Zanzibar’s Stone Town was recognized by UNESCO for its cultural fusion. // © 2013 Bob Demyan
Did You Know?
- One of Zanzibar’s most famous natives was the late rocker Freddie Mercury. Born Farrokh Bulsara in 1946 to parents of Persian/Indian origins, he lived here until his teens.
- Zanzibar and its sister island, Pemba, are known as the “Spice Islands” and, at one time, produced more than half the world’s clove, nutmeg and cinnamon.
- One of Africa’s largest music festivals, Sauti za Basara, is held each year in Zanzibar. Musicians from all over the world gather in Stone Town for the three-day festival.
- Zanzibar has its own unique musical tradition called taarab, which fuses African, Indian and Arab influences into distinctive, lushly orchestrated ballads.
Zanzibar. The word practically screams “exotic.” And with good reason. Situated off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa, the Zanzibar archipelago (Yes, it is actually more than one island) has, for centuries, been a crossroads of culture, commerce and imperial folly. Arab traders, Indian merchants, Persian conquerors and European empires have all dropped anchor in Zanzibar and left their mark, blending into what is the heart of Africa’s Swahili culture.
While European travelers have long been seduced by Zanzibar’s charms, Americans on safari in East Africa have often overlooked this stop before heading home. That’s a shame, really, as a side trip to Zanzibar is easily added to any itinerary and offers a very different kind of Africa experience. Direct flights from the safari capitals in Tanzania and Kenya only take about an hour, but once you’ve landed in Zanzibar, it will feel like you’ve traveled a lot farther.
For most, a visit to Zanzibar begins and ends in the area known as Stone Town, the ancient heart of Zanzibar City. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, Stone Town is a beguiling maze of impossibly narrow streets, winding alleys, colorful shops, bazaars, mosques and grand Arab houses with their elaborately carved wooden doors that have become the icons of Stone Town. At last count, there were about 560 of these doors, the earliest dating back to 1694. Many are adorned with large brass studs, a legacy of the Indian craftsmen who carved them (in India they were used to keep “war” elephants from bashing their way in.)
Stone Town’s name comes from the coral stone that was originally used to construct the original buildings here — most of which are still standing. While coral gives the town its characteristic warm tone, it’s also prone to erosion and some 80 percent of Stone Town’s 1,700 historic buildings are in deteriorating condition. A renaissance has begun, however, and a good number of these buildings are being renovated. Better still, many are being converted into boutique hotels adorned with Zanzibari themes and materials.
Whatever the interest — culture, history, architecture, shopping, food or photography — Stone Town delivers. Women in colorful local garments called khangas call out from their cavernous shops selling African and Zanzibari crafts including some of the best jewelry and fabric in all of Africa. Spas offer treatments using local methods and ingredients such as clove, cardamom and aloe.
Wandering Stone Town’s labyrinth of ancient, tangled streets and narrow lanes is a traveler’s dream. Getting lost is half the fun. Maps are available but only marginally useful. Streets are rarely marked and buildings are just tall enough to block any landmarks. Finding the same shop where you saw that colorful batik (cloth) yesterday is virtually impossible. But that’s the magic of Stone Town: Every time you wander in, it’s a different place.
Stone Town Essentials
The Old Fort
A heavy stone fortress with high walls topped by castellated battlements, it was built in the 17th century by the Omanis who ruled Zanzibar at the time. Its inner courtyard is now a cultural center with shops and workshops featuring local crafts along with an arena where live music and dance performances are held each day.
The House of Wonders, also known as Beit-al-Ajaib
Topped with a large clock tower, this is one of the best known landmarks on Stone Town’s seafront. Built in 1883 and restored after the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896 (shortest war in history according to Guinness), it was the Sultan’s residence at one time and is now a museum highlighting Zanzibar and Swahili culture.
The Old Dispensary
One of Stone Town’s grandest buildings, it has large carved wooden balconies, stained-glass windows and neo-classical stucco adornments.
The Palace Museum
Another former Sultan’s palace on the seafront, it is now a museum that features many items and furniture used by Zanzibar’s last royal family.
The Anglican Cathedral
Built in the center of Stone Town on the spot that once held Zanzibar’s largest slave market. The cathedral’s altar was placed in the exact spot where the main whipping post once was. A monument and museum on the history of slavery are adjacent.
The Hamamni Persian Baths
A complex of public baths commissioned by Sultan Barghas Bin Said in the 19th century, they were fully functional into the 1920s.
Night Market at Forodhani Gardens
Twilight on Zanzibar’s waterfront is a magic time and there’s no better place to be than the Forodhani Gardens. Relax in a dockside cafe or wander among dozens of food stalls grilling up the day’s catch in the soft glow of oil lanterns. Zanzibar’s ultra-fresh seafood bounty is the highlight and vendors compete for business so haggling is a must. Not to be missed is the fresh cane juice with a squeeze of lime.
Sunset Dhow Cruise
Relax on cozy cushions and watch the sun slip below the horizon of the Indian Ocean from the deck of a traditional wooden sailing dhow.