The very name conjures images of warm seas, exotic cultures, and fragrant spices. Although I’m not sure I really knew where it was actually located for many years, I’ve always known that Zanzibar was a place I wanted to visit.
Zanzibar Island (Unguja Island to the local population) is the largest of several islands off the coast of Tanzania, not far from Dar es Salaam. While not very big itself, being about 60 miles long and 20 miles across, the other island in the archipelago are mostly tiny islets.
Zanzibar is most famous for three things: Beaches, spices, and Stone Town.
The island – and the archipelago as a whole – has a wealth of lovely beaches, most with lots of white sand. Those along the north end of the island are particularly recommended for swimming, while those on the east have interesting tide pools when the tide is out.
I’m more interested in exploring under the water than in hanging out on the beach and there is supposed to be great snorkeling throughout the archipelago.
- Mangapwani beach has a coral cavern and underground slave chambers to explore.
- The Mnemba atoll is noted as a good spot for snorkeling with a wide variety of fish.
- The Chumbe Island Coral Park is a privately managed nature reserve. It is open to guests staying at the resort and a very limited number of day visitors. The snorkeling is supposed to be amazing.
Zanzibar is sometimes called the Spice Island, as at one time almost all of the world’s supply of cloves was grown here. The growing and exporting of spices from here was an integral part of the slave trade and diminished with the end of slavery. However, while no longer a major exporter of spices, many different spices are still grown here and tours can be arranged to visit some of the plantations. In addition, the markets have a range of spices available.
Stone Town is part of Zanzibar City (the capital and largest city in the archipelago). Much of it is a maze of winding alleyways and carved doorways that has seen little physical change over the past 200 years.
While it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as an example of a Swahili coastal trading town, it is also a vibrant, noisy city. It is a great place to explore, but not the ideal place for a quiet holiday!
Attractions in Stone Town include:
- The House of Wonders (a palace that is now a museum)
- The Old Dispensary
- The Palace Museum (the last home of Zanzibar’s sultans)
- The Old Fort
- The Slave Market and nearby Anglican Cathedral
- Mnara (Malindi) Mosque with its conical minarets
Other places worth a visit while in Zanzibar:
- Jozani Forest National Park on Zanzibar Island is home rare Zanzibar red colobus monkeys, a species unique to Zanzibar.
- Zanzibar Island has a number of ruins scattered about, including those of Kidichi Persian Baths, the Mtoni Palace, and the ruins from a former freed-slave colony at Mbweni. (Mbweni also has good snorkeling and a botanical garden.
- Prison (Changuu) Island was once used to detain slaves. Today it is a quiet retreat just a short boat ride from Stone Town.
And, should I have trouble finding enough to keep me busy in the Zanzibar Archipelago itself, the nearby Mafia Archipelago offers superb snorkeling in a less-visited area.
Despite all the enticing things about Zanzibar, this is a very poor place. Visitors need to expect run-down buildings, touts and other hassles, and the potential for crime.
Links to Additional Information:
- Zanzibar Tourism Commission
- Zanzibar Holidays (which includes good safety information for traveling in Zanzibar)
- Bradt Guides – useful excerpts from the Zanzibar Guide
- Expert Africa: Zanzibar
- Simplytravel: Zanzibar
- Concierge.com – Zanzibar
- Top 10 Things to do in Stone Town
- 49 Hours in Stone Town
- Qantara.de – Islamic Architecture on Zanzibar
- TravBuddy blogpost on Zanzibar (first in a series)
- Zanzibar history (many historic photos and other illustrations)
- Richard Francis Burton’s Zanzibar from 1872 provides a historical view of the island