Zanzibar beach, Tanzania

Top 10 things to do in Zanzibar Island

Pip
February 22, 2016

Even for those who have never travelled the east coast of Africa, just the word 'Zanzibar' is infused with an ancient exoticism that tells tales of its spice and slave trade under Omani Sultans and Portuguese colonisers. Zanzibar is only 25 kilometres from mainland Tanzania, but feels a whole world apart. Stone Town’s ancient streets are lined with magnificent buildings that exhibit the influence of successive rulers, while its coast is ringed by white sandy beaches and azure waters that epitomise 'paradise'. From immersing yourself deep in the island’s cultural roots to exploring the marine life in its vibrant surrounding coral reefs, there are plenty of reasons this is one of Africa’s top travel destinations, but here are ten of the top Zanzibari experiences to get you started.

1. Wander the streets of Stone Town

If you are crossing by ferry from Tanzania’s capital of Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar then your first glimpse of the island will most probably be the UNESCO World Heritage listed Stone Town. One of East Africa’s only ancient centres still abuzz with life, its streets are lined with atmospheric white-washed buildings which harbour a fascinating legacy of sultans and slaves. The architecture blends influences of Asian, Arabic and African styles, with maze-like lanes opening out into squares cooled by the ocean breeze and bazaars such as the Darajani Market, infused with the sights, sounds and smells of local life.

Explore the former slave market where Africans awaited their dismal fate, then visit the Sultan’s Palace Museum for a glimpse into the lives of those who once ruled the island. Delve deep into Swahili and Zanzibari culture at the House of Wonders and wander the 17th Century Old Fort, built to defend the island from Portuguese naval attacks and now home to an open-air amphitheatre where evening performances are held. Stone Town is a place to lose yourself in and absorb the timeless atmosphere of its historic streets.

Slave Market, Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania
One of East Africa’s only ancient centres, UNESCO World Heritage listed Stone Town, its streets are lined with atmospheric white-washed buildings which harbour a fascinating legacy of sultans and slaves.

2. Feast at the Forodhani night food market

While there are plenty of fine restaurants to dine at in Zanzibar, set aside at least one evening to feast at the Forodhani Market in Stone Town. Starting in the late afternoon and heading well into the night, this al fresco ‘food court’ is famed for its freshly caught fish and seafood which can be selected from elaborate displays and then grilled or fried right before your eyes by chefs in towering white toques. There are also locally-inspired meat dishes and plenty of salads to accompany your meal, as well as an enticing mix of desserts. Forodhani’s lively atmosphere, with jovial 'spruikers' and plenty of opportunity to banter with the chefs, is what makes this dining experience so special, all under a warm, starry Zanzibar night sky.

Forodhani night food market, Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania
Forodhani market is famed for its freshly caught fish and seafood which can be selected from elaborate displays and then grilled or fried right before your eyes by chefs in towering white toques.

3. Dive and snorkel the coral reefs surrounding Zanzibar Islands

The coral reefs and marine life surrounding Zanzibar are legendary and visiting the island without getting a glimpse of this spectacular underwater world is a big opportunity missed. Whether you want to dive to the ocean depths or explore by mask and snorkel on the surface, there are a number of sites both immediately off the beaches and a short boat ride away where you can explore the island’s impressive biodiversity.

Visit the protected marine conservation area of the Mnemba Atoll to the northeast of Zanzibar for some of the most impressive underwater landscapes, as well as possible sightings of green turtles, whale sharks and large pelagic fish, or explore the Pange Sandback whose vibrant tropical fish life is just a 20 minute boat ride west from Stone Town.

Coral Reefs, Zanzibar Archipelago, Tanzania
The coral reefs and marine life surrounding Zanzibar are legendary and visiting the island without getting a glimpse of this spectacular underwater world is a big opportunity missed.

4. Swim with bottle nose and humpback dolphins in Kizimkazi

Swimming with dolphins is something many wish to tick off their bucket list and in the waters of Kizimkazi off the southwest coast of Zanzibar you can do just that. Here both bottle nose and humpback dolphin sightings are almost guaranteed with these beautiful marine creatures waking each morning from their resting place at nearby Menai Bay for a day of play in the ocean. They have become quite accustomed to the tourist boats and, providing they stay within close proximity, you have the opportunity to jump into the water and frolic with them. Some trips can also be combined with an afternoon snorkelling, making for an ideal day out in Zanzibar’s rich waters.

Dolphins Tour, Kizimkazi, Zanzibar Archipelago, Tanzania
Swimming with dolphins is something many wish to tick off their bucket list and in the waters of Kizimkazi off the southwest coast of Zanzibar you can do just that.

5. Take a day trip tour to Prison Island

If the history of Stone Town has you inspired, then head north west for a day trip to Changuu Island, also known as 'Prison Island', just a 25 minute boat ride away. It was here that rebellious slaves were detained in the late 19th Century prior to sale and shipping abroad, before becoming a quarantine island for those with infectious diseases (most notably yellow fever) a few decades later. The buildings have now been converted into a tourist resort with one of the main draws being the giant Aldabra tortoises that were sent as a gift from the British governor of the Seychelles in 1919. They have since been listed as a vulnerable species and there are active conservation efforts in place on Changuu to protect these charismatic creatures for future generations.

Prison Island, Zanzibar, Tanzania
Prison Island, also known as Changuu Island, was here that rebellious slaves were detained in the late 19th Century prior to sale and shipping abroad, now converted into a tourist resort.

6. Relax on picture-perfect beaches of Zanzibar Archipelago

Zanzibar is blessed with some of the world’s most stunning beaches where water a surreal shade of blue laps at pristine white sands. Head to the east coast for a picture-perfect beachside getaway, with calm waters to swim in and blissfully uncrowded sands backed by excellent restaurants and cafes. Nungwi and Kendwa attract a young, backpacking crowd, but remain tranquil and laid-back, while Paje further south is the place to head for water sports action. If you really want to escape to serenity, then opt for Matemwe on the northeast coast where Zanzibari village life meanders on at an enticingly sleepy pace.

beaches of Zanzibar Archipelago, Tanzania
Zanzibar is blessed with some of the world’s most stunning beaches where water a surreal shade of blue laps at pristine white sands.

7. Take an informative Zanzibar Spice Farm Tour

Zanzibar’s exotic history is entwined with that of the spice trade, with the island serving as an important stopover for spice merchants en route to India and particularly famed for its cloves. A spice tour will immerse you in the industry, offering an in-depth understanding of their cultivation and historical economic significance, as well as an up close look at them being grown in their natural form, often wildly different than what gets sold as ground spice in the supermarket. After a Zanzibar spice tour, you will never look at these ‘flavour-enhancers’ in the same way again.

Zanzibar Spice, Tanzania
Zanzibar’s exotic history is entwined with that of the spice trade, with the island serving as an important stopover for spice merchants en route to India and particularly famed for its cloves.

8. Venture to Zanzibar’s little sister island at Pemba

While Zanzibar is well and truly on the tourist trail, the small island of Pemba, 100km to the northeast, is its relatively undiscovered little sister. Sail in a traditional Zanzibari dhow to explore its lush, hilly interior, planted with tropical fruits and spices that have long served as the breadbasket of the region. Spot endangered species in Ngezi Forest in the northwest, then head underwater to explore the pristine coral reefs and steep walls of the Pemba Channel and Misali Island, inhabited by a rare species of vervet monkeys. Few travellers make the journey here from Zanzibar, but those that do are richly rewarded for their efforts.

Pemba Island, Tanzania
While Zanzibar is well and truly on the tourist trail, the small island of Pemba, 100km to the northeast, is its relatively undiscovered little sister.

9. Learn Zanzibar’s culinary secrets at a local cooking class

Zanzibari cuisine is a vivid reflection of the island’s colonisers and traders, with Persian, Arabic and Indian influences fused with locally available ingredients to create dishes that are distinctively local. There are an abundance of cooking schools on the island that offer a fantastic opportunity to not only delve into this culinary history, but also come away with a few new recipes to add to your gastronomic repertoire. Classes often involve an excursion to a local market to learn the art of picking the freshest ingredients, followed by a kitchen session where you will learn the secrets of preparing and cooking this traditional Swahili cuisine. And the best part? You get to devour your tasty creations at the end of the day.

Zanzibar Market, Tanzania
Cooking classes often involve an excursion to a local market to learn the art of picking the freshest ingredients, followed by a kitchen session where you will learn the secrets of traditional Swahili cuisine.

10. Hone your skills at kitesurfing on Zanzibar coast

Kitesurfing has seen a huge surge in popularity in recent years and Zanzibar’s beaches provide the perfect conditions for this exhilarating sport. You can cruise over the sandy-bottomed flat waters close to shore, or take on the waves that break on the offshore reefs. Whether you are a first-timer or an old-hand, professional operations at Nungwi, Paje and Matemwe will equip you with everything you need to 'catch the breeze', all with the beauty of Zanzibar as your backdrop.

Kitesurfing has seen a huge surge in popularity in recent years and Zanzibar’s beaches provide the perfect conditions for this exhilarating sport.

Taking a Zanzibari break from the East African safari circuit

For those 'overlanding' through Africa, Zanzibar makes for the ideal island escape after long days on the road and bumpy safari jeep rides. With its exotic cultural legacy, captivating marine life and swathes of white sand it offers a spectacular break from the safari 'circuit' of East Africa, and after a few days or weeks relaxing on its shores, you’ll be ready to head back out in search of the continent’s famed big game.

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