This should be enough to get you started.. (and in no particular order)
#1 Stay in a restored Omani palace
Though there are budget hostels and modern resorts in Zanzibar, I would HIGHLY recommend staying in one of the many ‘palace hotels’ in Stone Town. I stayed in the Dhow Palace, which is one of the less expensive ones, between $80-120/night for a double room (with period accurate furniture, except the mattress!) depending on the season.
The three nights I spent here were a big splurge for me, typically a backpacker, but it was well worth it for the palace experience, proximity to the sites, and the swimming pool!
#2 Listen to Taarab music at the Dhow Countries Music Academy
Taarab, like the Swahili language itself, is a beautiful mix of Omani and indigenous Bantu styles. Haunting arabesque melodies are paired with vibrant African drums and soulful vocalization to create this unique genre.
There are biweekly shows at the Dhow Countries Music Academy, however many restaurants in town feature regular Taarab performances.
#3 Wander the streets
You would think it would be an obvious thing to do, but often times, we get so wrapped up in having a plan that we forget to simply lose ourselves in our surroundings. Stone Town is a perfect town to get lost in, with its picturesque alleyways and squares, historic mosques, churches, temples, tucked in seemingly-random corners, and palaces on every corner.
#4 Learn about Zanzibar’s rich history
At the Sultan’s Palace Museum and Tomb and the Slave Market Museum, you’ll be taken back hundreds of years to Zanzibar’s gold age of trade.. which unfortunately was centered around the sale of enslaved peoples from Africa’s interior.
The Sultan’s palace museum focuses on the Omani and English royal patrons of the island, while the slave market delves into the stories of enslaved Africans and the making of a truly Swahili nation.
#5 Pig out at the Forodhani Night Market
Stone Town has dozens of great restaurants, but for those on a budget, or those looking for a different experience, be sure to check out this waterfront smorgasbord. Every night 50+ vendors fill Forodhani park with Swahili, Arab, and Turkish cuisine, serving everything from ‘Zanzibar pizza’ to shawarma and falafel.
#6 Attend Sauti za Busara (THE best thing!)
Sauti za Busara, or ‘Voices of Light’ is a weeklong Pan-African music festival worth flying to Zanzibar specifically for! Unfortunately, I attended in 2021, and, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival was shortened to just two days, and featured local artists almost exclusively. Still, it was an incredible weekend of Jazz, Funk, Afrobeat, and Tanzanian styles like Taarab and Singeli.
Dine in Royal Zanzibari style
Atop many of the palace hotels are elaborate Swahili restaurants, with comfortable floor seating, fine brassware and multicultural cuisine. Emerson on Hurumzi’s Tea House restaurant boasts the best view of Stone Town.
The portions are substantial, and the prices are oddly about the same as what you’d pay at any Stone Town restaurant WITHOUT a view. This place was so good I went back a second time, with a group of friends!
Shop at the Darajani market
Anything you need to buy, they’re selling it at the Darajani market. There are stalls selling sweets, fresh dates, kufia (African Islamic caps), clothes, shoes, accessories, sim cards, etc. for sale, as well as an entire farmer’s market. Most of it is housed in these beautiful, historic marketplace buildings.
The market spills over across the main road to ‘the other side’ where few tourists dare to venture. If you’re looking for local prices on clothing, definitely cross the street, otherwise, Darajani should have everything you need.
Visit the Old Fort
The Old Fort is the center of life in Stone Town, where art markets and festivals like Sauti za Busara take place throughout the air.
Though it’s small and lacks a museum or much information, the fort is a great example of Omani architecture. Be sure to check out the atelier upstairs, one of the (surprisingly) least expensive places to buy art in the city.
After slaves, spices were the most important thing to be exported from Zanzibar. The islands (specifically Pemba) are the global leaders in the clove industry, but also dabble in nutmeg, cardamom, turmeric, cinnamon, chili, several varieties of pepper, and vanilla. Hence why the islands of Zanzibar are known as ‘the Spice Islands’.
I was surprised how little I knew about spices I eat almost everyday– they look very different as plants, before they’re all ground up! Peeling cinnamon bark off of a tree and eating it was an experience I’ll never forget.
BONUS #11: Take a Cooking Class! The food was so delicious it deserved its own post.
There are a multitude of day trips from Stone Town, and there are also LOTS of companies willing to sell them to you! Don’t go with the first operator who finds you, always be sure to haggle, and bring a few friends to get the prices down!
‘Prison Island’ Tortoises
Nearby Changuu island is famous for its giant tortoises, gifts from the Seychelles in 1919. One of the four originals is still alive!
It’s called prison island because, well, there used to be a prison on the island. Creative! In my opinion, they should call it Turtle Island. You can enter the tortoise park and feed them for $2, while boat trips to the island range from $10-20.
Chumbe Island Crabs
The coconut crab is the largest terrestrial crab in the world, only found on Chumbe and Pemba Island. They climb trees, eat birds, and can bend a license plate with their mighty claws.
In addition to seeing the crabs around dusk, you’ll spend the day snorkeling, doing nature walks, climbing the lighthouse, and enjoying a private beach at this eco-resort. Only 20 people can visit per day, so book your spot in advance.
It’ll cost you a pretty penny though; when I went in January 2021 it was $100 for a day trip, and another $100 to see the crabs and stay the night– per person!
There are many islands that offer snorkeling, however I opted instead to scuba dive off the coast of Nungwi. The snorkeling in Chumbe is also supposedly the best, since it’s inside a marine park, so I don’t feel like I missed out. I saw three black-tipped reef sharks that day, which the guide said were rare! Depending on what island and what’s included, snorkeling trips range from $30 to $100.
An hour or so drive from Stone Town takes you to this quiet reserve, where endemic monkeys, civets, and bushbabies can be seen. Both the day and night tours are interesting in their own right, so I did both.
The night tour is definitely a more thrilling and unique experience, tiptoeing around in the dark with a flashlight, looking for the reflections of beady little eyes in the jungle.
The best way to get there is to take a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) or dala dala (minibus) to Jozani, and then just pay the $7 entry fee, which comes with a guide. Tours I believe were about $25 or $30.
Sadly, I had a dolphin tour booked but it rained for days on the Southern coast so I couldn’t go. Normally however, dolphin pod sightings are common. Let me know if you see any! Depending on what’s included, tours range from $40-100.
There’s a lot to explore on this small island, I hope this gives you an idea of what you’re getting into. Remember, Stone Town is just the entry point of Zanzibar, there’s so much more to explore!