There is only one town of any size on Zanzibar, and that’s Stone Town (also called Zanzibar town).
The Arabs made it their capital, the Africans settled around it, and the whole world traded there – most infamously for slaves in the Grand Market which flourished in the 19th century. It was the seat of the Sultan – who moved here from Oman – and came to dominate other Arab city-states such as Mombasa, Lamu and Kilwa. The British took it over in 1890, dredged the harbour; electricity and telephone arrived, and eventually an international airport. In 1963 it became the capital of the newly-independent socialist state of Zanzibar, attracting east German and Chinese support, and Freddie Mercury's parents (he was born here).
Today, protected by UNESCO, it is a bustling town of lively colours and faded grandeur. Elegant Arab state buildings and traders' houses, weathered by years of sea-breeze, are now used as courts, schools and government offices. Its narrow alleys are lined with stalls selling shells and handicrafts, kids playing football with a coconut, irritating papaasi offering you a guided tour, schoolboys playing draughts with bottletops on a cardboard box, veiled women in colourful kikoys, dapper men on scooters carrying a broken computer screen under one arm. Local ‘spice tour’ offices jostle with internet cafés for the prime spots, while down the backstreets you stumble upon primary schools, mosques, Hindu temples and timber workshops. Wherever you go, ornate balconies and studded wooden doors – the idea brought from India, where they kept elephants at bay – catch the eye.
Finally, no trip to Zanzibar is complete without a spice tour through the orchards and gardens inland, where all manner of tropical fruit abound. Touristy though it may be, it is a real eye-opener.