Approaching Zanzibar for the first time I almost cried. Right below me was an expansive coral reef with ocean water so clear I could practically see straight down from my window seat of the plane. I was in one of those tiny, probably decades old airplanes, with the insanely noisy propellers, which just happened to be right in my line of phone taking making every photo blurry. But that didn’t stop me from trying. Trying to hold my mouth from dropping open in awe, I sat there, coming to the realization that this tropical island was going to be my home for the following two months. I felt at home before the plane even touched land.
Once I landed I was shuttled off the airplane onto the tarmac – I got to walk down those royal steps like you see in old movies, I think I was way more excited for that than I should be, but whatever — judge me. The “airport” looks like a doctor’s waiting room where I picked up my suitcase and searched through the crowd of locals waiting for my friend Ulrica. Tip: Don’t let locals carry suitcase unless you want to give them some money, it only has to be like 500-1000 shillings (less than $1), but don’t fall for their friendliness if you want to hold onto your cash!
Just a little background on the breath-taking island that is Zanzibar. It is a small island off the coast of East Africa and it is an autonomous region of Tanzania. It’s a tropical island known for it’s spices, fruits, and beaches. Zanzibar is a mix between African and Arabic culture, making it a really unique destination. The population is split between Tanzanian nationals and people from Oman. Ninety-nine percent of the island’s population is Muslim so make sure your wardrobe is ready for that. May to August is the best time to travel, during their winter, which is fairly convenient for many tourists as that’s summer in many parts of the world and time for vacationing. November to Feburary is the hottest time of the year during the dry and summer season. The rest of the year is still hot, but it marks their wet season in which it rains for days at a time. Almost everyday of the year you can be guaranteed temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, because if it went any lower than that every local would be wearing a winter coat (which they still do even at 80).
Stone Town is the biggest and only city on the island making it the ideal location for any tourist. Many honeymooners head off to the remote beaches on the east coast where everything really looks like it could be on a screensaver, but I highly recommend Stone Town as the best spot especially for backpackers.
Alright now for the fun part —– What to do in Stone Town, Zanzibar:
Day One – Things start really early in Stone Town as it is an Islamic city so everyone is up at dawn for prayer, so finding things to do early in the morning is not hard. If you’re an early riser this is a good place for you. My favorite thing to do when I woke up early was go to the main square, Forodhani Gardens, and enjoy the view with an omelet and a masala tea. Forodhani Gardens overlooks the ocean offers a wide array of small food stalls and free wifi. These mini-restaurants are a step up from street food and usually open at around 8:00 a.m. I’d go there regularly for breakfast and for my breaks during my school day (as stated in previous blog posts I taught English in Stone Town). One of my favorite parts about being up and around that early was that I really got to know the locals as no other tourist was awake during that hour. The waiter and I got to know each other very well to the point where my omelet and tea were already there waiting for me at opening. I got to watch all the local Zanzibari women sweep the streets before all the tourists fill the streets.
After an hour or so of taking in the early morning sights and of course a full breakfast a trip to the beach is a must. Luckily it is only about a two-minute walk from the main square. The Stone Town beach is small in comparison to the rest of Zanzibar’s beaches, but is still equally gorgeous on my standards. I’m also a city-girl at heart so I like the idea that I can walk to civilization if needed. The beach is an advertising hotspot with every local in town wanting you to get on their boat. These boats are generally safe and reliable, taking hourly trips to and from the other nearby islands namely Prison Island (I’ll get to that later). For now, ignore all those tourist traps and set your eyes on the prize – swimming in the Indian Ocean.
A great spot to relax is at the Tembo Hotel, they have chairs free to use for the public except during tourist peak season, which is mostly just June and July (although Zanzibar’s tourism is way down so you could lucky). I used their chairs probably forty times over two months and only had to pay maybe ten times, probably less than that. Of course it is always polite to purchase something – they have a great selection of different drinks, but I do not recommend eating there. Their food is very overpriced and from my experience not very good. Stay there as long as you so please because odds are it will be beautiful all day long. Tip: I recommend lying on your bag (using it as a pillow) especially if you plan to take a nap because there are some sticky fingers of young locals around.
If you’re looking for more of an adventurous beach time there are some beautiful sights if you keep walking down the coast line mostly old stone walls that barricade the city from the ocean. There are no chairs going this route, but still a great place to spread your towel out and relax.
By this point you’ve probably spent about $5 on breakfast, $6 if you had to purchase something to use the chairs. Now it’s time to roam around. The streets of Stone Town are really something out of this world. They’re the perfect place to get lost because no matter where you end up eventually you’ll recognize something and be able to get yourself back. Right off of the beach and Forodhani Gardens is the main shopping area for tourists perfect for any souvenir shopping complete with the town’s only liquor store (this is important if you plan to drink, although I don’t really recommend it – the liquor store has extremely random hours so plan ahead). Truly exploring these streets can take hours and with some really beautiful handcrafted items except to throw down some cash if you want some of the classic tourist items. Still, compared to anything in the Western world, souvenirs are extremely cheap and if you know what to say they can be even cheaper with haggling.
Let’s say you spend about $10 on souvenirs, so now you’ve spent about $15. Shopping is tiring and in effect you may have worked up quite the appetite. There are so many delicious places to eat, and I recommend sitting down for lunch over a sit-down dinner. Check out Lukmaan’s for true Zanzibari cuisine.
On average you’ll spend about $8 on lunch, but let’s say you spend $10 so that brings your total cost for the day to $25. After lunch head back to the beach and this time take one of those friendly locals up on their offer to take you to Prison Island. A boat ride should only cost about 20,000 shillings (approximately $12) and they will wait for you at the island. Once on Prison Island head over the main visitor’s center to purchase tickets to see their world-famous turtles, they’re huge and worth the cost to see them. This “cost” is only about $2, but watch out because they do sometimes overcharge tourists. I had my resident permit with me so I got in everywhere dirt cheap, but even without that the tourist attractions are still extremely cheap. Prison Island is completely self-guided and has a presently un-operational hotel so the pool is up for grabs, as far as I could tell (no one told me not to…). Prison Island also features a gorgeous beach that overlooks Stone Town. I was on the island during peak tourist season and I think there were maybe four other people on the island. It’s very open and a delightful little island.
By now it should be about 4:00 p.m. as you’re coming back to the main island. To round up your touring activities for the day head over to the House of Wonders and the Old Fort for tours of both. House of Wonder’s has a small fee to enter, but the Old Fort is self-guided and free. If you want a real adventure to end your first day of tourist activities walk over to Mkunazini (a seven minute walk inland) – note: this is where I lived – and squeeze your way through the market place. How long can you stand in the fish market? I think I made it twenty seconds. Smells horrible, looks really cool! This a real local place making it an awesome attraction to check out. Be prepared for stares though, make sure you’re really covered up when going through areas like this. At this point you should have spent about $45.
If you get hungry stop for some street food – my favorite snack is what I call “mango fries” – essentially mangos shaped like fries. They’re probably like $0.50 so I’m not even going to count this in my total…
Head back over to Forodhani Gardens in time for the sun to set. All the local boys do quite a performance off the stonewall into the ocean – flips and backwards somersaults. On the other side of the park, while the sun is setting, all the food stall operators are getting ready for dinner leaving the park smelling delishly fishy. Get ready for dinner. Go all out with seafood anything; I’ve never had a problem eating any of the street-food here, but definitely be precautious. Everyone comes out to Forodhani for dinner in the square, especially during Ramadhan – it’s one big party. Street food will cost you about $3-5 depending on how much food you want. Now you’re at about $50 for the day.
To end your day do as the locals do and walk around a lot, just be cautious once it starts to get really dark particularly if you’re a single female. If you’re not tired by that point there’s a couple options. One – go to a hookah bar or two – go to a bar and smoke hookah. The nightlife in Stone Town is centered around hookah, or shisha in Arabic, as Muslims traditionally don’t drink alcohol. Because of Stone Town’s status as a popular tourist destination, there are still plenty of places to grab a drink, but I do not recommend ever being publicly sloshed. It’s technically a crime there. One of my favorite hookah bars and also one of the most expensive places in town is the Livingstone Bar. The hookah waiter, I call him, there is super friendly. You might spend $10 here, but if you share with other people you may only spend $2, so let’s say you share because us nomads tend to be fairly social.
You may ask where do I sleep? I stayed in an apartment for the summer, but I had plently of friends that stayed in guesthouses/hostels and said they were all clean and affordable. For backpackers you can get a decent room in a hostel with a private bathroom in some cases for $30, even cheaper for a shared bathroom (that’s usually $20). So let’s say you spring for your own bathroom. That brings your grand total for the day to $82. Not too shabby for a day jam packed full of stuff.
Day Two – You can’t go to a tropical island without snorkeling! Snorkeling in Africa is even cheaper than anywhere especially in Zanzibar, where they’re actively trying to boost their tourism. Safari Blue is the highest rated and most popular tour out there, and also the one I took myself. It was top notch I must say. Because it’s so highly rated, the price is jacked up to about $100 per person varying slightly based on the season. This price includes basically a full-day excursion snorkeling the coral reef, lunch, tropical fruit tasting, drinks (beer included), and relaxation. I’d say well worth it. The tours start at 9:30am so as far as breakfast goes I’d just snack on a granola bar and drink plenty of water because the tour will provide lots of food (trust me, you want to save room – some of the best seafood I’ve ever had!). The takeoff point is in a small town called Fumba and that taxi ride is also included in the cost (from Stone Town).
By the time you get back to Stone Town (the takeoff point is about 30 minutes away from downtown) it should be around 3:30p.m. so I’d recommend doing an excellent slave trade tour at Saint Monica’s, which includes a town of the adjoined Catholic church (one of the few Christian places of worship on the island) and a former slave market. Just a couple bucks for entry and you get your own tour guide! This should take about an hour or so.
Following the slave market tour, which is in Mkunazini, you should check out the surrounding area – Mkunazini as I stated earlier is home to the market. In addition to the market it holds all of Stone Town true local stores; they have a store for everything – clothes, hijabs, jewelry, tuxedos, watches, DVDs, etc. It’s a really cool site to see. Essentially Mkunazini is one big outdoor mall hidden amongst Stone Town’s narrow alleys.
After some shopping/people watching head to the Green Garden for dinner, which is just a few blocks away, also in Mkunazini. This is my all-time favorite place to eat in all of Stone Town. I went here so much that I started getting free stuff! The owners and the waiters are some of the friendliest people I have ever met. The whole restaurant is outside, but there are covered parts in case of rain. They also have free wifi and delicious freshly squeezed juices, which everyone needs to try once in their life. So amazing. My favorite thing to order here was any of their curries —- literally to die for. Also their tomato soup is spectacular if you’re looking for something on the cheaper side. I’d say an average meal here costs $8, but the juices can be a little pricy so maybe you’d pay $10. If you didn’t spend any money while shopping that brings the total to $113 for the day so far, and $195 for the weekend.
I’d suggest taking another walk around town after dinner and definitely treating yourself to some dessert for your last night in Stone Town. For dessert I recommend either Mercury’s for some ice cream that is not made with powdered milk (yeah… all the other stuff is gross, don’t buy the ice cream unless you like the taste of fake milk, which I gotta say I kind of got used to) or head over to “Mr. Nutella’s” pizza place in Forodhani. First off, the ice cream at Mercury’s is expensive because it’s really the only place in town with real ice cream, but they have some really cool tropical flavors – worth $3! Then “Mr. Nutella’s” pizza is basically a crepe stand where they’ll make the crepe with whatever you want on it. This is about $3 as well. Whichever you chose it’s going to be great. Or go for both — I won’t judge ;).
Lastly you have to pay for another night in the hostel so add $30. Your final total for two days and two nights in Zanzibar is $128! If I would add anything to this itinerary, especially if you’re into nightlife I would take a taxi to Kendwa Beach because this is where the tourist party is every weekend. It’s a fun time, but also fairly expensive – probably costing you $50 for the night if you didn’t go too hard with the drink purchasing, $70 if you did.
Above all have fun and do what sounds good for you. If you want to just soak up the sun all day long, for 48 hours straight – cool, live it up. I love Stone Town and I hope you do too!