Here Is Our List of Great Reasons for Visiting Zanzibar
If you relish the idea of a tropical beach vacation with miles of endless white sand, warm inviting ocean waters, relatively affordable accommodation and food, a diverse culture and great weather, then the answer to “Is Zanzibar worth visiting” is overwhelmingly YES!
What Is So Special About Zanzibar?
Well, to answer that question, you need to know a little bit about Zanzibar’s geography and history.
Zanzibar is an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, made up of several islands about 20 miles (32 km) off the East African coast of Tanzania. There are 2 large islands, Unguja (the main island) and Pemba. Unguja is the island that is informally known as Zanzibar and is the one that is most often visited.
We visited Unguja and so this blog focuses on the history, culture and must-see things (in our opinion) on the main island and on a couple of smaller ones.
Highlights of Zanzibar
1. Learn Its Fascinating History
Zanzibar was originally settled by the Bantu tribes of East Africa who were the primary inhabitants until around the 10th century when traders from Oman and Yemen began using the island as a base for trading with the Swahili tribes along the coast.
Then during the early 15th century as European exploration became prominent, the Portuguese arrived and built the first fort and church in present-day Stone Town.
The Portuguese were replaced by the Omani, who ruled here in the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, Zanzibar was a significant asset of the Oman Empire during this period. Zanzibar became the centre of the African slave trade under the Omani. Slaves were transported here from Africa and sold to slave traders from Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and India.
Zanzibar was so important to Oman that the 19th-century sultan of Oman, Siad bin Sultan, made it his permanent residence in 1837. He had magnificent palaces and gardens established all around Stone Town and introduced the spice trade with cloves, sugar, and nutmeg to improve the economy.
When he died in 1857, one of his sons, Thuwaini, inherited the kingdoms of Oman and Muscat while another son, Majid, with the help of the British, inherited Zanzibar and other regions along the East African coast.
When Majid died in 1870, he was succeeded by a third brother, Barghash. It was also at this time that the British appointed a consul to Zanzibar whose primary role was to end slavery on the island. A treaty was signed between Barghash and Britain in 1873 and the notorious slave trade officially came to an end.
In 1890, Zanzibar became a British Protectorate with the consent of Sultan Barghash. The Arab sultans in Zanzibar continued to have major cultural influence, though much less political influence on the island until 1960 when a new constitution was introduced.
The island gained independence from Britain in 1963, but a revolution in 1964 saw the African majority overthrow the ruling Arab elite. A new republic was formed by the presidents of Zanzibar and Tanganyika in April 1964 resulting in the Republic of Tanzania with Zanzibar gaining semi-autonomous status.
So, with that historical background, you can understand why there are so many different cultural influences on this small island. Now let’s look at the top amazing things to see and do in Zanzibar.
2. Immerse Yourself In Zanzibar’s Cultural Richness
With such a storied past with diverse ethnic roots, it is no wonder that Zanzibar is a model of multicultural harmony.
✅ For a great way to incorporate the culture, customs and touring, be sure to check out this tour that takes you to the markets, and a spice plantation and teaches you how to cook some of the local dishes. Best of everything in this option!
Because of its prime location along the spice and silk route, Zanzibar attracted traders from Europe, the Middle East, India, and the Far East.
Throughout Zanzibar, you will find yourself surrounded by Swahili, Portuguese, Arabic, Indian and Asian cultures. From impressive palaces and gardens to sumptuous foods, to traditional carvings and fabrics as well as aromatic spices, you will be fascinated by the variety of cultural influences that the islands have to offer.
And one of the best spots to take in all that culture is Stone Town.
3. Take A Walk Around Stone Town
Stone Town is the historical downtown area of Zanzibar City, the official capital of Zanzibar. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and definitely a place worth visiting while you are in Zanzibar.
It is here that the Portuguese built the first church and fort which the Arabs later added to. It is also here where the Sultans of Oman built their Royal Palaces and mansions. And you will find influences from India in the carved wooden doors and elaborate balconies that hang from the original buildings scattered along the main roads.
Walk around the old downtown and experience the excitement and bustle of the markets, the gardens, and the food stalls. Stroll along the harbour and enjoy the green Forodhani Gardens that were established in 1977 to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee.
Check out our blog dedicated to Stone Town to get an in-depth look at this vibrant and colourful neighbourhood in Zanzibar.
4. Linger On One Of Zanzibar’s Fabulous Beaches
One of the many reasons that visitors come to Zanzibar is to enjoy its fabulous white sandy beaches. And that is exactly why we came here!
We stayed on the East Coast of Zanzibar on Dongwe Beach which is on the lower third of the main island just at the base of the Peninsula. This beach has soft white sand and extends for several kilometres along the coast.
At low tide, the water is gone except for some small pools, and the beach is several hundred meters in depth. At high tide, the water is deep enough to swim in without worrying about rocks or coral since the sand completely covers everything. These photos below were taken from the same point at low and high tide.
We were here at the end of October and found the water to be super warm – in fact, it was the warmest ocean waters that we have ever experienced.
There are several other well-known beaches along the East and North Coasts of Zanzibar, so you should have no problem finding one that suits your particular needs.
5. Enjoy The Magical Atmosphere At The Rock Restaurant
If you are looking for a different kind of eating experience, why not try the Rock Restaurant? This unique venue is situated on a large rock about 50 meters from the shoreline at Pingwe Beach. This happened to be about an 8-minute ride from our hotel on Dongwe Beach.
Depending on the tide, you either walk to the restaurant along a sand bar, or you are taken on a wooden Dhow. We experienced both options since we booked our dinner reservation as the tide was coming in. When we arrived at the restaurant, we took off our shoes and walked along the sand bar.
By the time we finished dinner and had a relaxing drink on the patio, the tide was high enough that we had to take the boat back to shore.
If you get a chance to visit this fabulous venue, you won’t regret it.
6. Explore The Majesty of Jozani Forest
The Jozani Forest, or Jozani-Chwaka Bay National Park and Biosphere Reserve as it is officially known is a lush forest that encompasses just over 21,000 hectares in the southern part of Zanzibar.
It is most famous for its population of indigenous Red Columbus monkeys which are only found in Zanzibar. The forest is also home to Blue Sykes monkeys, although they can be found in other parts of East Africa, including mainland Tanzania.
The forest is also famous for its biodiversity which is why it was named a UNESCO Biosphere in 2016. Aside from its many animal species and a plethora of birds, Jozani also has a sizable Mahogany forest, Mangrove forest, swamp marsh and salt marsh.
For a more detailed description of this vast park, visit our Jozani Forest Blog.
✅ Check out this amazing area with a local tour that will provide you with a guide and transportation.
7. Visit A Spice Plantation
Ok, so you already know that one of the contributing factors to Zanzibar’s early economic success was its location on the Spice Route. Zanzibar still has several Spice Plantations where you can spend some time and learn about the uses and benefits of the many spices and other plants that are grown here.
We ended up taking a tour of Maganga Spice Farm, in the spice region of Zanzibar, 13 km north of Stone Town. The plantation was 32 hectares in size with most of it being allocated to fruit trees. 3 hectares, however, are reserved exclusively for some of Zanzibar’s signature spices.
We happened to arrive at the farm in the early afternoon, so our tour started with a lunch of hot and cold dishes of local foods prepared by the plantation owner which we ate in a grass-covered, open-sided hut.
To add to the authenticity of the experience, we were joined by several cats and a few chickens who waited (rather impatiently) to be fed from scraps from our lunch.
After our meal, we were led on an interesting and informative tour through the spice fields where we discovered Zanzibar’s most popular spices including cloves (the king of spices), cinnamon (the queen of spices), nutmeg, mace, cardamom. With each new spice, we were educated on their use and medicinal benefits.
Following the walk through the plantation, we had an opportunity to purchase packaged spices and other products that are made right on the farm.
The leader at the plantation was a very sweet man and as we walked he made us incredible crowns and accessories from the palms, plants, and flowers on the plantation. He presented them to us at the end of the walk which was a lovely gift.
Visiting one of the many plantations on the island is a great way to learn more about Zanzibar’s agricultural history and economy, as well as to help support the local farmers.
✅ The best way to experience a Spice Plantation is through a guided tour. Here is a highly-rated tour that provides an excellent experience and transportation.
8. Indulge In Zanzibar’s Endless Fresh Seafood
If you are a seafood lover, then Zanzibar is going to be your gastronomic paradise. Starting with the fish market in Stone Town to the local markets along all the coastal roads, you will find an endless supply of amazing varieties of fresh fish and seafood.
Most of the restaurants feature local fish dishes on their menus. You will even find places that include fish options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
We went to several restaurants during our stay in Zanzibar and all had fresh seafood options as their main specialties. And if you happen to be on the East Coast of the island, try the Blue Jetty Restaurant on Dongwe Beach.
Apart from a romantic setting at the end of the pier, the restaurant boasts 2 terrific, fixed menus – the Emotional and the Ultimate. We couldn’t make up our minds, so Kim chose the Emotional and Denis chose the Ultimate; then we shared!
The great thing that sets Zanzibar apart from other island getaways when it comes to seafood is the multicultural influence and how the food is prepared. Influences from East Africa, India, Portugal, Britain, and Asia all have added to the Zanzibar seafood culinary experience.
9. Shop At The Local Markets
Markets are a way of life in Africa, and this seems especially true in Zanzibar. You can’t help but notice the countless markets on both sides of the road as you drive from Stone Town to anywhere else on the island. Each village and town that we passed through was a vast expanse of market stalls filled with every kind of product you can imagine.
Apart from the local produce of bananas, coconuts, corn, mangos, passion fruit and papaya that are piled neatly in their bins, you can also buy local fabrics, clothes, wooden carvings, beaded jewelry, and pottery.
But the markets aren’t just about food and souvenirs. Virtually everything that we would normally shop for at a department or box store is available for sale at the local markets. You will see bicycles, car parts, firewood, and lumber.
And it is not unusual to see a half dozen or so full-size beds, stretched along the side of the road, on full display for prospective buyers.
If you enjoy shopping, then buying at the local markets is a great way to get to interact with people in the community, get good value for what you pay for as well as providing much needed income for the local residents.
10. Take A Side Trip To One Of The Smaller Islands – Prison Island
Aside from the 2 big islands, the Zanzibar Archipelago is made up of more than 50 smaller islands and islets, many of them offering a unique opportunity for a day trip.
A great location located only a 30-minute boat ride from Stone Town is Prison Island.
Prison Island was originally built to house slaves however no prisoners ever stayed here. But it seems that the name has been used to encourage tourists to visit. It was used as a quarantine centre to ensure yellow fever didn’t reach the mainland.
The main attraction now is the tortoise sanctuary that grew over the years from an original gift of 4 tortoises from the Seychelles. The location has many tortoises that roam the grounds and give you the ability to be up close to these gentle giants.
We were surprised to find out that people used to be able to touch and feed the tortoises in the past, but thankfully that practice has been stopped.
It is a fascinating place to walk around, and we would recommend a visit to help support the care of these incredible, endangered animals. Check out our full blog post on visiting Prison Island.
11. Take A Romantic Trip to Nakupenda Island
If you are looking for the quintessential beach island, then Nakupenda Island is well worth a visit. Nakupenda (Swahili for “I Love You”) is a tiny sand bar about a 30-minute boat ride from Stone Town. This island is the perfect retreat for a day at the beach, with its endless sand and turquoise beach that surrounds the entire island.
It is the ideal spot for swimming, snorkeling, and sunbathing, but be careful – there is no shade on the island so wear plenty of sunscreen.
For the perfect way to enjoy this sandy retreat, take a look at our blog on Nakupenda Island.
Since both of these islands are relatively small in size, you can easily visit more than one in a day. We combined a relaxing morning trip to Nakupenda where we also had lunch with our excursion to Prison Island and that worked out to be the perfect day trip.
✅ The only way to reach Nakupenda and Prison Island is with a local tour. This is a great option for accomplishing both in the same day like we did.
Is Zanzibar Safe?
Yes, Zanzibar is safe. Tanzania as a whole is one of the safest countries in Africa and that seems to flow over to Zanzibar. There is no major crime, but you need to exercise common sense and caution. If you are staying at a beach resort or hotel, keep your valuables locked in the safe. If you are out at night, don’t walk around alone and avoid dark alleys and streets.
Is Zanzibar Good For Tourists?
Yes, Zanzibar is very good for tourists. Compared to other island getaways that we have been to, we found Zanzibar to offer great value for your money. There is a lot of cultural diversity in Zanzibar which means a wide variety of really good food.
Can I Drink Alcohol In Zanzibar?
Zanzibar is primarily a Muslim country so there isn’t much of an emphasis on alcohol consumption. We found it was not a problem to order alcohol while eating at a restaurant or staying at a hotel or resort. But it is not readily available for purchase in local stores. It takes a bit of searching and patience to buy it independently.
Can I Wear Shorts In Zanzibar?
Keep in mind that the population of Zanzibar is mostly Muslim so you should dress modestly when visiting public places. We did wear shorts and found it not to be a problem. But it wouldn’t be respectful or appropriate to wear short shorts or tops with midriffs or shoulders showing.
Is There Malaria in Zanzibar?
As with the majority of the country of Tanzania, Zanzibar is also listed as being a high-risk area for malaria. It is recommended that you check with your travel clinic to receive current information and advice on anti-malaria pills for this destination.
Do You Need A Visa For Zanzibar?
The country of Tanzania does require an entry Visa for many countries. The list of what nationals don’t require a Visa is quite interesting and seems to include locations from around the world so be sure to check for your country at the following link. Visas can be purchased online in advance to avoid wait time at the airport.
How Many Days Should You Spend In Zanzibar?
Well, that really depends on why you are in Zanzibar in the first place. Many people coming to Tanzania for the wonderful safari expeditions, use Zanzibar as a place to finish their trip in order to relax. In that case, 3 to 5 days might be the ideal amount of time
If you are coming to Zanzibar for an island vacation then 5 to 7 days should give you enough time to explore the island and still spend some lazy, relaxing days at the beach. We spent 5 days at a boutique hotel on Dongwe Beach and found that was the ideal amount of time to unwind and still get to the sites that we cover in this blog.
What Is The Best Time To Visit Zanzibar?
The best time to visit is pretty much any time outside the long rainy season (March to May) and the short rainy season (November and December). We were there at the end of October when the short rains were just starting, so we got a mix of sun and rain, but overall found the weather to be quite pleasant.
Best Places To Stay In Zanzibar
Depending on if you are looking for a beach adventure or a city stay, there are a variety of options available in Zanzibar.
✦ We chose to stay on the east coast of the island to enjoy the beaches. For a quiet and laid-back stay, you could look at the Albatross Oceanview Resort. This is a small property located right on Dongwe Beach. The rooms are clean, the pool area is very nice, and the staff are super nice.
✦ We also visited the Dongwe Club Hotel property, and it looks like an excellent option. It is a much larger resort but also has many more onsite services including room service, a fitness centre, recreational games such as table tennis, kids club and a gift shop. There are two restaurants onsite and a bar at the pool. The grounds are absolutely beautiful!
✦ For a city stay you can plan a stay at the Swahili House. This property is located right in the centre of the city and is known for providing an excellent experience. The rooms are clean and spacious, the staff very accommodating and the rooftop bar receives rave reviews.
There are also many resorts in both the north and south parts of the island. It depends on your budget and individual needs for your holiday.
The Final Word…Is Zanzibar Worth Visiting?
With its colourful and rich history, its’ great beaches and its warm, temperate climate, Zanzibar has a lot to offer and after we spent 5 relaxing days there, we can confidently say that, Yes, Zanzibar is worth visiting.
Zanzibar has a lot to offer, especially when you consider that once you are there, it tends to be less expensive than other island destinations like the Maldives, Seychelles, and French Polynesia.
We think this is a great spot to go to after an East African safari trip, as it will allow you to relax and relish the fond memories you will have from the very busy game drives. Even if you aren’t doing a safari expedition, you can still spend a few days and just chill on the vast white sandy beaches while taking the occasional dip in the warm turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. Either way, Zanzibar is a place to put on your bucket list.