A Local’s Guide to Zanzibar

Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous Indian Ocean archipelago, is a melting pot of African and Indian influences. Made up of many small islands and two larger, main islands, Unguja and Pemba, Zanzibar is the heart of Swahili culture and tradition.

Photo © iStock.com/asmithers

Zanzibar’s epic history of maritime trade, royal ruins, and political intrigue continues to draw travelers to its shores.

Embrace Swahili Culture and Tradition

Zanzibar, an archipelago made up of two main sister islands, Unguja and Pemba, prides itself on its ‘pole-pole’ (which translates to slowly-slowly) philosophy; so slow your walk and get on island time. Respect the ubiquitous call to prayer from mosques that dot the predominantly Muslim archipelago.

Learn about Zanzibar’s fascinating history, from the 10th-century Shirazi settlers to the Royal Sultans of Oman who ruled from 1698 to 1913, when the British took over administrative rule. Honor Islamic traditions and values by wrapping yourself up in a colorful kanga (traditional dress) or wearing a hand-embroidered kofia (hat). Learning to greet playfully in Swahili, by using slang like mambo (which translates directly to 'things', but is slang for 'what's up?' or 'hello') and poa (which translates to 'cool'), can make you lifelong friends.

Get to and Around Unguja

Unguja, the main tourist island, is home to Zanzibar’s evocative capital Stone Town, a World Heritage city. Hop on a fast ferry from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s bustling cultural capital, and take in Stone Town’s stunning cityscape of Omani and Indian architecture, with its dramatic tea houses and grand verandas, as you approach Unguja’s shores. Or fly over turquoise waters, onboard a propeller plane, to Abeid Karume International Airport, Zanzibar’s own airport with major airlines making frequent stops.

Beach in Stone Town, Zanzibar. Photo credit: iStock.com/KucherAV

Explore Zanzibar the local way, by squeezing inside a packed dala-dala (minivan) – it’s the cheapest adventure, riding along with babies, buckets, and chickens. Or rent a piki-piki (scooter) to roam off the beaten path. There’s also a range of taxis, but Blue Bikes Zanzibar, a social enterprise of Kawa Training Center in Stone Town, makes exploration by bike a breeze.

Enjoy Zanzibari Food and Nightlife

From fresh-grilled fish to savory-spiced coconut curries, Zanzibari food is an eclectic mix of Arabic, Indian, Asian and African flavors. Nightlife often centers around the joy of eating and socializing, never too far from a sea breeze.

Catch a spectacular sunset by rooftop-hopping from Emerson Spice, a historic, 19th-century townhouse, formerly the home of Mwenyi Mkuu (the last Swahili ruler of Zanzibar) and now a hotel with rooftop restaurant, to the ornate Emerson on Hurumzi with its Tower Top Restaurant, high above Stone Town, amongst the mosque minarets, temple towers, and church spires.

Wander to Forodhani Park on the seafront to try something special at the nightly food market.

Setting up street food stalls in Forodhani Park. Photo credit: iStock.com/JordiStock

Slurp on a bowl of the ubiquitous spicy urojo (a flavorful soup with origins in India), an island favorite, or indulge in mouth-watering mishakaki (beef kebabs cooked over charcoal) and chips slathered with mango hot sauce. Wash it down with a glass of fresh sugarcane juice, with a dash of lime.

For a great night out, stroll along the new palm-lined promenade to the Dhow Countries Music Academy for a weekly concert showcasing the local musical styles of Taarab, Kidumbak, and Swahili fusion.

At Mustapha’s Place in Bwejuu, on the island’s southeast coast, sit around a communal fire under a star-filled sky, sip on a cold Kilimanjaro beer, and listen to old-school reggae beats. Hit the dancefloor at the Red Monkey Lodge in Jambiani, at one of its weekly Crazy Monday jam sessions.

Connect with the Locals

In Kizimkazi-Dimbani, at the southern tip of Zanzibar, visit the 12th-century mosque with its Kufic engravings, and explore the bay to glimpse traditional fishing dhows docked while fishermen untangle their nets. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of majestic dolphins in Kizimkazi-Mkunguni near Menai Bay, but avoid predatory, unethical dolphin tours.

Traveler with locals. Photo credit: iStock.com/sansara

The Paje Seaweed Center runs tours to connect visitors with local women who rule the seaweed farming industry. Hang out at Mr. Kahawa and chill with kite-surfers while sipping iced espresso. Sail through the Blue Lagoon near Dongwe to snorkel in pristine waters, while your captain entertains you with local lore.

Explore Historic Stone Town

All roads lead to Jaw’s Corner, the city’s heartbeat, where locals lounge on the baraza (stone benches) to sip coffee, play bao (a popular East African board game) and talk politics.

Bustling Darajani market spills over with medicinal herbs, fresh spices, heavenly halwa (dessert), colorful textiles and scarves. For antiques, head to Al-Tamim Curio Shop on Sokomuhugo. Check out local merchants Inaya Zanzibar for natural beauty remedies or Surti & Sons for handmade leather sandals and bags.

Typical, narrow street in Stone Town, Zanzibar. Photo credit: iStock.com/miroslav_1

Take a walking tour with Kawa Training Center or get lost on your own. Pop into Capital Art Studio to see Zanzibar’s history in pictures and ask Rohit, the owner, to glimpse that special baby photo of Farrokh Bulsara, (Freddie Mercury) who was born in Stone Town in 1946.

Want to find out more about Tanzania? Listen to the World Nomads podcast. Hear about the wildebeest migration, rated as one of the world's most spectacular natural events, what it means to smell popcorn on safari, and traveling with a disability.

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