Set foot in Zanzibar and you are immediately transported through time and place! The island is a unique multicultural crossroads of influence, where Africa meets Arabic history and Indian flavors.
A quick history of Zanzibar really helps us understand its rich and colorful culture. Between the 12th and the 15th centuries, Zanzibar blossomed as a commercial platform with the Arabic peninsula, the Persian Gulf, India, and Asia trading slaves, gold, spices, wood, textiles, ivory, etc. In the 16th century, Zanzibar was taken over by the Portuguese before being controlled by the Omanis in the 19th century. In 1840, the Sultan of Oman even relocated his court to Zanzibar! In 1890, Zanzibar became a protectorate of the British Empire. In 1963 Zanzibar gained its independence and just one year later it united with Tanganyika to become the United Republic of Tanzania.
Zanzibar Island, the main island of the archipelago is an Indian Ocean paradise, with some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Here you can easily spend an entire holiday lounging at the beach, swimming, snorkeling, or kite surfing. But there is more to Zanzibar than the beach, so you will find here all the best things to do in Zanzibar to get a complete experience of the island.
WHAT TO DO IN ZANZIBAR?
1. EXPLORE STONE TOWN, THE CAPITAL CITY OF ZANZIBAR
The main draw of Zanzibar might be its stunning beaches, but you can’t miss visiting Stone Town, the main city on Zanzibar Island. Located on the West coast of the island, Stone Town is an interesting mixture of Arab, Persian, Indian, and European heritage, a testament to the different cultures that either occupied or traded with the island. This rich heritage got Stone Town included in the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in 2000. One day is enough to visit Stone Town, and here are a few things you shouldn’t miss:
- Get lost in the narrow streets in the heart of Stone Town. Admire the variety of architecture, look up at the intricate balconies, check out the elaborately carved doors with their heavy brass studs (the doors with a round top are of Indian style, while the Omani style ones have a rectangular top), and maybe pick up some local souvenir such as spices, soaps, tea, paintings, etc. One of the nicest shops is East Africa Merchants Co, where I picked up some delicious tea.
- Visit the Anglican Cathedral and the old slave market and museum. Zanzibar has long been a center of the slave trade and the museum gives you good insights about it, as well as the overall history of the island.
- If you are a fan, check out the Freddie Mercury museum. The Queens’ leader grew up in Zanzibar before moving to the UK. The museum is small but well documented and will take you from Freddy’s youth to the peak of his fame in under 15 min!
- Visit the Old Fort. Built by the Omanis to defend the island, there is nothing much left of the Fort but it is an easy stop while exploring the heart of Stone Town.
- Stop by Darajni market, a very local market filled with vendors selling fruits, vegetables, meat, fish spices, etc, and some souvenirs. Don’t forget to observe the fish auctions, taking place mostly early morning.
- Sip a drink and watch the sunset from one of the many hotels and restaurants facing the sea. The Park Hyatt is one of the fancy options, but there are many more on that side including
- Taste Zanzibari cuisine on a beautiful rooftop. We tried both Emerson Spice & Emerson on Hurumzi tasting menu and really loved it. Come 1 hour before dinner to enjoy the sunset and the call to prayer.
2. VISIT PRISON ISLAND
Just off the coast of Stone Town, Prison Island is a small island that was once used to quarantine yellow fever cases. Today the main attraction of Prison Island are the hundreds of endangered Giant Tortoises roaming around freely and happy to snap a piece of lettuce off your hands. All these tortoises are descendants of the original 4 tortoises that were offered by the British governor of Seychelles.
3. NAKUPENDA SANDBANK
To see the most amazing turquoise water in all of Zanzibar, head to Nakupenda Sandbank. It is only a 20 min trip on a local boat, but you will feel like being transported straight into a postcard. Arrive as early as possible as the sandbank gets very busy before disappearing into the sea in the early afternoon. Most tours will organize a lunch of freshly grilled seafood on the beach. Combining Nakupenda with Prison Island makes for a very nice day tour.
4. EXPLORE THE BEAUTIFUL BEACHES OF ZANZIBAR
Of course, that’s what we are here for! Obviously, I haven’t visited all the beaches on the island but here are some of my favorites:
- Paje: Quite windy, Paje is the spot for kite surfing! There are lots of restaurants and cafes and the crowd is young and cool!
- Further south, Jambiani is less crowded, with fewer places to stay or eat. Ideal if you just want to relax in your resort and take long, undisturbed walks on the beach.
- We also stopped by Bwejuu beach for a few hours and it was really beautiful at high tide.
- Michamvi Beach is the most beautiful beach we have visited in Zanzibar. Quite “remote” vs. the most touristic spots of the island, this crescent beach is still wild, with powdery sand and crystal-clear water. Bonus point, even though it is on the East coast of the island it is facing west, so you can catch the sunset!
- Popular opinion seems to suggest that Nungwi is the best beach in Zanzibar but we haven’t visited it yet. Located all the way North, it is a more crowded, touristic area.
5. CHECK OUT ZANZIBAR CAVES
If you had enough with the beaches (is that even possible … not sure), exploring the caves of Zanzibar is a great way to immerse yourself in greener nature.
The most famous one is Kuza Cave, in Jambiani. The surrounding is a bit of a muddy mess, but the limestone cave itself formed about 250,000 years ago is really nice, with clear water and a high rock that makes an excellent jumping point. Opened from 8:00 AM – 6:00 PM | Entrance fee: 10 USD
Only 5 min drive from Kuza Cave is the newly opened Maalum Cave. At the end of an unmarked rocky path, the reception area sets the tone, with a traditional wood and palm ceiling and reclaimed wood furniture. Once you have paid for the entry, a local Massai will walk you through the Maalum herb and vegetable garden, past a cute restaurant, and all the way to the stunning pool! Even though we visited on a rainy day, it was amazing and so unexpected to find this hidden gem in a middle of a very unassuming plot of land. The establishment makes a real preservation effort so only a small number of visitors is allowed each day (you can book ahead to be safe), and chemical sunscreens and mosquito repellent are not allowed. There are lockers to store your belongings and showers/bathrooms to rinse before and after your swim. Maximum staying time in 90 min, for 20 USD / pax (incl. snorkeling gears).
6. GO ON A SAFARI
If you came all the way to Zanzibar for more than a long weekend and have a few days to spare in your itinerary, consider flying to the mainland for 2 days of game drive. A safari in Tanzania is once in a lifetime experience and even though 2 days is not nearly enough, at least you will have a taste of it. From Zanzibar, you can fly directly to Arusha or Kilimanjaro Airport to be close to some of the most beautiful national parks. If you are planning a safari in Tanzania, you will find lots of useful pieces of information in my articles here.
A FEW MORE THINGS TO DO IN ZANZIBAR
- Visit Jozani Chwaka National Park. It is the largest indigenous forest in Zanzibar and home to the Red Colobus Monkeys, an endangered species only found in Zanzibar.
- Take a Spice Tour: There was a time when spice trading dominated the Zanzibar economy. It is no longer the case, but there are still some spice farms that can be visited on a half-day tour. Easily arranged via your hotel or any local tour company.
- Go diving.
- Take a local dhow cruise at sunset.
Some thoughts on dolphin watching in Zanzibar
During our first trip to Zanzibar, many years ago, we went dolphin watching in Kizimkazi. What started off as a beautiful morning at sea, quickly turned into a tourist circus, far from ethical practices.
A dozen boats filled with tourists were chasing a small group of dolphins at high speed. When dolphins appeared the fishermen would quickly drive ahead of them and encourage the tourists to jump into the sea and try to swim with the dolphins. It would have been comical if it wasn’t dangerous for the swimmers (most speedboats kept their propellers running) and highly stressful for the dolphins.
There are so many amazing things to do in Zanzibar, I would highly recommend you skip this one unless you can find a captain that can guarantee you a responsible and ethical dolphin-watching experience that includes the following best practices (Found on the Lonely Planet):
- Do not chase dolphins
- Do not get too close to the dolphins
- Keep boat engine in neutral whenever possible
- Never try to swim with or touch dolphins
WHERE TO STAY IN ZANZIBAR
Accommodation options are endless in Zanzibar from budget hostels for cheap island vacations to some incredible luxury stays. It depends on the vibe you are looking for: Lively in Nungwi, Relaxing in Jambiani, Young & sporty in Paje, etc. Below are a few places I stayed at:
- Jambiani Villas: 12 villas and apartments built around a pool and with direct access to the beautiful Jambiania beach.
- Mchanga Beach Resort: If you like to have your toes in the sand all the time, Mchanga is perfect. Simple but comfortable rooms, it is the ideal place to disconnect and relax.
- Kisiza on the Beach: A bit more of a resort feeling, Kisiwa on the Beach is conveniently located in Paje, slightly away from the crowd. The rooms are big and comfortable and the pool is really nice Bonus point for the gym! It lacks in charm but it is a safe option.
And here are some places on my bucket list (from boutique hotels to top luxury !)
- Passion Boutique Hotel Zanzibar: Cute boutique hotel with a Boho vibe in Jambiani.
- Sharazad Boutique Hotel: Eco friendly boutique hotel in Jambiani.
- Upendo Beach: Stylish boutique hotel with private pool villas. Located just in front of The Rock restaurant.
- Zuri Zanzibar*****: 56 stunning villas with outdoor showers and large terraces, nested in a large tropical garden.
- Baraza Resort and Spa Zanzibar***** Jaw-dropping luxury resort, with a fusion of Arabic, Swahili, and Indian architecture.
Still looking for a hotel in Zanzibar? I always find some good deals on Booking.com.
WHERE TO EAT IN ZANZIBAR
Here is my unpopular opinion: the food scene in Zanzibar is the biggest letdown. While for me good local meals are an essential part of great holidays, I really struggle with the lack of good food options and decent service in Zanzibar. After 3 visits to the island, here are a handful of restaurants that I can recommend visiting while in Zanzibar.
- Tea House Restaurant, Emerson Spice – Stone Town: Amazing tasting menu of Zanzibari food on a rooftop in Stone Town. Come early for a sundowner. Reservation is a must
- Emerson on Hurumzi – Stone Town: Similar concept to the Tea House. Choose the floor seating for an even more “local” experience. Reservation is a must.
- The Rock – Michamvi: Beautiful restaurant on a rock standing in the middle of the sea. The setting is pretty unique. Reservation is a must
- The Nest – Paje: Cool atmosphere, decent food for lunch on the beach.
- Oxygen – Paje: By far the best service, food, and wine we had on the island. The menu focuses on seafood.
- Mr Kahwa – Paje: For a chilled lunch or dinner with your toes in the sand.
BEST TIME TO VISIT ZANZIBAR
There are 4 seasons in Zanzibar:
- The short dry season from January to February
- The long rains that last from March to May
- The long dry season from June to October
- The short rains season in November and December
The best time to visit Zanzibar is June to October when the weather is mostly dry, hot, and sunny. It is also the ideal time if you want to combine your holidays in Zanzibar with a safari on the mainland.
This of course is in theory. In practice, I visited twice during the dry season (July & August) and in both cases, it rained quite a bit, and once in November when it was really hot and dry! But worry not, Zanzibar is amazing even with a little rain.
LOOKING FOR USEFUL RESOURCES TO ORGANISE YOUR ZANZIBAR TRIP?
From booking a flight to finding some beautiful cultural tours, or getting an e-sim ahead of your trip to stay connected, I have gathered here all the super useful websites I always use to organize my travels!
★ Find the cheapest flights:
★ Get the best deal on car rental
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Are you planning a trip to Zanzibar? I hope this list of the best things to see and do and Zanzibar has been useful! For more information, don’t hesitate to drop me a question in the comment box below, or to contact me on Instagram.