Are you planning a trip to Zanzibar? This semi-autonomous chain of islands has an intriguing history and culture of its own. From the unique architecture of Stone Town and the white-sanded beaches of Paje to the giant tortoises of Prison Island, there is no shortage of places to see and fun things to do in Zanzibar.
This travel guide outlines some of the more unique and memorable things to do while visiting Zanzibar, Tanzania.
- Things to do in Zanzibar
- Have lunch at the Rock
- See the endangered Zanzibar Red Colobus Monkeys at Jozani Forest
- Swim with Turtles at the Mnarani Turtle Sanctuary
- Spend the day on the Nakupenda sand bank, Zanzibar’s most beautiful beach
- Take a walking tour of Stone Town and a local spice farm
- Snorkel with dolphins in their natural habitat
- Sunset Dhow cruise
- Visit Freddie Mercury’s House
- Have tea with a view on one of Stone Town’s rooftops
- See the giant Tortoises on Prison Island
- Try Zanzibar street food at Fordhani Gardens
- Where to stay in Zanzibar?
This chain of four islands is located off the coast of mainland Tanzania. Its main island, Unguja, was once a strategic location along the spice and trade routes resulting in a confluence of African and Arab influences.
The culture, cuisine, art, and architecture reflect an old-world charm that is a unique contrast to the surrounding tropical paradise. The pristine white beaches dotted with swaying palm trees next to clear turquoise waters are some of the most desirable beaches in the world.
There are no direct flights to Zanzibar, making this beach paradise a truly remote getaway.
Things to do in Zanzibar
Have lunch at the Rock
When perusing through photos of Zanzibar one of the most common images is that of The Rock. This truly unique restaurant is built in the traditional Zanzibar style with a Makuti palm tree roof and white-painted walls.
Once a fisherman’s post, the Rock is perched on top of a rock surrounded on all sides by the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. During high tide, a ferryman transports visitors from the shores of Michanwi Pingwe Beach to the rickety wooden steps of the restaurant. During low tide, visitors may simply walk across the seaweed-strewn ocean floor to reach the entrance.
The Rock is a popular Zanzibar attraction not only because of its fairytale-like appearance but because of its impressive menu. Familiar European dishes are combined with a unique Zanzibar flare. Seafood is locally sourced, in many cases from the very reef around the restaurant.
Standout dishes include the Potato and Cocoa Gnocchi served with Prawns and Zanzibar vanilla whipped butter along with the Pineapple Flambe with Zanzibar Spiced Ice Cream.
See the endangered Zanzibar Red Colobus Monkeys at Jozani Forest
Visiting Jozani Forest is one of the more popular things to do on Zanzibar because it is the only national park on the island. Although it is relatively small at 50 square km, it is lush with greenery and wildlife. Visitors walk along the forested path among towering trees and mangroves. Jozani Forest is also popular for another reason the Red Colobus Monkeys.
A large population of the endangered Red Colobus Monkeys calls Jozani Forest home. Although the species is under protection, their population is decreasing due to poaching and habitat loss. A number of other species can be found in the park including bushbabies, Sykes Monkeys, and the nocturnal Zanzibar Tree Hyrax.
Most people come to Jozani Forest as part of a larger tour, however, you can visit without a guide for around $8 USD.
Swim with Turtles at the Mnarani Turtle Sanctuary
The Mnarani Marine Turtles Conservation Pond, located in northern Zanzibar, aims to rehabilitate injured sea turtles before releasing them back into the open ocean. Many of the sea turtles are found in the nets of local fishermen and are brought to the sanctuary for treatment.
The majority of turtles are actually brought to the sanctuary when they are still eggs. Unfortunately, there is a high demand for turtle eggs on the black market. Sanctuary staff and volunteers retrieve the eggs from popular nesting sites in order to save them from potential poaching.
While the hatchlings are kept safe in a separate facility, the adult turtles are kept in a natural lagoon that is open to the public. Visitors may feed, swim with, and snorkel among the sea turtles. By welcoming visitors to the sanctuary, the staff hopes to raise awareness about harmful fishing practices and the hazardous impact of plastic pollution.
This Zanzibar Turtle Sanctuary takes a number of responsible precautions to protect the well-being of the animals. Visitors are required to take a shower before entering the lagoon and are encouraged to practice respectful behavior. On the other hand, it is often found to be overcrowded. We hope that this is something that will be better managed in the future to mitigate any potential stress to the turtles.
Spend the day on the Nakupenda sand bank, Zanzibar’s most beautiful beach
The best beaches in Zanzibar are known for their spectacular sunsets, pristine white sand, turquoise waters, and colorful coral reefs. Nungwi Beach along the Northwest Coast is one of the liveliest areas on the island with impressive beach resorts and some of the best nighttime entertainment. The warm clear water of Paje beach on the Southeast coast is ideal for scuba diving and kitesurfing.
If you are looking for a truly stunning stretch of beach, look no further than Nakupenda “I love you” Island. While some consider Nakupenda an island, it could also be easily considered a sandbank that disappears with the rising tides.
Just a 20-minute boat ride away from Stone Town, you can visit this secluded oasis as if having a private island all to yourself. Known for its clear shallow water and gentle waves, Nakupenda is considered one of the most beautiful places in Zanzibar.
Take a walking tour of Stone Town and a local spice farm
Zanzibar’s location along the trade route from Arabia to Africa is a key factor that shaped its history for centuries. Traders from Persia, Arabia, and Zanzibar would exchange gold and ivory from mainland Tanzania, and spices including nutmeg, cinnamon, and turmeric. These spices were considered a prized commodity and a symbol of wealth and privilege.
As spice production increased, so did the colonial importance of controlling the “Spice Islands”. The history of Zanzibar’s spice trade is deeply intertwined with a dark history of the slave trade, colonialism, and power. It is that distinctive mixture of cultural influences that makes Stone Town unique, earning its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
A walking tour of Stone Town is one of the most popular things to do when visiting Zanzibar. This is largely due to the site’s historical and cultural significance. A proper guide will help you to navigate through the maze-like corridors, passing by intricately carved wooden doors, white-walled mansions, and Zanzibari street vendors.
Important landmarks to note include the old slave market site, the Palace Museum, the old fort, and the childhood home of Freddie Mercury, the late lead singer of Queen. Pair a historical tour of Stone Town with a cultural tour of a local Spice farm to fully understand the diverse influences that shaped Zanzibar’s history.
Snorkel with dolphins in their natural habitat
Some of the best snorkeling in Tanzania can be found in Zanzibar. The crystal clear waters provide high visibility to 20-60 meters almost year-round. You can dive down and explore coral reefs and the surrounding marine life that have made it their home. You are likely to see blue surgeonfish, clownfish, starfish, lionfish, and sea turtles.
Many tour guides organize excursions to deeper waters where you can snorkel with dolphins in their natural habitat. You’ll find two kinds of dolphins in this region of the Indian Ocean, the bottlenose dolphin and the Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphin. Do not miss the opportunity to observe dolphins in the wild. It is an incredible and moving experience.
Sunset Dhow cruise
The Dhow is central to Zanzibar’s history as a trading hub. Arab and Indian merchants would travel to east Africa onboard a dhow using the monsoon winds to guide their sails. The dhow remained a primary Zanzibari transportation vessel, used to transport goods and ferry passengers along the eastern coast of Africa.
While larger container ships and modern ferries have begun to take their place, restored and operating dhows can still be found in both Dubai and Zanzibar… and there is no better place to view a Zanzibari sunset than onboard a traditional dhow.
Imagine cruising along the coast of Zanzibar and passing small islands, all while slicing through pristine turquoise waters. Relax on the deck of a Zanzibar dhow and take in the timeless beauty of a golden sky as the sun sets over the Indian Ocean.
Visit Freddie Mercury’s House
In the 1970s a theatric British rock band by the name of Queen took the world by storm. Hits like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Will Rock You” can still excite a crowd just as much today as when they were originally performed over 40 years ago. There was no denying the ostentatious and undeniable talent of frontman, Freddie Mercury.
Long before he was known as Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen was known by his birth name Farrokh Bulsara. Born and raised in Stone Town, his childhood home is now considered a highly popular place to visit in Zanzibar. Most Stone Town walking tours will highlight his home which in 2019 was converted into the Freddie Mercury Museum a commemoration of the late rock legend.
Have tea with a view on one of Stone Town’s rooftops
Beyond taking a walking tour of Stone Town, one of the best ways to experience the city is by viewing it from above. Emerson on Hurumzi is the highest rooftop Tea House in Zanzibar with 360-degree views of Stown Town and the Indian Ocean. The restaurant offers cocktails and Zanzibar cuisine accompanied by traditional Taarab performances. There is one sitting for dinner only and reservations must be made in advance as seating is limited.
Emerson Skeens, the late owner and after whom the restaurant is named, also established two other restaurants, two boutique hotels, and a non-profit Foundation to preserve and enhance the culture of Zanzibar. His establishments and community engagement efforts are both well-known and well-respected throughout the Zanzibari community.
See the giant Tortoises on Prison Island
Just 3.5 miles (5.6km) north of Stone Town lies Changuu Island, also known as Prison Island. It received its name due to its usage as a prison for rebellious slaves in the 1860s, and later as a place of quarantine for those suffering from Yellow Fever. Today tourists are drawn to Prison Island not for its history, but for the giant tortoises who have made the island their home.
In 1919 the British governor of Seychelles sent four Aldabra giant tortoises to Changuu as a gift. Typically weighing around 550 pounds these giant tortoises are not only one of the largest tortoise species but also one of the longest-living animals in the world. Many live upwards of 150 years old.
These original tortoises quickly bred increasing the population from 4 to 200 within 30 years. Unfortunately, theft and illegal poaching critically reduced the population to only 7 tortoises by 1996. The Zanzibar government and World Animal Protection interceded and established a protective area for rebuilding the population. The island and refuge is now open to the public where visitors can view and interact with the growing population of Aldabra giant tortoises.
Try Zanzibar street food at Fordhani Gardens
If you are spending the night in Stone Town, a trip to Fordhani Gardens is a must-do activity. It is one of the most popular things to do in Zanzibar at night. This night market is a smorgasbord of new and interesting foods, perfect for the adventurous eater. Here you will find a wonderful mashup of locals and tourists mingling together in one location, bonding over food and culture.
Every night the large public garden begins to fill with people, lights, and the unmistakable aroma of delicious street food. Dozens of vendor stalls are operated by local chefs enticing you with their elaborate displays of local food including octopus, crab, lobster, oversized sausages, grilled corn, skewered chicken, and spiced lamb. Whatever you do, do not miss out on sampling the Zanzibar pizza!
Food prices in Zanzibar are varied depending on where you go. Higher-end locations like Emerson’s and The Rock cost about $40 per person, but dinner at Fordhani Gardens may only cost $5 for a full plate.
Where to stay in Zanzibar?
Spend the night in an adventurous beachside bungalow
Known to have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, it comes as no surprise that Zanzibar has its share of beachside resorts and bungalows. There are several all-inclusive luxury resorts on the northern shore of the island, however, if you are looking for a more adventurous and secluded eco-stay, consider:
- The Island- Pongwe Lodge is an adult-only resort and occupies the entirety of a secluded island 100 meters from the coastline. The Island is built on a natural coral rock in the quiet Pongwe Bay. The landscape changes together with the influences of the tide giving to the place a unique characteristic.
- Evergreen Bungalows is a small and charming family-run resort. It is located directly on the sandy shores of Bwejju Beach, surrounded by coconut palms and swinging hammocks. Each bungalow and banda is decorated with traditional Zanzibari decor including a distinctive palm-thatched roof.
- Nest Beach Resort is a premium ocean-front working space and accommodation. Guests fall in love with the bright and spacious rooms and the outdoor bathrooms. Located on-site is a kite school where you can learn kite surfing in a world-class location.
- Chumbe Island Coral Park Resort is an award-winning private nature reserve that was developed for the conservation and sustainable management of uninhabited Chumbe Island off Zanzibar. The island’s accommodation and guest lodge are constructed with state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly architecture and are designed to have near zero impact on the environment. You can relax comfortably knowing that you are keeping the island pristine.
Spend the night floating in the Indian Ocean
If a beachside bungalow isn’t close enough to the water, you can actually sleep on the water with this unique Airbnb rental. The Indiana Floating Oasis is a double-decker catamaran with 3 fully furnished on-deck tents.
Guests can swim in the open ocean by day and sleep under the open sky at night. The Indiana is equipped with a solar-powered refrigerator, bathroom, full kitchen, and cash bar. Additional tours and excursions can be booked through the captain.
Sleep amongst shoals of fish and other aquatic creatures in an underwater hotel room
If budget is not a consideration, you can spend the night in one of the most unique hotel rooms in the world. The Manta Resort on nearby Pemba Island is a luxury resort featuring a one-of-a-kind Swedish Engineered floating hotel room. The three-story private structure is anchored in a “Blue Hole”, a large marine cavern rich in biodiversity.
The top platform features a large bed ideal for tanning and stargazing while the middle level has both a lounge and bathroom.
It is the “underwater room” however that makes this Zanzibar hotel a true “bucket list” getaway. Guests spend the night encapsulated within a turquoise bubble 4 meters below the surface of the ocean. Windows on each side of the room provide 360-degree views of marine life gliding past.
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