands of Zanzibar, Chumbe Island is the country's first marine national park. It's home to 400 species of coral and 200 species of fish. There's scuba diving, snorkeling, island hikes, and outrigger boat rides. The island can only be visited on an organized day trip.
This tiny island, just a 20-minute boat ride from Stone Town, was once a prison and a quarantine location. Now it's a tropical paradise that's home to the giant Aldabra tortoise (you can visit the tortoises for a small fee), the duiker antelope, and a variety of birds and butterflies. There's also decent swimming and snorkeling, and a hotel and restaurant. Note that 70% of the island is private property and thus inaccessible. You can visit Changu Island on a tour, or arrange transport with a fisherman on the beach outside Archipelago's for a much cheaper price. There's no entry fee for the island itself.