Zanzibar, a beautiful archipelago nestled in the azure waters of the Indian Ocean, offers a mesmerizing blend of turquoise seas, pristine beaches, and lush tropical vegetation. Situated approximately 25 miles off the coast of mainland Tanzania, the archipelago is made up of numerous small islands and two large ones: Unguja and Pemba.
Unguja, colloquially known as Zanzibar Island, is the largest and most populated island of the archipelago. This is where you’ll find Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for its rich history and unique blend of African, Arab, European, and Indian influences. The island’s eastern coastline is adorned with picturesque beaches, while the western part of the island offers the bustling life of Stone Town with its winding alleyways, bustling markets, and historical sites.
Pemba, Zanzibar’s sister island to the north, is less developed but equally beautiful, boasting lush, hilly landscapes, clove plantations, and some of the best diving spots in the world. Despite its quieter tourism scene, Pemba offers a more off-the-beaten-path experience, perfect for adventurous travelers and nature enthusiasts.
The climate in Zanzibar is tropical but tempered by the monsoon winds. The dry seasons from June to October and January to February make it an ideal destination for sun-seekers. The monsoon season brings heavier rains, usually between March and May, with shorter rains expected in November and December.
Culturally, Zanzibar is a melting pot of influences from the African mainland, Arab traders, European colonists, and Indian merchants. This vibrant blend is reflected in everything from the archipelago’s architecture and music to its mouthwatering cuisine. Swahili is the main language, but English is widely spoken, particularly in the tourism industry.
Zanzibar is more than just a beach destination; it’s a sensory experience full of sights, sounds, and flavors that reflect its vibrant history and culture. Whether you’re wandering through the labyrinthine streets of Stone Town, lounging on the palm-fringed beaches of the east coast, or exploring the green, hilly terrain of Pemba, Zanzibar promises a unique, unforgettable experience.
Getting There and around
Getting to Zanzibar can be an adventure in itself. The most common route is to fly into Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar es Salaam, the largest city in mainland Tanzania, and then catch a connecting flight to Abeid Amani Karume International Airport, Zanzibar’s main airport located on Unguja Island. Major airlines, such as Emirates, Qatar Airways, and Turkish Airlines, serve Dar es Salaam, while local carriers, including Precision Air and Coastal Aviation, offer daily flights to Zanzibar. Flight time from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar is approximately 20 minutes.
Alternatively, those with a sense of adventure might choose to arrive by ferry from Dar es Salaam. The ferry terminal in Dar es Salaam is located downtown, and there are several departures each day. The voyage takes about two hours on the fast ferry and is a scenic way to transition from the hustle and bustle of the city to the laid-back island life.
Once you’re in Zanzibar, there are various options for getting around. If you’re staying in Stone Town, you’ll find that it’s compact enough to explore on foot. For venturing further afield, taxis are readily available, and rates can be negotiated. Always agree on the fare before the journey starts.
For those keen on exploring at their own pace, renting a car or scooter can be a good option. Remember to drive on the left side of the road and be aware that traffic conditions and driving practices might be different from what you’re used to.
Public transportation, commonly known as “dala dala”, is the most affordable way to get around. These are minibuses or large vans that operate on set routes across the island. They’re often crowded and can be a bit chaotic, but they provide a real slice of local life.
Where to Stay in Zanzibar
Luxury seekers might be drawn to the numerous five-star resorts dotting the island’s coastline. One notable option is the Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa, located on the pristine beach of Paje. It offers lavish villas with private pools and a commitment to sustainability through renewable energies and water recycling systems.
For a blend of luxury and cultural heritage, consider the Park Hyatt Zanzibar, situated in the heart of Stone Town. This hotel is housed in a stunningly restored historic building, featuring Zanzibari architecture with Arab, Persian, Indian, and European influences.
Mid-range travelers have an array of beautiful boutique hotels to choose from. Zanzibar Palace Hotel in Stone Town is a charming option, offering individually themed rooms reflecting the rich history and culture of the island. On the beachfront, Pongwe Beach Hotel provides bungalow-style accommodation in a tranquil setting with a stunning infinity pool.
For budget-conscious travelers, guesthouses and budget hotels offer basic amenities at affordable prices. One highly-rated budget option is the Lost & Found Hostel in Stone Town, known for its friendly staff and clean facilities.
For an off-the-beaten-track experience, consider staying in one of the local guesthouses or bungalows in the fishing villages on the East Coast of the island. Here, you’ll get a real feel for Zanzibari life, with the sound of the ocean as your nightly lullaby.
Those interested in sustainable travel might want to consider eco-lodges that are committed to protecting Zanzibar’s unique environment. One example is Zuri Zanzibar, a stunning eco-resort that prioritizes sustainability without compromising on luxury.
Remember to book in advance, especially during peak travel season (July to September and December to February), when popular hotels and resorts can fill up quickly. No matter where you choose to stay, Zanzibar’s friendly hospitality and stunning natural beauty are sure to make it a memorable trip.
What to Eat
Zanzibar, known as the “Spice Island,” offers a flavorful culinary scene that mirrors its vibrant culture and history. The island’s cuisine is a delectable fusion of African, Arab, Indian, and European influences, heavily featuring seafood, spices, and tropical fruits.
Street food is a big part of Zanzibari culture. A must-visit is the Forodhani Night Market in Stone Town, where local vendors serve up a wide variety of dishes, from Zanzibar pizza (a stuffed pancake with various fillings) to grilled seafood skewers, to sweet treats like urojo, a spicy local soup. It’s a buzzing, lively atmosphere where you can sample many local dishes in one place.
Seafood lovers will be in paradise in Zanzibar. Freshly caught fish, lobster, calamari, and octopus are staples, usually cooked with a blend of spices. Try a traditional fish curry or octopus stew at local seafood joints like Lukmaan Restaurant in Stone Town.
Zanzibar’s spice heritage also shines through in its cuisine. Cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, turmeric, and vanilla are used liberally in dishes. Be sure to try pilau, a spiced rice dish typically served with meat or fish, or biryani, a flavorful, aromatic rice dish of Persian origin.
Tropical fruits abound on the island. From coconuts to mangoes, pineapples to passion fruits, the fresh fruit is a highlight of any visit. Many places offer fresh fruit juices, and don’t miss the chance to try a refreshing coconut water straight from the shell.
In terms of drinks, Tanzania’s local beers, like Serengeti, Kilimanjaro, and Safari, are widely available. You might also try “konyagi,” a local spirit often mixed with lime and tonic.
For fine dining, Zanzibar has a number of high-end options. The Emerson Spice Tea House Restaurant is renowned for its stunning rooftop views over Stone Town and its daily changing tasting menu featuring the freshest local ingredients.
For those who want to learn more about Zanzibar’s food and spices, consider a guided spice tour or a local cooking class. These experiences can often be arranged through your hotel or a local tour operator.
Overall, eating in Zanzibar is a sensory adventure that will take you on a culinary journey, from bustling food markets to beachside seafood barbecues, under the Zanzibari sun.
Things to Do
Zanzibar, an archipelago off the coast of Tanzania, is a paradise of cultural heritage, pristine beaches, and stunning natural beauty. Its rich history, unique architecture, and vibrant markets make it a captivating destination for travelers seeking diverse experiences.
Stone Town: The heart of Zanzibar, Stone Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an enchanting historical city filled with narrow alleyways, ornate houses, and intricately carved wooden doors. This town offers a window into the island’s past, with landmarks such as the House of Wonders, the Old Fort, and the former slave market at the Anglican Cathedral. Exploring Stone Town, with its rich mix of African, Arab, Indian, and European influences, is like stepping back in time.
Beaches: Zanzibar boasts some of the world’s most stunning beaches, with clear turquoise waters and powdery white sands. Nungwi and Kendwa in the north are perfect for swimming, sunbathing, and snorkeling, while Paje on the east coast is a haven for kite surfers.
Spice Tours: Known as the Spice Island, Zanzibar was once the world’s leading producer of cloves. A spice tour will take you to the rural areas where you can learn about the cultivation of spices like cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and black pepper. Tours often include a tasting of fresh spices and fruits, offering a unique sensory experience.
Jozani Forest Reserve: The only national park in Zanzibar, Jozani is home to the rare Red Colobus Monkey, which is endemic to the island. Walking through the dense forest and the mangrove swamps is a nature lover’s delight.
Diving and Snorkeling: The warm, clear waters surrounding Zanzibar are teeming with vibrant coral reefs and an abundance of marine life. Mnemba Atoll, Chumbe Island, and Leven Bank are some of the prime diving and snorkeling spots. Many operators offer day trips, including Zanzibar Watersports, a reputable company offering diving and snorkeling tours.
Prison Island: A short boat ride from Stone Town, Prison Island offers a glimpse into Zanzibar’s history as a quarantine station. Today, the island is known for its resident Aldabra Giant Tortoises, some of which are over a hundred years old. It’s also a great spot for snorkeling.
Dhow Cruises: Traditional wooden dhows have sailed the Indian Ocean for centuries. A sunset dhow cruise is a magical way to end the day, with beautiful views of the sun setting over the sea.
Local Markets: Darajani Market in Stone Town is the place to immerse yourself in local life. It’s bustling with vendors selling everything from fresh produce and spices to textiles and crafts.
Cultural Experiences: Learn about Zanzibar’s traditional music and dance at the Dhow Countries Music Academy. Another unique experience is visiting a seaweed center in Paje, where local women cultivate seaweed for export.
Festivals: If your visit coincides with the Zanzibar International Film Festival or the Sauti za Busara music festival, don’t miss the chance to join the local celebration of film, music, and arts.
Traveling to Zanzibar is a delightful experience, but it does require some practical information to ensure a smooth and comfortable journey.
Visa: Most visitors require a visa to enter Zanzibar. This can be obtained upon arrival at the airport or beforehand at a Tanzanian embassy. The standard tourist visa is valid for 90 days. Please check the Tanzanian Immigration website for the most accurate and up-to-date information.
Currency: The official currency is the Tanzanian Shilling (TZS). US dollars are also widely accepted, especially in hotels and tour operators, but it’s useful to have some local currency for smaller transactions. ATMs are available in Stone Town and larger towns.
Health: Yellow fever vaccination is required if you’re coming from an infected area. Malaria is a risk in Zanzibar, so consider taking preventative medication and use mosquito repellent. Drink only bottled water and avoid raw or undercooked food. It’s advised to have comprehensive travel insurance that covers medical evacuation.
Safety: Zanzibar is generally safe, but as with any destination, it’s essential to take common-sense precautions. Avoid isolated areas at night, secure your belongings, and be aware of scams. In case of an emergency, dial 112 for the police.
Language: Swahili is the official language, but English is widely spoken in tourist areas and hotels. Learning a few basic Swahili phrases can enhance your experience.
Climate: Zanzibar has a tropical climate. The dry seasons (June to October and December to February) are the best times to visit. The long rains usually occur from March to May, and the short rains are in November.
Clothing: Zanzibar is predominantly Muslim, and visitors are advised to dress modestly, especially when not on the beach. Women should avoid revealing clothes, and it’s respectful to cover shoulders and knees when in public.
Transport: Dala-dalas (shared minibuses) are the local mode of transport and a cheap way to travel. Taxis are available but make sure to negotiate the fare in advance. Car and motorbike rentals are also options but remember to drive on the left.
Connectivity: Wi-Fi is common in hotels and cafes, especially in Stone Town. Consider purchasing a local SIM card for data usage; Vodacom and Airtel are popular networks.
Zanzibar is an island paradise with so much to offer, from historic sites to pristine beaches, and colorful markets. Here are two sample itineraries to make the most of your stay:
3-Day Zanzibar Getaway
Day 1 – Stone Town: Start your Zanzibar adventure in Stone Town, the island’s cultural heart. Begin with a tour of the Palace Museum to get a glimpse of the sultanate era. Afterward, make your way to the Old Fort and explore the ancient ruins. In the afternoon, visit the bustling Darajani Market, where you can buy spices, souvenirs, and local foods. End your day at Forodhani Gardens, where you can enjoy the night market’s delectable street food, such as Zanzibar pizza and fresh seafood skewers.
Day 2 – Spice Tour and Prison Island: Take a morning spice tour, one of the island’s most popular activities. Learn about the production of cloves, vanilla, nutmeg, and other spices that gave Zanzibar the name ‘Spice Island’. In the afternoon, take a boat to Prison Island. Here, you can visit the Aldabra giant tortoise sanctuary and snorkel in the crystal-clear waters around the island.
Day 3 – Beach Day: Spend your final day in the northern beaches of Nungwi and Kendwa. Both beaches offer stunning white sand and azure waters. Enjoy various water activities such as snorkeling, diving, or simply relax on the beach and soak up the sun.
7-Day Zanzibar Exploration
Days 1 & 2 – Stone Town: Explore Stone Town’s historic sites, markets, and cuisine as described in the 3-day itinerary.
Day 3 – Jozani Forest: Head to Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park, home to the rare red colobus monkeys. The forest also boasts a high diversity of birds and butterflies.
Day 4 – Spice Tour and Prison Island: As in the 3-day itinerary.
Days 5 & 6 – East Coast Beaches: Move to the island’s east coast, famous for its stunning beaches. Paje is known for kite-surfing, while Bwejuu and Jambiani are perfect for a more laid-back experience.
Day 7 – Mnemba Island: Take a day trip to Mnemba Island, a marine conservation area known for its vibrant coral reefs. It’s an excellent spot for snorkeling and diving.
Best Time to Visit
Choosing the best time to visit Zanzibar is largely dependent on the type of experience you desire, with each season bringing unique aspects and opportunities.
Dry Season (June to October):
This is considered the best time to visit Zanzibar for most tourists. The weather is generally dry and sunny, making it perfect for beach holidays and outdoor activities. Temperatures during this period typically range from 25°C to 30°C, and the skies are mostly clear, providing the best conditions for wildlife watching, scuba diving, and snorkeling. The sea visibility is also excellent during this time, especially around the island of Mafia and Mnemba Atoll.
During this period, Zanzibar hosts the Zanzibar International Film Festival (July) and the Eid al-Fitr holiday, offering a chance to experience local culture and festivities. Note that this is also the peak tourism season, so popular spots can get crowded and prices may be higher. Early booking is recommended.
Short Rainy Season (November to December):
These months, known locally as the ‘short rains’ or ‘Vuli’, experience brief but intense rain showers, often in the mornings or late afternoons, with the sun shining brightly for the rest of the day. The landscape turns lush and green, and the air is fresh and crisp. It’s a good time for travellers seeking lower prices and fewer crowds.
Hot Season (January to February):
During these months, Zanzibar experiences its hottest weather with temperatures climbing to 35°C. It’s another peak tourist time, especially for Europeans escaping winter. The seas are calm, and visibility is excellent for scuba diving and snorkeling.
Long Rainy Season (March to May):
Known as the ‘long rains’ or ‘Masika’, this period sees heavy rainfall, especially in April. It’s the least popular time to visit due to the unpredictable weather, which can disrupt outdoor activities and travel plans. However, it’s the best time for budget travellers as accommodation prices are often reduced. It’s also a great time for birdwatchers as migratory birds arrive.
In conclusion, the best time to visit Zanzibar largely depends on what you want to do. The dry season is great for outdoor activities and beach time, the short rainy season offers a balance between good weather and lower prices, the hot season is perfect for underwater activities, and the long rainy season is suitable for budget travellers and birdwatchers. It’s recommended to check the weather forecast before your trip and plan accordingly.