Stone Town & around
To explore the town, your best bet is to catch a guided city
tour run by one of the many local operators – ask your
hotel for recommendations. Your second option is to get the
excellent map by Giovanni Tombazi, available at the airport and
many shops locally, plus a guide book or print-out of these pages,
and do it yourself.
A word of advice: don’t visit Stone Town try on your first day – you’ll be tired, hot and disorientated. Its subtle, run-down charms work much better at the end of your trip. Our favourite places to stay in and around the town can be found on the Places To Stay tab.
back to topSights
The centre of attention is the waterfront by the Forodhani gardens and jetty. Overlooked by the House of Wonders and the Arab fort, it’s the gathering point for tourists and seasoned travellers, for bracelet-selling touts and costumed Maasai warriors. To the north is the commercial and passenger port, with wooden jahazis (cargo dhows), tiny shuttle-boats and modern container ships all anchored alongside each other.
House of Wonders
Three tiers of colonnaded facades give this former Sultan’s Palace, now immortalised as the first building to receive electricity on Zanzibar, a grand, colonial appearance. Inside its magnificently studded doors is a new museum; outside sit 3 Portuguese cannons. Also called Beit el Ajaib.
People’s Palace and Museum
50 years older than its neighbour, to which it was once joined by high-level walkways, this whitewashed palace was built for Sultan Said in the 1830’s, and partly destroyed in the 1890’s. It now houses memorabilia from the Said dynasty, including a room dedicated to Salome, the princess who eloped to Germany with her trader husband.
Old Arab Fort
Built around 1700 on the site of a Portuguese chapel, and over the years serving as a prison, a railway depot and a tennis club, it now houses a café, an open-air theatre and several craft shops.
It’s worth paying your tuppence to see the two low cellars where hundreds of slaves were crammed, awaiting sale or transportation.
back to topShopping
On Creek Road / Darajani Street: stocks everything from old sewing machines to fruit you won’t recognise (unless you’ve been on a spice tour). If you buy any food, wash or cook it thoroughly!
Kenyatta St: one of the former homes of Freddie Mercury (singer from Queen), it stocks the best range of postcards, books, calendars, films and other souvenirs; not surprising, as it’s run by the family of acclaimed photographer Javed Jafferji.
Zanzibar Curio Shop
A fantastic antique and curio shop run by the Akbarali family with hidden treasures upstairs and in a warehouse nearby, telephone 022302077.
The rooftop restaurant of 236 Hurumzi, is the classic place for dinner, though it’s not cheap. Next door, on the ground floor, is the less well-known Kidude. For details on both, see our hotel review.
Mtoni Marine Centre
Offers the best seafood in town, except that it’s not in town, but a 5-km drive to the north in the grounds of the Sultan's summer palace. There's a choice of 3 venues, including a sushi bar and a sports cafe as well as the original candlelit seafront restaurant. In 2006 GQ magazine voted this one of the 25 sexiest spots in the world for dinner on the beach. Tel 024 2250117; 07844 19905
At the seaward end of Kenyatta St, offers a much better selection of Thai and African dishes than its name suggests. We enjoyed delicious seafood soups, fish brochettes / curries, and fruit fritters; but missed out on live music night (Thursday) which is supposed to be a hit. Tel 0747 416736.
On the Forodhani jetty, and sister to the synonymous restaurant in Cape Town, has an unbeatable location and an adequate selection of seafood, pizzas and grills. Tel 0741 328509.
Pagoda Chinese Restaurant
Makes a refreshing break from Swahili seafood and curries, if you’re staying a long time. Tel 024 2234688 / 0747 411168.
Facing southwest from Shangani point, is the favoured venue for a sunset cocktail, and its formerly mediocre reputation for food has improved with the arrival of a new chef. Tel 0255 774 432340
Comes highly recommended by several readers. Tel 0255 777 411868
back to topSpice Tours
The tour usually starts with a quick look around Maharubi
Palace just to the north of Stone Town. Of the many ruined
ex-Sultan’s palaces, this is probably the most atmospheric,
with lily-covered water tanks, hammams galore, and accommodation
for about 100 of Sultan Bargash’s concubines – though a
fire in 1899 accounted for most of the latter.
Next to the palace is a dhow harbour, where you can still see these traditional wooden boats being hand-made, using good old fashioned tools, patience and a lot of skill.
You will then enter one of several spice farms, some of which are government-run and demand a small entrance fee.
First off, you’ll see how they climb palm trees here: by tying a coconut-rope between their feet and hopping straight up the trunk, their arms embracing it as they go. Some of the more athletic young men perform remarkable feats of strength, while others sing an improvised solo, usually based on ‘Jambo bwana’ and featuring the words ‘Hakuna matata’ at frequent intervals. Back on terra firma, you’ll be offered the sweet-salty juice of a coconut, and while you drink it the leaves will be torn and woven into all manner of embarrassing gifts for you: tie, hat, sunglasses, bracelet... A tip is expected, and deserved.
Next, your guide will show you around the plantations of pepper, cardamom, nutmeg, clove and cinnamon, to name but a few. To discover what goes into those small jars on your kitchen shelf and how it is harvested is absolutely fascinating. A taste of pineapple and jackfruit – the largest tree-growing fruit, similar in taste to lychee – keeps you going to the next farm.
A light lunch is included in most tours. At the end of the tour you can buy spices in all shapes and sizes, including a variety set packaged up in a coconut.
Do check what is and isn’t included in the price before setting out; and make sure you can understand your guide’s fluent, but sometimes garbled, English (not always obvious for non-native English speakers).
back to topIslands near Stone Town
There are several small islands visible from the waterfront of
Stone Town, not much more than wooded humps with, at low tide, a
necklace of yellow sand around them. The easternmost (on the right
as you look out to sea) is Chapwani, a private
island with pleasant bungalow accommodation for those who prefer
some peace and privacy after the hassle and noise of Stone
The two to its left (west) are Bat island, named after the fruit bats which sleep in its trees by day; and Prison island, which – you guessed it - used to be a prison. You can take a day-trip on a dhow to one or both of these, or even wade across there from Chapwani at very low tide.
Further left are three sandbanks, Pange, Murogo and Nyange, which are also accessible by dhow from Stone Town.
But the most interesting island of all is Chumbe, reached by private boat from Mbweni. This rocky isle dominated by a tall lighthouse has been designated a coral park, and boasts a wonderful array and density of tropical fish and crustaceans for the snorkeller. It is only open to guests of the eco-resort, or to day-trippers by arrangement.