Zanzibar has a rich history as an Eastern African trading port and the local population is used to lots of foreign influences. While Zanzibar is part of Tanzania, it is is also autonomous and has a unique character. The island is just a few miles off the coast, east of Dar es Salaam. You can fly or take the ferry from the mainland.
I used 17,500 United MileagePlus miles to get there from Addis Ababa, but technically you can get there from anywhere in Africa that has an Ethiopian Airlines or South African Airways connection. Dakar to Zanzibar (which is 4,147 miles away) costs just the same and can be flown on Ethiopian Airlines.
The city of Stone Town is VERY safe to walk around during the day and I also found it safe at night (though there are few street lights).
The biggest ‘worry’ are the locals peddling their wares to you. Things can get pretty aggressive quickly, so try to keep your cool as much possible.
So here are my TOP 15 things to do!
Aimlessly wandering the little alleys of Stone Town
By far my favorite thing to do during my two days in Zanzibar was to wander aimlessly around the small alleys of Stone Town. It’s confusing and you feel like you’re in a maze, but after some time you will see the same alleys again and again. It’s hard to get really lost since you will recognize the boundaries easily (just turn around if you hit them). If you have time for only one thing, then do this as long as you can walk (although it can get very hot).
Walk Stone Town at night
Bring a good flashlight for the darker alleys. At night the character of the city changes again. There is a good amount of eateries and bars (though the locals don’t drink) open at night.
Prison Island is another must do if you are staying only in Stone Town (like I did). If you have a couple of days at a beach resort anyway, I think you can safely skip it. If you bring a zoom lens, you can almost see it in as much detail from Stone Town harbor!)
This is a small crossing of several main alleys in the old town. If you follow my advice to wander around, you are guaranteed to come across this place. HINT – look out for the shark painted on a wall 🙂 In the afternoon and evening, the local men come together for a coffee and sweet brittle. The coffee and brittle is cheap as hell and it’s fun seeing and hearing the local sounds.
If you like tandoori (you should try it!) then this is the place to stop by and get a fresh meal for under $5.
Zanzibar Old Slave Market / Cathedral
There is not much left of the old slave market and the adjacent cathedral isn’t very exciting, so I felt my $6 in entrance fees could have been invested better, but you may like it more than I did.
Old Fort area
The Old Fort area comes alive just before sunset and when the market is on. Yes, it’s touristy, but you can watch the local youngsters jumping off the sea wall and there are often many street food stalls here.
Marvel at the beauty of the newly-renovated Park Hyatt, drink an espresso and ogle at the sea (incl. Prison Island). The view can’t get much better. When I was in town, the hotel was just about to open. It was two weeks away from the opening day, so there were no pictures to take.
It is a marvelous, old building but it is also in a ridiculous condition. I’m not sure if they have earthquakes in Zanzibar, but this one would not make it!
Probably the best coffee you will get in Zanzibar, in a beautifully renovated building. However, the coffee isn’t great (especially if you just came from Ethiopia!) but it’s better than the local alternatives.
If you like boats and have no fear of high seas (OK, I have!) then this is something you should do. Dar es Salaam is a worthwhile African metropolis and the ride takes just 2 hours and costs about $10.
I did not go on a Spice Tour, but it’s being offered aplenty by multiple tour operators. It’s a good idea to shop around before you book.
The local taxi mafia will quote you $100 for the return trip, but you can also opt for the local matatus (at least one-way) as it’s basically free (under $2 for the whole trip). It is likely to be cramped, but not necessarily so. You can get out anywhere it stops (which is everywhere). It might be a hassle with luggage, but in order to just see more of the island this might be a good idea.
Sail on a traditional dhow
This seems like another touristy thing to do where the operator has all the upside in haggling. I’d love to do it for an hour or two, but I fear the intimidating haggling – so I left that for next time!
What I love about Zanzibar is that it has history, great and affordable food and beautiful beaches with year-round warm weather. My adventures to the Seychelles weren’t very fruitful and the Maldives suffers from a complete lack of space (and the need to take boat trips all the time).
Zanzibar is also cheaper (if you keep looking for local options or stay at the DoubleTree in Stone Town). You get history, food and beaches all in one, in a week in Zanzibar. I’d love to return!
Picture credit wallpaperspalace.com