Zanzibar is a unique place, part of Tanzania, but separated from it in many ways, not least by the beautiful Indian Ocean. It’s made up of a group of islands, although the largest and most populated island Unguja is often referred to as Zanzibar. I spent some time volunteering in Zanzibar and completely fell in love with it. I met amazing people, ate great food, saw fantastic wildlife and visited the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen. Here are my top things to do in Zanzibar.
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Zanzibar was known for many years as the ‘Spice Island’, and traders would pass through from India and other parts of Asia bringing different foods, people, and customs. It has been inhabited and ruled by the Portuguese, the Omanis and the British and influences from all three can be seen in the architecture, cuisine, and culture.
Getting Around in Zanzibar
There are lots of great areas to visit, and if you can it’s worth trying to stay in a couple of different places during your trip. It’s not a huge island and you can get from the north to the south coast in less than 2 hours in a car. Taxies are pretty inexpensive and are an easy way to get around. Alternatively, you can take the local buses – Dalla Dalla’s. These are very cheap and a good introduction to local life (although some of them drive incredibly fast which can be a little scary!)
Things to Do in Zanzibar
Stone Town/Zanzibar City
Also known as Zanzibar City, Stone Town is the heart of Zanzibar, a World Heritage Site, and the centre for trade, full of winding roads and alleys, and colourful characters. Ideally, stay a night or two, or at the very least – come for a day trip.
At its centre is Darajani Market, packed with stalls selling fruit and veg, spices, meat and the most enormous fish you have ever seen. (I witnessed a man dropping a massive fish onto the dusty road on the way to market from his scooter – unfazed, he picked it back up and carried on his way. I saw it hanging at the market later that day!)
There are lots of great restaurants and cafes, serving a variety of cuisines. A personal favourite is Lazuli, which serves delicious chapatti wraps and excellent fruit juices. In the evening, the night market in Forodhani Gardens is a good place to grab some local food.
Stone Town is also a great place for shopping, with a variety of boutiques and a market in the Old Fort that sells paintings by local artists. The Old Fort also contains an amphitheatre, which is used for festivals and special performances.
For a bit of history – there is a museum on the seafront, which recounts Zanzibar’s past, and not far from here is the Mercury Bar, a tribute to Freddie Mercury, who was born on the island.
From Stone Town, you can take a boat over to Prison Island. Which was, as the name suggests – once a prison. Now this island is home to a resort, but you can still walk around the old prison cells, and visit the tortoise sanctuary, which has some extremely old (and large) tortoises!
Zanzibar has some of the best beaches in the world, each with something different to offer. In the west, you can witness amazing sunsets, in the south, there are often dolphins to spot or even swim with and in the north and east are stunning white sand beaches and amazing diving.
To the north and south of Stone Town are a variety of beach resorts. The beaches are perhaps not as beautiful as on the north and east coasts, however, they are worth a visit just for the sunsets. If you don’t fancy staying in Stone Town then there are some lovely hotels on the outskirts of the city, which can make for a great base for a few days.
Nungwi is situated on the north of the island and is absolutely beautiful. There are lots of accommodation options here too, from big resorts to smaller beach bungalows – there is something for every budget. There are also some great restaurants and bars on the beach. For such a stunning location, it still feels undeveloped and unknown, which is amazing. I visited at the beginning of peak season and there were often only a few people on the beach.
Diving in Zanzibar
If you want to scuba dive in Zanzibar, then Nungwi is your best bet. There are lots of good diving companies based here, and most offer trips to The Mnemba Atoll, which is considered to be the best diving spot in Zanzibar.
Ten minutes down the coast is Kendwa, with an equally beautiful beach – but more of a backpacker feel to it. This is a good spot for nightlife, and if you’re staying in Nungwi it’s worth heading to Kendwa for an evening.
Paje, on the east coast, is equally beautiful. Again, there are some very affordable accommodation options and great little beach bars. If I had to choose, I think Nungwi is my favourite, but it’s absolutely worth visiting Paje, especially if you’re going to go to the Rock (see next).
About 30 minutes north of Paje, you can find The Rock. As the name suggests, this restaurant is situated on a rock and it is easily one of the most romantic restaurants in the world. To get to it, you have to take a small rowing boat from the beach. Once inside, the view looking out over the Indian Ocean is spectacular. They serve the most amazing seafood caught fresh that morning as well as great wine.
On the south is Kizimkazi, a small fishing village. Most visitors come here to swim with dolphins in Menai Bay, but it’s also home to the oldest mosque in East Africa.
Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park
If you fancy a break from the beaches, then head inland to The Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park. This is home to the Zanzibar Red Colobus monkeys, which are only found in Zanzibar. Many companies offer trips here, alternatively, most taxis will offer a return service.
How Long to Spend in Zanzibar
I was lucky enough to have an extended trip, but if you’re coming for a holiday, 1-2 weeks is a good duration. Unless you are travelling from within Africa, there aren’t any direct flights to Zanzibar. The most common stopovers are Nairobi or Dar es Salaam, which offer a great opportunity to combine the trip with a safari in either Masai Mara or the Serengeti.
Where to Stay in Zanzibar
It’s worth spending a bit of time in different areas of Zanzibar (in my opinion). I recommend a few days in Stone Town and then the rest of the time on the North or East Coast at a beach resort.
Where to Stay in Stone Town
Budget – Balcony House offers 11 rooms, some with private bathrooms and some shared. Located by the water, rooms have mosquito nets and fans and there is air conditioning is most. All rooms have access to a shared balcony, terrace, living room, kitchen, dining room and bathrooms.
Mid-range – Zanzibar Coffee House offers individually designed rooms and suites with antique details including four poster beds. As the name suggests, downstairs there is a coffee shop/cafe and also a rooftop terrace, overlooking Stone Town where breakfast is served.
Luxury – The 5-star waterfront Park Hyatt Zanzibar has an outdoor pool with ocean views, a restaurant, spa and wellness centre. It’s centrally located in Stone Town and right by the beach.
Where to Stay in Nungwi
Budget – Chikachika Beach B&B is a sustainable bed and breakfast a few steps from Nungwi Beach. Continental breakfast is included and the on-site restaurant is open for dinner, lunch, cocktails and high tea.
Mid-range – Nungwi Inn Beach Cottages are located right on the beach with a restaurant, a bar and a garden. Continental breakfast is included. I had a great stay here.
Luxury – Essque Zalu Zanzibar is a 5-star resort overlooking the Indian Ocean, with direct access to the beach. There is a large outdoor pool and a spa, 3 restaurants and 3 bars, as well as a fitness centre, an art gallery, a kids club and activities including windsurfing, diving and snorkelling.
Zanzibar holds a very special place in my heart, and I would encourage anyone to add it to their bucket list. It truly feels like an undiscovered island, a beautiful place full of lovely people and the most incredible beaches.