Written by Chris & Susie McIntyre
Stone Town locals © Nick Fox, Shutterstock
One writer has compared the old Stone Town of Zanzibar to a tropical forest where tall houses stretch to the sky instead of trees, and the sun filters through a network of overhanging balconies instead of foliage. Its labyrinth of twisting streets and alleys is a stroller’s paradise, with new sights, sounds or smells to catch the imagination at every turn: massive carved doors, ancient walls, tiny tempting shops with colourful wares and bustling shoppers, old men hunched over a traditional game, kids with homemade toys, ghetto-blasters at full volume, little boys hawking cashews or postcards or fresh bread, the sound of the muezzin calling from the mosque and the scent of cloves or ginger or lemongrass – and everywhere the echoes of Zanzibar’s rich and fascinating history, the sultans, shipbuilders, explorers, slave markets, merchants and exotic spice trade.
The Old Fort © meunierd, Shutterstock
Begin your tour at the Old Fort overlooking the sea. This huge building, containing large open courtyards with high, dark walls topped by castellated battlements, was built between 1698 and 1701 by the Busaidi group of Omani Arabs, who had gained control of Zanzibar in 1698, following almost two centuries of Portuguese occupation. In 1994, the eastern courtyard was turned into an open-air theatre with amphitheatre seating which now hosts contemporary and traditional music, drama and dance performances as well as the Zanzibar International Film Festival every year. The site features a tourist information desk, with details on performances in the amphitheatre and other events around town, spice and craft shops, and a pleasant café. With so many attractions and facilities, it’s easy to spend an hour or so here.
House of Wonders (Beit Al Ajaib)
Next door you will find one of the best-known landmarks of Zanzibar Town. This grand building dominates the waterfront area and is one of the largest buildings on the island. After more than a century of use as a palace and government offices, it opened in 2002 as the Museum of History and Culture. Beyond the displays themselves, the building itself is fascinating, with the ground floor offering extraordinary views up through the central courtyard to the roof. You can also go out onto the upper balcony and walk right around the outside of the building from where there are spectacular views across Stone Town and the bay.
Continue along the coastal road to the Palace Museum, built in the late 1890s for members of the sultan’s family and originally called the Sultan’s Palace. Despite the dark and disheveled reception area, the exhibits themselves are relatively well organised and labelled. While the Sultana’s Sitting Room was closed on our last visit, don’t miss the room devoted to Princess Salme, the daughter of Sultan Said, who eloped to Hamburg with a German merchant in 1866.
Fruit stall in Stone Town market © Michael Sheridan, Shutterstock
If you’re feeling hungry head inland to the market by the Drajani bus station. The long market hall is surrounded by traders selling from stalls, or with their wares simply spread out on the ground. It’s a very vibrant place where everything, from fish and bread to sewing machines and secondhand car spares, is bought and sold. On occasional evenings, a public auction is held in the street behind the market where furniture, household goods, old bikes, and all sorts of junk are sold. It is very entertaining to watch, but make sure you don’t bid for anything by mistake: keep your hands still!
St Monica’s Hostel and the East African Slave Trade Exhibit
Slavery monument next to the Anglican Cathedral © Martchan, Shutterstock
Nearby, on the same complex as the Anglican Cathedral, stands St Monica’s Hostel, an impressive old stone building that encompasses the hostel and in its basement, an evocative reminder of the dehumanising horror of the slave trade. A stone staircase leads from the entrance hallway down to what is reputed to be a dungeon where slaves were kept before being taken to market. The exhibition, which takes about an hour to walk through, lays out the full economic and social history of East African slavery from its early origins to the post-slavery Empire years. Entering at a quiet time, with few other visitors and a good guide who can set the scene and recount the history while you are in the cells, is a chilling experience.
St Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral
Rooftop view over Stone Town and St Joseph’s Cathedral © Ehrman Photographic, Shutterstock
Continue your loop back towards the coast to find this large cathedral, with prominent twin spires, off Kenyatta Road in the Baghani part of town. Although its spires are a major landmark from a distance, the cathedral can be surprisingly hard to find in the narrow streets, and it’s best to follow the small sign off Gizenga Street. The cathedral was built between 1893 and 1897 by French missionaries and local converts, who had originally founded a mission here in 1860. The plans were drawn by the same French architect who designed the cathedral in Marseilles, France.
End your day back at the Old Fort with dinner from the night market at the Forodhani Gardens, located between the fort and the sea. For cheap eats and a wonderful taste of the local atmosphere, by far the best place to eat in the evening is at one of the many food stalls here.
The market remains a social gathering place for both locals and tourists, and as the sun sets the stallholders fire up their braziers and hurricane lamps, serving fish and meat kebabs (mishkaki), grilled squid and octopus, samosas, chapattis and ‘Zanzibar pizzas’ – akin to a filled savoury pancake. Other stalls sell sugar-cane juice, ice cream and cold drinks – look for the refreshing local pineapple drink named Zed.
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