Like us, you probably came here for the beautiful Indian Ocean beaches, but there is more to do in Zanzibar. Wander through Stone Town’s labyrinth of winding alleys, bustling markets, mosques, learn about the spices and don’t forget to catch a few sunsets from the Swahili coast. Here are some of the best things to do in Zanzibar.
Zanzibar is one of the Indian Ocean islands. It is situated on the Swahili Coast, and part of Tanzania. We only spent 3 nights in Zanzibar and could have easily spent 7 days in Zanzibar enjoying the best beaches and things to do in Zanzibar!
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Best Beaches in Zanzibar
Beaches in Zanzibar are stunning and the tide plays an important role in the lives of people here. Locals harvest the seaweed or Mwani to exports. Ropes are tied between sticks to make seaweed farms in the shallow warm water. Women who farm the seaweed consider them “gift from the ocean.”
While we spend most of our time in Stone Town, we took a private boat one morning to a secret sand bar. Another day we went to Melia Zanzibar to enjoy an afternoon by the beach near Kiwengwa.
Although there are two large beach resorts in the area, Michamvi is remote which also means it has a long stretch of empty beaches to explore. There are a few beach resorts in the area, and the Rock Restaurant is located here.
Paje would make a great beach for aquatic sports or for going on some tours. Dongwe is another great beach in Zanzibar. You can find some super luxury and intimate options to stay around this area including The Palms, Breezes Beach Club and Spa and White Sands Villas, a Relais Chateaux property. Nearby, Jambiani is another nice local beach. Jiambani is a great place to go see some kite surfing since they have consistently good winds.
Nungwi Beach is known as one of the best beaches of Zanzibar. Nungwi Beach on the northwest coast is a popular beach in Zanzibar and even made the list of Top 25 Beaches in the World in TripAdvisor’s Traveler’s Choice Awards 2018. Hotel RIU Palace Zanzibar is located nearby.
Kendwa is another popular beach. While it is much quieter than Nungwi Beach you can find more resorts here. The sunsets at Kendwa beach are legendary and the water is clear and good for swimming and snorkeling. You will find the luxury property Zuri Zanzibar Hotel and Resort here
Matemwe beach can be found slightly to the east of Nungwi and Kendwa. It can be tidal here but it is relatively untouched by tourism.
Things to do in Zanzibar
Zanzibar offers unique experiences and there are some great things to do on Zanzibar. For lovers of the ocean, there is fantastic snorkeling, kite surfing, sunset Dhow cruises, a giant turtle sanctuary and an abundance of colorful sea life and a very secret beach. Once we hear about this sandbank, that is listed as one eight secret beaches in the world you will want to go check it out.
Nakupenda, a secret beach in Zanzibar
Nakupenda Sandbank is one of the best eight secret beaches in the world. It is just a 20-minute boat ride away from Stone Town to this little strip of sand in the middle of the ocean. You can have the whole beach to yourselves if you go early in the morning. Later in the day women set up shop to sell fresh fish and homemade crafts and few other boats make it way to the beach. You can walk from one end of the strip of sand to other. It is a perfect picnic location or simply laying in the sand. Once the tide rises the strip of land is submerged in water.
Visit Prison Island
Prison Island is only 25 minutes away from Stone Town. Also called Changuu Island, it is only a sometimes bumpy 30 minute ride from Stone Town. Once used as a place for quarantining people with deadly diseases and detaining rebellious slaves, it is now converted into a tourist attraction. The main draw here is the ancient giant tortoises some of which are as old as 200 years!
Look for monkeys on a Jozani Forest Tour
This forest, located in the Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park, is one of the last remaining sanctuaries in the world of Red Colobus monkeys. Jozani has an excellent nature trail, a Mangrove swamp and you can walk around the lush Mangrove forest trying to spot the monkeys. The best way to visit the Jozani National Park is through a half a day tour.
A Short Safari to Selous Game Reserve
Most people who visit Zanzibar come to recuperate after a few days of safari. But if you are one of the few that missed out on the safari, you can still enjoy an exciting adventure during your stay by taking an exclusive 1 day safari at the Selous Game Reserve. It is located 45 minutes away from Zanzibar by flight. Selous is one of the largest faunal reserves in the world, with large populations of the “Big Five” along with a wide variety of other animals and birds.
Enjoy great views and seafood at The Rock
The Rock restaurant offers some stunning views of the island, as it is located on a rock in shallow waters. Visitors don’t just come for the view, they also serve the best seafood in Zanzibar has to offer. Make sure to book this in advance. This exclusive restaurant has only 12 tables and it is often fully booked. Emerson Spice is another great place to eat in Stone Town, Zanzibar.
Stone Town and the doors of Zanzibar
Not much has changed in Stone Town over the last 200 years. The town is a blend of Arabic and African cultural influences that originate from the 19th century when Zanzibar Island served as a center for the trade of spices and slaves. Once an important trading hub along the east coast of Africa, today, the crumbling streets of Stone Town is filled with rich aromas of spices, perfumes, and local handicrafts. Walking through the maze and the markets of Stone Town it is hard not to stop to admire the different doors. There are over 100 coral “Stone Buildings” and 200 carved doors. Each one so unique, each tells a different story of the owners who lived and still live here.
The Zanzibari doors warrant its own post but here are a few. Each featuring magnificent ornate wooden carvings tells its own stories of residents. When a house was built in Zanzibar, the door was traditionally the first part to be erected. The greater the wealth and social position of the owner of the house, the larger and more elaborately carved his front door. Some doors have quotations from the Koran others had patterns of palms and lotuses. The lotuses could be associated with Egyptian fertility symbols, and the fish could possibly the ancient fish-god of the Egyptians explained our guide who took us around the narrow streets on Stone Town.
Try some street food at Forodhani Gardens
Zanzibar’s other key attractions are easily accessible by foot is Forodhani Gardens. From Stone Town, you can walk through the Old Fort, the Old Dispensary, the Peace Memorial Museum, the Palace Museum, the House of Wonders to Forodhani Gardens, where they were all kinds of street food vendors. The oldest carved door in Zanzibar, which dates from 1694, is now the front door of the Peace Memorial Museum in Zanzibar Town. Stay to watch a sunset against the breathtaking views of the Indian Ocean and dhow boats.
Also known as the Sultan’s Palace or People’s Palace, The Palace Museum is one of the historic buildings in Stone Town. The Palace Museum is located in the waterfront, overlooking the ocean, and was built in the 19th century as a home for the Sultan and his family. Today it serves as a museum that showcases relics of the past Sultan family.
Old Slave Market at the Anglican Cathedral
The Slavery Museum located in the Anglican Cathedral describes the life of slaves and how Zanzibar became the most important Slave Market for Middle East and Asia. You can also visit the black holes where the slaves await to be sold. It is quite sad to see but an important part of Zanzibar’s history. The Anglican Cathedral was built on the site where the slaves were traded and you will see some details about it at the entrance of the altar.
Visit the Old Fort
The oldest building in Stone Town is the Old Fort and is located on the seafront, right in front of the famous Forodhani Gardens. Originally built in the 17th century with the purpose of defending the island from attacks from the Portuguese. These days the Old Fort is one of Stone Town’s main sights. You can walk around the remains of the former fort where sellers have local produce for sale. There is an old amphitheater that hosts events and functions in the fort.
Go on a Spice Tour
Zanzibar is known for its spices and once called “spice island”. You can go on a Spice Tour to learn about the variety of spices grown here. On the tour, you can immerse yourself in some local culture and learn about the most profitable industry in the island. Zanzibar produces and trades in spices like peppers, cinnamon, nutmeg and more.
Foods to try in Zanzibar
We found some version of Indian food everywhere – from samosas to briyani to chapatti and lentils were always on the menu. A must-try item is Zanzibar Mix (known as Urojo in Zanzibar), which is an Indian inspired Zanzibari Tanzanian bowl of curry soup with lots of toppings. Potatoes, chickpeas, fried bhajias, peanuts and an array of the crunchy things make the base. It is covered in a light creamy curry sauce and finally topped with a handful of cassava of potato chips, some fresh coconut chutney, and a pile of hot pili pili chili sauce. You can find a great selection of Street food at Forodhani Market. Down it with local Kilimanjaro beer.
Souvenirs to bring home
While spices make good souvenirs, you can also buy woven straw bags and other wood cravings. One of my favorites souvenirs from Zanzibar was a ring with a Tanzanite Cabochon and some mini wooden doors from a little wood workshop in Stone Town.
How to get there and around
Since we were visiting Zanzibar after our Safari in Serengeti, we flew from the Seronera airstrip in Serengeti to Arusha and then made our way to the island in a small 13 seater Cessna aircraft run by Regional Air. You can also fly from Dar es Salam to Zanzibar.
At the time of writing, you can get in Tanzania a visa on arrival, you don’t need to apply for it in advance. Although you can if you want, which we did. Once you arrive at the airport, just head to the immigration office.
There are two different transportation options to get around in Zanzibar. One is by taxi, and the other option is by Dalla Dalla (small buses that the locals use for public transport). We chose a private taxi that the hotel arranged for us since is much safer, faster and convenient.
Practical Information & Tips for visiting Zanzibar
The local currency in Zanzibar is the Tanzanian Shilling. The exchange rate is roughly 1 US$ to 2200 shillings. Most places accept US dollars but it works out a bit cheaper if you pay in shillings when you book activities in Zanzibar.
Zanzibar island is generally safe but always beware of scams. Book tours through the hotel and only go with reputable operators. Use precaution and common sense.
Zanzibar is a Muslim island with over 50 mosques but there Hindu and Christian influences as well. Dress appropriately and modestly. While tourists are ok to wear shorts and sleeveless dresses that show the limbs it is better to dress conservatively. Bring a coverup or scarf.
The local language in Zanzibar is Kiswahili much like Swahili, but most people like vendors and hotel staff speak a bit of English. Two good words to know are Asante (thank you) and Hakuna Matata (no problem) which seems to be used everywhere in East Africa. It feels more of an attitude than a phrase, everything was possible and nothing was a problem!
We stayed at the Park Hyatt in Zanzibar and you see the post for more details.
I hope you find this Zanzibar Travel Guide helpful in planning your trip.
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