You’ll have heard of Zanzibar, Tanzania’s Spice Island, with its white sand tropical beaches, swaying palm trees and sparkling clear waters (the usual tropical paradise heaven). But did you know that there’s more to explore than just the breathtaking beaches? Zanzibar Island (real name Unguja Island!) is just part of an archipelago of island gems, each with its own special flavor, and it’s just a short hop from mainland Tanzania by air. We’ve picked the top ten Things to Do in Zanzibar, so you really get the full Zanzibar experience. We’re not including lazing on a beach, cocktail in hand, because that’s a given!
1. Surfin’ Zanzibar
Jambiani is a string of picturesque fishing villages that hug Zanzibar’s southwest coastline, and the shallow waters, enclosed lagoon and favourable winds make it the ideal base to try out kite-surfing. If you’ve never tried it before, don’t worry – there are plenty of safe, reputable surf schools to teach you. And when you’re done surfing for the day (and after a gentle swim to stretch out those tired muscles) it’s time for a sundowner on the beach and a wander along to a cute little beachside restaurant.
2. Sauti za Busara Festival
If you love to dance to (or play!) African music, then February’s the time to descend on Stone Town in Zanzibar for the annual Sauti za Busara pan-African music festival. Musicians from all over Africa are joining up to play, collaborate and teach and they’ll be plenty of opportunity to party, too. With 42 shows packed into four days, as well as a massive choice of fringe activities, you might struggle to experience even a small part of it but we do recommend making sure you get the chance to dance on the beach to top African DJs. The 2018 festival runs from 8 – 11 February.
3. Historical Stone Town
Go for Sauti za Busara but when the performers have packed up and gone home, stay to explore everything Stone Town has to offer – and that’s a lot! Its heritage blends Arabian, Indian, Swahili and Portuguese cultures and this is most obvious in the uniquely weird architecture of its ancient buildings; a coral-toned maze of weathered stone alleyways, carved balustrades and delicate balconies. It makes getting lost fun. You’ll find something new to discover around every corner, and market days brings a riot of colour, noise and flavour as you pick your way through the bustling bazaars. Zanzibar’s spices are world-famous, so check out the aromatic spice stalls.
4. Explore the tastes of Zanzibar
By day, Stone Town’s Forodhani Gardens is a beautiful little park just off the main promenade by the sea, just in front of the Old Fort. It recently had a multi-million dollar facelift, complete with sympathetic landscaping, walkways and lighting. It’s a little gem of open space to rest your feet after wandering those Stone Town alleyways. But, by night, the park really comes alive. After sunset, you’ll find locals and travellers chilling out together to take advantage of the myriad of buzzing street food stalls that miraculously appear after dark. The best thing to do is check out which stalls the locals favour, and join the queue. Make sure you take normal food hygiene precautions – check what’s cooking is piping hot when you get it. Skip the seafood and tuck straight in to Tanzanian favourites like chipsi mayai. Make sure you order your food directly from the stallholders (not from touts) and agree the price upfront.
5. The world famous Full Moon Party
Head up to the bijou resort of Kendwa on the northern tip of Zanzibar for something that little bit special. Kendwa’s broad, sandy beach and shallow, turquoise waters are perfect for a beach holiday but it’s what happens every full moon that’s worth waiting for. Each month, Kendwa lets its hair down with a full moon party on the beach: a riot of firelight, colour and noise as the whole town gets together to eat, drink, drum and dance under the moonlit sky. There are fire-eaters, acrobatics and the atmosphere is more Mardi Gras than mellow. The idea of the Full Moon party was imported all the way from Finland; don’t get us wrong, snowy moonlit forests are beautiful but a lot more chilly than a tropical beach. To be right in the action, stay at the beachfront Kendwa Rocks Hotel.
6. Zipping around by scooter
The trouble with Zanzibar is that there are just too many beautiful beaches to choose from. A great way of grabbing one all to yourself is to zip along the beach roads on scooter: try a nippy, fashionable – and easy to drive – Vespa. You can set your own pace to the day and enjoy the freedom of the road. Grab a map and enjoy your own road safari from picturesque Bweju fishing village, inland to the Jozani Forest then out again heading south to Paje, Jambiani and around the southern tip of Zanzibar to Kizimkazi.
Pick a reputable hire firm and don’t forget that helmet. Hire will usually include basic insurance but you’re going to need a temporary driving permit and don’t forget – drive on the left!
7. Diving and snorkelling…pretty much anywhere where there’s water!
Zanzibar itself is just part of the island paradise that is the Zanzibar archipelago. There are three other main islands – Pemba, Mafia and Latham – and dozens of smaller pristine atolls dotted around, many uninhabited. The undersea topography makes this area one of the best dive areas in the world, with plenty of dive schools for beginners and challenging dive sites for the more experienced divers.
Pemba Island has one of the healthiest coral reef populations in the Indian Ocean, and the warmth and clarity of the water make it a must-experience for every diver. The underwater system of channels, walls, sea-mountains and reefs means that no dive can ever be the same; and the different topography attracts a wealth of sea life, including scorpion fish, eagle rays, dog tooth tuna and turtles.
8. Ngezi Forest, Pemba Island
Ashore, Pemba Island is just as magical. In the north lies the Ngezi Forest, one of the last indigenous forests remaining among the Zanzibar archipelago. It’s a multi-canopied rainforest where you’ll take one of two trails through the dense undergrowth. You’ll be serenaded by birdsong, the chattering of the red vervet monkeys as they swing playfully on vines and the rustling of the flying foxes as they land skilfully just ahead of you. Take the opportunity to walk off-trail with you own naturalist guide or spend a peaceful evening bat watching.
9. Fine dining, Zanzibar-style
Back on Zanzibar (Unguja Island – remember?) there’s a tucked-away peninsula with a little secret. Well, it’s not so secret. It’s world-famous. It’s The Rock Restaurant and it’s fast becoming iconic. Situated on a rock just off Michamvi Pingwe beach, you can paddle to it in low tide but at high tide, jump in a boat, unless you fancy a pre-dinner swim. Simply and tastefully furnished, it’s so tiny that you can take a maximum of 19 of your besties for some slap-up cuisine that’s centred on local seafood and spices; but if you prefer, a quiet, romantic meal for two then the candlelit open-air terrace with the moonlight sparkling on the waters before you will do the trick. It’s popular, so book ahead!
10. Sunset on the sea
Typically Zanzibari are the wooden fishing boats that you’ll see sliding in and out of harbours and beachstops all along the coastlines of the islands. These are dhow, the Tanzanian take on a traditional sailing boat that has pedigree from ancient Greek times. Used by the Indian traders and Arabian merchants through the centuries, the dhow has an unmistakeable silhouette against the evening skies. And they’re not just for fishing – try a sunset cruise aboard a dhow for an evening of gentle seas, spectacular sunsets and star-filled skies. There’s nothing more peaceful than sitting on deck, accompanied by a cheeky glass of wine, the soft creaking of timber and the evening breeze ruffling your hair as the sun sets gloriously, painting the sky and sea with colours that haven’t been invented yet.
These are only a few of the things to see and do on Zanzibar – but don’t overdo it! Zanzibar is famous for its chill factor so don’t forget to spend some time lazing on a beach, doing absolutely nothing.