Come to Zanzibar and you’ll be greeted by some of the loveliest beaches in the world, with stunning reefs for snorkelling and crystal-clear blue waters for swimming. But there’s more to Zanzibar than just hitting the sand. Within the city and its historic centre of Stone Town are great restaurants, fantastic live music options and more than a few festivals. Here’s everything you need to know.
There are two main entry points to Zanzibar: the airport and the seaport. Both of them will give you a bit of a chaotic arrival, so it’s useful to choose beforehand how you plan to continue to your destination.
Seaport: This is right in Stone Town, so it’s easy to walk anywhere within the old city. However, there is no public transportation in Stone Town, so the only option to reach the beach is to either take a taxi or walk about one kilometre to reach the local buses, called dala dalas.
Airport: There are plenty of taxis and the local buses also pass by the airport (outside the gates). But the buses are only city buses, so they’re sadly no help for getting to further destinations. If you’re going further than Zanzibar city, you’ll need to change at the bus station (which currently is just a sidewalk with no guidance signs — hey, it’s an adventure!).
Taxis from town (including the seaport and airport) should be about USD 30 to 60 for going to beach destinations like Nungwi, Matemwe or Paje. From the airport to Stone Town, expect to pay about USD 10.
There are two options: the local dala dalas and taxis. There are also shared buses that leave from Stone Town to the beaches, which you can usually get for USD 10 per person.
Public transportation/dala dalas: Public transportation is extremely affordable, costing under USD 4, depending on your destination. They are also quite slow as they stop a lot on the way, and there usually seems to be no limit to how many people can fit on one bus! Be warned that it’ll probably take some effort to figure out which dala dala to use, though the conductors are very helpful.
Taxis: There are lots of taxis in Stone Town, but from the beach they can be harder to find. It’s always good to ask your hotel for a taxi or find a reliable company to offer you transfers. Taking a taxi in Zanzibar is generally safe, but note they’re often not punctual and tend to charge as they wish.
There are some companies in Zanzibar offering taxi services (such as the aptly named Zanzibar Taxi), but none are available on demand — you’ll need to let them know ahead of time when you wish to go and where.
Walking: Walking is the most efficient way to get around if you are staying in Stone Town! The town is small and safe to walk, as long as you keep an eye out for the fast-moving vespas. When you wander a bit further from the more popular, touristy areas, you will find walking very pleasant, too.
There are lots of bars and lounges in Stone Town. Some of them host quiz nights, karaoke nights and live music, but generally you will find DJs playing. Shangani area in Stone Town has various places to go: Tatu, 6 Degrees South and The Post are among the most popular ones. Also, the Park Hyatt hotel hosts parties regularly.
For a more down-to-earth experience, head to the bars and nightclubs outside of Stone Town. The most famous one, Messi Club, is strangely enough owned by the army and located on the army grounds in the Chukwani neighbourhood. There are many other places as well in the Chukwani area, as well as the nearby Mbweni.
Always keep in mind that being intoxicated in public outside of the bar areas is not accepted, and same goes for drinking in public.
If you’re into live music, be sure to check out the performances of the Dhow Countries Music Academy for classical Zanzibari music. The Emerson on Hurumzi hotel in Stone Town has live music dinners on their rooftop almost every night. Monsoon Restaurant also hosts live music dinners regularly.
Unfortunately, there is no single place to check for everything that’s going on in the city, but there are many Facebook groups, such as Zanzibar Residents, where you can find out what’s on while you’re in town.
The biggest festival in town is the the long-running Zanzibar International Film Festivals (ZIFF), which happens during June-July. Another favourite is the Sauti za Busara music festival in February. There are many smaller festivals in Zanzibar as well, such the Jahazi Literary & Jazz Festival, the Stone Town Food Festival and the Zanzibar Beach & Water Sports Festival.
Zanzibar has a very mixed food culture, so expect to find mainland Tanzanian favourites as well as Indian and Arabic foods. Seafood is, of course, a main part of Zanzibari food culture, with different curries, sauces, soups and fried dishes. Food is spicy, but not hot — hot sauce (pilipili) is usually served separately, so you can avoid it if you’re not a fan of the heat.
Zanzibari food is very vegetarian and vegan-friendly, as most dishes are dairy-free and meat is often served separately. Basically all restaurants have vegetarian options and some Indian restaurants in Stone Town only serve vegetarian food.
For local food, Lukmaan Restaurant in Stone Town is one of the most relibale places, always serving great food for excellent value. The Forodhani Night Market is another must-experience, but your best bet is to go where you see the locals go — that way you know the food is likely to be fresh. When in doubt, sit at one of the cafés and order something there.
Tea and coffee are essential in Zanzibar culture, so be sure to have some. They often come prepared with spices and are delicious. And don’t forget the juicy fresh fruits available basically everywhere.
Get your hands on nearly any book by the Zanzibari author Abdulrazak Gurnah. We recommend Desertion, the love story of an Englishman and East African woman and the politics surrounding their forbidden relationship.
The most beloved and, at the same time, one of the most radical of Zanzibari artists is Bi Kidude. She passed away in 2013 at the age of 103 years (she was nicknamed the world’s oldest pop star), but her records continue to play constantly in Zanzibar.