Zanzibar is the epitome of a paradise island: turquoise waters, white sand, and the fragrance of spice in the air. It is a gloriously beautiful destination, rich in history and tradition. Well worth the trip as a stand-alone destination, though perhaps not economically, or travel time, feasible for many of us. But when traveling to East Africa on safari, adding time in Zanzibar is ideal.
Zanzibar is an island archipelago about 20 miles off the coast of Tanzania. Originally an independent country, it joined with Tanganyika in 1964 to become what is now known as the United Republic of Tanzania. It remains semi-autonomous, and its people are fiercely proud of their heritage. The archipelago is made up of many small islands, but it is on the two largest islands, Unguja and Pemba, where most of the population and tourism sites are located. The capital city, Zanzibar, and the UNESCO world heritage site, Stone Town, are located on Unguja.
We planned and booked our East African safari trip 18 months in advance, including our must see stops in Kenya and Tanzania. We try to break up long flights with stops in interesting locations on the way but found no new destinations on the flight paths we were considering. Finally, we made the decision to take advantage of our safari location, rather than our flight path, and booked a week in Zanzibar. We knew it was unlikely we’d ever be in this area again, so it was now, or never. We hope our photos inspire to visit Zanzibar!
Why travel to Zanzibar
Zanzibar Beaches, Water Activities, and Nature Preserves
Most people travel to Zanzibar for the beaches and watersports. The beaches are pristine and the water clear. A stop in Zanzibar is ideal at the end of an African safari. In fact, EVERY person we met in Tanzania on safari had booked some time in Zanzibar! Safaris are my favorite adventure, but they are exhausting. You will usually wake before dawn for your first game drive and will be active through much of the day and evening. Scheduling a relaxing Zanzibar beach break at the end of your safari will give you time to decompress.
Note: some people begin their African adventure here and book a Tanzanian safari from Zanzibar. There are Zanzibar safari packages available if that works best for you.
Healthy, rich coral reefs surround Zanzibar. Snorkeling and scuba diving are rewarding activities, even for those new to the experiences. Be sure to use reef-safe sunscreen (containing no oxybenzone or Octinoxate) to protect this ecosystem. We recommend Sun Bum or Blue Lizard but there are other brands that are safe – check the label.
Sailing is another popular way to enjoy the Indian Ocean around the archipelago. Our cousins had visited the year before we did and, as avid sailors, rented a boat to explore the waters. They highly recommended this option!
Safari Blue is one of the top attractions in Zanzibar and well worth its reputation. We booked a trip through our hotel which included pickup and return.
The day on the water was one of our best days ever! We began the day at Ras Fumba where we met our cheerful crew, got fitted for snorkeling equipment and then waded out to the dhow. We sailed to a location ideal for snorkeling and followed our guide as he pointed out the gorgeous and abundant sea life. Then on to Kwale Island for lunch and a nature walk. Back on board we sailed to a sandbar where some guests opted for more snorkeling, but we chose to stretch out on the white sand and swim in the warmest and most blue water we’d ever experienced!
Zanzibar Nature and Wildlife
Bird lovers and nature lovers will love traveling to Zanzibar. The Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park on the island of Unguja is home of the endemic and endangered Zanzibar red colobus monkey. (note: some tours will only take you to a small area of the park. Confirm your expectations before booking a tour)
The Pongwe forest reserve on Unguja is an important area for bird watching in Zanzibar. Fischer’s turaco, crowned hornbills, and other unusual birds are endemic to the island. You might also see the red colobus monkeys in this reserve so it might be the best option if you’re staying in the Pongwe area.
Take a ferry from Stone Town to Changuu (Prison) Island to enjoy the giant tortoises.
Visitors to Pemba Island should check out the flying fox at the Kidiki Root site and visit the Ngezi forest reserve. We were not able to get to this island so will have to return to see Pemba!
Some visitors will pass right through Stone Town on their way to the Zanzibar beaches, but they will miss much of what makes this a storied island. Stone Town is an extraordinary town, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. We set aside one full day to tour the town and wished we’d had more time to explore.
The waterfront area is lovely with a small park -the Forodhani gardens – which comes alive with a nightly food market. If you’re staying in Stone Town be sure to visit the market and enjoy some of the local flavors.
From the waterfront you look directly towards the House of Wonders, built by the Sultan in 1883, and known as the House of Wonders as it was the first building in East Africa to have an elevator. It was under construction when we were there but, when open, is a museum you can enjoy.
To the right of the House of Wonders you will see the Old Fort, built by the Omani Arabs in the 17th century. Entrance into the fort is free. The courtyard, once part of the fortifications, is now where some of the town events are celebrated. (Including the Zanzibar International Film Festival, the largest film and arts festival in East Africa)
Now that you’ve walked the waterfront historical area, you are in for a real treat. Walk the narrow streets and alleys of Stone Town and discover the mix of cultures that have influenced this part of East Africa. A Swahili trading center for over 1000 years, Stone Town has been occupied by the Portuguese, the Omani Arabs, and traders from India. The cultures of Africa, Asia, and India are all reflected in the architecture, and food! of Stone Town.
Take note of the intricately carved wooden doorways – Zanzibar is known for these! Visit the shops for aromatic spices, and gorgeous textiles. Stop by the home where Freddie Mercury, songwriter and lead vocalist for the rock group Queen, was born.
Have a meal in Stone Town. We always end our travels with a special dinner with a view. Zanzibar offered many options, but we chose the Rooftop Tea House at Emerson on Hurumzi. After removing our shoes, we sat on pillows and were treated to what was described as a traditional Persian wedding feast. Three courses of extraordinary food accompanied by taarab music.
And the perfect sunset!
The Slave Trade Capital of East Africa
The UNESCO listed area of Stone Town is rich in history and architecture, but it is perhaps most important for its museum and memorials to the dark history of Zanzibar and the slave trade.
Stone Town had been inhabited since at least the 6th century, but it was the Omani slavers that built the stone houses that gives it its name. The protected harbor was ideal for establishing a trading center for cloves, ivory, and slaves. The Portuguese controlled the island in the 16th and 17th century but in 1698 the Sultan of Oman ejected the Portuguese and took control of the island. The slave trade was so profitable that in the 1840s the sultan relocated to the island. It’s estimated that 40,000 to 50,000 slaves were imported into Zanzibar each year, with the mortality rate horrifyingly high. This continued until slavery was shut down in Zanzibar in 1873. It was the explorer David Livingstone whose writings helped to abolish slavery.
The Slave Market and Chambers in Zanzibar are a must-visit. Certain sites require witness.
“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” – George Santayana
How to travel to Zanzibar
Zanzibar is serviced by a good-sized international airport. Larger jets from Europe and the Middle East fly directly to Zanzibar, so you have many options for travel to and from the island. We were surprised by the quality of the runways after traveling within the African continent. At this time of our visit airport services are still operating out of a small, outdated terminal, but a large, modern terminal is now open! (And looked great from a distance)
Upon arrival in Zanzibar, and despite flying in from Arusha in Tanzania, we had to pass through immigration. There were agents to assist us so it was an easy procedure. We claimed our luggage in the adjacent room, had to have luggage and all carry-on screened before exiting the terminal (??) and found our driver. We had arranged for transport before leaving home and would recommend travelers do this to alleviate one added stress of travel. (Note that our experience was based on the old terminal. No doubt things are run differently with modernization)
From Dar es Salaam there is a fast ferry that operates four times a day to Zanzibar. The price is economical, and the journey only takes 2 hours. Definitely a great way to get to Zanzibar and enjoy some time on the water. The main ferry company to take from Dar Es Salaam to Zanzibar is Azam Marine.
The best time to visit Zanzibar is between June and October, which is their cool and dry season.
Where to stay in Zanzibar
Choosing lodging in Zanzibar will depend on your planned activities. If you’re interested in exploring Stone Town, choose a location in that area. If you’re a swimmer, be aware that the tides will affect your choice of locations. During low tide the ocean will retreat to the coral reef which, on the flat beaches of the eastern side of the islands, can be a half mile from shore. There will be water up to your knees but not enough to swim. But for those who like walking on the shore, and marveling at the tidal phenomena, this is great!
We chose two hotels, one on the east side of the island for leisure days (Seasons Lodge) and one on the west for our time in Stone Town (Protea Mgewu Ruins). The added advantage of our move towards the city was that we were able to make an early flight home without the concerns about crossing the island.
Note: As we only stayed on Unguja, we can only suggest locations on this island.
Beach lovers: North Coast of Unguja -Nungwi
If you are a beach lover, a swimmer, and are looking for long white sand beaches, you will do well to book accommodation in Nungwi, at the northern end of the island. This area boasts beautiful beaches where you can swim even at low tide. This is also where you’ll find some of the most luxurious resorts and hotels. Consequently, the north coast has a more busy, touristy feel – beach bars, restaurants, and nightlife – which may appeal to you! You will be a distance from Stone Town, however, and many of the other attractions on Zanzibar.
South and East Coast of Unguja
Both these areas are quiet and less developed. The hotels in this area will likely have their own restaurants where you will dine. However, one of Zanzibar’s most picturesque (and instagrammed!) restaurant – the Rock – is in Pingwe on the east coast. Make reservations well in advance and ensure you have transportation back to your hotel.
Get the best of all worlds by staying at a beach resort in the Stone Town area. There’s a lot to do, explore, and enjoy! And it’s close to the airport for convenience in travel.
FAQs About Zanzibar
Is Zanzibar a country? No. Before 1964 Zanzibar was an independent country, but now it is part of the United Republic of Tanzania.
Is Zanzibar safe? Like many places in the world, Zanzibar has a wide wealth disparity within its citizens and its visitors. Despite that, Zanzibar is one of the safest places to travel in Africa. Be prepared for people offering services as guides, etc., at the airport, and on the open beaches. They can be persistent. And, as in every country, be wary of your surroundings and your belongings.
and the question that makes us smile…
Is Zanzibar a real place? Yes, it is, though it is so beautiful that we occasionally had to rub our eyes to make sure we weren’t dreaming.
For beach lovers who can’t make the long trip to Zanzibar, remember there are gorgeous beaches and cultural attractions in Hawaii!