As I wind through the narrow streets, the sea breeze flitting through my hair and my nose filled with scent of cinnamon, I think back to the site I just visited- an Anglican church that was built, symbolically, on the site of a slave whipping post, where a slave’s value was determined by whether or not he cried out in pain. I hear loud noises as I walk and so I survey the scene around me. Colourful tropical fruits, vegetables, aromatic spices, and fresh fish are being haggled over by locals and tourists. I revel in the chaos of the marketplace after the stifling oppressiveness of a grim look into Zanzibar’s past. Visiting Zanzibar was so much more than I expected.
Note: The flights, accommodation and activities mentioned in this post were NOT sponsored/discounted/gifted.
With long pristine white sandy beaches and deep turquoise water, visiting Zanzibar island is amazing for those in need of some vitamin sea. But what I also love about visiting Zanzibar is that it offers more than just a standard resort holiday- you can choose to immerse yourself in the culture, learn about spices, educate yourself on the slave trade, explore forests or wander around the town at your leisure. You could actually visit Zanzibar and never put your toe in the water, that’s how diverse it is.
It’s the ideal destination for those looking to experience a variety of different things on a trip. But not many people know that which is why I’ve put together this list of 5 things to do in Zanzibar that don’t involve laying on a beach.
Remember that Covid has hit Zanzibar hard, so please make sure to support the local people and be generous when visiting Zanzibar.
FIRST IT’S TIME FOR A BRIEF PPG (PANDA’S PROGRESSIVE GEOGRAPHY) LESSON!
The Zanzibar archipelago consists of the islands of Unguja (known as Zanzibar) and Pemba, along with a number of small islets. The archipelago is a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania and is separated from the mainland by a channel, which is approximately 36 kilometres wide at its narrowest point.
Zanzibar has a very rich history and was once one of the most important areas in East Africa. Following Vasco de Gama’s visit in 1499, Zanzibar was ruled by the Portuguese and remained this way for almost two centuries. The Portuguese failed to send enough men to protect their territories and eventually had to surrender to Oman. The Omanis took over the rule of Zanzibar in 1698. The local African chiefs protested, but the Omanis continued to rule until the revolution in 1964.
It became the main slave market of the east African Coast, ivory trades thrived and there was an expanding plantation economy centred on cloves. In 1822, the Omani Arabs signed the Moresby treaty which amongst other things, made it illegal for them to sell slaves to Christian powers. So that this agreement could be monitored, the United States and Great Britain established diplomatic relations with Zanzibar, and sent Consuls to the islands. However, the slaving restrictions were largely ignored, and the trade continued to kill and imprison countless Africans.
The British Empire gradually took over; the relationship was formalized by the 1890 Helgoland-Zanzibar Treaty, in which Germany pledged, among other things, not to interfere with British interests in Zanzibar. This treaty made Zanzibar a British protectorate. Zanzibar remained a British protectorate until independence in 1963
Zanzibar eventually joined Tanganyika (Tanzania) on 24 April 1964 under President Julius Nyerere. Zanzibar was granted a constitutional right to have its own president, cabinet, first minister and House of Representatives.
PREPARING to visit zanzibar
Stone Town houses the main and only airport in Zanzibar- Abeid Amani Karume International Airport (previously known as Kisauni Airport and Zanzibar International Airport). You can fly directly from many travel hubs around the world including Johannesburg, Dubai, London and Doha.
In order to prepare for you for your trip you may want to read this guide I wrote outlining the entry & covid requirements when visiting Zanzibar. (If you’re interested in other pandemic travels I have done, you click to read about my time in Georgia & Russia).
South Africans do not require a visa when visiting Zanzibar so I am unable to offer any advice or experience on this topic.
Currency when visiting zanzibar
The local currency is the Tanzanian Shilling. HOWEVER; US dollars are accepted and preferred when visiting Zanzibar. You can find prices in both currencies. Card facilities are rare; cash is king.
Where to stay WHEN VISITING ZANZIBAR
We stayed at Indigo Resort on Bewjuu Beach. We paid around 560USD for 5 nights and that included breakfast. I wrote a full review & included a video of our beachfront bungalow on my Instagram which you can click to read & watch here:
Getting Around Zanzibar
Zanzibar is not exactly walkable. Just from Stone Town to the main beaches is around a 1 hour drive. We hired a car for 20USD a day. However this may not be the BEST course of action for everyone. Roads in Zanzibar are not the best (they aren’t terrible but require extra vigilance) and Tanzania- like many former British colonies- drive on theft side of the road. It may not be the best place to start driving on that side of the road if you aren’t comfortable with it. However, its not unmanageable and does help when you’re going to get your covid test done.
An easier option is to hire a scooter for the same price (20USD per day) and drive along the beach to get to places. If you’re keen on exploring this is a viable and easier option but just be careful not to get stuck in wet sand!
How we spent our time WHEN VISITING ZANZIBAR
Polar and I spent our days in Zanzibar where we planned nothing and just woke up each day unsure of what the day would bring us. “Pole pole.” Slowly. That was the Swahili motto we chose to live by during our time in Zanzibar. We didn’t spend any time lazing around on the beach mostly because we live at a resort so this isn’t a novelty for us. Instead we ventured out of the box and found some new reasons to keep you visiting Zanzibar on a boat ride. Here we go:
choose from a variety of boat rides
In Zanzibar, you can either find a local with a boat or a local who knows someone with a boat. Boats are plentiful along the Zanzibari coast. You could get a speed boat or a traditional dhow. You can do a full day of island hopping, a sunset cruise or an early morning boat to see the dolphins. You could go on a planned tour with a group or hire a boat just for you and your bestie. Honestly your options for boat rides are endless in Zanzibar. You’re spoilt for choice and will definitely be able to find a boat ride that suits your budget and preference. I recommend watching my Zanzibar Snorkeling video to see all the marine life you could see in Zanzibar:
There are many tour operators that can organise one for you or you could book through your hotel. Alternatively you could do what Polar & I did which was ask a local on the beach. We spent a morning discovering starfish and marine life on our own private boat for 60USD. It was a highlight of visiting Zanzibar for us!
Learn to Kite Surf
Did you know that kitesurfing is actually a big deal when visiting Zanzibar? Paje Beach is home to many kitesurfing schools and you could join a group lesson or hire a private instructor. You pay per hour (we paid 25USD each per hour) and you learn all of the safety procedures as well as the skills associated with this sport. How many hours you require depends on how fast you pick up the skill but I would budget for 3 hours. It’s definitely more challenging than it looks!
shop to your heart’s desire
Now if you’re expecting a mall or designer boutiques, Zanzibar may not satisfy that requirement. But if you’re interested in art, fabric, crafts and homeware, Zanzibar definitely has you covered. Walking at the Darajani market area will take you through household items, fish, meat, vegetables, fruits and then, finally, the spice section. It’s the ultimate destination for souvenir shopping as well. You can then continue through the dozens of bazaar shops on Khanga Street showcasing Tanzanian and other African textiles.You can commission art pieces (if you are staying long enough) and definitely purchase plenty of memorabilia to fill your wardrobe or your home. The local crafts are definitely something worth admiring if you’re on a tight budget but I would advise leaving a bit of room in your suitcase for any trinkets you just can’t resist.
taste all the unique flavours
Considering Zanzibar’s complex history, their culinary influences reflect their rich and varied history. In every dish you can taste the contributions from Arabian, Indian & Protugese cuisines coupled with local ingredients and Zanzibari panache. There are no shortages of dishes to try or places to eat but here are some of my recommendations when in Stone Town:
Food to try WHEN VISITING ZANZIBAR:
Urujo: it’s a coconut curry broth with toppings. These toppings include egg, meat skewers, chutney, peppers, onion, cassava chips, falafel, and bhajias.
Zanzibar pizza: Zanzibar pizza is a pocket of dough filled with chocolate, banana, Nutella, or mango. The entire thing is then fried. You can get savoury versions too!
Mshikaki: Similar to a kebab, this Tanzanian food includes skewered, marinated meats that are slowly cooked over open coals.
Mandazi: This is a Swahili doughnut. The dough is made of coconut milk and cardamom and then deep fried. Usually, it’s served with chai or jackfruit.
Uji porridge: A porridge made with a mixture of ground millet, peanuts, and soy, so it’s really high in protein. The Zanzibari version is made with coconut milk.
Places to eat WHEN VISITING ZANZIBAR:
Forodhani night market: a sizzling street food bonanza, with dozens of stalls hawking everything from barbecued octopus to shawarma. Try the custard apple juice!
Emerson on Hurumzi: serves a decadent, Persian-inspired feast backed by live Taarab music on its cushion-strewn rooftop from Tuesday to Sunday. A splurge but a worthwhile one.
Taarab Restaurant at Hilton Stone Town: We spent a night here so I can confidently tell that their buffet breakfast is amazing and so is their a la carte lunch & dinner menu. You won’t be disappointed with the crab soup!
Small street food stalls: There’s an abundance of small establishments & carts catering to locals & tourists alike serving a wide variety of Zanzibari specialties, drinks & fruit. You can ask to customize dishes to your requirements especially if you’re vegetarian or vegan as most if not all, Zanzibaris speak English.
Stone Town History
If you’re like me and like to find out more in depth information about the place you’re visiting, I do recommend hiring a guide in Stone Town and visiting some historical sites. You can and should hire a guide when you’re in Stone Town so don’t bother to book anything in advance. You will have a million people offering their services to you if you walk along the promenade near House of Wonders and you just need to pick someone you like and wish to support.
If you’re not into organised tours (and I totally understand that), one of the most significant sites you can visit on your own is the Old Slave Market also known as the Anglican Church/Slave Chambers/ Slave Museum. It’s a simple museum erected on the site of Zanzibar’s original slave market that recounts the islands’ dark history as one of Africa’s largest slave trading ports (cost to visit is 5USD). I strongly recommend this if you’re interested in world history!
Stop and say hi: Swahili phrases are easy to pick up and just the basics will take you pretty far. Don’t assume the constant street side attention from people is an attempt to sell you something, or trap you into taking some sort of tour—that does happen, but saying hello is also an important part of the local culture. The “Jambos” are often just that, so it’s a good idea to say hello back. People will wave at you as pass them on the beach or the street. Wave back. It might be initially overwhelming, but it’s nice to realize that so many strangers will take the time to acknowledge your presence
You shouldn’t sleep on Zanzibar. Seriously. You can honestly choose your own adventure- from the all inclusive luxury resorts in the North where you can splurge ; to the quieter towns like Bwejuu or Jambiani where your slice of island paradise is mixed with the rhythms of village life. Wander through Stone Town; walk into the narrow alleyways while you peak into the preserved traces of historical events in the yesteryear Sultan’s statehood presence. Watch the local kids happily playing along the alleyways and older men drinking chai on the town squares. The people of Zanzibar are over and above wonderful and lovely. You are more than just welcome there. The best part about your travel to Zanzibar will be interacting with the people of Zanzibar.
Lastly, I have a wealth of information on my Instagram especially in the Zanzibar highlight. Do have a look. If you enjoyed this post, please pin it using the pin below:
HOW LONG SHOULD I GO FOR?
A Zanzibar holiday is the ideal trip for 3-4 days or for a month. A week would be best not to feel rushed.
SHOULD I PURCHASE A SIM CARD?
Not unless you need to connected at all times. I found the wifi at hotels and public places to be adequate. But the focus in Zanzibar is to be disconnected!
DID YOU APPLY FOR A VISA?
I did not require a visa as South Africans are visa exempt when visiting Zanzibar . Consult your nearest Tanzanian diplomatic mission to ask about your nationality.
WERE PEOPLE FRIENDLY AND DID THEY SPEAK ENGLISH?
Zanzibaris- like most East African citizens- are probably some of the kindest and friendliest people in the world. Being a former British protectorate and tourist hub, English is widely spoken as well as many other languages!
DID YOU THINK THIS TRIP WOULD BE SUITABLE FOR KIDS?
I personally have no experience traveling with children so I can’t be sure what they would like. However I do believe that if your kids love being outdoors, they will love their time in Zanzibar. There are plenty of options for different activities so you can pick & choose what suits your family’s preferences.
Have you visited Zanzibar? Or are you thinking of road trip in Zanzibar? Let me know in the comments below!!