Things to do in Zanzibar: Attractions and places to visit

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The Creator is said to have created the globe with great patience. This is particularly true of an island beyond Africa. Zanzibar is sometimes wild, sometimes gentle and therefore full of surprises and secrets. The green dream in the Indian Ocean shows on the maps two islands that belong to Zanzibar. The most important of the two is called Unguja by the inhabitants, the smaller is called Pemba.

It is just forty kilometers to the African mainland, and to the equator hardly more than six degrees. Zanzibar is something like an outpost of Tanzania, and those who spend their holidays there just because of the picturesque beaches miss a lot. In spite of sun and sand one should look around in a country where Europeans, Indians and Arabs did lucrative business for centuries. A certain Sultan Said al Busaisi of Oman achieved two things in the 19th century: he made the island the spice navel of the world and at the same time forced the trade with slaves.

In the following we present you the most exciting tours, the most beautiful attractions and the best sights on Zanzibar.

Sandbank vor Stone Town auf Zanzibar (mariusltu / stock.adobe.com)  lizenziertes Stockfoto 
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1. Stone Town

What the “stone city” is all about, the visitor quickly recognizes. The houses of Zanzibar City were built almost exclusively with stones from the sea mountains. So from those coral reefs at the front door of the island, in which no polyps live anymore and which are therefore dead. Stone Town is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

However, only a few of the city’s historic buildings have recently been restored because of a lack of money. Nevertheless, a stroll through the winding alleys with their small shops is worthwhile. One of the central points of Stone Town is the Darajani market with its stalls for fruit, vegetables and fish. Other sights include the Sultan’s Palace and the old fort, where an open-air theatre for concerts has meanwhile established itself.

2. Prison Iceland

The inhabitants know the island Changuu actually only under the name “Prison Island”. It is located about five kilometres off the coast and has a rather scary history. The first Sultan of Zanzibar gave away the tiny spot in the sea to Arab slave traders. The proportion of slaves in the total population of Zanzibar at that time was at times around seventy percent.

In 1893 a prison for criminals was established on the island, but it was later used as a quarantine station when there was a danger of a yellow fever epidemic in neighbouring Stone Town. Today Prison Island with its beautiful beaches is owned by the government. Numerous Aldabra giant tortoises live here in a fenced off area.

3. The House of Wonders

The so-called “House of Miracles” in Stone Town once served the Sultan of Oman for ceremonies. In the 19th century the Sultan and his entire court moved to Zanzibar. This was the first building in the entire East African region to have electricity. There was even an elevator there. That’s why the House of Wonders got its unusual name.

Today the building, with its impressive façade and three floors, houses a Museum of Culture and History. The House of Wonders in Stone Town also found a place in pictures on the Zanzibar banknotes. Among the most impressive and beautiful oases of the village are the Forodhani Gardens, which surround the former palace of the Sultan.

4. Marine Park Mnemba Atoll

The marine park Mnemba Atoll is the most important and most famous marine reserve in front of the maritime front door of the island. Divers and snorkelers appreciate the fascinating underwater world with giant stingrays, lionfish and moray eels. This atoll consists of a reef seven by four kilometres in size, where corals have formed the island of Mnemba over the centuries.

Encounters with turtles and dolphins are almost commonplace here. The visibility under water in the atoll is exceptionally good and reaches up to thirty metres. Most providers include snorkeling equipment and a delicious lunch. A true underwater paradise awaits you!

5. The Rock Restaurant Zanzibar

The Rock Restaurant is certainly one of the most unusual gastronomic destinations in the Indian Ocean and is one of the most important sights of the island due to its location alone. It is completely surrounded by the sea and is located on a rock. If you want to dine there, you first have to go into the care of a boat captain, who then transports his passengers to the Blue Lagoon.

In the Rock Restaurant fish, which is prepared in all variations by the chefs, is of course always absolutely fresh. Often it is delivered even in the early morning hours directly by the fishermen. The specialties of this picturesque oceanfront restaurant include grilled lobster, cooked octopus and seafood pasta. At the few tables only 14 guests find place, a reservation is recommended therefore.

6. Sailing with a traditional Dhow

Dhows are the traditional sailing ships of East Africa. They have one to three masts and the trapezoidal sails are their main external features. In two places on the island, Nungwi and Mtoni, the boats are still made by experienced builders today – almost always to order. A sailing trip with a dhow is an interesting experience and a change from staying on the beaches.

Some providers offer full day tours on Zanzibar to the idyllic Menai Bay. The chance to spot dolphins on the way is very high. But also shorter tours can be easily found, both on the beaches of the hotel resorts as well as in the capital Stone Town. Especially popular (and romantic) are of course the sunset tours, while the sun slowly sinks behind the Indian Ocean.

7. Jozani Forest Reserve

Already in 1974 the Jozani Forest was declared a protected area. In 2004 the area was even upgraded to a national park. It is the ancestral home of the stump-monkeys, whose population is strongly endangered. The primates are even on the red list because their habitat is getting smaller and smaller. The stump monkeys feed primarily on fruits, seeds and leaves and inhabit the trees in Jozani Forest.

It is one of the last natural rainforests in East Africa. Paths lead through the forest with its impressive eucalyptus and mahogany trees. The so-called Singapore leopards, which were found in this region for a long time, are apparently extinct because their last sighting dates from 2002. The Jozani forest is bordered by the seagrass meadows of Chwaka Bay.

8. Spice tour on Spice Island

It is not without reason that Zanzibar is regarded as the “Spice Island”, so it is probably not surprising that a spice tour is virtually a must. Here you will learn many backgrounds and experience up close how pepper, nutmeg, cloves and vanilla grow under the East African sun. Also saffron and cinnamon can be found on Zanzibar’s plantations, they were introduced one by the Sultan of Oman.

Today there are still numerous spice farms from Zanzibar, but not all are open to the public. In order to get a good impression of the variety, a guided tour with a guide is always worthwhile. The trained employees tell funny anecdotes and present the exotic spices and fruits in an entertaining, short-lived way. Very popular are for example the Tangawizi Spice Farm, the Zanzibar Spices and Heritage Centre and the Maganga Farm.

9. Old Fort and Hamamni Persian Bath

One of the special sights directly in Stone Town is of course the Old Fort, the oldest building in the city. The locals also call the fortress Arab Fort or Ngome Kongwe. The massive building was erected between 1698 and 1701 and over the following centuries it found a new purpose again and again. It was once used as a prison, then again as a market and in more recent times even as a tennis court.

A good combination is the following visit of the Hamamni Persian Bath. The public baths were built at the end of the 19th century and were in operation until 1920. They were called “Persian” because their construction was transferred to the Shirazi ethnic group, which was originally native to Persia. The Hamamni Persian Bath once offered hot and cold baths.

10. Mnarani Natural Aquarium

At high tide, the waves of the Indian Ocean spill over the basins of the Mnarani Natural Aquarium. It is located near the lighthouse at the northernmost tip of the main island and is dedicated to the preservation of endangered sea turtles. In the aquarium the employees try to ensure a natural environment for the turtles and to care for the hatched young animals.

When they reach the age of ten months, the young animals are abandoned to the Indian Ocean. For the inhabitants of the small village Nungwi this is always a suitable occasion for a big party with traditional music, dance and singing interludes as well as many delicacies. Even holidaymakers are always welcome to enjoy this unforgettable experience.

More things to do and activities for your Zanzibar holiday

Best time to visit Zanzibar

We recommend the following months as best time to travel for exploring the attractions and acivities of Zanzibar:

January, February, June, July, August, September, and October

You can find more information about the weather, including all climate data, on our climate page for Zanzibar.

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