Just off the coast of mainland Tanzania, the Unguja Island in the Zanzibar Archipelago is a locale complete with exotic white-sand beaches, stunning historical buildings, and more than enough sites and activities for any holiday. Thanks to warm–but not typically hot – weather all year long to go with vibrant and unique local cultures, the many enchanting features of Zanzibar’s main island make it one of the go-to destinations in all of Africa. Here are just a few of the features that should get Zanzibar onto that bucket list.
The wonderful old world of Stone Town
Tucked along the west coast of Unguja Island near one of the most beautiful beaches in all of Zanzibar, a unique town of masterfully-built stone buildings hugs the clear water of the Zanzibar Channel. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Stone Town has roots that go back a millennium, but many of the sites were built during a major flourish in the 19th century when it became a prominent spice port. More than just a quirky fact, its prominence as a trade hub made it both a spot of rapid cultural exchange and a critical part of the developing Zanzibar islands.
Blending of Cultures
But its merging of cultures goes back long before Stone Town’s golden age, as we see clearly with its most famous building, the Old Fort. Peeking over the Forodhani Gardens and Stone Town’s natural harbor, the Old Fort was started by the Portuguese and then finished by Omani Arabs near the end of the 17th century. The Old Fort has continued to evolve, however, taking visitors from the days of it being a military stronghold to a focal point of modern Zanzibar, complete with an open-air amphitheater that was added to the fort only a couple of decades ago. Today, the Old Fort is even the main site for the steadily growing Zanzibar International Film Festival, the biggest film festival in East Africa.
The rest of the buildings that started filling in around the Old Fort also tell an interesting story as well, which ultimately led to its distinction as a World Heritage Site. After rising as a major Swahili trading port, Stone Town became a blend of Arabic, African, Indian, and European cultures. Visitors can see this in the collaboration of architectural traditions seen around town. Buildings of ragstone and timber create winding, narrow alleyways filled in with bikers, pedestrians, and bazaars selling any number of unique items. A short walk away, Nakupenda Beach is legendarily gorgeous thanks to its immaculate turquoise water lapping against the pure white sand, making it the ideal place to spend an entire day or simply unwind after a busy morning.
Other sites in Stone Town to consider`
Showcasing Stone Town’s interesting history, the Palace Museum – once called the Sultan’s Palace – is a beautiful white stone building near the shore’s edge in the heart of Stone Town. Touring the Palace Museum is inexpensive and provides a nice link to the town’s more recent history, taking visitors from the sultanate rule that dominated the 19th century through the revolution in the 1960s that forever changed the town. Next door, the House of Wonders is another striking late-19th-century palace and is the home to the Museum of History and Culture of Zanzibar – another must for history lovers. Meanwhile, the Darajani Market is the most prominent bazaar in Stone Town, whisking patrons through the unique food traditions of the region with a lively atmosphere that makes for a perfect day or night excursion for visitors.
With plenty of visually-stunning seaside walks, all kinds of history to dive into, and an upbeat modern buzz, Stone Town is easily one of the worthy must-sees on any trip to Zanzibar.
The beaches of Unguja
Just a little more than an hour north of Stone Town, the village of Nungwi is a beach lover’s dream, with crystal-clear water, wide white-sand-beaches, and a range of outstanding accommodations that showcase the most famous parts of the village. Because swimming is possible even at low-tide – not a guarantee in most beaches in Zanzibar – it is known for having some of the best ocean swimming throughout the archipelago. Nungwi is also an especially great destination for fishing and boating, as popular activities include night deep-sea fishing and a range of inspiring sunset cruise options. Nearby Kendwa is another one of the top beaches on the northern tip of Unguja.
On to the southeast part of the island, there is an equally amazing spread of beaches that regularly bring in visitors from all over the world. In Paje, the kitesurfing on the lagoon is as legendary as the beaches, and there are miles of pristine sand and warm water to explore. Paje also has some of the best diving in the area as well, and the restaurants are known for their authentic Zanzibari cuisine, which typically is a blend of Indian, African, and Arabic traditions.
But while Nungwi and Paje can be pretty busy during peak season in the summer (December through March), there are other spots with a little more elbow room that can be just as terrific. A 20-minute drive north will take you past a long line of gorgeous, ocean-facing resorts on your way to Michamvi, a lively little village known for its iconic sunsets and tranquil atmosphere. On the northeast part of the island, Matemwe is a traditional fishing village that provides another launching point for boating, diving, or just soaking up the sun at one of the terrific beaches nearby.
Experience village life
An inexpensive, 10-kilometer cab ride from Paje will take you to the quiet village of Jambiani. Here, you can dig even deeper into authentic Zanzibari culture and get a real taste for life as a local. Whether on a small group tour or solo, the local fishermen and seaweed farmers are known for incorporating guests into their daily routine, giving you insight into the local economy and culture.
You’ll also get a chance to try some of the most traditional Swahili dishes on the island. And if you’re not sick of the beach yet, Jambiani has an eye-popping beach of its own that can rival anything down the street in Paje. For festival enthusiasts, the Zanzibar Beach and Watersports Festival in late-November/early-December is a wonderful chance to see a flourish of local customs and traditions in action.
Jambiani is far from the only exciting village on Unguja worth traveling to, however, as the eclectic little villages throughout the island each have their own unique cultures within the larger Zanzibari world. A short distance from either Paje or Jambiani, for example, Makunduchi can be a terrific day trip that shows Zanzibari life outside of the beach-dominated areas. Located in a fertile portion of mostly undeveloped land, Makunduchi is particularly exciting during the Mwaka Kogwa, a July/August festival that celebrates the Persian New Year with a series of rituals that provide an unforgettable cultural snapshot.
Important tips to know before you go
The best bet for getting to Zanzibar is to board a ferry in Dar es Salaam, from the Julius Nyerere International Airport. The ferry is, unsurprisingly, a lovely ride and only takes a few hours to bring you to Stone Town, although it’s highly advised that you book everything well in advance. Booking ahead means you won’t have to buy a ticket from an unofficial vendor who commonly inflate ticket prices. Travelers also tend to stay away from monsoon season between March and May, as the ferry can be very bumpy and beach trips can be difficult to plan due to the weather.
It’s also worth remembering that the word “Zanzibar” actually could mean a couple of different things, which gets confusing. Technically, Zanzibar includes both the Unguja and Pemba islands – along with a series of smaller ones. Colloquially, however, Zanzibar often refers to either Zanzibar City or potentially Unguja Island as a whole, as it’s the main island of the Zanzibar Archipelago. Simply put, be as specific as you can be to make sure everyone is on the same page.
You also should keep in mind that the Zanzibar islands are in many ways completely independent of Tanzania, and you’ll need your passport as you make your way over from the mainland. Most travelers will also need a travel visa, which you can easily obtain ahead of time and is relatively inexpensive. If you’re staying at a resort or hotel, you also might want to consider arranging private transportation to some of the top sites, like Stone Town to Nungwi. For the more adventurous, there are plenty of taxis in the area, you can save quite a bit of money if you negotiate.
If you’re looking for a white sand paradise with interesting locals, a unique culture and endless sunny days, Zanzibar should be the next trip on your bucket list.