Located 22 miles off the coast of mainland Tanzania, the 53-mile-long island of Zanzibar has been at the crossroads of cultures and trade for centuries. From exploring historic Stone Town to visiting the island’s famed spice farms, you can easily fill a week or two on the island paradise.
How to Get There and When to Go
Zanzibar is accessible via connecting flights from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Nairobi with Kenya Airways, as well as direct flights from Europe operated by Air France, KLM and Qatar Airways. A tourist visa is required for Tanzania, which costs $100 for Americans ($50 for other countries) and can be obtained in advance online or upon arrival. High season is June to October, when it’s dry and slightly cooler, with a second high season from December to February (albeit with warmer, more humid temperatures).
What to Know Before You Go
Swahili is the main language of the country, though English is widely spoken. Tanzania is predominantly a Muslim country; visitors should dress more modestly in the regional capital, Stone Town, or in a village, but a head covering isn’t required, and most attire is permissible on the beach. Alcohol is readily available at restaurants and bars.
The local currency is the Tanzanian shilling, but U.S. dollars are widely accepted, and many tourist venues list prices in dollars. It’s a good idea to bring cash as there are only a few ATMs outside Stone Town.
Best Beaches in Zanzibar
Blessed with powdery white sand and tranquil waves, there’s a beach to suit all styles on Zanzibar. The northwest beaches of Kwenda and Nungwi are ideal for sunset lovers; the latter is home to larger resorts and more of a party ambiance.
The northeast coast boasts long, wide beaches, including Matemwe, Kiwengwa and Pongwe, which feature upmarket boutique hotels and a happy medium between ambiance and relaxation. In the southwest, secluded Michamvi is good for sunsets and tranquility; Paje is the liveliest beach on the island and a mecca for kitesurfers and night owls; and Jambiani combines the setting of a traditional fishing village with stylish boutique hotels and villas.
What to Do in Zanzibar
Since most of the top activities in Zanzibar are reachable within a 30- to 60-minute drive, many visitors base themselves at a beach hotel and do daytrips from there. Activities and transfers can be booked directly through hotels. Zanzibar Star Tours is a reliable local DMC offering more unique activities, quality guides and other services.
Visit Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Clients can’t visit Zanzibar without touring Stone Town. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the coastal city blends Swahili, Arab, Indian and European influences. Its labyrinth of narrow lanes are lined with elaborate historic homes, beautifully carved doors, a vibrant market and plenty of boutiques. It’s best visited on a guided tour to gain insight into the island’s history, which has some darker links to the slave trade, but also more upbeat sides as the birthplace of Freddy Mercury of the band Queen.
From Stone Town harbor, clients can take a 20-minute boat ride out to Prison Island. A misleading name, the island was a quarantine station for yellow fever cases. Today it houses endangered giant Aldabra tortoises, the oldest of which is almost 200 years old.
Take a Spice Tour
Onboard the boats of Arabian, Malaysian and Indian traders headed to Zanzibar — the gateway to East Africa — were spices, granting Zanzibar the nickname of Spice Island. Run by local cooperatives, spice farms are usually set within a tropical oasis of palms and fruit trees and are very beautiful and informative to tour. Clients can enhance the experience by adding on lunch or cooking class.
Cruise Onboard a Dhow
As an island, it’s not surprising that Zanzibar offers some excellent boat trips and watersports. Taking a cruise onboard a “dhow,” a traditional mahogany sailboat, is a must. Private hires can be arranged from any beach, although the northwest coast is best for sunset cruises.
For a full day on the water, opt for a “Safari Blue” experience which includes a visit to a conservation area, snorkeling, a stop on a sand dune, a barbecue lunch and hopefully some dolphin sightings. The coral reef near Mnemba Island, off the northeast coast, also attracts snorkelers and divers. Kitesurfing is especially popular along the east coast.
See Red Monkeys in the Jozani Forest
To connect with the island’s interior nature, visit the Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park. Located on the way to Paje and Jambiani, the 20-square-mile protected reserve is most famously home to red colobus monkeys, which can be spotted on guided tours conducted by the park’s staff. The tour also includes a walk through its otherworldly mangroves.
Where to Eat
Virtually all beach hotels have good restaurants on-site and some offer full and half-board packages. The most famous restaurant on the island is The Rock, which sits on a rocking outcrop off of Pingwe Beach and has a stunning panorama.
Otherwise, of particular note in Stone Town, the Emerson Spice Hotel has a lovely rooftop restaurant for a sunset dinner and a secret garden restaurant. For local food in a casual setting, Lukmann Restaurant serves a range of Zanzibari specialties, or travelers can peruse the stands at the night market in Forodhani Garden where they can sample the likes of Zanzibar pizza (similar to a filled crepe), grilled seafood and fresh sugarcane juice.
Where to Stay
The most unique and romantic hotel on the island is Elewana Collection’s Kilindi Zanzibar. Originally designed for Benny Andersson of ABBA and located within a private tropical forest above a traditional fishing village, the luxurious resort has 15 domed pavilions with plunge pools, rain showers with enchanting sea views and private butlers.
Traditional Swahili architecture and chic contemporary design are beautifully blended at Mvuvi Boutique Hotel on Kiwengwa beach. For families or longer stays, Jambiani Villas has a collection of stylish one- to three-bedroom villas and apartments with kitchens overlooking Jambiani beach. For an overnight in Stone Town, Jafferji House & Spa is located within an elegant historic mansion and has uniquely decorated rooms, some with terraces or outdoor showers.