Here’s how to see Zanzibar’s stunning beaches and unsettling Stone Town history in one quick weekend trip.
On the surface, Zanzibar may look like the perfect spot for sunbathers and beach goers, but this island is much more than a simple, sandy oasis. Head over to Stone Town, the oldest section of Zanzibar, and you’ll encounter a deep, emotional history.
For much of the mid 19th century, Zanzibar was a major hub for the slave trade; more than 50,000 slaves passed through the port every year. Reminders of this dark history are sprinkled throughout the streets of Stone Town, with rusting chains and shackles embedded into the walls.
On the happier side, Zanzibar is also a delicious little city. It’s widely known for an abundant offering of spices, including cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and black pepper, as well as its juicy, exotic fruits.
Whether you’re soaking up the sun, strolling through Stone Town or savoring sweet, fruity treats, Zanzibar will quickly steal your heart and have you plotting your way back.
Zanzibar’s Stone Town is a winding maze of old, narrow streets, deteriorating, cream-colored bazaars and buildings, and thousands of years of rich African history. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012, and served as port for world-renowned East African explorers like David Livingstone.
Stone Town is known for its ornate wooden doors, charming old alleys, rows and rows of colorful street stands and bright blue ocean views.
And of course, you can’t forget the delicious Daranji Market! This busy local marketplace offers meats, fruits, spices and vegetables you’ve probably never heard of — and that’s the fun of it.
Instead of hustling through the crowds for peace and quiet, take an exploratory stroll through Daranji Market, sampling exotic fruits like my favorite, the spiky Shoki Shoki.
On the outside, Shoki Shoki looks more weapon than fruit, but it’s sweet and juicy on the inside. (Unless yours has a bug crawling in it like mine did … in which case you throw it away, pretend you’re not phased and buy a new one.)
Now, on the darker side, is a trip to the Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ, which stands atop the former slave market in Stone Town. Shut down by the British in 1873, Stone Town’s slave market was the world’s last open slave market.
Today, the Anglican Cathedral’s white marble altar stands in place of the former whipping tree as an eery reminder of the cruelty humans are capable of. Visitors can climb down, below ground to the tight, claustrophobic chambers where slaves were confined for an even closer look at this traumatic past.
While emotional, a visit to the former slave market is integral to ensuring the past is not forgotten — and that Zanzibar’s future is brighter and kinder.
At first glance, Zanzibar has all the essential elements of your typical, beautiful beach: bright white sand, calm, blue waves and sunshine for days. But take a stroll along the shore and you’ll notice some important, interesting differences that set Zanzibar’s beaches apart.
For one, it’s all about fishing. Zanzibar’s beaches aren’t just for frolicking tourists — they’re a significant food source. From the shore into the horizon, your Indian Ocean photos will be filled with vibrant white beaches and vintage, faded-blue and red fishing boats.
On evenings, weekends and even some weekdays, Zanzibar’s main beaches (those closest to downtown) are filled with locals. School children, parents, workers and even tourists flock to the shore for pickup soccer, sunbathing and, for many teenagers, showing off with acrobatics.
The local beaches aren’t fit for serenity-seeking travelers (the outlying resorts would fit the bill), but they’re the perfect scene for those looking to absorb Zanzibar’s culture.
Know before you go:
Like most of Tanzania, Zanzibar is a warm, welcoming city, but don’t let that fool you — there’s still plenty of crime. My friend Adam had his designer sunglasses stolen while swimming at our hotel (and they conveniently reappeared when he called out a suspicious staff member on it).
Now, I’m not telling you to stay at your safe resorts, surrounded by your valuables 24/7. I would never condone that.
Just be safe, keep an eye out for suspicious activity, think cautiously about where to store your wallet, purses, etc. in your room (use a safe!), and always keep your most important valuables (read: passport, money) on your person. If you can follow those golden Zanzibar rules, you’ll be all set for a safe, memorable trip!