If ever you find yourself in Zanzibar, Stone Town is likely where you'll start. And while some travelers choose to skip spending much time here in favor for Zanzibar's more well known and gorgeous beaches (I made the same mistake the first time I visited a few years ago), I highly recommend you spend at least two days exploring this beautifully enchanting old town.
What I found most intriguing about this UNESCO World Heritage site was how rich the culture and history is. Once a flourishing trade hub (which unfortunately included slave trade), it continues to be a melting pot of traditional African, Arab, Indian and some European cultures. As you walk through the narrow, winding streets, you're bound to experience some sensory overload: children playing football in the narrow alleyways, early morning calls to prayer and Hindu ritual bells, an intoxicating smell of spices lingering in the air, beautifully and colorfully dressed women, and men deeply engaged in mancala. What's not to love about that?
But don't take my word for it - I encourage you to go experience Stone Town in all it's glory for yourself. I hope this guide will help you fall in love with Stone Town as I did and see why it's one of my favorite African cities.
SOME GENERAL TIPS:
Always haggle and negotiate when buying anything in the market. Never accept the first price given to you.
Cash is king. As with most African cities, always carry cash (in local currency), however USD and Euro are also widely accepted.
Languages spoken are mostly English and Swahili, though most tour guides and operators speak a wider range of other languages.
For women, keep your shoulders and legs covered. Since this is a predominantly muslim country, cultural norms and practices should be observed so as not to not draw unwanted attention to yourself, so definitely be careful in your outfit choices.
Be careful where you get your henna applied. In the bustling markets, vendors may try to cut costs by switching up the mixture so always do a small test patch first to check for an allergic reaction. I believe the red henna is of higher quality here, but always assess your surroundings and the actual henna before you get painted.
where to eat
Lukmaan Restaurant came highly recommended when I asked the staff at my hotel where they like to go for lunch. It's great for a taste of authentic Zanzibari food for very cheap - you can eat a feast for under $10 - and I love that both locals and travelers eat here casually. You'll have to be a bit assertive when ordering though, because it can get pretty chaotic during the lunch or dinner rush.
The Silk Route was incredible for Indian food. It's just around the corner from Forodhani Gardens and was sensational experience.
Forodhani Gardens in the evenings to try all the local delicacies and dishes on offer from a wide array of market vendors. This is where you can try everything from a sweet or savory Zanzibari pizza to a fresh sugar cane/lime/ginger juice. There are several stalls to choose from, so be sure to walk around the whole market and look around before you commit anywhere. Eat where the locals are or at stalls with a long line to get the freshest food and avoid food poisoning (the meat and seafood are not always fresh). It's also one of the best places in Stone Town to people watch, so definitely dedicate an evening here.
Rooftop Tea House Restaurant at Emerson Spice or Emerson on Hurumzi. Food is a bit of an event at both properties, and they always incorporats seasonal and local foods.The rooftop Tea House restaurants at both properties are slightly different. The one at Emerson Spice has a table and chair setting, while the restaurant at Emerson on Hurumzi offers seated cushions on Persian rugs, with a "shoes off" policy. Another bonus of the rooftop dinners was the live music from a local band. For both restaurants, I highly recommend you call ahead and make reservations because they are very popular and fill up quickly. Dinner typically is served promptly at 7pm, but make sure you get there at around 6pm to watch the sunset with a cocktail and make the most of the experience.
A Spice Workshop. I had the opportunity to take go on a Spice tour as a guest of Destination Zanzibar and Zanzibar Different where I visited a local spice farm and learn some traditional recipes and culinary practices from a husband and wife duo. After learning about all of the most popular spices Zanzibar produces, it was great to make a delicious meal that I otherwise would never have had.
what to do
Get lost in the alleyways, strolling around and taking in the culture, admiring the beautiful (yet crumbling) architecture, and daily life. While I'm all for self discovery and getting intentionally lost, it’s also great to have a guided walking tour of Stone Town see highlights you might otherwise overlook and learn about it's history. Avoid anyone on the street offering to show you around and go with an organized guide from either Destination Zanzibar or your hotel.
Shop. Some of my favorite places were Daranjani market for super cheap produce and woven goods, Moto + Dada Shop which is a run and operated by a women's cooperative, and Abeid Curio Shop for beautiful and ornate wooden chests.
A day trip to Chumbe Island or Prison Island. Prison Island is known for being home to over a hundred gigantic tortoises that you can interact closely with, while Chumbe Island is a small private island known for its ecological innovation and exceptional coral reefs.
Visit the landmarks. You can visit the former slave market and learn about it's very sobering history, or any one of the other historical sites like the Old Fort, Old Dispensary, Palace Museum, or St. Joseph's Cathedral.
Watch the young boys do acrobatics into the water at sunset. It's become somewhat of a tradition, and groups of people (locals and visitors alike) crowd around to watch as they each fling themselves off the clifftrying to outdo the other with flips, dives and twists. The joy and laughter paired with the beautiful African sunset is something I find hard to put into words. It's truly a special scene.
Market GOODS TO BUY
It wouldn't make sense for you to come to Stone Town and not buy a few market goodies. A few items I would highly recommend are:
A Kofia or other traditional garb
Brass, copper, and other beaded jewelry
Traditional towels or hand carved wooden chests
Local Spices and Handmade Soaps
Organic hand-mixed mosquito repellant
Woven baskets, fans, and totes
Photography by yours truly
Photos of me captured by Yagazie Emezi
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