Zanzibar… It’s a word full of exoticism, a promise of paradise beaches and fragrant spices. Both of these are found on Zanzibar Island, more properly known as Unguja. Shaped by its location on the trade route between Persia, Arabia, and East Africa, Zanzibar grew rich during medieval times from the export of ivory, gold, and spices from the mainland. Later, it profited from the slave trade. Once part of the Sultanate of Oman and occupied for separate periods by Portuguese and British colonialists, Zanzibar is now a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania. Exploring the extraordinary architecture left by its previous inhabitants is one way to spend your time there. Other ideas include spice tours, watersports, and tracking down rare indigenous wildlife.
Wander Through the Streets of Stone Town
Stone Town dates back to medieval times, although the Portuguese built the first stone building at the end of the 17th century. It grew to prominence as the capital of the Omani Zanzibar Sultanate and was the center of the trade in spices and slaves. When the British took over in 1890, Stone Town retained its position as Zanzibar’s most important settlement. As a result, its coral stone architecture blends Swahili, Islamic, and European influences. Top attractions of this UNESCO World Heritage Site include the Portuguese Old Fort, the former Sultan’s residence known as the House of Wonders, and the Anglican Cathedral. Explore on your own, or join a walking tour like the one offered by Colors of Zanzibar.
Learn About the Island’s Spice Trade History
Zanzibar’s spice trade history began at the end of the 15th century when the first Portuguese traders brought nutmeg, cinnamon, and other spices with them from their colonies in India and South America. The plantations flourished in the ideal conditions of the Swahili Coast. Later, the Omani Sultan established Zanzibar’s iconic clove industry. To understand more about how and why the spices were grown, join a spice farm tour. Here, you’ll have the opportunity to learn about everything from clove and cinnamon to vanilla, chilies, turmeric, and a host of exotic fruits and herbs. Your guide will explain their culinary, medicinal, and even cosmetic uses; then, you’ll sample them during a traditional Swahili lunch. Prices start from $25 per person.
Discover Local Culture on a Nungwi Village Tour
To get an idea of how modern Zanzibaris live, join the Nungwi village tour offered by Coral Sites & Tours. The village is located at the northern tip of the island and is renowned for its beautiful beach; and for its boatyard where artisan shipbuilders create traditional dhows. On the tour, you’ll get the opportunity to speak with the yard owner, who will explain how the wood is sourced and shaped, and how these iconic East African vessels are launched into the ocean. You’ll also visit the Nungwi fish market, where local fishermen sell their catch from the previous night. A highlight for many guests is a swim at Mnarani Natural Aquarium, a tidal lagoon full of protected sea turtles.
Soak Up the Sun on Nungwi and Kendwa Beaches
Most Zanzibar beaches have an extensive tidal range, which means you’ll have a considerable distance to walk (sometimes across seaweed-strewn rocks) to reach the water at low tide. The exception is the northern beaches of Nungwi and Kendwa, which offer picture-perfect swathes of soft white sand lapped by crystalline turquoise waters at any time of day or night. Nungwi is the busier of the two, with enthusiastic beach vendors and plenty of tourists worshipping the sun. Lively waterfront bars and restaurants mean that it’s the beach to choose if you like to be at the center of the action. For a more tranquil atmosphere, head south to Kendwa Beach, one of the island’s top spots for sunset.
Test Your Kitesurfing Skills on the East Coast
If you prefer your beach time to be a little more active, you’ll be pleased to hear that Zanzibar is also a rewarding kitesurfing destination. The best spots are on the east coast beaches of Paje, Jambiani, Dongwe, Kiwengwa, and Pwani Mchangani. Of these, Paje (with its long stretch of white sand and choice of inner and outer lagoons) is the most famous and, therefore, the busiest. Paje and Jambiani offer the greatest selection of kitesurfing shops, whether you want to rent equipment or sign up for a few lessons. There are two main windy seasons in Zanzibar: from June to October (for the strongest winds), and from mid-December to March. Be prepared for extreme tidal ranges all year round.
Explore Beautiful Coral Reefs on Snorkel or Scuba
Zanzibar’s serene turquoise waters conceal colorful reefs that teem with marine life, making the island a paradise for snorkelers and scuba divers. There are more than 30 dive sites to choose from, ranging from British shipwrecks off Stone Town to the pristine coral walls of Mnemba Island. Base yourself in Nungwi for the chance to dive on Leven Bank, where nutrient-rich currents attract large game fish, including tuna, trevally, and shoals of barracuda. From August to September, humpback whales are regularly seen from the boat and can often be heard underwater. One Ocean is the oldest dive operation in Tanzania and offers PADI dive courses and divemaster-led fun dives from three different locations in Zanzibar: Stone Town, Matemwe, and Kiwengwa.
Embark on a Dhow Cruise to Prison Island
Set sail on a traditional dhow for a half-day tour of Prison Island. Located roughly 3.5 miles west of Stone Town, the island was once used to isolate rebellious slaves and later as a quarantine station for yellow fever victims. Nevertheless, the prison for which it is named has never housed a convict, and today the island is most famous for its collection of vulnerable Aldabra giant tortoises. The latter was a gift from the governor of Seychelles. On the tour, you’ll wander through the historic prison, meet the tortoises, and have the chance to swim or snorkel off the white sand beach. The Original Dhow Safaris offers departures at 9:30 a.m. or 1:30 p.m.
Look for Wildlife in Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park
Zanzibar’s only national park is a low-lying sanctuary full of tropical forest and saltwater mangroves. You can explore the latter on a raised boardwalk, but the forest nature trail is the main attraction, allowing visitors to look out for endangered endemic wildlife, including the Zanzibar red colobus and the Zanzibar servaline genet. The Zanzibar leopard also lives here, although sightings are unlikely; the cat was listed as extinct until it was spotted on a camera trap in 2018. More common are monkeys, bushbabies, and duiker antelope, while birders can keep an eye out for more than 40 different avian species. The park’s entrance is located 20 miles south of Stone Town and entry costs $10 per adult.
Stroll Through the Ruins of Maruhubi Palace
Get an insight into the opulent lives of the Omani sultans with a visit to ruined Maruhubi Palace. Located 2.5 miles north of Stone Town, the palace was built by the third Sultan of Zanzibar in 1880. Completed in 1882, it housed his wife and concubines while he lived separately in his own palace in Stone Town. Although fire destroyed Maruhubi in 1899, its palm-encircled ruins are still wonderfully scenic. Graceful stone columns hint at the previous existence of an upper balcony, while the remains of a Persian-style bathhouse include separate chambers for the sultan and his harem. Entry costs around $2 and comes with a local guide, who can show you photos of the palace in its heyday.
Experience Barefoot Luxury With a Stay on Mnemba Island
For an unforgettable luxury experience of your own, indulge in a night or two at 5-star andBeyond Mnemba Island–the only accommodation on this idyllic private atoll off Zanzibar’s northeast coast. Here, indulgence is served up Robinson Crusoe-style. You’ll sleep in one of 12 rustic chic beachside bandas, and dine on exquisitely prepared seafood at tables set feet from the water’s edge. How you spend your time in between meals is up to you. Unwind with a yoga class or in-room massage, or set sail across gin-clear waters on a traditional dhow cruise. Rates include two scuba dives per day on world-class dive sites, in addition to snorkeling, kayaking, fly fishing, and stand-up paddleboarding.