Updated: Sep 6
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An island full of history and breathtaking beaches, Zanzibar has been inhabited since the late Stone Age. Though it was once a trading post, its main industries today are raffia (a fiber from a type of palm tree), tourism, and spices. As many of the sites suggest, Zanzibar didn’t have an ideal past. It’s since recovered, however, with hundreds of thousands of visitors stopping by each year. If you’re on the fence about making a trip, you can decide by checking out the top things to do.
House of Wonders
Barghash bin Said, the second Sultan of Zanzibar, constructed the House of Wonders as a ceremonial building and reception hall in 1883. It was the first building in East Africa with an elevator and electricity, and it was comprised of high ceilings and a door so big that the Sultan could ride through on an elephant. In 1896, the palace was attacked by British forces in a 38-minute war, now known as the shortest war in history. The house only suffered minor damage, but a lighthouse in front of it was completely destroyed. Today, it’s a museum full of Portuguese, English, Omani, and Swahili history.
The Old Fort has worn many hats over the years; it’s been a fortress for troops, a prison, a railway terminal, and a tennis club. Today, its amphitheater is home to a restaurant as well as frequent events, such as the Zanzibar international film festival. Its lively courtyard is lined with shops that sell popular tourist items, and one of the towers houses the Cultural Arts Gallery. Built by the Omani Arabs, it’s sometimes called the Arab Fort.
Most of the places mentioned in this post are going to send you hobbling down the streets of Stone Town. Stone Town is the oldest part of Zanzibar City and gets its name from the use of coral stone as construction material. One of the most notable features of Stone Town is its carved doors; out of 560 doors in Zanzibar City, most of them can be found here. These doors, which are basically found on every turn, are influenced by various cultures such as Indian, Swahili, and Arabic. Though the carvings may look random, they usually have symbolic meanings.
Due to the city’s many influences, Stone Town has been named an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The history isn’t lost in the area, as it’s lined with churches, mosques, palaces, and other once important buildings. If you'd like to learn the history of the town as you go, opt for this Stone Town walking tour. Because this tour is private, you'll get flexibility in your schedule as well as a personal guide who will ensure you don't miss out on anything important.
Built in 1904, the Darajani Market is a bustling center of activity and an important place for locals to stock up on food. Vendors gather here daily to sell fish, meat, fruits, and household goods. Because Zanzibar is a major exporter of spices, the market is a great place to find high-quality, affordable product. Zanzibar is most known for cloves, but it also produces black peppers, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, and turmeric. If the city's "spicy" history entertains you, check out the Zanzibar Spice Tour. The excursion begins at Forodhani Gardens - a five minute walk from Darajani Market - where you'll meet with an experienced local farmer.
Old Slave Market
The Old Slave Market is a testament to Zanzibar’s horrible past. Each year, the slave trade capital of the world stripped 50,000 people from their homes in central Africa. Some were kept to work in Zanzibar while others were sent to Egypt, Persia, and Arabia. The British finally closed this open-air slave market in 1873, and today, a memorial is erected in its place to honor the lives lost. The site now hosts an Anglican church, where another somber reminder is placed. The altar, which marks the place of the former whipping post, is circled with white stones surrounded by red to symbolize bloodshed.
Explore the Beaches
There are more than 25 idyllic beaches on Zanzibar, and you likely won't make it to all of them. Among the most popular options are Nungwi, Jambiani, and Pongwe. Nungwi Beach is located on the Northwestern tip of the island, so it’s a beautiful place to enjoy a sunset. Known for its picture perfect scenery, it features clear blue water and powder-like sand. When you’re done swimming, you can visit a beachside restaurant or buy souvenirs in the nearby village.
Jambiani Beach is nearly 4.5 miles long and home to numerous fishing villages. If you’re a fan of relaxing with a minimal crowd, this is the best place to do so. The beach is almost absent of rocks, though its barrier reef sometimes causes seaweed to wash ashore. Finally, Pongwe Beach is decorated by picturesque palm trees. The water is so clear that it’s become a popular snorkeling hub. Forgot your gear? Don’t fret – this coral reef snorkeling tour will provide it for you.
The Rock Restaurant
Situated on a rock floating in the Indian Ocean, The Rock restaurant can only serve 20 tables at once. Guests face the sea for a remarkable view while dining on fresh seafood and enjoying refreshing cocktails. Reservations are recommended due to the nature of the eatery, and groups of more than six people are required to put down a deposit of $10 per person.
Freddie Mercury Birth House
In 1946, Freddie Mercury was born in Zanzibar, Tanzania to Indian parents. Mercury, the lead vocalist of Queen, was said to have lived in this house for many years during his childhood, though the specific timeline is undefined. At the age of 17, he and his family moved to Britain to escape the Zanzibar Revolution. Inside the house is a small Freddie Mercury Museum, and though it doesn't offer much, it's a cool spot for die-hard fans.
A triple threat, Canary Nungwi Hotel is highly rated, affordable, and located a short four minute walk from Nungwi beach. A bit more on the pricey side, DoubleTree Zanzibar is in Stone Town and five minutes by foot to the Old Fort. If you're looking for an affordable place to stay near Jambioni, Aurora Boutique Hotel is a really solid choice.
One of the most impressive things about Zanzibar is its ability to satisfy almost everyone. Some people go on vacation to learn the culture and history of other countries, while some go to lounge by the ocean and forget their worries. Both of those things can be done here extensively, making for a key tourist destination.