Known as the Spice Island, the beautiful island of Zanzibar on Africa’s east coast is bursting with culture and history, seemingly at odds with its idyllic geography of white-sand beaches with palms swaying lazily in the sea breeze. Together this makes Zanzibar a fabulous place to explore as well as a dream to relax and unwind.
Zanzibar is the semi-autonomous part of Tanzania in East Africa. It is composed of the Zanzibar Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, 25–50 kilometres (16–31 mi) off the coast of the mainland, and consists of many small islands and two large ones: Unguja (the main island, referred to informally as Zanzibar) and Pemba. The capital is Zanzibar City, located on the island of Unguja. Its historic centre is Stone Town, which is a World Heritage Site.
Portuguese invasion and control of the Swahili Coast in the late 16th century ended the golden age of the archipelago, although the Omani Arabs returned to power less than a century later. Today, many of the winding streets and high townhouses of old Stone Town remain unchanged and visitors can walk between the sultan’s palace, the House of Wonders, the Portuguese fort and gardens, the merchants’ houses, and the Turkish baths of the old city. Day-long spice tours to working plantations offer visitors the chance to observe the cultivation of cloves, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon, and other spices that have made the island famous.
Zanzibar’s coastline offers some of the best beaches in the world, but sand and surf vary depending on what side of the island you’re on. On the east coast, waves break over coral reefs and sand bars offshore, and low tide reveals small pools of starfish, small minnows, and anemones. Up north, ocean swimming is much less susceptible to the tides, and smooth beaches and white sand make for dazzling days in the sun.
The port city of Stone Town dominates the west coast, and although the beaches of Mangapwani, where slave caves are visible at low tide and nearby Bububu are less than half an hour’s drive away, a night or two spent on the east or north cost is well worth the extra hour it takes to drive there. That said, the Chole Island Marine Park just off Stone Town – and nearby Prison, Grave, and Snake Islands – make a refreshing day-trip and a good break from exploring the winding passageways of the old city.
On the south coast of Zanzibar lies the Menai Bay Conservation Area, a sea turtle protection area for the endangered species that come to breed on the island. Roads to the southeast coast take visitors through the Jozani Forest, home to Zanzibar’s rare Red Colobus monkeys and a number of other primate and small antelope species.
A short history of Zanzibar
The name Zanzibar derives from the Arabic word for black land or land of the black people, coined by the merchants who saw black people for the first time back in the days. The original inhabitants migrated from South Africa, arriving on Dhows pushed by strong wind going off course around the 5th century.
As Zanzibar became an important trading port, Persians, Indians, Arabs, and Chinese started arriving by the monsoon wind. Many eventually settled here. It was also how Zanzibar became a Muslim island, which meant that later missonary from Europe found it harder to convert them to Christians.
It became under the Sultanate of Oman after they appeal for help to Oman to fight off the Portugese who tried to occupy the island in the 17th century. In the 19th century, it became a British Protectorate until 1963 when it formed Tanzania with Tanganyika.
Zanzibar essential information
- For sim cards, Zantel has the best coverage on the island
- USD is widely accepted in hotels and tour companies, but it’s best to have Tanzania Shillings for shopping and restaurants
- You can exchange money in Stone Town, which has a better rate than the other places, although the airport isn’t bad
- Tap water is safe to use for brushing your teeth but only drink from bottled water
- As a former British Protectorate, it uses British plugs
- It is a Muslim prodominant island hence dress modestly if possible, though locals are used to tourists but definitely no swimsuit outside of the beach
- You will be bombarded by vendors and locals alike trying to sell you a tour or items, just be polite and walk away
- While it’s a safe place to visit, I would avoid visiting walking alone at night if you are a girl. Regardless of age and gender, it’s best to move fast and with purpose.