A stroll through Stone Town and it’s labyrinth of alleyways will ignite the senses. From the enveloping aromas of coffee and spices roasting over hot coals to the vibrant colours and textures of buildings, artwork and kikoi that line the cobbled walkways. This ancient trading hub of East Africa is located within Zanzibar City and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Both rich in culture and steeped in history. While Stone Town certainly has its fair share of opulence on offer, we have proven that this destination can be equally enjoyed by budget conscious travellers on a travel sabbatical
#1. Eat Local!
At nighttime, the Forodhani Gardens of Stone Town are transformed into a food market. Local chefs shout out to passing travellers and lure patrons with the delicious aromas of seafood and spices cooking over open coals. This is a unique Stone Town experience that you need to partake in at least once. However, the market and waterfront restaurants are geared towards tourists and are exceedingly overpriced. A less expensive alternative can be found on New Mkunazini road a few blocks back from the waterfront. Here you will find vendors and small restaurants offering local food for a fraction of the cost. From kebabs, traditionally prepared vegetable dishes and ugali to chipatis and samosas. The only obstacle that your rumbling tummy will encounter is deciding what to have for dinner. A local soup dish called “Zanzibar mix” is definitely worth a try. We also recommend overindulging on spicy burgers and “Zanizibar Pizza”, finished off with a cup of sugar cane, lime and ginger juice. Bon Appetite!
#2. Spice Things Up at the Darajani Market
Also known as the Spice Market in Stone Town, this location is the meeting point for a mixed gathering of travellers looking for souvenirs to take home as well as locals going about there daily business. If you’re staying in self-catering accommodation, the market has everything on offer from fresh vegetables and fruit to a meat and fish market. Most importantly and in keeping with the history of the “Spice Island”, this is where you will find an abundance of spices that will inspire hours of culinary experimentation back in the kitchen.
#3. Get Your Coffee Fix
If locally produced coffee is what you are after, head for the Zanzibar Coffee House. Located near to the Emerson Spice Hotel, you can navigate your way there by following the aromas of roasting coffee beans. The Coffee House offers travellers a delightful escape from the busy alleyways of Stone Town while enjoying a delicious cup of Joe. A traveller insider tip – be sure to order the ice cream and chocolate coffee sauce!
If you are keen for a more local experience in Stone Town, make your way to “Jaws Corner”. You’ll find it at the junction of the main alleyways, Baghani Street and Soko Muhogo Street. The big painting of jaws the shark will confirm your arrival. Here old men gather together in order to have time-out from their wives and discuss important matters such as politics and football whilst sipping Arabica coffee. If you are willing to brave coffee that will knock your socks off you are welcome to join in.
#4. Booze on a Budget
The Africa House located on Shangani Street appears to be the favoured drinking hole for travellers visiting Stone Town. The establishment is worth a visit, even if just to admire the exquisite interior design and old photographs lining the walls of the hotel. However, as the evening draws on tourists begin to arrive for sundowners. The balcony becomes packed and the prices listed on the bar menu will have even the most hardened drinkers exercising a fair level of restraint. If you are travelling on a budget you’ll be glad to know that there are numerous bars and restaurants located along the waterfront in the desirable Shangani District. Most of them offer half priced local beers and cocktails during happy hour commencing at five o’clock
in the evening. Here you can happily work your way through reasonably priced Tusker, Serengheti, Kilimanjaro and Safari beers. Sit back and enjoy views of the ocean, watch locals practice capoeira on the beach and admire dhows passing by against the backdrop of an African sunset.
#5. Shop ’til You Drop
Those of us on a travel budget may only be able to admire the exquisite tanzanite jewelry displayed on Kenyatta road. Fortunately however, there are other means of retail therapy available in Stone Town for the budget conscious traveller. The Old City is home to an abundance of shop owners selling souvenirs to passing tourists. You’ll find bright kikoi and shawls, handcrafted woodworks, silver jewelry and of course the obligatory fridge magnet. View the initial prices as an invitation for you to practice your negotiation skills and haggle you way down to a more favorable agreement.
#6. Appreciate the Artwork
Whether you find yourself standing in a high-end gallery or a local shop, Tanzanian artwork can be found everywhere in Stone Town. Pieces are generally bright, bold and demanding of your attention. While common inspiration for artists are the Masai tribal people, another style to look out for is known as “Tingatinga”. These fun and quirky artworks illustrate colourful caricatures of wildlife and one is sure to find its way into your suitcase.
The Hurumzi Henna Art Gallery is home to beautiful creations where artists have transferred their work onto canvas, preserving their heritage and culture by keeping this technique of artistry alive.
Another gallery worth visiting is the Capital Art Studio located at the top of Kenyatta road. The studio was opened in 1930 and the photography business has remained in the family ever since. Over the years the family have been commissioned to photograph all prominent political and royal figures visiting the island. The walls of the studio are lined with photographs that illustrate the history of Zanzibar. Amongst these photographs you will find the black and white images of the British Royal family. Rummage through the boxes of photographs to find a special keep sake to take home with you.
#7. Put your Photography Skills to the Test
Amateur photographers can delight in the abundance of inspiration that Stone Town has to offer. Given the history of Arab, Indian, African and European influences, the styles of architecture in Stone Town are varied. You’ll be kept busy for hours snapping away at old Arab mansions, decorative mosaic details and picturesque lattice balconies. Of course the iconic wooden doorways are always ready to pose for a photograph. Their intricate frames and brass additions give insight into the original owners origin and social status in the community.
#8. Have a Snooze in the Forodhani Gardens
During the day the Forodhani Gardens of Stone Town provide a refreshing oasis from which to escape the Zanzibar heat. Make yourself comfortable on one of the mosaic benches underneath the cool foliage of the surrounding trees. Bring along a good book and enjoy an afternoon siesta.
#9. Immerse Yourself in the Dark History of the Island
While control of the Island may have passed from one nation to another, slave trade remained the main business at hand in Stone Town. Slave trade began under Portuguese rule and reached a peak under the Omani Sultanate until finally being abolished by the British. There are a number of sites around Stone Town that offer insight into the slave history of the Island. You’ll also come across landmarks indicating the opulent lifestyle that this sinister trade afforded slave masters and traders.
The Old Fort
The Fort was built by Omani Arabs to defend themselves against the Portuguese. It was later used as a prison and today the grounds are used for festivals. You’ll find art studios and shops lining its walls.
The Slave market
The Anglican Cathedral occupies the area that was previously used as a slave market. The holding cells have been preserved to offer insight into the atrocious conditions in which slaves were kept.
The House of Wonders
The House of Wonders was commissioned by Sultan Barghash in 1883. Despite having functioned as a ceremonial palace, the building appears to have lost its shine. From the outside it does look rather condemned and has been closed for renovations. Unfortunately it’s reopening date remains unknown.
The Palace Museum
The Palace was also built in 1883. Commissioned no doubt by a rather demanding Sultan. The museum is worth a visit, offering insight into the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by the sultanate.
The Hamamni Persian Baths
While the baths may no longer be in working order they will add to your understanding of the dolce vita of island life enjoyed by the Omani Arabs who lived in Stone Town.
The Terroriser Tippu Tip
Located a short distance from Africa House you will find the old residence of Tippu Tip. A notorious slave trader in his day, he earned his nickname from his predominant and rather unfortunate nose.
The Princess Salme Museum
My husband didn’t quite share my enthusiasm for the museum. Perhaps this one is for the girls! Here you can learn more about the adventurous young princess who defied convention by escaping the island with her German lover.
The Old Dispensary building is located on the waterfront close to the docks. It was previously used as a hospital but is now home to tour operators. If you can brave being hounded to sign up for a tour, the building itself is worth a visit.
St Joseph’s Cathedral
The Cathedral is open to the public and still holds mass.
Freddy Mercury was born on Zanzibar and his old home can be found on Kenyatta road. While the home is not open to the public, die-hard fans may still want to pay homage outside.
#10. Hire a Scooter and Head to the Beach
Zanzibar is famous for its white beaches and exquisite turquoise waters. If you’re under time constraints and unable to spend a few nights away from Stone Town, don’t despair! Cars and scooters are available for hire and you can plan a day trip to one of the beaches located closer to Zanzibar City.