Stone Town is a fascinating destination, especially if you prefer cities that are a little less polished and metropolitan. Things here may not be shiny and new, but you’ll quickly become enchanted by the slower pace and friendly people.
Stone Town is actually the old part of Zanzibar City, while Ng’ambo is the “new city”. Stone Town’s earliest incarnation was that of a fishing village called Shangani in the 11th Century. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to set foot on the island in the early 16th century. They ruled over Zanzibar for nearly two centuries.
The Sultanate of Oman took over the island late in the 17th Century, after the Zanzibaris and Pembans forced the Portuguese out. Arab slave and spice traders made their fortunes here in the 19th Century, until the British government outlawed the slave trade throughout the Indian Ocean. Approximately 600,000 slaves were sold through Zanzibar between 1830-1863, at which time the British and the Omani Sultans signed a treaty in 1863 to abolish slavery.
In 1861, as a consequence of a war of succession within the Omani royal family, Zanzibar and Oman were separated. Zanzibar became an independent sultanate under Sultan Majid bin Said; meanwhile, Stone Town continued to flourish as a hub for imports and exports. In 1890, Zanzibar became a British protectorate, but not everyone was happy about it. In 1896, the Zanzibari Omanis rebelled against the British rule. The Royal Navy bombarded Stone Town for a whole 45 minutes before the Sultan surrendered, leading to the shortest war in history.
Even after Tanganyika and Zanzibar joined to form the United Republic of Tanzania in 1964, Zanzibar maintained semi-autonomous status.
Stone Town gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2000, for its architectural integrity, symbolic role in the abolishment of slavery, and cultural fusion. Despite the UNESCO designation, you’ll find that Stone Town is littered with crumbling buildings, due to the fragility of the coral stone that gave the town its name.
What to See and Do
Freddy Mercury-linked Sites
For starters, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Yes, Freddy Mercury was born in Stone Town. A few buildings lay claim to being the house he grew up in, but it’s more likely that his family lived in more than one house in Stone Town during his early childhood years. The one dubbed the Mercury House on Kenyatta Road isn’t open to the public, but has some information panels outside.
There’s also a Mercury restaurant and bar, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The food and drinks are mediocre and overpriced, and Freddy Mercury had absolutely no connection to the place.
The Old Fort
The Old Fort overlooks the sea front and is the oldest building in Stone Town. The Omani Arabs built it as a fortification around 1699. It’s free to visit, mostly because there’s really nothing to see. It’s in rather poor shape, actually.
Once you get inside the walls it’s just an open green space with a few vendors along the perimeter.
The building does have a newer amphitheater for live shows and musical performances. The fort is also home to the Zanzibar International Film Festival.
I feel like they’re missing a great opportunity to put more emphasis on its history, even with additional interpretive signs or an audio guide.
Christ Church Anglican Cathedral and Monument to the Slaves
Christ Church Anglican Cathedral dates back to the late 1800s. The church occupies land where Zanzibar’s biggest slave market once stood. In fact, it commemorates the end of slavery in Zanzibar. While there’s some debate as to whether the small, claustrophobic cell-like rooms in the basement once housed slaves before going to market, this is still a very important site to visit. The church also boasts a cross made from the wood of the tree David Livingstone’s heart is buried under in Chitambo.
Outside of the church is a sobering monument to the slaves who suffered so many atrocities here and around the world.
To read more about our visit to the Cathedral, click here: The Dark History of Stone Town’s Anglican Christ Church Cathedral
David Livingstone’s House
Dr. David Livingstone was a 19th Century Scottish physician, missionary, and explorer. He lived in Stone Town briefly, from January to March 1866, while preparing for his last expedition to identify the source of the Nile. The house is now the headquarters of Zanzibar National Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Agricultures (ZNCCIA).
Indian Ocean Sunsets and Boat Rides
Stone Town, of course enjoys a remarkable view of the Indian Ocean.
You can take a dolphin tour, go snorkeling, or sail on a traditional dhow; a one-or two-masted Arab sailing vessel. Plus, the sunsets here are just gorgeous:
Find a restaurant along the ocean with a nice view where you can pass some time watching the boats sail back and forth, admire the sun as it sets, and laugh at the antics of the children diving and splashing around in the ocean.
That’s Forodhani Gardens in the background – which brings me to the next attraction:
Forodhani Gardens is a small but pretty park located along the sea walk. It had an expensive uplift in 2009, and of course it’s famous for its evening food market, which I’ll go into more detail about later.
One thing I wasn’t expecting to see were these little jerks – thousands of them – hanging from the trees overhead and clinging to their webs on shrubs along the sidewalks.
A few local boys tried to convince me that they were poisonous. Are they? I don’t know, but I prefer to just avoid finding out either way.
If you grab a table on the second floor of a nearby restaurant, you’ll get some interesting views from a different vantage point. Like people’s laundry strewn about the grass, waiting to dry in the hot African air:
Zanzibar Doors and Architecture
Take a walk around and admire the famous doors of Zanzibar. What’s so special about them, you ask? Aside from their historical significance, they offer a unique architectural element to the houses and buildings in Stone Town. Wealthy traders would hire skilled carvers from India to design their doors, typically from teak.
There are three standard door styles to look out for:
Indian Doors: These doors usually have foldable shutters and an arched frame. In India, brass knobs added to the shutters prevented elephants from destroying the doors. Since there are no elephants in Zanzibar, the addition of brass knobs was purely for decoration.
Arab Doors: These doors are usually rectangular and intricately carved. Arabic inscriptions may decorate the doors as well.
Swahili Doors: These doorways are also rectangular, but much more modest in their design. They’ll still have some carvings, but not nearly as elaborate as the other two styles.
There are less than 800 of these traditional doors around Stone Town today. One of the oldest doors of this kind is at the entrance of the Old Fort.
As for other architectural elements, you’ll notice shutters, wooden balconies, verandas, and crumbling facades.
Streets in Stone Town are narrow and winding, so it’s easy to get a bit turned around. But it’s also not a very large town, so you won’t feel lost for long.
I wish I could say that the buildings are all whitewashed and gleaming, but sadly, most look more like this. While the coral stone, sand and lime mortar used in construction might be the best option for such a hot and humid climate, the exteriors weather quickly and get stained and patchy.
As you walk around and explore Stone Town, you may even come across some buildings undergoing maintenance and renovations. Um. I’m not sure if this scaffolding is up to code though!
This is actually pretty common here. Mangrove poles are used as scaffolding. It makes me nervous just looking at it though!
House of Wonders and Palace Museum
The House of Wonders is the tallest and largest building in Stone Town, and is just next door to the Old Fort. The palace dates to 1883, and was home to the second Sultan of Zanzibar. It got its nickname “The House of Wonders” because it was the first building in Zanzibar to get electricity, and the first in East Africa to have an elevator. It was a museum for quite some time, but unfortunately is in quite a state of disrepair. In 2012, a corner of the building collapsed, threatening the structural integrity of the entire building. Heavy rainfall in 2015 caused part of the roof to collapse. As of 2018, it was closed for renovations, but you should still be able to see the exterior.
Food and Drink
Zanzibar is great if you’re a foodie. Fresh seafood, a multitude of spices, and an eclectic mix of African, Indian, Arab, Chinese, and Portuguese influences creates food-fusions like you’ve never seen before.
We noshed on rice dishes, curries, chapati, and thick-cut french fries, just to list a few of the options. One thing is for sure, you won’t go hungry here:
One of my favourite treats was the banana milkshakes. Perfect on a hot day:
One of our favourite places to eat was the Emerson Spice Hotel. Mark and I stumbled upon it quite by accident, but it was one of the most memorable meals we had.
We started with some fresh juices – bungo, hibiscus, and passionfruit.
We also had the Zanzibari spiced coffee, which was incredible. But my favourite thing on their menu? The beignets with cardamom syrup. Ahhh-mazing.
In the evening, we took in some traditional Taraab music over dinner. Taraab was introduced by Egyptian Arabs in the 19th Century. Originally it was sung in Arabic, but by the 1920s, performers started singing in Swahili.
A little bit of Indian fusion with chapati:
If you’re craving something less exotic, you can just grab pizza at an outdoor cafe, as we did on our second day. The sliced carrots on it were unexpected though!
Another experience you can’t miss is walking through Forodhani Gardens food market at night. It’s a bit pricey and touristy, so don’t feel pressured to buy anything if it doesn’t appeal. But it’s worth walking through just to feel the hum of activity and see all the food vendors hawking their wares.
Personally I didn’t want to take a chance on street food meat, but I did end up ordering some fresh young coconut juice from one vendor. Yes, it was expensive and not really worth it, but I felt like I’d be missing out if I didn’t at least get something.
But, if you do want to grab a bite, you have your pick of meats on sticks, not to mention octopus, crab and other seafood.
Something else to note: Stone Town gets very dark at night. Street lights aren’t really a thing, and between the lack of good lighting and the winding, narrow streets, it can feel a bit…uncomfortable? We never felt unsafe, mind you, but the lack of light is definitely something we needed to get used to once the sun went down.
While Forodhani Gardens has a few street lights, they didn’t seem very bright, while side streets had no light at all. So having a keychain light or using the flashlight app on your phone might come in handy!
If you have the time, look into booking a cooking class to learn how to make some traditional Zanzibari dishes.
Stone Town is a great place to shop for handmade crafts, clothing, artwork, jewelry, and, of course, spices.
Art in Tanzania and Zanzibar is typically brightly coloured, often depicting wildlife and nature. One very distinctive painting style is called Tingatinga. Tanzanian painter Edward Said Tingatinga developed the technique using bicycle paint. The paintings are often busy, and almost amateurish and cartoony in their delivery, but also lighthearted and fun.
Darajani Market is the main market in Stone Town. It’s on Darajani Road, close to the Christ Church Cathedral. The markets’ main focus is food, including spices, fruits and vegetables, and fish. While the spice vendors’ wares will tickle your nostrils with fragrant delights, the fish market section is a sharp contrast – it can assault your senses and wrinkle your nose. Do you know what fish smells like after it’s been sitting under a sweltering Zanzibari sun for a few hours? Still, this is a busy, exciting place to poke around.
Most market vendors and shop owners expect you to haggle. Personally, this isn’t my strong suit, and I prefer shops with set prices. While I “haggled” to the best of my ability for three pairs of brightly-coloured harem pants in one shop, I still felt that I didn’t get the best deal I could have if I’d pretended to be less interested in them. But if you enjoy the challenge of bargaining, you’ll love the shops in Stone Town. We did, however get tired of all the vendors and shop keepers beckoning us to check out their wares.
Personally, my favourite store was Memories of Zanzibar. This two-storey shop has set prices, and the prices, I thought, were fair. They sell everything from clothes, spices, and teas, to jewelry, books and cd’s.
Tanzania is famous for tanzanite, a beautiful cornflower-blue gemstone found only in Tanzania. I really wanted a tanzanite ring, but found that the jewelry in many shops was more expensive than I was willing to pay. But the jewelry in Memories of Zanzibar wasn’t overly expensive, and I ended up finding a ring I loved for a decent price. It also came with a certificate of authenticity, if that counts for anything.
Day Trips from Stone Town
If you have some time to spare, there are a few side trips I would highly recommend:
A Spice Tour
Zanzibar isn’t nicknamed Spice Island for nothing. It’s famous for its cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, peppercorns, vanilla, and more. You’ll also get to sample young, fresh coconut, passionfruit, and mangoes. Plus, you can purchase some local spices to take home! You can read about the spice tour we took here: Taking a Spice Tour in Zanzibar
Also called Prison Island, it’s just a short boat ride from Stone Town. The island boasts a lush and relaxing sanctuary for Aldabra tortoises. You can read about our experience here: The Tortoises of Prison Island
Flights from Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar es Salaam to Stone Town take approximately 20 minutes.
Ferries between Dar es Salaam and Stone Town are easy and reliable. If you have the time, I would recommend taking the ferry over the plane just for the experience, as it’s a really nice journey.
Azam Marine offers 4-5 daily runs from Dar es Salaam. The journey takes around 2 to 3 hours and departs daily from Dar es Salaam beginning as early as 7am. You can buy tickets online, but if you wait to purchase your ticket in Dar es Salaam (or Zanzibar), make sure you do so at least a day in advance (particularly in peak season). Never purchase tickets from street sellers.
Other ferry companies include Sea Star (tel. 024/223-4768) and Sea Express (tel. 024/223-3002).
On a side note, when my husband and I took the ferry to Stone Town, the televisions were playing back-to-back episodes of Just for Laughs: Gags, a French-Canadian hidden camera show. The program features playing practical jokes on unsuspecting people. It has no dialogue save for a laugh track, making it universally watchable and understandable. As Canadians ourselves, it was interesting to see everyone watching the show and laughing along. The gentleman Mark sat beside told him that such behaviour would never be acceptable in Tanzania, they were much more conservative than Canadians. But they enjoyed the show nonetheless.
Make sure to have your passport on hand. Although Zanzibar is part of Tanzania, it is semi-autonomous. Therefore they have their own immigration and entry procedures.