One of the most imposing buildings in Stone Town, and the oldest, is the Old Fort, also sometimes known as the Arab Fort. It was built around 1700 on the site of a Portuguese chapel (the remains of which can still be seen inside the walls) by a family of Omani Arabs who had gained control of Zanzibar in 1698 after 200 years of Portuguese occupation. It was used by them to repel the Portuguese and their allies, the Mazruis, who occupied Mombasa. Later, in the 19th century, the fort was used as a prison and a place of execution, and at the beginning of the 20th century as a depot for the Bububu Railway Line. The fort has circular towers at the corners, linked with defensive walls. Its main entrance has a beautifully carved Arab door which was added in 1949, replacing the original fortified entrance gate.
Today the old fort is a cultural centre, with classes in drumming, henna painting etc, and with drama and music performances in the open air theatre. There are several shops and also a small café, with outdoor seating under an old neem tree and baobob. We came here a couple of times – once just for cold drinks after attending a hot and sticky Mass at St Joseph’s Cathedral, and once for lunch. The latter was a simple affair of flat-bread sandwiches washed down with soft drinks, but ample for our needs, and the setting was lovely.
One of the most striking of Stone Town’s historic buildings is the so-called House of Wonders, or Beit el Ajaib in Arabic. It got its name because it was the first building in Zanzibar to have electric lighting and a lift, and perhaps also because it was so very tall and filled with beautiful objects.
It was built in 1883 as a ceremonial palace, on the site of a former building used by Queen Fatuma of the Al Alawi rulers. The door from this former palace is the oldest in Zanzibar, dating from 1694, and is now in the Peace Memorial Museum.
In 1896 the building was slightly damaged during the so-called "Shortest War in History" (the British Bombardment of Zanzibar). After the turn of the century the British used the building for their local offices until the revolution of 1964. In 1977 the CCM (the Chapa Cha Mapinduzi, Swahili for “Party of the Revolution”) used the House of Wonders as their headquarters, but when they left the building fell into disrepair. When we were there in 1999 it was looking pretty run down but its splendours still shone through, especially the elegant tower and fine decorative work on the balconies.
The building has been restored and since 2005 has housed a Museum of History and Culture. Exhibits include: dhow culture of the Indian Ocean, the struggle for independence, Swahili civilization, and displays on the history of the Swahili Coast. There is also apparently a great view to be had from the top floor, so it seems the museum would be well worth a visit even if the exhibits themselves don’t interest you.
At the heart of Zanzibar’s main town (called, somewhat confusingly, Zanzibar Town) is Stone Town – a rabbit warren of winding streets and crumbling buildings, where locals gather to pass the time of day and tourists flock to absorb the atmosphere, take in the sights and shop in the many crafts bazaars.
Stone Town takes its name from the many coral stone buildings that were built there largely during the 19th century, and it is these old buildings that give the town its character but also pose its greatest challenge. The coral is a soft stone and many structures are suffering badly from the ravages of time. While this creates a quaint appearance for visitors, it makes for poor living conditions for the locals (more than 16,000 people live here) and also means that the very thing that attracts people to the town is under threat. However, there is hope for Stone Town. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2000 and the Stone Town Heritage Authority was established. This body is now working towards restoring the ancient town before these buildings are lost for ever.
Much of local life is lived out on these streets, which are too narrow for cars. Locals sit in doorways or pause on street corners to gossip, goods are sold from small stands, children play underfoot. Tourists are accepted and even encouraged, and we certainly experienced no problems when asking to take photos of local people. On one occasion a group of men sitting on a step with a newspaper called us over; they had heard our English voices and wanted to show us the English football results in their paper, knowing from experience that we would be glad of this piece of news from home.
The architecture of the buildings here is traditional Arabic in style, with thick and fairly plain walls surrounding a central courtyard. Usually the only ornamentation is on the thick wooden doors (see my separate Local Customs tip). Scattered between the houses are mosques (51 in total), six Hindu temples and two Christian Cathedrals (Roman Catholic and Anglican). There are schools, bazaars (many now focusing on the sale of crafts to tourists) and workshops. A wander through the streets of Stone Town is definitely a “must see” activity, and life there will keep you engrossed for hours, as well as providing many great photo opportunities.
We took a trip by dhow to visit two of the islands that lie off the coast of Zanzibar near Stone Town – Prison Island and Bawe Island. The first of these, also known as Chumbe Island, is famous for the giant tortoises that live there, some of whom are well over 100 years old. They were originally brought to the island from the Seychelles as part of a conservation effort to extend the range of these giant reptiles. We visited the tortoises in their enclosure in the grounds of the old prison, and enjoyed feeding them. We also spent some time on the lovely white sand beach, strolling by the sea and taking photos.
Prison Island was formerly used by Arab slave merchants as a place of detention for slaves. It was bought by General Mathews and the jail built in 1893 as a central prison for Zanzibar, though never used as such, but instead became a quarantine island. The jail has apparently been recently fully restored but was still in ramshackle ruins when we visited and closed to the public.
From Prison Island we set sail again, and after a short stop for some snorkelling (not especially good as visibility was poor in the clouded water) we landed again, this time on tiny Bawe Island. It seems from my research that this island is now home to an exclusive resort, but we saw no signs of this and it may not have been built at the time of our visit ten years ago. Instead we had the pretty white beach almost to ourselves. For some reason we were the only people on the tour that day, which was also as it happens my birthday, and we had a wonderful lunch of fresh barbecued fish and squid, prepared for us by the dhow’s crew and followed by refreshing papaya. We swam in the sea after lunch but were deterred by the sight of quite a few sea urchins, so as we didn’t have any swim sandals we retreated up the beach where we sat enjoying the view and the antics of the local crab population. Our dhow then returned us to Stone Town by late afternoon.
On our journey from Zanzibar Town to our beach resort on the south east of the island we stopped for a while to explore the Jozani Forest. This forest once stretched over a large area of the centre of Zanzibar. It is now seriously reduced in size but what remains has been declared a natural park and is now under protection. The park is home to a species of Red Colobus monkey and a highlight of our visit was watching these energetic creatures leaping through the trees above our heads. Their speed makes them almost impossible to capture on camera, but our persistence paid off and we got a few half-decent shots, as you can see.
This species of Red Colobus monkey is endemic (unique to Zanzibar) and highly endangered, with only about 1,500 thought to be in existence. They are rather pretty monkeys, with attractive red, black and white colouring and distinctive tufts of white fur above their eyes.
The forest is also said to be home to a few of the rare Zanzibar leopards, but these are so rare in fact that very few people claim to have seen one, and the last sighting was several years ago.
The reserve is completely managed by the local people who operate tree nurseries and act as rangers and guides. From the visitors' centre on the main road to the south, there’s a 45-minute nature trail which we followed, accompanied by a knowledgeable guide who not only told us all about the monkeys but also pointed out various interesting trees and shrubs and introduced us to the smallest species of frog – no bigger than my little fingernail!
Stone Town is the main attraction of Zanzibar. Its hypnotic atmosphere, dilapidated and crumbling buildings and strong Islamic traditions lure tourists from around the world for a truly unique experience.
You will find yourself aimlessly wandering through the narrow alleyways, on cobblestoned streets imagining yourself in another era ... the experience is indescribable!
The fusion of cultures on this little island is very evident, with all types of Indo-Afro-Arab architectures and a strong presence of colonial Portugese buildings. The dark stain of slavery history is also an attraction, with museums, places and monuments to visit.
A visit to Stone Town is a unique and mandatory if you are visiting Tanzania. Still, a word of caution. Stone Town is a bit overhyped - it may take a few moments to get used to - everything is dilapidated and like on the mainland, there are hustlers everywhere. But give it a couple of hours, and this mysterious place will get a hold on you and charm you - take my word for it!
This the postcard beach flanking the humble Jambiani village. The colours of the sea are amazing, and the beach itself with its white fine sand and multitude of palm trees is truly idyllic.
The only downside is that, as like with all of the East coast, the sea is highly tidal and is impossible to swim in at times (unless you try and wade for a kilometer!). If it is the middle of the day and the tide is out - acuna matata! Just try and get a fisherman to take you for a swim near the coral reefs offshore! It is a wonderful experience - both sailing in the little traditional fishing dhows as well as the sea itself - great snorkelling!
Along the beach you will also find plenty of young ladies offering you to paint hennas - try this out, for a couple of dollars you can get an authentic swahili henna tattoo.
Ten years on, we still regard this tour as one of the best ever value for money holiday experiences! We paid just $10 for a full and fascinating day out, with lunch and snacks also included (see my “Restaurant” tip).
Setting off straight after breakfast in one of the local “dala-dala” trucks traditionally used as public transport on the island, our group of about ten soon found ourselves joined by what we thought were the guide’s pals hitching a lift but who turned out to be additional guides whose main role seemed to be to spot things we might like to eat! So we stopped several times before even reaching the plantations for them to buy cassava chips and other local delicacies.
The tour included short walks in several spice plantations, where our guide Mohammed introduced us to a wide range of fruits and spices grown on the island. Touching, smelling and tasting were all encouraged! Among those we saw and/or sampled were:
~ cassava (hence the purchase of chips, so we could taste them in another form)
~ jack fruit
~ custard apple
~ ylang ylang
~ lemon grass
We were accompanied on our walks by several young boys who expertly wove palm leaves into hats and baskets (the latter intended to carry the several samples we were acquiring along the route) and sold these to tourists for a few pennies. At one point we stopped at a roadside stall to drink coffee and eat doughnuts and pineapple, and another stop was made to see the (apparently) famous twisted palm tree (see photo 5).
After a delicious though simple lunch of vegetable curry in a village house we continued to Mangapwani Beach where we spent the rest of the afternoon – see my next tip for more ...
On the afternoon of our Spice Tour our guide Mohammed brought us to one of Zanzibar’s best-known beaches, Mangapwani, by way of the nearby so-called “Slave Cave”. This is in fact no naturally-carved cave but a cube-shaped cell cut out of the soft coral rock. It was used as a place in which to store slaves, who would be brought here by boat from the mainland and kept in the cave while awaiting sale in the markets of Zanzibar Town. Even after the slave trade was officially abolished on the island in 1873 it is thought that the practice continued illicitly, and this cave would have been an important factor in allowing the traders to hide their slaves from official eyes.
From here we walked between the trees to a small secluded beach – not the main Mangapwani Beach (which is now the site of one of the luxurious Serena Hotels) but a smaller one separated from it by an outcrop of coral rocks. Here we could swim in the sea (having been warned in advance to bring or wear swim-wear) and relax on the sands.
The Best Beaches on Zanzibar Island are on the East Coast. If you want to see the beaches, yet stay in a real village, then a visit to Jambiani is a must. Jambiani was named after the curved Omani dagger when locals found one of these ancient relics washed up on the beach. The village has a long ‘road’ that follows the beach and locals always shout a warm Jambo! (Hello!) to you. There are plenty of economical, but beautiful hotels on the beach and yet you feel like part of local life when you walk along the road. The main money earner is seaweed and you can watch the harvesting and drying done by villagers everyday. This is then dried out producing a rainbow of bright colours. Fish are caught by boats and men in the water with nets to provide meals. Children scurry between school and the beach where they chase white ghost crabs. It really is worth a visit to see authentic village life.
Please visit my Jambiani Page for more photos:
When the tide retreats, leaving behind hues of turqoise, brown and silver, out come the Zanzibari women in their colourful khangas. They wade for hours on end harvesting seaweed to be sold to oriental tradesman for just a few cents. This is a daily happening on the East coast, and a trademark of life in Zanzibari coastal communities.
Different areas specialise in different goods, the meat market was full of animal heads and cattle horns as well as the normal slabs of meat as we know it. One stand had a jumble of shoes, I defy anyone to find two shoes that matched! The fish market was like fish markets all over the world, very smelly! The fruit market was full of wonderfully colourful fruits, looking almost too good to eat.
I love visiting markets everywhere I go, and this one was no exception. Markets are so full of life, so vibrant and colourful, and such a good place to see how daily life evolves in a place, what sort of goods are available and what kind of food people eat.
There are quite a few ruins sites in Zanzibar, and it is a good idea to visit at least one site to get a taste of this island's history.
One of the most accessible of these sites is the Maruhubi Palace ruins; about 4km away from Stone Town. It was once Sultan Said Bargash's palace and was built between 1880-1882. It used to house his many wives - each had her own bedroom, bathroom and toilet. In 1889 though, it was destroyed by a great fire and has been in ruins ever since. This palace used to have 2 storeys but the topmost one has collapsed due to the fire.
This is a pleasant an peaceful site, and the ruins look wonderful amongst the multitude of palms and the sea in front of it.
During the Omani rule of Zanzibar in the late 1600s, the slave trade flourished. The rules of Islam forbade the enslavement of Muslims, so Africans were imported to Oman in large numbers, many through Zanzibar. About 3000 slaves a year were traded in Zanzibar by the 1770s, by the mid 19th century, that number had increased to 20,000.
Slaves came from the interior of Africa, often tribal enemies being captured and sold, and were cruelly marched to the coast. Tied together by long chains, shackles on the ankles and heavy yokes on their shoulders, many slaves would die on the journey. Those too weak to continue were either killed or abandoned.
The boat journey from the coast to Zanzibar was harsh and pitiless, with slaves either placed below deck on “shelves” of no more than a couple of feet in height or on open boats exposed to the elements. Without the height to sit or the space to lie down, the journey must have been crippling. It’s hard to imagine what the slaves would have gone through. There can be no dignity left with such conditions, with no sanitation, disease was rife and the situation must have been unbearable – especially for those on the bottom “shelf” – everybody else’s waste from above running through the floors……..
Those who didn’t die on the journey or weren’t thrown overboard because they had contracted a disease or were too weak to fetch a good price, would reach Zanzibar unable to straighten their legs for several days as a result of the cramped conditions. After being cleaned up, the slaves would be paraded through the streets whilst being checked out by potential buyers. Slaves would either be bought to work on plantations in Zanzibar or continue to Oman or elsewhere.
On 5th April 1897 Sultan Hamoud signed a treaty to abolish the legal status of slavery in Zanzibar.
The Palace Museum is also known as Beit el-Sahel. This palace served as the Sultan's residence until 1964 when the Al-Busaid Dynasty was overthrown. It is now a museum devoted to the era of the Zanzibar sultanate. The interior is suitably grand and many (but not all) of the last Sultan’s possessions are on display. Some of the displays are possessions of Princess Sayyida Salme. She created quite a stir when she eloped with a German businessman, Wilhelm Ruete. They settled in Hamburg Germany and had 3 children. She did return to Zanzibar twice and wrote her memoirs later in life.
The building has exhibits on 3 levels and the top floor contains the living quarters of the last Sultan, Khalifa bin Haroub (1911-60), and his two wives.
Outside in the grounds is the Makusurani graveyard, where some of the Sultans are buried.
Tuesdays - Thursdays 9.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m.
Sundays & some Public Holidays: 9.00 a.m. to 3.00 p.m.
Mondays & most Public Holidays: CLOSED