Zanzibar Stone Town

There is an undeniable mystique about Zanzibar. At the time of planning our trip to Africa we admittedly didn’t even know much about it, except we had to go. Technically it’s a part of Tanzania and shares the Swahili culture that extends down to Mozambique, but we quickly realized it is a world unto itself. With its history as the hub of the spice route, Zanzibar Island has been shaped by those on all sides of the Indian ocean. The mash-up of cultures, architecture, and cuisine, mixed with white sand beaches and vibrant reef made it one of our favorite destinations in Africa.

Zanzibar's historic Stone Town

To this day there are no definitive maps of Zanzibar’s historic Stone Town. The narrow streets seem to wind into knots and fray in every direction. Case in point: We went into the police station to ask for directions, thinking these officials would be a reliable source of information, and these five men all had lively debate on the best way to approach our destination. With that, we started an easy exploration of the waterfront with a trip to the fantastic House of Wonders museum and the old Omani fort.

The doors of Zanzibar

Braving the backstreets we got lost in the beauty of Zanzibar’s architecture, with its doors as the crowning feature of each facade. These wooden entrances were a cultural expression and status symbol of the family that lived there. Arabic doors have elaborately carved rectangular frames, Indian doors are paneled and with bronze spikes (said to keep elephants from charging), and the Europeans stand out for their simplicity.

Eating chapati on Ramadan

In our wanderings we passed this irresistible street cart selling curried potato chapati rolls. We knew it was Ramadan at the time but what we didn’t realize was that the Islamic rules of fasting also applied to mzungus. As soon as Mike took a bite into his snack, it was if the whole town stopped. Everyone stared intensely to the point that a man actually said to us, “If you are going to eat, you better hide. You’re making everyone jealous.” After hiding in alley to scarf it down, we started to notice that all the restaurants’ patios had shut for the month for this very reason.

Slave chambers on Zanzibar Tanzania

With no map, no reliable directions, and more town history than the Lonely Planet could ever sum up, we decided to get a tour guide. Eddie was a wonderful guide, showing us all the hidden gems and historic sites, including the Slave Market. Up until 1873, hundreds of thousands of people were bought and sold at this market and as reminder of this tragic past, the frightfully small holding cells have been turned into a museum. It was chilling but eye-opening visit.

Markets of Zanzibar

Whenever we go to a new town we like to head to the market for dose of real local culture and Zanzibar’s market is amongst the most dynamic…especially come sundown of Ramadan (note: the above photo was taken in the early afternoon, essentially naptime before the madness). By dusk the place flooded with people, an army of ladies were hawking their home-cooked meals, the fruit carts were spilling over with mangoes and lychees, and schools of fish were strewn across the counters. Warning, if you ever come here, the butchery is not for the faint of heart.

House of Wonders museum, a night market on Zanzibar, Tanzania

On the touristy side of town, outside the House of Wonders museum, a night market also emerges. Lobster, crab, calamari, and any fish you dream of is ready to order and eat on the spot. More a food fair than a market, artists set up their paintings along the fringes, musicians play Swahili rhythms, and residents and visitors mingle in search of the freshest catch.

Zanzibar Spice Tour, Tanzania

To fully appreciate the diverse landscape of the island–and to come to face to face with spices you may never see outside of jar–a visit to a spice plantation is a must! Walking through the lush forest and rolling farms, we got to touch and taste, fresh cardamom, curry, lemongrass, jackfruit, and about 15 other spices and produce growing on the grounds. After our tour, we even enjoyed a lunch of traditional pilau (spice rice) and grilled vegetables grown right on site.

Baraza Resort, Zanzibar Tanzania

Stone Town, check. Spice tour, check. Beaches…were next on the list of the great Zanzibar trifecta. And lucky for us we received an invite from the Zanzibar Collection to stay at their Baraza and Palms hotels on the southeastern coast. We drove an hour across the island and arrived at the white sand, turquoise water, and one of the most luxurious (and fun) resorts we’d stayed in.

snorkeling zanizbar

Zanzibar has incredible beaches but what lies below is even more exciting. At low tide we rode our bikes on the sand along the exposed coral cliffs and arrived at the best snorkel spot. Tourists were paying $50 a head to take a boat out to this bit of reef but we just tiptoed our way past a few sea urchin patches and swam there ourselves. Coral in dozens of varieties, swaying seaweed, and countless tropical fish kept us underwater for nearly four hours.

Breezes Resort, Baraza and Palms hotels on the southeastern coast of Zanzibar

After thoroughly enjoying our time at Baraza, we strolled next door to the Palms for a more exclusive stay at the six-villa resort. We loved that the Palms was totally romantic and relaxing yet if we felt like being more active, we still had access to Baraza’s slew of facilities: yoga classes, spa, kayaks, beach volleyball and anything else you could imagine on the sand or sea.

For all its mystique and allure, Zanzibar lives up to its name and already has us dreaming of our return some day.

Table of Contents

Where to Eat

The Tea House:
Prepare to be wooed. This rooftop restaurant atop a Swahili mansion offers 360-degree views of Stone Town and the sea, along with live music and a perfectly exotic menu. Book in advance and order the passion-fruit ceviche.

The Rock:
A coral rock in the Indian ocean with a tiny kitchen and 12 tables–this is undoubtedly one of the dreamiest dining experiences in all of Africa. Make a day of it and enjoy the drive to beautiful Michanwi Pingwe, then head into the waters (wading, walking or boat, depending on the tide) for a seafood dinner with a side of sunset.

Zanzibar Waterfront Food Court:
Each night, the Stone Town waterfront turns into a bustling food fair with live musicians, artists, travelers and locals. Get a taste for Zanzibari cuisine and nibble your way through the open-air food stalls, sampling samosas with coconut chutney, chapatti pizzas and a bounty of seafood grilled to order.

What to Pack

A Lightweight Scarf:
While you don’t need to cover your head like the local Muslim ladies, it’s always good to have something to drape over your shoulders in religious spaces and highly local spots like the market or the port.
Club Monaco ($90)

Long-Sleeve Linen:
You know that India-style tunic in the back of your closet? Now’s the time to break that baby out. A lightweight linen with a little embroidery will keep you cool, covered and globally chic.
Soft Joie ($133)

A One-Piece Swimsuit:
Be a bit more discreet while relaxing on the beach with a cute 1950s-style suit. It will have better bum coverage (modesty is key here) and still be cute enough to flaunt back home.
Karla Colletto ($281)

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  1. If they looked at you when taking a bite, what were they doing to the food vendor? Avoiding it altogether? I imagine it would be tough to walk past great food while abstaining from eating.

    1. HoneyTrekAnne says:

      This was our confusion as well! The food vendor was out selling grub which didn’t seem to be a problem, yet us eating this irresistible snack was a huge faux paus…? Either way, better to know early to prevent future dirty looks and a city-wide snack attack, I guess.

  2. PS – Tiptoeing past sea urchins sounds pretty crazy. I like it!

    1. HoneyTrekAnne says:

      soooo worth the risk and avoiding the tourist boats in the process!

  3. Kenneth Webster says:

    Great posting. Thanks!

    1. HoneyTrekAnne says:

      We love you, Kenneth!

  4. I know it would have been a super touristy thing to do, but did you see Freddie Mercury’s birthplace? He was from Stone Town.

    1. HoneyTrekAnne says:

      We did not. However, we paid homage to him with a drink at his namesake bar Mercury’s which has great views of the water.

  5. Great post. Brings me back to honeymooning in Zanzibar a couple years back, lovely place full of great people.

    1. that is awesome, did you do your entire honeymoon on Zanzibar, or combo it with a safari somewhere? the people where were fantastic, so pleasant. yummy sea food too!

      1. We got married at the summit of Kilimanjaro, then did the safari thing around Tanzania for a week prior to spending a week in Zanzibar. Loved Tanzania!

  6. Thank you for sharing your story. Interesting that a man told you to hide to eat. I would have never thought that it would make people jealous, but makes total sense there.

    1. we felt the same way. at first we were like, what the heck. then we realized that 97% of the island cant eat during daylight…so we kept it in check (meaning ate quickly in a corner 🙂

  7. What a great experience to be there during Ramadan. I would love to hear the guide talk about the Slave Market. What a sad historical reality. I would love to snorkel at Zanzibar. I’ve heard it’s beautiful. Great photo of the anemone!

    1. re: Ramadan, yeah at first we were a bit bumbed that the streets were quite at night, but then we realized seeing Ramadan start and end and everything in between was a true cultural experience. Slave market, yeah serious 🙁 but just had to be learned. the ocean was off the hook in mozambique…a must for any diver or snorkel fan 🙂

    1. Yeah, you guys are so adventurous you are going to love it. just dont book too many flights, you can do it ALL overland, and it is such a trip. people were so nice and the stuff you see will blow your mind.

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