Top 10 things to do in Stone Town, Zanzibar
Stone Town, Zanzibar’s capital is a mysterious place, a deliciously blended concoction of Indian, Swahili, Moroccan and Arabic. Charming but rundown, shutters hang off their hinges, paint peels from once gleaming facades, decay where there once was extravagance. Piles of rubble lie forgotten and wires dangle precariously, threatening to decapitate the unobservant. Hefty, beautifully carved doors with giant gold spikes (an Indian method of deterring marauding elephants) remain intact, guarding empty, decrepit buildings. Hotels, restaurants, old Merchant’s houses and a former Sultan’s palace rear up amongst decaying buildings harkening back to a once magnificent city.
We stayed at the charming, boutique Clove Hotel which is plonked close to the aptly-named ‘House of Wonders’, a few minutes walk from the ferry terminal, Forodhani gardens and the buzzing night food market. Unfortunately on this particular day there was trouble in paradise. The afternoon was hot as any other, but without water to dip into, we felt the heat stronger than ever, seeping from the city bricks. A group of boys jostled past us screeching with
delight, brandishing small boxes. “They’ve just looted those” Doug whispered. Loud gunshots peppered the air followed by excited shouts. Drifting tear gas tickled our noses and stung our eyes. Riots had broken out at the market following the arrest of an opposition leader. Crowds were looting stores, starting fires and destroying shops.
We holed ourselves safely away for a few hours at the Clove’s rooftop honesty bar. As darkness fell, blitz-like sirens wailed (to signal the evening’s half an hour of no electricity) muezzin calls moaned from mosques and bells clanged, crescendoing into a bizarre, deafening din.
Despite the riots and recent bad press about Zanzibar, it is a fascinating city that’s well worth a visit. We had no trouble – in spite of the rioting – whilst we were there. Here are my must-dos if you’re considering a trip too!
Top 10 things to do in Stone Town:
1. House of Wonders (Beit el-Ajaib)
The largest, tallest building in Stone Town, dominating the old town’s canon-cluttered seafront, you can’t miss this impressive building. So-named for being the first place in Zanzibar to have electricity, the story goes that the Sultan also famously chained and displayed wild animals here – the main door was widened to ride an elephant through. The layers of columned storeys, wide balconies, intricately carved wooden doors and spectacular stained glass window are now home to the Museum of History & Culture of Zanzibar & the Swahili Coast. Exhibition rooms bursting with history peel away from the inner central courtyard. Expect a huge traditional dhow, Livingstone paraphernalia, some unfinished building works and relics from Zanzibar’s heyday.
2. Visit the Palace Museum
This seafront palace was once the Sultan’s official residence, now a museum it offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of old Zanzibar royalty. As palaces
go it’s on the simple side, but amazingly the Zanzibari royal family’s surprisingly diverse furniture still flourishes the place. Gaze out the windows to views once pondered by past rulers and discover the captivating story of Salme the Princess who eloped with her German husband and secretly taug
ht herself to write, eventually penning the must-read ‘Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar’.
3. Rooftop sunset drinks at Emerson Spice House
The staggered rooftops of this former Merchant’s house draw the eye from afar, their luminous teal juxtaposed with the rusty ramshackle roofs of Stone Town. Inside, the hotel oozes old world opulence from every orifice. With low tables, piles of cushions, a warm breeze and spectacular panoramic views, the Towertop restaurant at sundown is a must if only for a drink.
4. Wander aimlessly without a plan
Leave your guidebook behind for the day and lose yourself in the labyrinthe of alleyways. Jostle down bustling streets, wander seafront gardens, peek at ancient doors, old forts, marketplaces and shops selling colourful kikoy fabrics.
5. Forodhani night market
Zanzibar chapati-style pizzas and griddles sizzling oodles of seafood scent the night with mouthwatering perfumes, luring tourists and locals at dusk. Lobster, prawns, crab claws, octopus abound – load a skewer dipped in tamarind sauce for a tasty snack and wash down with sugarcane juice.
6. Visit the Old Fort
Maybe not strictly a must-see but it is worth a gander. Mostly a ruin, there is life within the bastioned walls. Colourful market stalls bristle around a grassy courtyard selling jewellery and clothes, you can even get a henna tattoo. There’s also an open-air theatre. Reviews on Trip advisor criticise the touts, but we never had a problem. Entrance is free.
Aromas of stinky fish mingle with spices under the dark canopies of the market stalls. A chaotic assault on the senses, haggle and marvel at the piles of food on offer. Best to visit in the morning when it’s cooler and produce is fresh. It’s very close to the old Slave market and Anglican cathedral.
8. The Old Dispensary (a.k.a. Ithnasheri Dispensary)
We stumbled across this little gem thanks to its beautifully ornate exterior. Originally intended to honour Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, the merchant owner unfortunately died before its completion. Explore the beautiful building and dabble in a bit of light souvenir shopping next to the exhibition of Zanzibar handcraft, wood carving and art on the 1st floor.
There are plenty of delightful eateries in Stone Town and the Monsoon Restaurant and Archipelago Restaurant – both waterfront spots – were my favourite. Monsoon is wonderfully atmospheric with outdoor tables or traditional-style floor dining on cushions inside, there’s often live taarab music too. Leave your shoes at the door and embrace your inner hippy! Archipelago Restaurant is a lovely place for lunch. Cool and breezy with a sea view, serving vegetable-heavy curries, seafood and scrummy homemade cakes.
10. The Old Slave Market and Anglican cathedral
The Anglican cathedral was built on the site of the old slave market. Symbolic memorials mark the cruelty suffered by slaves inside and out. Most impressive is a sunken statue filled with life-size slaves shackled with original chains. There’s also a tribute to Dr Livingstone who helped initiate the abolition of the slave trade – a wooden cross hanging inside is made from the Zambian tree under which is heart is buried.