Here Are The Major Highlights To See While in Stone Town
When we asked ourselves the question “Is Stone Town Zanzibar worth visiting?” we really weren’t sure it was something that we wanted to do. We had planned to have a leisurely beach vacation in Zanzibar in preparation for a rigorous ten day safari trip through Tanzania’s Serengeti region.
We had decided to spend 5 days at a resort on Dongwe Beach on Zanzibar’s eastern coastline. However, after giving it some serious thought, we figured that 5 days on the beach might prove to be a bit much so we decided to break it up with some day trips. One of those entailed a private guided tour of Stone Town, which we elected to do upon our arrival in Zanzibar.
So, is Stone Town Zanzibar worth visiting? Yes, we certainly think so and we will demonstrate why with a list of all the highlights of the city below.
Highlights of Stone Town Zanzibar
Stone Town Zanzibar History
In order to gain an appreciation for modern day Stone Town, it is important to understand a little bit of Stone Town and Zanzibar’s history.
First of all, Stone Town is the old part of Zanzibar City, which is the capital of the island of Zanzibar and sits about 32 kms (20 miles) off the east coast of Tanzania in Africa. Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous province of the Republic of Tanzania, with its own President, Cabinet, Legislature and Judicial System. The government of Zanzibar is responsible for local legislation and all non-Union matters.
Stone Town is actually an UNESCO World Heritage Site and is located close to the harbour. In fact, it used to be referred to as Downtown until the city figured out that every city has a downtown and for marketing reasons, and to reflect the use of stones in the historical buildings, it is now called Stone Town.
It was here that the Bantu speaking tribes from Africa first settled prior to the 10th century. Because of its location off the coast of central Africa, Zanzibar was a major stopping point for merchants from Persia and Arabia from the 10th century until the 15th century, establishing a significant Arab influence that continues to this day.
In the 15th century the Portuguese arrived and built a stone fort just off the harbour as a trading post. The Portuguese controlled the island until the 17th century when they were pushed out by the Omani.
The Omani ruled here during the 18th and 19th centuries during which they profited from the slave market, bringing in slaves from Eastern Africa and selling them in Stone Town to traders from Europe, India, Asia and the Middle East.
This practice continued until the middle of the 19th century when the British negotiated the abolition of slavery with the Oman Royal Family.
Take A Stone Town Walking Tour
One of the best ways to get introduced to any new city is by taking part in a guided walking tour. And this is especially true for Stone Town. A guided walking tour will reveal some of the key reasons that Stone Town Zanzibar is worth visiting.
Why? Well, Stone Town has a fascinating history and is culturally diverse. While it is predominantly Muslim, Stone Town also has elements of Hindu and Swahili culture. Taking a tour with a professional local guide will unveil that history and culture in ways that wouldn’t be possible (or at least much more difficult) if you were trying to do it on your own.
✅ Looking for a good walking tour option? Click here for the one that we took and it covered all the major sites. Be sure to ask for Aziza for your guide!
And while most locals understand and speak a little English, having a guide who can interpret Swahili and Arabic can make all the difference in the world when you are looking to buy something at the local market or souvenir shop.
Visit The Old Fort
One of the first places to visit in Stone Town Zanzibar is the Old Fort, just off the main harbour. This is the epicentre of Stone Town and its historical beginning. This is where the Portuguese first established their settlement when they arrived in the 15th century.
The Swahili name for the fort is Ngome Kongwe which literally translates to “Oldest Castle”.
You enter the fort through an opening in the rampart. The ruins of the original walls still exist, forming a rectangle with circular towers at two of the corners.
When the Arabs pushed out the Portuguese in the 18th century, they added to the fortification including increasing the height of the walls. The architectural differences between the two cultures are evident in the construction of the walls with the upper sections having a distinctive Arabian style.
Around the fort in some of the alcoves are local vendors displaying and selling crafts including paintings, carvings and other traditional craft.
Just outside the fort is the remnants of a theatre with stone benches and a small stage. The theatre is used for cultural events, concerts and other local events. When we were there, a group of young men were practicing martial arts on the the stage.
If you want a sense of the early roots of Zanzibar, then it is definitely worth visiting the Old Fort in Stone Town.
Stroll Through Forodhani Gardens
Forodhani Gardens is another place worth visiting in Stone Town, Zanzibar. This lush garden follows the shoreline at the harbour just across the road from the Old Fort. It consists of paved pathways lined with large urns containing tropical plants and bordering large swaths of green grasses and planted trees.
The Gardens were created in 1977 by the Sultan of Oman as a tribute to Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee. While she wasn’t able to attend, Princess Margaret came in her place and planted the first tree of the garden.
A special landing spot with a decorative arch was also created to receive the royal visitor at the base of the garden, but due to low tide, she wasn’t able to dock there. Instead, her boat docked further down the harbour. She was able to use the specially built “terminal” when she left Zanzibar.
Spend Some Time At Darajani Bazaar
One of the most interesting and authentic spots to visit in Stone Town is the vibrant and bustling Darajani Baazar. This local market is a beehive of activity that will stimulate all of your senses. From vibrant colours to poignant smells and a cacophony of sounds, you will get it all as you stroll through stalls of spices (especially cloves), fabrics, art, local foods, crafts and the raw meat and fish market.
Every morning there is a fish auction which draws a lot of attention. We missed the auction, but did walk through the fish stalls to get a glimpse of the day’s catch.
We carefully made our way around bins heaping with octopus and squid as well massive hunks of tuna being carved and sold to local residents. The sights and smells are pretty intense so you need to be prepared if you are squeamish. This is not like your supermarket fish counter at home!
If you want to see the fish as they are brought into the market and being weighed, step just outside the covered area of the market by the street. Here fish are piled on mats of palm leaves as they are lifted off pickup trucks and weighed on large standup scales.
Don’t be surprised to see locals walking down the street grasping their prized purchases of tuna and other fish by the tail to take home to prepare for dinner.
Imagine the Grandeur of the House of Wonders and Palace Museum
The House of Wonders and Palace Museum form a complex of several historic buildings that are a testament to Zanzibar’s Swahili, Oman, Portuguese and British heritage. And while they currently are in a state of disrepair and undergoing extensive renovation, their cultural and historic significance and listing by UNESCO makes them worth visiting while in Stone Town.
The House of Wonders, or Beit Al Ajeib, was built in 1883 by the Second Sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash bin Said. It actually sits on the site of the previous 17th Zanzibari palace built for Queen Fatuma.
It was called the House of Wonders because, when it was built, it was the most magnificent building in East Africa and the first to have electricity and an elevator. The elaborate architecture and interior décor add to the prestige of the House of Wonders. Marble floors, carved doors, open courtyards and mangrove ceilings convey the multicultural influence of the House of Wonders.
Adjacent to the House of Wonders is another Royal Palace which now serves as the Palace Museum. This building, also built by Banghash bin Said, is built in traditional Omani style with marble floors, silver decorations and coral stone walls.
Unfortunately, the palaces have suffered structural failure over the years due to environmental effects and lack of maintenance. In 2012 a portion of the House of Wonders collapsed weakening some of the supporting structures and the roof. In 2015 heavy rain caused the collapse of part of the roof of the House of Wonders.
Stabilization work on the structural components of the palaces was carried out in 2016 to preserve the buildings, but another devastating collapse of part of the House of Wonders walls occurred in December 2020, this time killing 2 people.
Intervention and funding by the World Monument Fund, the government and other NGO’s has occurred, but due to work delays caused by the Covid pandemic, the restoration is still underway.
When we visited, at least half of the palace complex is covered up and supported by scaffolding, but the parts that are visible give a glimpse into the architectural magnificence of the buildings. Once the restoration is complete, this will be a worthwhile spot to visit while in Stone Town.
Explore The Old Customs House
This Omani mansion was built in 1865 by its owner, Sd. Humoud, one of the richest men in Zanzibar and a member of a branch of the ruling family. It is located just down the road from the House of Wonders and Palace Museum.
The mansion is a 3 story square building that is very plain on the outside with the exception of an elaborate carved wooden door. The interior has a large, open courtyard at its centre and wide verandas on all levels. The verandas provided shade and also allowed women to carry out their daily activities in private without being seen from the outside.
While the original structure had no external balconies, the ones that are currently in place were added by the British during the colonial period. The mansion became the Customs House in 1928 and remained as such until 1979 when it was used as the income tax department until 1987.
This old mansion now houses the headquarters of the Stone Town Heritage Society, the Dhow Countries Music Academy and the Conservation Centre. The Old Customs House is open to the public and one of the culturally important structures to visit while you are in Stone Town.
Become Educated at the Anglican Church (and Slave Museum)
The Anglican Church in Stone Town is perhaps one of the most important historical and cultural reasons to visit Stone Town. This was one of the first Christian Churches in East Africa and coincided shortly after the abolition of slavery in Zanzibar.
The coral stone church is actually the Anglican Cathedral of Christ Church and was built from 1873 to 1879 on the site that served as the slave market for Zanzibar. In fact, the altar of Christ Church is said to be positioned on the exact spot that was used for the whipping post of the slave market.
In the courtyard outside the church is a monument to the memory of the victims of slavery who were incarcerated here – a rectangular pit with 5 human figures chained together at the neck.
A slavery museum is also located close by and you can actually enter the dungeon where there are still a few of the tiny dark, stone cells that held up to 50 slaves in each.
It is also worth visiting the nearby Slave Museum that contains photographs, artifacts and detailed historical information about the slave trade. There is also reference to Dr. David Livingstone and his writings and efforts to end the slave trade.
His work and stance against slavery are recognized in the church as the one of the crosses is made from the wood of the tree under which his heart is buried in Chitambo, Zambia.
Walk The Streets of Stone Town
Another major reason that Stone Town is worth visiting is the thriving street life and multicultural diversity that exists here. And this can best be experienced by wandering the labyrinth of narrow streets.
We were amazed at the variety of shops, food stands and local businesses that abound in the old town. The streets are narrow, and most of them not very long. You find yourself zigzagging from one alley to another, stepping on and off the very narrow raised sidewalks.
The streets are lined on both sides with tiny shops that offer locally made crafts – carved wood, hand made pottery, fabrics, spices and more. The vendors are either standing in the shops or, most often, sitting on low stools at the entrance. As you walk by they welcome you in to view their wares. Unlike many places that we have travelled, if you continue walking by vendors don’t harass or follow you.
Indulge In Some Street Food
You won’t go hungry walking the streets of Stone Town either. There are countless food vendors offering a variety of treats to curb your appetite. There are lots of fruit and vegetable stands where you can either buy the fresh products or indulge in freshly squeezed juices.
If you like cooked corn, then you won’t be disappointed. You will find plenty of places roasting whole corn cobs on tiny little barbecues. The smell of the cooking corn is quite enticing.
It is also important to point out that there are specific streets dedicated to particular cultures. You will find yourself walking from one street that focuses on local Zanzibar fare to another street where the shops are distinctly Indian, and the smell of curry fill the air. Then the next street will be Arabic with falafel, shawarma and kabobs. This multicultural facet of Stone Town is one of the most interesting aspects of being here.
Relax at Jaws Corner
And to emphasize the multicultural diversity of Stone Town, you just have to visit the very unique square that forms the intersection of several tiny streets and is locally referred to as Jaws Corner. There is an Arabic coffee shop with the same name that is the soul of the square and is the favourite meeting place for locals and tourists alike.
This unique square is a microcosm of the Swahili, Arabic and Indian communities that reside in Stone Town. According to our guide, Jaws Corner got its name because in the mid 1970’s people used to gather in the square to watch movies on a television that was hung in the corner between two of the buildings.
Jaws was one of the first (and most favourite) movies that was watched, so the square became known as Jaws Corner. Interestingly enough, there is still a television that hangs in the corner behind a locked wooden case. And apparently, people still watch movies here from time to time! It is easily found by the large wall mural with a shark on it.
If you don’t have time to grab a cup of Arabic coffee at Jaw’s Corner, then try and make it to Zanzibar Coffee House. This is a really great spot to get some very decent specialty coffee like latte, cappuccino or espresso.
Be Patient If Looking For Alcohol Purchases
If you are wondering if you can purchase alcohol while you are walking the streets of Stone Town, well, the answer is yes, but you may have some challenges. There are a only couple of places that sell alcohol, and keep in mind that this is a predominantly Muslim country so alcohol is not a priority.
We were looking to buy a couple of bottles of wine to take back to our resort and didn’t have much luck. There is really not a lot of choice in the Stone Town core, but our guide took us to one spot that was listed as open.
The door to the store was locked when we arrived but there were a group of 4 or 5 people standing outside who said the shop owner was just about to re-open. We waited for around ten minutes and during that time some of the men were shouting to the shop keeper to open the door. He shouted back that he was eating with his family and would open when he was done.
After several more minutes we gave up and left while the line outside the shop got progressively longer. So we never did get to see the inside of the elusive shop!
Admire the Decorative Doors
While walking in Stone Town you will likely notice the incredible carved wooden doors. Again, this is an interesting cross over of cultures since many are Omani style but carved by the Swahili.
The doors are typically square framed and have elaborate carvings of Arabic symbols including frankincense and date palms. But there is often also an Indian influence as well with images of rosettes and lotus flowers.
You will also see the doors have iron or brass studs which hold the wooden planks together. There are many of them in Stone Town and they are really beautiful. Be sure to take notice of the amazing craftsmanship.
Check Out The Freddie Mercury Museum
For those of you who are fans of Queen, you won’t want to miss out on visiting the birthplace of its founder and lead singer – Freddie Mercury!
Born Farrokh Bulsara in Stone Town in 1946, Freddie lived in the house where the museum is now located until he was 8 years old. At that time he moved to Panchgani, India to attend St. Peter’s School where he started writing songs and playing piano.
He returned to Zanzibar in 1962 at the age of 16, but moved with his family to the UK when Zanzibar attained independence in 1963.
While the museum is quite small, it holds a lot of memorabilia and depicts Freddie’s early life in Zanzibar and his road to stardom. Definitely a worthwhile place to visit while in Stone Town.
✦ Is It Safe To Walk Around Stone Town?
Yes, for the most part, you can safely walk around Stone Town. Keep in mind that the streets are narrow and can be quite crowded during the busy season so you will want be vigilant about pickpockets. At night, you should stick to well lit areas and avoid lesser travelled streets.
✦ How Long To Spend In Stone Town Zanzibar?
You can probably see most of the main parts of Stone Town in a day. We got to most of the places that we highlight in this blog on a half day walking tour, then came back and saw some of the other highlights in a couple of hours. If you want to spend some time at the museum and take in a meal or two, then you could comfortably see everything in a two day visit.
✦ What Is Stone Town Zanzibar Known For?
Stone Town is known for its strong cultural roots and diversity blending East African, Arabic, Indian, Portuguese and British history. It was a major centre for the spice, silk and slave trades during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
✦ What Is The Population of Stone Town?
The estimated population of Stone Town is 30,000, while the population of Zanzibar city is about 800,000.
✦ Stone Town Zanzibar Hotels
For a centrally located property in Stone Town be sure to consider the Swahili House for your accommodations. It is decorated in traditional Arabic and Indian styles. The rooms are spacious, clean and comfortable. With friendly staff and an awesome roof top bar, it has all the amenities one needs for a stay in the city.
The Final Word…Is Stone Town Zanzibar Worth Visiting?
So, after wondering whether or not we should visit Stone Town on our recent trip to Zanzibar, we decided to give it a try and can conclude that, yes, Stone Town is well worth visiting.
While Stone Town is the entry point into Zanzibar and also the meeting point for many of the excursions off the island such as Nakupenda and Prison Island, we feel the city itself really shouldn’t be overlooked.
We were pleasantly surprised by the rich multicultural heritage of Stone Town and the harmonious coexistence of Swahili, Arabic, and Indian cultures. We were also impressed with the historical significance and beauty of the architecture in the old town.
These are just a few of the reasons why Stone Town should be on your bucket list when you visit Zanzibar.