Stone Town is the port of entry to the paradisiac island of Zanzibar, perhaps overshadowed by the idyllic palm trees on the beach of the east and north coast, most people tends to avoid it. However, with so many things to do in Stone Town, I would say stop here for a spoonful of cultural history embedded in spices, better appreciated sitting barefoot on a pillow of a rooftop with a sunset view. You certainly won’t regret it.
You will want to spend at least one to two days exploring this charming old town, eat your way around and sail to a nearby island to feed giant turtles.
~ TO DO ~
First and foremost…
1 – Get Lost!
Get out and get lost!
Cats play kitty cat with each other, kids score their shabby football in imaginary goals of the width of the alley, while women walk around balancing the fresh fish they just bought on their heads.
The zigzagging narrow alleyways will take you on a journey of discovery of little street bazars, random conversations with friendly locals, admiration of the sturdy wood doors and appreciation for the crumbling and yet beautiful architecture of Stone Town.
2 – Hang out with locals at the Jaw’s Corner
Men gather in this little sociable square, sharing their views on life with each other, playing board games or simply sit watching the world go by. It’s the perfect spot to do some ‘people-watching’ and admire the scary painting on the wall. Also, look for the telephone hanging on the electricity post!
3 – Discover the history behind the doors of Stone Town
When I say behind, I mean the past origin of them; so don’t go knocking on random doors. Ha!The doors of Stone Town tell the stories of the resident’s social status, religion and origin: Indian, Arab or Swahilli.
The Indian doors have decorative brass studs that represent protection against the elephants and some may also have an arched top frame like Indian palaces.
The Arab doors are generally rectangular and have intricately decorated frames. Look for Arabic inscriptions on the wall, often citations from the Holy Quran.
As for the Swahili doors, they are modest wooden doors, sometimes painted blue.
To find out which one is what, take your time to analyze the details and don’t be embarrassed if a door opens right as you study it closely. Smile and just say “Mambo!”.
4 – Visit the former Slave Market
Stone Town was once a major hub of spices and the shameful slavery trade. It’s haunting history is narrated in this museum in such a way that gave me goose bumps. It’s an emotional journey to read about this appalling chapter in history.
Sadly, I found that the Portuguese were the pioneers in establishing slavery back in the 15thcentury. But I also felt proud for the names that had such a pertinent influence in bringing it to an end! To my surprise, one of the main appointed names was David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary and explorer! I had heard so little about him and yet I lived just 10min down the road from where he used to live, in the outskirts of Glasgow in Scotland. In fact, not only did he lead to the abolishment of slavery, he discovered majestic waterfalls and a few cities were named after him in Malawi and Zambia.
Back to the museum, you can enter the daunting chambers where the slaves were kept for some time to endure hunger, cold and even fight for survival during the floods in the chambers. Accordingly, only the “strong ones”would survive and then be taken to the market to be whipped and sold. Here nowadays stands an Anglican Cathedral, as a symbol of triumph over inhumanity.
5 – Walk around the sea front
The sea front is livelier late in the afternoon into the evening and I had the feeling that there was not just one sea front… As I walked around, I found that the scenery changed a little. From colorful boats aligned at the beach, while their owners look for tourists to go on trips to the islands. To find further ahead, kids splashing around and exhibiting acrobatic dives into the water with their clothes on. There are a few bars/restaurants to sit and do some people watching.
6 – Visit Prison Island and feed Gigantic Turtles
Not quite the combination expected of ‘name of a place’ and ‘activity to do’, right?! Back in the days, Changuu island became famously known as Prison Island as it was originally built to hold prisoners. However it was never officially used as such, as the Yellow fever took over the streets of Zanzibar and other African countries, the British government used it as a quarantine place for the diseased of all British territories in East Africa.
Nowadays it is home to hundreds of one of the biggest turtles in the world, the Aldabra giant tortoises, brought here as a gift from the British governor of the Seychelles.
To get here you can ask your hotel for a tour… or even better, head to the beach and haggle your price! There is also the option to snorkel around the island and the men at the beach can arrange for mask and fins for an extra price.
I also went later in the afternoon, so the island wasn’t crowded and I felt that I had the sea just for myself. On the other hand, there were tiny little medusas that sting (and left mild redness on my arms)! But these are very rarely seen, so I guess I was very lucky!
7 – Have a drink with a view at Zanzibar Coffee House
The café is on the ground floor of the boutique hotel with the same name. Ask at the café to get served at their cute teahouse, located at the roof top terrace overlooking Stone Town. Just be aware that the terrace is closed to visitors during the breakfast hours of their guests.
8 – Visit other iconic buildings
For a further architecture feast…
The House of Wonders: this iconic building was called so because it was the first house in Stone Town with electricity, running water and an elevator. The entrance door is said to be this big so that the sultan could enter on an elephant, (at the time of writing it is under a much needed renovation and therefore closed to the public);
The Old Fort: it was once a fort, then a prison and nowadays it holds a market and restaurants;
The Palace Museum: for a small fee, see how the sultanate lived;
And the Old Dispensary: a stunning building once used as a charitable house for the poor.
9 – Watch the sunset at the sound of Taarab Music
If you want to immerse yourself in the sound of Africa, Taarab is an African music genre, popular in Tanzania and Kenia. And the bar of the luxurious Zanzibar Serena Hotel beautifully combines a Taarab live concert with the sunset hour! It is open to everyone and I found the drinks relatively affordable.
A couple of other things to remember while…
… shopping – always haggle and negotiate the price down at the markets and bazaars. When they give you a first price, they expect to be challenged.
… getting dressed – to cover shoulders and knees. This is a predominantly Muslim town. Even though it isn’t as strict as other Muslim countries, dressing appropriately is strongly advised for respect and to avoid stares.
~ TO EAT ~
Seafood is one of the main specialties of Zanzibar, from casual and cozy cafes to fine dinning experience, Stone Town has it all. Rooftops are a thing in Stone Town and are often called Tea Houses. I haven’t been to one that wasn’t charming! Just be aware that restaurants can take a while to serve food, it is part of the whole Tanzanian chill out vibe.
Emerson Spice or Emerson on Hurumzi $$$ – $$$$- Food here is an event! Luxurious from the moment you step through the door. Both restaurants are located at a roof top Tea House, but the major difference is the sitting: Emerson Spice has tables and chair, while Emerson on Hurumzi offers sitting on cushions on Persian rugs and a “no shoes” policy. Booking in advance is recommended.
House of Spices $$-$$$- This restaurant has indeed the right combination of mouthwatering spices and super friendly staff! On a plus side, there is a shop you can buy spices and spiced infused food on the way out.
Stone Town Cafe $$ – A cozy sitting outside, perfect for a chill out lunch and perfect to watch the people walking pass the street.
~ TO SLEEP ~
Zanzibar Coffee House brings the vibe of Stone Town’s streets into the decoration of their bedrooms. Each room has a coffee name, of course! A charming combination of old-world lures and antique details with modern conveniences. Breakfast is served at the rooftop Tea House with a view over Stone Town.