Historic Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on Zanzibar off the coast of Africa, may be off the beaten path, but its history and potpourri of cultures are well worth a detour on any East African itinerary.
Stone Town, officially named a World Heritage Site in 2001, is the Old Town of Zanzibar City, the capital city of the archipelago islands of Zanzibar (Unguja), Pemba and Mafia in Tanzania. The city is famed for its richly woven mix of traditional customs, a melting-pot of streets filled to the brim with Arabic architecture, Indian Spices and a distinctly African nature.
For centuries, Zanzibar was ruled by the Sultan of Oman, a place of tranquil beauty and serene waters that belied its horrific role as one of the main slave trading islands of the Indian Ocean up to 1896. In 1840, Stone Town became the seat of the joint Sultanate of Oman and Zanzibar until a split in 1861 yielded two different states. Under the Sultanate, this once tiny fishing village developed quickly into a major trading post for spices and slaves. Much of this growth was due Sultan Sayyid Said of Oman, considered to be the first Sultan of Zanzibar, who established very strong trading networks with the East and increased the slave trade.
Today known as “The Spice Isle,” Zanzibar’s trading importance stemmed from the high value put on goods and spices such as cloves, saffon and ivory. Iran, Persia and India were part of a global trading network known for the transportation of African slaves across the continent; Stone Town was a major stop-off point for their vessels, as well as traders and pirates.
Despite its dubious roots in slavery, Stone Town has only ever been under siege once, during the shortest war in history. Not one person was killed and the Sultan’s residence, or House of Wonders, suffered only minimal damage. This “war” lasted for less than 45 minutes and was known as the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896. The House of Wonders is centrally located on the main beachfront and can be seen from the ferry on the trip over from Dar Es Salaam. These days, this palace contains a museum of Swahili and Zanzibar culture. Nearby, the Sultan’s Palace, or Palace Museum, holds a museum of the Zanzibari royal family.
The Old Town is named for the stone houses made of coral stone, which date back as far as the 1830s. The narrow streets of Stone Town are congested with pedestrians and scooters – they are also a challenge to navigate and a guide is recommended (see “Getting Around”). As you navigate your way down the alleyways, let the sights and smells guide you, breathe in the intense aromas that you will be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the world. Follow smoke listlessly during the evening festivities and with each twist and turn you will find new insights into a past way of life.
A good starting point for your tour is The Old Fort on Muzikhani Road, built during the reign of Sultan Sayyid Said who settled in Zanzibar with his family from Oman after the split of the Sultanate. The spectacular limestone fort still stands formidably over the harbor and today plays home to numerous events, including reggae nights and traditional Tarab music.
The island has always been of great interest to explorers, pirates and adventurers. A predominantly Muslim society today, you will become accustomed to hearing the daily call for prayer. At the main food market you will find many stalls selling authentic Zanzibari spices. Take your time to weave your way through the aisles, it is one of the best ways to try the local delicacies and a must for any traveler. If you are staying in an accommodation where you can make your own food, try the masala and Zanzibar curry powder, pick up fresh seafood and have a go at making an authentic curry, Zanzibar Style.
Nutmeg and fenugreek, are also spices which have their origins locally, and can be picked up at next to nothing prices. Take in the smells of freshly cut herbs, and feast your eyes on exotic colorful raw fruit and vegetables, such as papaya, paw paw and dafu (young coconut).
The outdoor marketplace was once the main centre of slave trading on the island, and it is here that African people were bought; kept in horrific conditions and eventually sold to wealthy Arabs who took them overseas. Today it is still a place of trade, and many items such as handmade crafts, traditional clothes and soaps can be bartered for; each awning of the individual stalls creates a passageway with which to meander through the bustling marketplace.
Keep in mind that for many thousands of years of traders and vagabonds have walked the same streets making backhanded bribes; just ask any local about Jaws Corner and they will have a story to tell. Here, where alleys converge, locals and visitors mingle over cups of coffee, discussing all aspects of Zanzibari life.
Following in the footsteps of travelers in history, take a walk from the main stretch of beach that leads from the Port along the seafront. You will come across Livingstone’s, named after David Livingstone, an adventurer and explorer who visited the island in 1866. He was the first person to make a connection between malaria and mosquitoes and publicized this information to the world, thus saving many lives. The spot named in his honor, Livingstone’s, is a funky place for jazz and the blues. Sophisticated yet relaxed, the bar opened in 2012 and has quite simply one of the best locations of any beach bar in the world, entertaining anyone who enjoys the good things in life – drinks on the beach, dancing with your feet in the sand, and if you can keep going till sunrise, a breathtakingly beautiful view that will have you smiling as day breaks.
Along the stretch of sandy beach from the Port you will come across Forodhani Gardens, a hub of nightlife activity where evening stalls are set up and happens to be the best place in Stone Town to find delicious freshly caught seafood. The prices are exceptionally reasonable, and you will find anything from Octopus, prawns, swordfish and all types of linefish. The list is almost endless and sidling up the stalls in the evening you will be able to eye up your catch and have it cooked to your liking, all this and served with your choice of accompaniment, local breads, Zanzibari sauces – or straight forward freshly squeezed lemon juice. Go ahead and pick up a sugarcane drink, made from the crushed roots of the plant and enjoy the tastiest catch of the sea, while looking out over the moonlight ocean.
Well-known restaurants that are worth seeking out are Africa House, a beautiful sea facing restaurant, where you can enjoy drinks at sunset. Another location to seek on your map is Green Garden Restaurant. No alcohol is served due to the strict religious customs, yet working your way through the maze of streets to find an amazing oasis restaurant situated within the city walls is a delight rewarded with incredible food.
Once your stomach is satisfied, find your dancing feet and head to one of the night-time bars. As the majority of the population are Muslims, the night-time pursuits are kept to a minimum. However Zanzibari’s have a deep connection to their cultural roots and celebratory festivals are on all year round such as the “Jahazi Literary festival” (August) and “Sauti Za Busara” (every summer during the month of February). A multi-cultural mix of musical acts from all corners of Africa comes together for one weekend to set the city streets alive.
As you will discover, Stone Town is a city not far removed from the past yet untainted by 21st century culture. It is a place of unchartered interest, where African slaves were bought and sold, during times when Sultans ruled the land and pirates ruled the seas. A paradise destination that bestows humility on all who visit, it is a place you become enamored with reading about, when you are there each beautiful moment is filled with a new experience – a way of life quite forgotten, a time to be cherished, and memories of Zanzibar so bright, they will never fade…just make sure you get your Yellow Fever jab and watch out for those mosquitoes.
Just 22 miles separates Zanzibar from mainland Tanzania, and the easiest access is via ferry from Dar-Es-Salaam. A fast ferry takes around two to two and a half hours; you’ll need a simple tourist visa ($50), which you can pick up once you arrive at the Port in Zanzibar.
Azam Marine (website) has four daily trips between Dar-es-Salaam and Zanzibar: 7am, 9:30am, 12:30pm, 3:45pm (3:30 from Dar-es-Salaam). Prices are $35 – $40 (Adults), $25 – $40 (Children)
Once you arrive in Zanzibar it is best to ask at your accommodation where to find a suitable guide. Understandably for a city so unrivaled in character and structure, it is easy to wind up lost, and what can start out as a quick trip to the market can end up being a nightmare expedition of twists and turns in winding streets barely wide enough for scooters and pedestrians, especially in the heat of summer, which can easily exceed 100°. It is worth investing some dollars to hire a tour guide, someone who really knows the city inside out. Local guides, usually of African origin, will charge you for a day or half a day and take you any place you wish to see. Walk the walls with good shoes, a pocketful of Tanzanian Shillings and a camera.
If you are walking around at night, stick to well lit walkways, as it is easy to get lost, and exploring after dark is not recommended. However, you will find Masai tribesmen from Tanzania are on watch every evening at various points in the city for the safety of the town and for the well-being of the locals.