Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous archipelago, is located in the Indian Ocean some 35 kilometres off the coast of mainland Tanzania and has long been a hopping off point for many safari travelers, as we chose to do.
It is unquestionably a breathtaking jewel where you’ll find idyllic soft sand on the long stretches of white beaches and clear turquoise-blue water that offers shallow sandbars ideal for swimming, snorkelling or just simply lounging around.
The island’s history is rooted in the spice-trade, and was once known as the spice island, where cloves, cinnamon, black pepper and nutmeg came from. It is also more ominously known for the region’s slave trade over the past centuries.
What to see on Zanzibar
After you’ve spent your days enjoying the sand and surf, do not skip a visit to the historic quarter of Stone Town in the island’s capital, Zanzibar Town. A UNESCO cultural heritage site, Stone Town consists of a labyrinth of many narrow, winding streets and alleys full of people and traffic. Of interesting note is that there is a mix of Arab, Indian and African influences, most notably the elaborately carved wooden doors with brass studs which we were told was a style initiated as a defence against charging elephants.
In addition to its daytime hectic pace, Stone Town bustles in the evening. The central park-turned-night market, Forodhani Gardens, is packed with locals and tourists sampling the fresh food stalls. If food stalls are not to your liking, then you’ll find larger restaurants and several smaller cafes in the same area.
Also located in Stone Town is the Palace Museum along the waterfront. It was the palace of Sultan Seyyid Said during the 1820s. It was fascinating to witness how royalty lived during the time, however, please beware that the palace is undergoing refurbishing so don’t expect it to look like Buckingham Palace.
The Anglican Cathedral is also a worthwhile site to visit. It was the first Anglican cathedral in East Africa built in 1870s and is located on the site of the former slave market after slavery was officially abolished. The slave trade was initiated by Europeans in the 15 century and continued by Arab rule until the British with the treaty of June 6, 1873 shut it down.
If you’re a Freddy Mercury fan, wander by the Freddie Mercury museum which is said to be the house that Freddie and his family lived in prior to their move to the UK. This is in dispute, but it does house a collection of images of Freddy, so depending on how much of a fan you are, you may opt to walk by and snap a few photos instead of paying the price of admission. It’s located in the city centre, just search for Freddie Mercury’s birthplace in your map app.
Zanzibar’s main market Darajani Market is a hive of activity with everything from fresh fish, baskets of live chickens, slabs of meat, to spices, fresh produce and dates. Even with the rain the day we were there, it was crowded and chaotic but an experience not to miss!
There are many different accommodations options suitable for every budget from inexpensive, to all-inclusive, to top-drawer luxury. We chose the luxury option and stayed in the exclusive Baraza Resort & Spa, a 5-star boutique resort voted the No.1 Luxury Hotel in Tanzania.
How many days do you need to visit Zanzibar?
You can comfortably see Old Town in a half to full day. However, given that many people visit Zanzibar after a safari, it all depends on how much beach time you need to recharge. We were there for six days but could have easily spent several weeks.
When is the Best Time to go to Zanzibar?
Zanzibar has two rainy seasons, the long rains and the short rains. The long rainy season lasts roughly from March until May and are basically monsoons so time your visit properly. The short rains usually take place between November and December but are not anywhere as intense as the long rainy season and are usually short bursts with the blue sky reappearing quickly. We were there in early December and it rained on our last day of our six day trip, so our trip to Stone Town was a bit wet!
Is Zanzibar Safe for Tourists?
Zanzibar is no more dangerous than other European or North American cities, but like everywhere else, use your common sense and take the normal precautions. Tanzania is a mix of Christian, Muslim, and indigenous groups, but Zanzibar, which the Sultanate of Oman ruled for centuries, is almost 90% Muslim. Although it’s possible to drink alcohol in Zanzibar and it’s fine to wear beach clothes at a resort, there are times and places when neither is appropriate. Skimpy clothing and drunken behaviour through Stone Town is best avoided.
Getting to and Around ZanzibarZanzibar Airport is an international airport and the second largest in Tanzania, so offers both international as well as domestic flights. If you’re in Dar es Salaam Tanzania, you can opt to take a ferry which takes about two hours.