Things to do in Zanzibar

Few places in the world can evoke images of white powdered sands, pristine turquoise waters and tropical palm-tree paradise like Zanzibar.

Located just off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa, this series of islands offers a unique adventure and cultural experience along with being the most idyllic setting for pure relaxation.

Infamous for being a central port for trading over the Centuries, the “Spice Islands” also has the unfortunate reputation for being the main hub during the African slave trade although thankfully the island is now a prosperous and attractive place to be.

1. Stone Town

Steeped in history and overflowing with charm, Stone Town is the iconic capital of Zanzibar.

It is in Stone Town that myriad narrow streets wind their way through craft shops, art galleries, fabric stalls and quaint coffee shops. It is also the perfect place to explore on foot and getting lost within this maze of ancient streets will give rise to a number of cultural experiences that can appear much more local and authentic than the beach life up north.

Getting to know Stone Town

Turning off Kenyatta Road onto Gizenga street, the precious blue of Tanzanite shines from the counters of several jewelry stalls, while an elderly man shapes a piece of leather in the shop next-door.

Further on, a young artist puts the finishing touches to his latest painting as the aroma of fresh Arabica drifts through the air from a quaint coffee shop down another side street.

Small children hurry around every corner, while family members hang over a window ledge up above. Whether you are buying or selling, or neither of the two, a walk through these streets is a fascinating encounter.

The House of Wonders

When you finally make your way back near the main street, the majestic House of Wonders is waiting to be explored.  This is a spectacular masterpiece of architecture which was initially the palace of Zanzibar’s sultan and is now home to the National Museum of Culture.  Highlights of the collection include a large traditional Swahili boat (mtepe) in the central courtyard and two 16th century bronze cannons captured from the Portuguese.

Slave Chambers and Old Fort

It is also possible to take a short tour of the slave chambers (between the Anglican Cathedral and St Monica’s Hostel), which are a haunting, but necessary reminder, for the tragic history of Stone Town. You shuld also stop in at the nearby Old Fort of Zanzibar, an imposing structure built in the 17th century by the Omanis to repel attacks from the Portuguese. 

Forodhani Gardens

Last but not least, take an evening away from the restaurants and enjoy the ambiance of the famous Night market in Forodhani Gardens on the seafront: with every type of seafood you can imagine, all cooked to perfection, you can be sure to sample some of the finest cuisine in Zanzibar, in the most memorable setting possible.

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2. Nungwi and Kendwa beaches

Sunset at Nungwi, Zanzibar Fishing dhows at Kendwa beach

Whether you stay at Nungwi beach, Kendwa beach, or even somewhere along the East coast, exploring Zanzibar's north beach resorts is certainly worth the effort.

Nungwi is the third largest settlement in Zanzibar, with a population of about 5,500, found at the far north of the island. The smaller nearby Kendwa is on the west coast, overlooking the tiny Daloni island and the larger island of Tumbatu. Both are located about an hour's drive from Stone Town.

Nungwi

Nungwi is the most popular resort in the north where a long line of quality restaurants, bars and hotels provide ample entertainment and variety.

The real draw, though, is the golden sand beach, ranked at 43 on CNN's 2014 list of the world's best beaches. CNN commented as follows: "At sunset, white-sailed dhows leave from the boatyard, making for a great photo op."

Whether you stay in a five star resort (such as Essque Zalu Zanzibar, Diamonds La Gemma dell' Est and Royal Zanzibar Beach Resort) or one of the most affordable accommodations, you still have full access to many restaurants, massage parlours, coffee shops and bars along the waterfront.

Nungwi beach is relatively quiet during the day, but it also provides a wide range of water sports and things to do, including scuba diving, Jet Ski and paragliding along with other activities such as volleyball, craft lessons or the local village tour.

Many people will choose to visit this area for the number of things to do in Nungwi. But for anyone wanting a more secluded resort, it still makes for a great place to spend the day before returning to another part of the island.

Kendwa

Similarly, Kendwa beach is another great place to spend a day. Although it is a much quieter resort than Nungwi with fewer people, restaurants and things to do, it has the added benefit of a huge beach which can feel a lot more secluded.

The Kendwa Rocks Hotel is also home to the monthly Full Moon Party, but for every other day, this resort is all about peace and quiet, sunbathing during the day and sunset cruises in the evening.

It is also possible to travel between Kendwa and Nungwi using a local water taxi, which means exploring both resorts in a single day is always possible.

 

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3. Snorkelling at Mnemba Atoll

Mnemba Atoll off Zanzibar (© David Berkowitz, CC-BY-ASA-3.0). Snorkelling in Zanzibar. A sea turtle off Zanzibar

Snorkelling at Mnemba Atoll is quite possibly the best “value for money” tour in the world.

This may sound like a sweeping statement, but provided you choose the right boat captain, the return on investment for this $25 trip is no less than incredible.

Departing from one of Zanzibar's many Northern Beaches, you begin the morning by gliding across crystallised waters in a traditional Dhow sailing boat. Sailing is slow, but as a gentle breeze runs across the deck and you lay down beneath the shade of the mainsail, a distinct feeling of calm will ensure you do not want to reach anywhere fast.

An unexpected part of this trip will often take the form of interacting with the boat crew, which can be a real eye opener into the laid back attitude and charming personality of the local Zanzibarian. Expect a lot of laughing, but also understanding, as these guys know exactly when their guests want to rest in peace, sunbathe or even take a nap.

Traveling to Mnemba Atoll there is always the chance of spotting dolphins, and reaching the island itself, the colourful coral is no less than mesmerising. Zanzibar is home to many species of fish, with huge trevally, yellow snappers, barracuda, eels and many more.

Although the island is private, the boats will drop anchor close to shore, allowing you to stand near the waters edge, and explore the surrounding reefs. Some guests will take to jumping from the top of the boat into the water, others will disappear with their snorkels and some will just bask in the silence on deck as that gentle wind continues to pass through.

After several hours of fun, the boat will then head back toward the mainland, but rather than end the day there, your guides will make one last stop on a remote island to prepare and barbecue a delicious Kingfish or Barracuda to be served with rice and a tasty sauce.

It is usually around this point when the tourists begin to wonder how such an incredible day can cost so little and when everything is packed up on the beach, you will commence one last peaceful sailing trip back to the mainland where you can order cocktails to toast a most memorable day.

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4. Watching the sunset

A Dhow at sunset in Zanzibar (© Rod Waddington, CC-BY-ASA-2.0) A Dhow at sunset in Zanzibar (© Rasheed hamis, CC-BY-ASA-4.0)

Zanzibar is also synonymous with stunning red sunsets ... and there are a number of unique locations to experience them.

Contrary to what many people may think prior to arrival, Stone Town is likely to be the most spectacular place on the island to witness the last light of day and more specifically, the Africa House Hotel. Luxurious in decoration and with a clear view of the horizon, the Sunset Lounge Balcony at the back of this unassuming hotel has a vibrant atmosphere, comfortable seating areas and the ultimate vantage point from which to watch the sun go down.

Another great alternative for catching the sunset or sunrise in Stone Town is to choose a lodge or hotel that provides access to a terrace on the top of the building.

That being said, the northern beaches of Nungwi and Kendwa are also ideal in that they both face in a westerly direction. Comfortable hammocks on the front of the bar at Sunset Kendwa (also known as the Sundet Bungalows Hotel) are perfect for enjoying sunset cocktails at Kendwa Beach while you can usually have the soft sands to yourself on the most southerly of the two beaches in Nungwi.

Alternatively, for a small fee, you can take a sunset cruise on a traditional Dhow sailing boat which comes with a fully stocked bar. Long stretches of sand on one side, and a red sun falling over the Indian Ocean to the west with nothing to obstruct the view; taking a sunset cruise is the ultimate way to watch the sun go down on Zanzibar.

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5. Giant Turtles on Prison Island

Prison Island is a must-see Zanzibar attraction.

Also known as Changuu, Prison Island is an 800 x 200 metre island found about 6 kilometres north-west of South Town.

Although there are wonderful coral areas to snorkel around Prison Island and you will have plenty of time to do so, the real attractions are the huge turtles and a highly engrossing Slave Trade Museum.

The waters are some of the clearest anywhere in the Spice Islands and, once more, there is every chance you will catch a glimpse of the many pods of dolphins which inhabit this part of the Indian Ocean.

Once on the island itself, you will have the unique and incredible opportunity to visit the giant turtles and, most often, this invitation is extended assist with feeding time in the afternoon.

Provided you are gentle and respectful, it is perfectly fine to touch the turtles and interact with these gentle giants, some of which are more than 180 years old.

At this point, it's worth mentioning there are many other things to do in Zanzibar such as visiting the Spice plantations or taking one day trip to Jozani National Park where blue and red Colobus monkeys swing through the jungle.

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6. Eating in Zanzibar

The Rock restaurant at low tide (© Rod Waddington, CC-BY-ASA-2.0). The LangiLangi is one of Zanzibar's best restaurants

The Rock (east coast)

Can you smell what The Rock is cooking? Neither can we, not from here, but we do know that the food is out of this world. Try crab spaghetti or the homemade tagliolini for a starter. And for your main course, look no further than The Rock Special: a giant selection of jumbo prawns, calamari, fish, cigal and lobster – honestly, how could you choose anything else when you have decided to treat yourself in this one of a kind restaurant.

The Rock is located on the east coast of Zanzibar and while it may take an hour or so to reach the restaurant from Stone Town (and about 90 minutes from Zanzibar's northern tip), you will absolutely not regret making the effort it takes to get there.

Situated on a rock perched up over the ocean, this restaurant is not actually known best for the glorious food they serve but rather for its idyllic and very unique setting. If the budget allows for it, this is one of the very best restaurants and things to do in Zanzibar but make sure you place a reservation as it is usually full, especially in the high season.

The Tea House (Emerson on Hurumzi Hotel, Stone Town)

The only way to make a reservation for Tea House in Stone Town is to do so in person the day before you wish to visit or to get someone you know to make it for you.  Exclusive is not the word and as with The Rock above this is an experience not to be missed.

Located right in the middle of Stone Town, at the very top of the Emerson on Hurumzi Hotel, the setting could not be more antique with knitted cushions decorating the surrounding walls intersected by quaint tables and dainty curtains blowing in the wind above. Yes, this is the most exclusive rooftop restaurant and probably the most luxurious thing to do in Zanzibar.

The Tea House excels when it comes to customer service but the food is right up there too.  Our favourite Tea House dishes are the crab cakes badia, massaman goat curry, Saffron pickled chilies and a wonderful espresso meringue dessert.

Entertainment will follow as the evening goes on: a small band takes to the stage and encourages everybody to get up for some dancing.

The Langi Langi (Nungwi)

Whether you stay in Nungwi is not the issue.  Just make it here and enjoy the beautiful setting and unbelievable food served at Langi Langi.

Sitting on stilts, this restaurant finds itself perched up over the turquoise waters.  By the time darkness falls you will find that the restaurant owners have done an incredible job of creating the perfect candlelit ambience.

If you want to impress your date or partner with a smaller budget than is necessary for the above restaurants, Langi Langi is the place to go. It blows away all the competitors in the area with feedback and reviews but as mentioned, the setting alone is what makes this a must see and awesome choice for things to do in Zanzibar.

If you’re not sure of what to order when you arrive, choose Shuka Shuka which is an incredible dish that was traditionally made for women when pregnant, although we are not exactly why.

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7. Full Moon Party at Kendwa Rocks

The Full Moon Party at Kendwa Rocks in Zanzibar Fire eaters at Zanzibar's Full Moon Party

Welcome to Zanzibar, home to white sandy beaches, blue paradise like waters and … the Full Moon party.

Yes, that’s right, every month you can head to the North Beaches and experience the Full Moon party on Kendwa Rocks. Much smaller than its namesake in Thailand (Koh Phangan), the Full Moon party on Zanzibar is held on the beachfront of a well-known hotel in Kendwa Resort.  Although it charges a relatively steep entrance fee (35,000 shillings/$15), it is one of the best things to do in Zanzibar.

One of the nice things about this party is that it is very much a local affair.  It showcases some of the best local singers, DJs and acts in Tanzania, which brings a cultural feel to an exciting event.  With several bars, a main stage, a large dance floor, fire-eaters, acrobats and a huge outdoor section comprising of tables and chairs on sand, the party is just as much a local favorite as it is with the backpackers of tourists who may be visiting.  

In fact, many Tanzanians come travel to Zanzibar from Dar es Salaam for the night.  And then there is the food afterward: Kendwa Rocks has vendors inside who can make some delicious kebabs and handmade wood fired pizzas.

 

8. More things to do in Zanzibar

Fresh nutmeg from a Zanzibar spice plantation The Mrembo Spa in Stone Town

Spice Plantation Tour

A Spice Tour is something that a lot of visitors decide to skip in favor with more beach time. But the Spice Islands are still overflowing with, erm, spice and a tour of a local plantation is a great way to see how Zanzibar became an important stop on the trade routes from the 18th century. 

Spices still grown on the island include cloves, vanilla, green pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon. Most tours include lunch along with an opportunity to sample the produce.  Plantations between Stone Town and the north beaches can be used as a good stopover point.  Allow 1-2 hours for your visit.  Colours of Zanzibar offer tours for c. USD20-30 per person

Mrembo Spa in Stone Town

Stone Town is not usually associated with Spa treatment but if you visit Mrembo Spa in the heart of the town, it’s likely you’ll change your preconceptions.

Although several massage shops find themselves along Gizenga Street, the number one place to go for a massage, pedicure, manicure and any type of cure, is Mrembo Spa on Cathedral Street. Narrow and confusing alleyways can make it difficult to find, but your perseverance will be rewarded.

Several smiling ladies are always adorning the small opening to this wonderful place and, as you step inside, the instant aroma is sure to convince you that you yourself will end up leaving the treatment behind with a huge smile.