Mar 17, 2020
For my 30th birthday I had no idea what I wanted to get up to but I was certain about one thing. Being in a foreign country on a solo adventure of a lifetime. So I packed up my bags and flew to Zanzibar for what would be an extraordinary nine days of fun and relaxation. This was my first official solo trip and I could not contain my excitement and nerves at the same time. I realise now that there was nothing to worry about given that it ended up being nothing but epic.
The first part of my trip landed me in Stone Town, a town in Zanzibar boasting winding narrow streets, beautiful architecture and magnificent wooden doors. Rich in culture and history, I had to give it three days of my trip and I will share with you what I think are 13 things to do in Stone Town, Zanzibar.
1. Get lost in the town’s winding street
I am not a fan of walking tours as I like taking my time exploring, wandering off and getting “lost”. This is the best way to stumble upon gems or places individuals do not get to see during organised tours. That being said, I opted to walk around the town myself, at my own pace and leisure.
During your walk, you will come across beautiful old buildings with giant wooden doors said to signify the wealth of a family. The bigger the doors, the richer the family. This town is a dream for cat lovers as you will come across one every corner you turn. I am not sure if they are pets or strays so I would not suggest touching them.
I used Google Maps occasionally to find my way around and it was pretty accurate. Do not panic or worry if you get lost. The town is very safe and there is always someone willing to help you find your way. I had locals walk me to certain locations I needed to get to while expecting nothing in return.
Since the predominately practiced religion is Islam, please dress appropriately when walking in the town. As much as it is a tourist destination, show respect nonetheless, especially women. With this in mind, make sure your shoulders are covered and pants/dresses cover the knees.
2. Watch locals auction off their catch of the day at the Darajani Market
Since my Airbnb was nestled a five minute walk from the Darajani market, I decided to explore it first. If you do not have a thick stomach or get easily nauseous then this market is not for you. There is a potent fish smell and it can also get messy with splattered fish juices all over the floor. However, if that won’t make you queasy then definitely check it out.
There is an array of ocean goodness to choose from that restaurants in and around Stone Town regularly purchase for their menus. From octopus and squid to sword fish and tuna, there is plenty of variety. Be mindful that locals are at work so that you do not stand in their way in an attempt to take photos in your state of curiosity. If you would like to take any pictures then be sure to ask for permission first. Most of the time they will say yes so do not hesitate to ask and always be polite.
If the fish market is not for you then you then be sure check out the fruit and spice stalls that surround the same market. Here you can find different spices and homemade bath soaps, fragrances and massage oils. There are also tons of fruits and vegetables that are in season to choose from. If you are looking to purchase any then make sure you thoroughly wash them before consumption. Additionally you can peel the skin off the fruits to avoid coming down with any type of food poisoning.
3. Visit the Old Fort of Zanzibar
The Old Fort of Zanzibar is the oldest building in Stone Town that you can do a short exploration walk through at no cost. It has an open air amphitheater used for festivals, events and celebrations. You can shop around the souvenir stalls or watch cashmere scarves being woven right in front of your eyes. Walking up to the watch tower you will come across an art gallery with beautiful paintings of popular landmarks and portraits. I also had the opportunity to see a couple of acrobats rehearsing for what seemed to be an event happening later that evening.
4. Marvel at the House of Wonders
The House of Wonders is the tallest building in Stone Town built for ceremonial purposes by the sultan, Sultan Barghash. It is the first building in Zanzibar to have electricity and was said to be a beautiful sight to behold at night in the total absence of light. Unfortunately it was closed and under construction but it is still deemed a ‘must see’ when in Stone Town.
5. Tortoises of Prison Island
Just a 20 minute boat ride in the middle of the ocean lies Prison Island. Initially a prison for rebellious slaves, it was later used to isolate and detain disease infected slaves. There isn’t much left on the island but for only $4 you can spend the day feeding the giant tortoises. Otherwise you can take a dip in the pristine blue waters of the Indian ocean instead.
If you want this experience cheaper than what is offered online, get one of the tour guides hanging around the House of Wonders to plan something for you. You can also get a local on the beach that owns a boat to take you but use your discretion. Bare in mind that if you use this option, the entrance and transportation fee will be separate. Discuss with your boat driver how much time you want to spend on the island. Do not pay them until the end of your tour and are safely dropped off in town. You do not want to take the risk of being left on an island when they do not return to pick you up and have disappeared with your money.
6. Get a coastal view of Stone Town
A couple of acquaintances and I wanted to get an afternoon coastal view of Stone Town so we got a boat and a driver. If you have extra time then definitely do this as it gives you a different view of the town. For just $20, we got to spend an hour and a half on the boat astonished by the amazing buildings and structures. You can also get a clear view of one of the most expensive hotels in town, The Park Hyatt, and buildings awaiting development.
7. Stuff your face at the Forodhani Night Market
Hungry? Then visit the food market that takes place every night at the Forodhani gardens. From fresh sea food and ciabatta bread to sweet and savory pizza, you don’t want to have dinner elsewhere. The food is relatively cheap, very tasty and cooked in front of you which is comforting. Use your discretion on what foods to order to avoid any food poisoning.
Check the menu and confirm the price before your food is cooked. Stalls are required to include prices on their menus as a form of transparency to tourists and to prevent scams. A tourist called the cops on one of the stalls one night complaining he was overcharged for his meal. So definitely do your due diligence and confirm everything beforehand.
Don’t forget to grab yourself some freshly squeezed sugarcane juice to keep you refreshed while strolling around the market.
8. See Queen’s Freddie Mercury’s Birth House
On one of my walks in the town I stumbled upon Freddie Mercury’s (singer of the band Queen) home. Freddy, birth name Farrokh Bulsarawas was born in Zanzibar in 1946 and lived there until 1964 when they had to flee the country because of the Zanzibar Revolution. The house is not accessible but you can get a good view of the outside which is nothing spectacular but nice to see.
9. Sip on some coffee at the Zanzibar Coffee House
I am not much of a coffee drinker but I love the smell of it so of course I had to visit the Zanzibar Coffee House. Apparently they serve the best coffee in town that you can enjoy with a delicious pastry of your choice. In as much as I do not drink coffee it would be an injustice for me not to plug you on a good coffee joint so enjoy!
10. Have a five course dinner at Emerson on Hurumzi
Emerson on Hurumzi is a popular boutique hotel where dinner is served on the rooftop overlooking breathtaking views of Stone Town. Make sure you get there a little before dinner time at around 5:30 PM, to catch the golden sunset while sipping on a drink of your choice. You will need to make a reservation well in advance as the restaurant gets fully booked and they do not take any walk ins. It was fully booked when I made my reservation but the restaurant manager managed to pull some strings and make it happen for my birthday which I am grateful for. You will need to pay $10 to secure your reservation and the difference at the end of the evening. The five course dinner costs $35 which does not include drinks or anything extra that you may order.
This was one of my favourite restaurants I dined at during my trip which was well worth it. Not only was the food great but I got to celebrate my birthday there and the staff were nothing short of amazing. They surprised me with a beautiful birthday song and a tasty dessert platter at the end of the evening. You truly get the full Zanzibar dining experience from the entertainment with the live band to the waiters occasionally joining in for a song or two.
There are two Emerson boutique hotels. Emerson on Hurumzi and Emerson Spice Hotel. I opted for Emerson on Hurumzi because it had a smaller course meal (five) than its sister restaurant which had eight. Albeit, they are both equally stunning.
11. Grab some lunch at the famous Lukmaan Restaurant
To my advantage, Lukmaans restaurant was only a minute walk from my Airbnb. Score! Lukmaans is a very popular restaurant in Stone Town that serves local cuisine and fresh smoothies daily. Because of its popularity, it is very touristy which is why you will rarely find locals at the restaurant. A local friend took me there for lunch and the food was average and not as spectacular as I thought it would be considering its popularity. I would recommend you check it out to get your own experience.
12. Take in the history of the Old Slave Market
Just a two minute walk from my Airbnb is the Old (Former) Slave Market and for just $5 you can gain immense knowledge on the history of slavery in Tanzania. Included in the entrance fee is the option of a guide with tipping not mandatory but highly appreciated.
Slaves were kept in dens on their arrival and auctioned off to their new masters at this market. Two minutes in the den was enough for me to feel claustrophobic so I can only imagine what having 20+ men, women and children shackled in there with no light or air was like. I left feeling a despondent as this experience was heavy on my heart but nothing can replace the knowledge gained.
13. Go souvenir shopping
There a tons of souvenir shops almost every corner you turn in Stone Town that has an array of souvenirs to choose from. You can find beautiful kitenge fabrics, fridge magnets, key chains and more to gift family and friends back home. Most shops take US dollars and South African Rands but you will get value for your money if you use Tanzanian shillings. There are a couple of currency exchange offices at the airport and in town so change enough notes as most small stores do not have EFT services. Bargain and never settle for the first price that you are given which is usually the highest. You can bargain until you get to an agreed price that you are both comfortable with.
ll in all, if you are thinking of visiting Stone Town then here are a couple of things to consider and remember:
Dress modestly. Ladies should cover their shoulders and make sure shorts/dresses cover the knees.
Exchange enough currency for souvenir shopping and small purchases.
Most places in Stone Town are a walk away so you will not need a taxi or Uber.
Google maps works perfectly in Zanzibar so if you need directions do not hesitate to use it. Although I got lost a couple of times using it because the streets are windy and narrow, it is pretty accurate.
Stone Town is relatively safe but like any other country, be aware of your surroundings and exercise caution.
Ask for permission before taking pictures of anyone. Yes it is a tourist destination but it is rude to take a photo of someone without their consent. Most of the time they will say yes so just ask and. Also refrain from taking pictures of minors.
Locals are very friendly and polite so be sure to give the same energy back. If you ever get lost or need help finding your way around, don’t be afraid to ask as there is always someone willing to help.
Finally, hydrate! The weather in Stone Town can get very hot so make sure you grab a bottle or two of water before hitting the town. Don’t forget your hat and lather on that sunscreen.