Zanzibar – the very name conjures up images of tropical intrigue and excitement!
This stunning spice island is bursting with activities and places of interest for every traveller. Around every corner of this bustling, historic region there are sights to be seen you won’t see anywhere else on earth.
No trip to Tanzania is complete without visiting Zanzibar. It was tough, but we’ve managed to narrow it down to our essential top 10 things to do in Zanzibar.
Read on for the ultimate Zanzibar guide!
1. Matemwe Beach
If your idea of paradise is lying out on powdery white sand, with turquoise water gently lapping against the shore, beckoning you in for refreshing dips, then Zanzibar is the place for you.
The challenging part will be choosing which the Zanzibar’s amazing beaches to start with. If you’re looking for romance and a chance to get away from it all, our top pick is Matemwe Beach.
Located in the north-east of the island, it has yet to be discovered by mass tourism and is a great, secluded hideaway whether you’re with a loved one, or looking for some alone time in paradise.
Local life continues around you – children playing, men fishing and women drying seaweed. There’s not much to do – and that’s the simple beauty of it.
2. Stone Town
Zanzibar’s evocatively named main city, Stone Town, boasts a thrilling history dating back over a millennium.
An ancient trading post, its strategic location has given it links with India, Africa and Europe, not to mention the Arabic influence which is seen in its distinctive architecture.
Stone Town is a virtual labyrinth of small streets and alleys which must be explored on foot to be fully appreciated. As you wander, look out for the grand architecture which speaks of cultures that have come and gone.
Interact with the friendly local people and enjoy some local delicacies in Darajani Market. Don’t forget your camera – the elaborate doors alone are worthy of capturing and enjoying back home.
For another slice of history, check out the Palace Museum.
Beautifully situated right on the waterfront, this imposing building was home to the sultans who once ruled Zanzibar. Check out the harem and the tombs of the sultans, and immerse yourself in a bygone age.
All of these outstanding attributes have made Stone Town, Zanzibar a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and are why it’s number 2 in our list of what to do in Zanzibar!
3. Chumbe Island Coral Park
If sustainable tourism floats your boat, then take one down to the stunning Chumbe Island Coral Park. This private nature reserve contains a pristine coral island just waiting to be explored.
Guided forest walks, snorkelling sites and historical monuments await. Dive in and enjoy over 200 species of coral and 400 species of tropical fish.
You don’t need to be a scuba diver to experience all that Chumbe Island has to offer. The fish and coral are easily visible when snorkelling. You may also encounter turtles, rays, lobsters and black tipped sharks.
Worth organising too is a night snorkelling session, with species to see who are more active during the hours of darkness.
4. Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park
No visit to Zanzibar would be complete without a trek into Jozani Forest to spot its most famous inhabitant – the red colobus monkey.
The park is home to a population of around 1000 of them, also known as Kirk’s red colobus, named after the zoologist who isolated them. It’s a joy to watch these playful creatures and they frolick in their natural habitat.
Other species of monkey, bushbabies and hyraxes await, alongside an abundance of butterflies and birds.
As the name suggests, this national park extends to the coast – and what a coastline.
Mangrove swamps and salt marshes host an abundance of flora and fauna of all descriptions. Be sure to book an excursion to visit this otherworldly phenomenon!
5. Mangapwani Slave Chambers
We’ve all read about the horrors of the slave trade, but few places hit us harder than visiting the Manapwani Slave Chambers. Although it’s not an easy visit, you’ll leave with a new appreciation of what these people had to endure.
Zanzibar’s strategic location and reputation as a trading hub made it a magnet for slave traders. Many people were forcibly taken from the mainland to be shipped around the world from Zanzibar’s shores.
Around 12 miles out of Stone Town, the Mangapwani Slave Chambers were underground storage areas that allowed the slave trade to continue long after its official abolition.
Learn more about the past and immerse yourself in their experience at this important historical site.
6. Dhow Boat Experience
The dhow is a graceful sailboat, that has been essential to transportation and shipping in Arab countries for centuries. Without any mechanical assistance, these boats would ply their wares over thousands of miles of ocean.
They are also a uniquely enchanting way to experience Zanzibar by sea, and there’s no better time to go than at sunset. Don’t worry – they’re equipped with an engine these days!
However, once they’ve motored out, they’ll turn off the enjoy to allow you to enjoy the way the light dances off the Indian Ocean and the feeling of calm and serenity as you experience the ocean in a totally different way.
7. Changuu Island (Prison Island)
Changuu Island has a varied history, with former uses including serving as a holding center for the slave trade, a quarantine center and also a former use, as one might suspect, as a prison island for Zanzibar’s criminal population.
Now the island, about 30 minutes away from Stone Town by boat, is home to the remains of the prison – well worth a visit – along with some modern day inhabitants of a rather different variety.
These residents are giant tortoises, and they have rather an interesting history on the island.
First arriving as a gift from the governor of the Seychelles in 1919, these creatures, noted for their longevity, have taken up permanent residence here.
In fact, they are so long-lived, that one fellow is believed to be around 190 years old. Add to that the fact that these giant tortoises certainly live up to their name, Prison Island is a definite must-see for any traveller to Zanzibar.
8. Hamamni Persian Baths
Speaking further to the diverse cultural heritage of Zanzibar, the Hamamni Persian Baths may not be functional any longer, but they’re definitely high on the list of things to see when visiting Zanzibar.
One of the iconic sights of Stone Town, it is small and rather faded, but provides a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of Zanzibar in times gone by.
Book a tour guide who can open up the fascinating history of the baths to you and bring your camera to capture the beauty of the architecture.
9. Visit a Spice Farm
Zanzibar is a true spice island. Its history is steeped in both the trade and cultivation of various exotic spices – particularly cloves. This industry flourished following the abolition of the slave trade.
Head out of the city on a spice farm tour, and you’ll see how everyday ingredients actually grow in their natural setting. Take a tour of cinnamon, vanilla, black pepper, cardamom and, of course, cloves.
They’ll also guide you on how to use them in your own cooking, and how they’re used to spice the tasty local cuisine you’ve been enjoying since your arrival. They are also available to buy, so you can bring the memory back to your own kitchen.
10. The Old Fort (Ngome Kongwe)
When visiting Zanzibar, the influence of Arab traders from years gone by is plain to see, in everything from the architecture to the food.
Another classic example is the Old Fort.
Built by the Omani Arabs, following the expulsion of the Portuguese in the late 17th century, it is now in ruins. Make sure you take a guide who can explain to you its strategic importance and the key role it played in the history of Zanzibar.
The amphitheatre nearby is home to the Zanzibar Film Festival – a must for all cinephiles. It showcases films and cultural performances from East Africa and beyond, and attracts thousands of foreign visitors annually.
The Takeaway: Top 10 Things to Do in Zanzibar
Zanzibar really does have something for everyone.
Whether you love to get away from it all on unspoilt beaches, watch playful wild animals in their natural habitat, or journey back in time to days of the spice trade and colonial outposts, Zanzibar has something to capture your imagination.
At Earth Life Expeditions, we know Zanzibar like the back of our hand, and can’t wait to show it to you in all its magnificence.
Plan your visit to Zanzibar by checking out our Tanzania guide today!