Zanzibar’s blend of aromatic spices, vibrant colors and cultural heritage is present everywhere in the narrow streets of Stone Town, the heart of the island. From a rooftop building you can spot a cathedral, mosque and Hindu temple at the same time, while the sun sets over the enigmatic Indian Ocean.
Transportation. After two nights in the bustling city of Dar Es Salaam, we went off to Zanzibar island. As the pier was just a stroll away from our guesthouse and the price for a one way 2 hour catamaran ride was $35, we chose the reliable services of Azam ferry company. Sometimes, it can be a hassle to find return tickets to the mainland especially during the weekend, when many locals come to the island for a short holiday.
The other alternative transportation from the city of DAR was to fly in with Precious Air or Coastal Airline, for about $75 one way. Some people are flying directly to Stone Town from other important international airports, but we were curious about Dar Es Salaam and a boat ride is always more enjoyable for those who love the sea.
In case you have tight schedules between two or more transportations, from our experience, is better to take into consideration you are in Africa. This means, your notion of time may not be similar to theirs. Tanzanians have what they call African time, as they say – “we have the time, you have the watches”.
Accommodation. When walking through the narrow streets in the labyrinth of Stone Town, you might pass by many guesthouses and not even know they exist. We randomly stepped inside some of them and checked out their interior ambiance and their prices. After wandering around for 1 hour in the search of Venga House, we found a good deal of $25 twin room, in a homestay we never knew its name. The truly nice part of the deal was the nice breakfast (negotiated when making the deal) prepared by the owner – some fresh bread, tomatoes, strangely blue colored potatoes, a avocado with 2 eggs, all served with some nice chai and coffee. We enjoyed it in a nice backyard under the shade of a mango tree.
Further away from the narrow streets there is Garden Lodge, a good option for those who want to escape the tiny vibrant streets. We didn’t stay there but we visited the place, liked it and agree we’ll stay there next time.
Culinary experiences and more. There are plenty of restaurants in Stone Town with delicious dishes from Persian, Indian, Arabic or African cuisine.
Emerson’s Spice mansion seems to be the right place when it comes to spectacular views over the town and the enigmatic Indian Ocean. This restaurant offered us a creative culinary tour of the flavors of Zanzibar. It has an interesting concept as there is no set menu, they just serve what the cook has decided to make. I had some tasty blends freshly-caught seafood and delicately flavored vegetables, while my friend Don tried some tender goat curry that impressed him. He managed to save room for dessert – Natma Tende – some lightly baked date cookies covered with toasted sesame seeds. A chilled glass of iced ginger tea complimented our food experience here.
After dinner we went to The Tea House. This is an exceptional place, where you sit on bright cushions and carpets, while looking out at the sun setting into the sea, with bells from both Hindu and Christian temples completing the ambiance.
There is also a cool music and funky bar in Stone Town, called Livingstones. The place has a treat of live music on Friday nights and a patio on the beach – where you can sit with a drink at your table and your feet in the sand.
But our favorite bar in town was Mercury Bar, even though they didn’t play any of Queen’s songs as we expected. However, here is where we found out from the locals what a truly Tanzanian dance means. It was more than Bonga Flava, they were moves like only African people could have, with plenty of positive energy coming from the dance floor. This bar is a must! You will leave the place with a package of new moves that are going to impress your friends, girlfriends or even grandparents back home.
Activities. Encrypted in UNESCO’s heritage, Stonetown is a marvel of material manifestation of cultural fusion and harmonization. Walking around you observe how the crumbling buildings manifest the influence of different cultures from Africa, the Arab region, India, and Europe, over more than a millennium, which set here to build.
The streets of Stonetown are a labyrinth of combined architecture, and are also noisy and smelly. But that is part of the experience. And suddenly, from the narrow twisted maze-alleyways, you get to a big opening, usually where the markets are, or, endless rows of curiosity shops. So it is this proportion that fascinates by contrast.
The details of the world of Zanzibar are what really make it interesting. You’ll discover that each door is preciously different, each one telling the story of the resident. The carved wooden doors patterns like waves point to trade and seaborne shipment, chains mark the house of a wealthy arab slave trader, and so on. The doors made often outlast many other elements of the houses and are divided into two panels, the male on the right and the female on the left.
The spice and fish market is a good insight of the local lifestyle. Little has changed here in the last hundred years. You can find anything from spices, fruits, meat, fish, electronics, and more. However, the textiles and spices don’t have a great quality. If you want to buy something from here, try to negotiate hard. The price might fall a few times when you show them less interest.
On the site of the former slave market of Zanzibar now stands an Anglican cathedral. There is only a monument left and 2 slave chambers that can be visited in a basement of a nearby hotel. Here used to be an important port for Arab slave trade with Africans from Congo or Tanzania, that were shipped to India or Middle East. The importance of Stone town is marked for being the site where slave-trading was finally terminated.
Mercury House – Since Stone Town is the birthplace of the … Freddie Mercury, it is worth seeing his home where he lived until the age of 9 before moving to India with his family.
Although you cannot enter inside, there are pictures posted on the entrance door with Freddie at various stages of his career. You can feel the place and the atmosphere if you’re a fan. The locals keep pointing it out, and are obviously proud of the most famous child of Zanzibar, even if they’re representing a conservative culture (muslim), while Freddie had so many open liberal values.
There are other sights left such as The House of Wonders, Old Fort, Palace Museum, Hamamni Persian baths, Shakti Temple, or the local spice farms where you can learn about the history of Zanzibar’s relationship to spices.
At Forodhani Gardens, set on the edge of the port and right in front of the Old Arab Fort, you can have a nice piece of bbq or sea food at one of the many food stalls set up at night, under kerosene lamps and with a beautiful view over the Indian Ocean. The evenings in Stone Town should be spent here, while watching dhows (traditional sailing vessels) returning from the sea and the locals gathering for socializing. It’s a treat!