When people picture travelling in Africa, they might imagine themselves trekking over vast swaths of desert and sandy scrubland, setting out on a safari through savannahs and velds, or venturing deep into dense jungle. Perhaps they won’t be thinking of pristine white sand beaches, hammocks beneath banana palms, and snorkeling through some of the world’s best-preserved coral reefs. Perhaps they won’t be thinking of Zanzibar.
Zanzibar is a collection of tropical islands in the Indian Ocean, located off the coast of Tanzania. It’s a region of Tanzania, but Zanzibar is semi-autonomous, managing its affairs separate from the mainland. Most Zanzibaris reside on the largest island, Unguja; however, the archipelago includes more than 40 smaller islands and islets, many of which are readily accessible and sparsely inhabited. For the savvy traveller, it makes an almost otherworldly escape.
The best way to begin a journey to Zanzibar is in the thick of things, starting in Stone Town. This is the oldest portion of the regional capital, Zanzibar City. It’s also probably one of the hardest places to miss, since it’s situated on the westernmost point of Unguja, right in the middle of the coastline. Any flight or ferry to Zanzibar is likely to arrive near here.
The buildings alone are astonishing to behold. Traces of Arab, Persian, and Indian influence, as well as motifs from China, Malaysia, and Indonesia, are inscribed in the architectural styles.
Zanzibar’s population is mostly Muslim, and there are many stunning mosques. Indigenous Swahili traditions are also still alive and well.
As you explore the Shangani neighborhood, enjoy browsing along Kenyatta Road, known for its authentic and affordable handicrafts. The prices are negotiable, and vendors expect to be haggled.
To the north, follow the waterfront to the recently-restored Forodhani Gardens, which offers a selection of street food for seasoned travellers. Right behind them is the “Old Fort”, or Ngome Kongwe, a famous relic of the Omani Sultanate constructed between 1698–1701, which has since become a cultural hub; and nearby Gizenga Street offers lots in the way of fascinating local boutiques.
Continuing north, the seaside walkways pass the House of Wonders and the People’s Palace, both of which once belonged to the Sultans of Zanzibar, but have since been converted to museums. The House of Wonders gained its name for being the first building in East Africa to have electricity and an elevator. Finally, the “Big Tree” — a giant fig tree that has become a local landmark — and the gloriously ornate Old Dispensary are both worth seeing.
Bearing in mind that the whole of Unguja is only slightly larger than Los Angeles, Zanzibar City makes a convenient home base, and the rest of the island can be explored during day trips or short stays elsewhere. Rent a car or moped, hire a driver, or use the dala-dala transit service (if you’re feeling bold) for excursions. Right off the west coast of Stone Town is Changu Island, also called “Prison Island.” It’s a popular spot for sightseeing and snorkelling, and is also home to a group of rare Aldabra giant tortoises.
About an hour east of the city, the Jozani Forest is a breathtaking wildlife refuge and adjacent mangrove where the endangered Zanzibar red colobus monkey resides, along with an amazing range of flora and fauna and seemingly endless species of birds and butterflies.
All of Unguja’s oceanside villages offer different activities and attractions, but Kizimkazi, on the island’s southern tip, is well-known for the pods of bottlenose dolphins that live in the area. Nungwi, on the northern tip of Unguja, was once a small and sleepy town, but its magnificent beaches, lagoons, and unique dhow shipwrights have made it a beloved tourist destination.
The locals run an “aquarium” where injured or marooned marine animals, many of which are sea turtles, are rescued and rehabilitated. If Nungwi seems too crowded, as it can be during peak season, the village of Kendwa is within walking distance; things cost a bit more, but the serenity is priceless.
Written by Dillon Ramsey
Headline image by In Green/Shutterstock