Zanzibar Hotels

Stone Town, Zanzibar


Zanzibar’s capital is situated on the west-coast of Unguja (the main island of the archipelago, and commonly referred to as ‘Zanzibar’). Though known as Stone Town, it more accurately called Zanzibar City (Stone Town being the name for to the older, fortified parts only).


The city has a colourful history and is of rich cultural interest. A maze of medinas, bazaars, gardens, walls and palaces crosshatch the city. Stone Town is a fascinating, and remarkably easy, place in which to get lost. Declared a world heritage site in 2000 by UNESCO, the city has undergone and continues to undergo much regeneration and restoration. This has largely been financed by the expanding tourist industry.


Brief History of Stone Town


The history of Stone Town is inextricably linked to that of the whole of Tanzania. However, the city has borne the embellishments and the scars bestowed and inflicted by the past more than perhaps any other in this country. From its slave markets to its elaborate restored buildings Stone Town is indebted to its colourful past. Yet, despite its archaic feel; stone walls, rough surfaces, decayed exteriors, the modern city’s history begins as late as 1830.















Things To Do in Stone Town


At a Glance:



Planning:




Stone Town Overview


Stone Town can be a paradise for culture vultures, amateur historians, those interested in architecture, foodies and avid bargain hunters. Though be warned—the city’s history is not easily learnt en-route as little has been done in the way of placards and many exhibits are hopelessly outdated by western standards. Unless you bring your own ‘books of knowledge’ with you, you may be disappointed by Stone Town’s unexplained and seemingly disinterested sites of interest.


The Waterfront is both literally, and metaphorically the first port of call for any visitor. Here one can see Stone Town’s most majestic buildings. Built as elaborate badges of wealth by generations of sultans, they are worth exploring and taking the time to look around.


Shangani is the name given to the western end of the Waterfront. Over a bridge and past an orphanage one reaches the site of an early fishing village, given by the sultans to the Europeans on which to build their consulates. The area is now home to many of Stone Town’s more upmarket hotels, bars and restaurants.


To the South of the Old Town lies Vuga and area that became the residential and diplomatic district of the Western settlers. Characterised by wider streets and lush green spaces this area is a nice escape from the labyrinth hurly-burly of Central Stone Town. Vuga is home to the High Court, Victoria Hall and Gardens (once the residence of Sultan Barghash’s harem), the State House and the Beit al-Amani (House of Peace). These are all worth taking a look at, even if only from the outside.


Central Stone Town is the best place to grab a bargain and get thoroughly lost in the winding maze of myriad streets. Bazaars, crumbling palaces and mosques rise around unrecognisable alleys and large thoroughfares. The main shopping hotspots are along Hurumzi and Gizenga streets and the Changa bazaar. These are easily reached from The House of Wonders or The Old Fort. The larger streets offer a more relaxed introduction to the haggling world of Stone Town. Try a stroll down Sokomuhogo or Mkunazini for starters.


To the East runs Creek Road. Many daladala routes start and end at the bus terminal here. The road lies where the old Darajani Creek once ran (or crawled) before it was reclaimed by the British for building. Walk up Creek Road to just outside of the city’s bounds and you will find the central market. This is busiest from around 0900 until the late morning and sells everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to radios, televisions and reams of coloured cloth. Don’t expect a comfortable shopping experience. The market is only for the strong of heart and intrepid of nose. Also, keep hold of your valuables here.


Though Stone Town is an exciting, and in many ways, beautiful city, it is by no means a perfect cultural haven. Zanzibar is very much a developing Island in a developing country. In Stone Town the entrepreneurial poor of this Eastern African archipelago congregate in the hope of reaping financial gains, especially from tourists. Stone Town is a hot, bubbling and noisy city, and being home to people of multiple origins with different cultural and temporal values, always close to boiling point.


One of the most pestilent examples of Stone Town’s position are the aptly named papasi (ticks). These youths and men follow tourists desperate to sell safaris, guided tours and souvenirs (most of which services don’t actually exist). Some papasi are more persistent than others and will trail tourists throughout the city. Just make sure the culprit knows you will not be able to pay for ANY services and they should leave you alone.



Personal Safety in Stone Town


It is normally impossible to look like a local and so it is best to adopt the attitude and self-awareness of a seasoned traveller (not openly consulting maps in the streets or stopping for lengthy periods to take photos and fiddle with gadgets). It is a good idea to avoid eye-contact on the streets and to keep any valuables hidden and close to your body. Wearing brand new western clothing is likely to mark you out as a novice traveller and many tourists choose to hide behind sunglasses. Also be aware that ‘special prices’ are offered to tourists. Haggling or agreeing prices before buying or even viewing items or before ordering food is a good idea. Zanzibari businessmen have a nasty habit of making the most of their ‘western friends.’


Many of the cultural heritage sites of the city may seem poorly kept by western standards. But due to recent projects work is being done to protect Stone Town’s attractions. One attraction that is most unprotected however, is Stone Town’s beach. The city beach is hugely busy and the water here is not clean. Do not be convinced by the local boys who dive into the ocean. If you are looking for idyllic beaches and bathing you are advised to take a trip from Stone Town to one of the unspoilt village coastlines or to one of the islands, such as Chumbe.



Getting Around Stone Town


The best way to explore Stone Town is by foot. Pretty much everything is within easy walking distance. Furthermore, the city centre is predominantly pedestrianised. Having said which, you must beware of the scooters and cycles that have right of way at all times, on all streets.


Taxi journeys within the city should cost no more that TSh 3,000. Taxis are most useful at night when the city can become an impenetrable maze. However, as many hotels are in the pedestrian districts you may have to ask your driver to escort you to your door for an extra tip.


City tours are a good way to find your feet in Stone Town. They vary in length and quality, but expect to put aside roughly three hours for a decent tour. They cost roughly USD 30 per person. Historian Farid Hamid of Zanzibar’s Cultural Arts Centre offers a personal tour service Mondays to Fridays from around 1000 to around 5 30pm. This starts at The Centre (opposite Hamamni Baths) and costs around USD 15 per group.


Tips

1. Avoid Suicide Alley at night.

2. Wear a money-belt.

3. Be prepared to haggle.

4. Avoid the city beach and don’t bathe in the sea.

5. Try dinner at the Forodhoni Market.

6. Ask about cruise dinners at the Serena Inn, though these may not be running they are very special when they are.

7. Try one of the city’s spas to cool off from the dust and heat. e.g. Mrembo Spa on Cathedral Street.

8. Avoid visiting in Ramadan, but look out for the festive season that commences with its end, the Zanzibar Film Festival in July and the Sauti za Busara Festival in February.

9. ‘hamna asante’- no thank you or ‘sitaki biashara’- I don’t want to do business


Food and Drink in Stone Town


Stone Town is arguable Tanzania’s culinary capital. Although this does not mean that every meal you eat will be spot on and it is not uncommon for travellers to suffer stomach upsets when travelling to Stone Town. However, when it comes to choice, quality and freshness, Zanzibar’s Capital is one of East Africa’s best cities for both first class traditional and fusion cuisines.


From Street Food to the vendors of the Forodhoni Market to five-star dining, Stone Town has it all. Many restaurants are as special (if not more so) for their locations—rooftop terraces with panoramic views or sunset eateries with large windows—however the city’s establishments are no longer so naïve as to not know how to charge. Expect to pay as much for the atmosphere as for the food on your plate.


Swahili cuisine, often Indian or Chinese influenced is most common. Regular Chinese and Indian dishes are often available. Western standards and particularly Italian options have made their way to Stone Town in the shape of burgers and chips and pizza. Seafood, as is to be expected, is a very predominant feature on most menus. Expect prawns, crab, lobster and octopus. The city makes good use of traditional spices and many dishes are cooked with coconut.


When it comes to Drinking and nightlife, although Stone Town is still a very Muslim city it is home to an expanding network of bars and clubs. Be warned, the police are known to shut down bars at around midnight. If this happens, be polite and excuse yourself to your accommodation quickly. Smoking Shisha is the traditional way to relax on Zanzibar, and there are many places where one can indulge.


Budget Meal Options in Stone Town (USD 5-USD 15)



Mid-range Meal Options in Stone Town (USD 15-USD 25)



Top-Dollar Meal Options in Stone Town (USD 25 and up)


Expensive dining in Stone Town and around can be disappointing as one finds one is paying more for the privelledge of exact service and historical location than for the food on one’s plate. However, the following offer good service and top locations if not value-for-money.



When it comes to drinking and nightlife Stone Town is still a very Muslim city. Though tourism has bought a number of drinking establishments and clubs with it, it is advisable to not be seen drunk on the streets and to behave respectfully. Police often have a habit of breaking up night-clubs and closing them on a whim. Do not argue!


Mercury’s, The Livingstone, Monsoon Restaurant and Africa House Hotel are all well respected places to enjoy a drink until around midnight. For later night revelry try Dharma Lounge on Vuga Road. Though nothing special this bar-club is popular among travellers and expats and opens until around 4am.


Shopping in Stone Town


Although a less relaxed shopping haven than western cities, Stone Town can prove a bargain hunters paradise. It is certainly a good city for picking up interesting gifts and unusual pieces.


Best Buys:



Avoid:




Stone Town by District


The Waterfront Palaces and Museums:


The House of Wonders


The tallest building in Stone Town, the House of Wonders, or Beit al-Ajaib, dates from 1833. Built by Sultan Barghash, whose architectural spending spree marked the final years of the Sultans’ independence, this palace lived up to its name. It was the tallest building in East Africa when it was built, the first to have electric light and the first to have running water. It also boasted the first electric lift (no longer functioning).


Though not the most attractive building in the capital this extensive museum (arguable the best in East Africa) is a sight to behold. Tiers of balconies on cast iron pillars rise around a roofed atrium. The palace was one of the few to survive the British bombardment of 1869 unscathed (even the palaces chandeliers remain in tact). However, the lighthouse and Swahili clock (be warned that to get the correct time on must add or subtract six hours) were rebuilt after the onslaught.


Exhibits are centred around Zanzibar’s history and East-African life. There are displays dedicated to Swahili medicine, food and drink, music and traditional healing, as well as historical pieces such as Dr Livingstone’s medical chest, 16th century Portuguese bronze canons and a 1950’s Ford Zephyr (a written off car once driven by President Karume).


The Old Dispensary

This delicate four storey building, just opposite the ferry terminals, is known as one of East-Africa’s most charming landmarks. Although faded, its colonial glamour is difficult to deny. Founded by Sir Tharia Topan, a businessman whose wealth was in a large part linked to the slave trade, and who also founded Zanzibar’s first non-denominational school, the dispensary was completed in 1894 (three years after it’s founder’s death).


After the 1964 Revolution, like so many buildings on the island, the hospital was abandoned and feel into a state of disrepair. In 1990 it was taken under the wing of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and has been painstakingly restored. An exhibit on the second floor recounts the process. However, the building is still not really being put to any great use. Visitors are welcome to look around 0900-1700 on weekdays, free of charge and the first and second floors boast some nice sea views.


The Old Customs House

Just past The Big Tree—an impressive Indian Banyan that stands on the intersection between Jamatini and Mizingani Roads and under which one can enquire about boat trips to the Islands off Stone Town—is The Old Customs House.


From the outside the building is somewhat overbearing. Its green wrought iron balconies and pillars and thick walls can seem daunting. But inside the building retains a remarkable lightness. The Dhow Counties Music Academy is housed on the top floor and welcomes visitors. You can buy CDs and even enquire about courses.


The Palace Museum

This museum is open daily 0900-1800, or 0800-2 30pm during Ramadan (TSh 3000 or USD 3). This large whitewashes building was the official residence of the last of the sultans, Jamshid bin Abdullah. It houses some of the few possessions that he and his family left behind in the wake of the 1964 revolution. However most of the most precious items were either taken by the sultan or removed to other palaces and state building in Stone Town by the revolutionaries that occupied the building during its post-revolution days as The People’s Palace.


The building houses numerous displays dedicated to the lives of the sultans and various state ceremonies. Furniture is the main attraction. Colonial and traditional ebony pieces with extensive histories occupy most floors. The pieces are interesting and well labelled, but the museums guides will offer more exciting insights into the exhibits for a tip, and sometimes even give visitors access to the normally restricted graveyard, home to the final remains of some of Zanzibar’s most infamous sultans.


The Old Fort

This castle or coral stone with its round towers and sturdy defences is a surprisingly good spot to relax and escape the noise and chaos of the town. It is open daily 0900-2200, and is free (though any evening performances are ticketed).


The fort dates back to the end of the seventeenth century and the expulsion of the Portuguese by the Omani Arabs. The fort swallowed up some of the original Portuguese buildings including a chapel dating from c.1612 and a merchant’s house. It was predominantly used as a prison by the Omanis, with public executions frequently held outside the East Wall. It saw very little military action.


During the twentieth century the fort was put to various uses; as a market, a customs house and a depot for the newly built railway in the 1920s and throughout the 1930’s and 40’s and even as the Zanzibar Ladies Tennis Club for a period after 1949. After the 1964 Revolution the fort, like so many other historic buildings in the city, fell into disrepair, but in 1994 was reclaimed and restored. It is now home to craft shops, an open-air amphitheatre, a tourist information desk, tour company and restaurant. There are occasionally concerts in the amphitheatre which are advertised on posters outside the fort, and visitors can enquire about sound and light show that is sometimes held in the southern part of the fort.


Forodhani Gardens

These shady public gardens—currently being restored—are a good place to relax though they do attract the papasi (street peddlers). There are some interesting stalls in the gardens during the day and soon there will be a children’s playground made of reclaimed tyres. However, the market’s main lure is its evening food market.


With a huge choice of traditional dishes for exceptionally good value prices the Market has a wonderful atmosphere and a menu that outdoes most of the city’s best restaurants. Always be wary of seafood out of season as it can be less fresh than it should be, but on the whole the quality on offer at the market is surprising. Also, agree on a price before ordering as the ‘feeding men’ have a nasty habit of charging a ‘special-price’ to tourists. Having said which, USD 5 should leave you feeling more than fully fed.



Central Stone Town Places of Interest


The Slave Market and Anglican Cathedral

The Anglican Cathedral on the eastern fringe of Central Stone Town stands on the site of Africa’s last slave market, closed in 1873. The horrors of this place can still be witnessed today with a visit to the old slave cells. The tour of these cramped, unfurnished, an in their day, unlit chambers which housed up to 75 slaves at a time is fascinating but oppressive. It runs daily 0900-1800 from the cathedral and costs USD 3 (TSh3000) and includes a tour of the cathedral itself.


The church is impressive. It displays a blend of neo-gothic and arabesque architecture. Its first stone was laid upon the closure of the slave market by Bishop Edward Steere who compiled the first Kiswahili dictionary and translation of the Bible and who delivered the cathedral’s first sermon on Christmas day 1877. Inside there are many stark reminders of the slave trade and the historical significance of the cathedral’s location.


Catholic Cathedral of St Joseph

The two-towered building, recognisable from practically every roof terrace and balcony in Stone Town is the Catholic Cathedral of St Joseph. To find the cathedral head down Gizenga Street from the Kenyatta Rd and take a right straight after the Gallery Bookshop.


Hurumzi House

Across the road from the colourful Shiva Shakti Hindu Temple is Stone Town’s second tallest building. Constructed by Tharia Topan (also responsible for the Old Dispensary) the building served as the sultanate’s customs house as well as Topan’s private residence. Hurumzi literally means ‘those shown mercy’ and was used by the British to refer to freed slaves. The house is well restored and is now the Hurumzi 236 Hotel. Take a look around; you can even eat on the rooftop. Although be warned, Hurumzi’s restaurant does tend to charge more for its view than for its food.


Mnara Mosque

While most of Stone Town’s mosques are rather hidden compared to the ornate palaces of the city, the Mnara Mosque to the north is noteworthy. This building has one of only three conical minarets in East Africa. The tower dates from the 17th century and is Stone Town’s oldest, though the rest of the mosque was rebuilt in 1831. For a good view of the minaret, head for Malawi Road.



Shangani


The Former British and American Consulates

At the North end of the Kenyatta Road, The Livingstone restaurant and bar was once home to the British Consulate. The Tembo House Hotel [hyperlink] opposite used to house the American consulate. Both are impressive buildings where many renowned explorers once stayed. Both have restaurants with good bars and nice beach view locations.


Shagani Post Office

Also on Kenyatta Road, this grand colonnaded green and white building was Zanziabr’s main post office from 1906 until the end of the sultanate. It was designed by J.H Sinclair, whose buildings were renowned for their classical details informed by Islamic trends.


Kelele Square

Beyond Tembo House Hotel Kelele Square functioned as Zanzibar’s main slave market until 1860. As well as the well-known Serena Inn [hyperlink] the square boasts the Mambo Msiige. This impressive building, though not open to visitors is worth a look. Legend has it that the building’s mortar contains thousands of eggs and that the bodies of slaves were used to reinforce the palace’s walls. Sir John Kirk and Henry Morton Stanley both resided here.


Tippu Tip’s House

South of Kelele Square, along Suicide Alley, is Tippu Tip’s House. Tippu Tip, or Hamed bin Muhammed al-Murjebi, was an exceptional slave-trader (if such a thing can morally exist). From the mid-nineteenth century he was leading caravans of up to 4000 slaves across Africa. He was renowned for being intelligent, charismatic and ruthless. His nick-name derives from the fact he suffered a facial twitch characteristic of the Tippu Tip bird.


Though his old house is in a state of disrepair it does boast a very elaborate door. Now residential one of its many occupants will be happy to show you around for a tip.


Africa House Hotel

Erected in 1888 as an exclusive ‘All British Club’ the Africa House Hotel is a good place to enjoy a drink at sunset in the ocean view bar, and an intriguing building to have a nosey about in. Soon after it opened it began to admit Europeans and Americans. It was once the place to go to enjoy tennis, cricket, Old Albion gin and tonic, and a read in the library. It was also famed for its New Year’s Eve parties.


Attractions within reach of the Stone Town


There are many excursions one can make from Stone Town, including, Jozani Forest, SCUBA diving trips, Spice Tours, Prison Island trips and trips with dolphins. However, these necessitate quite some driving and are easier done from other spots on the island. Three excursions local to Stone Town are daytrips to Chumbe Island Coral Park and visits to nearby Mangapwani Maruhubi and Mtoni Ruins and the Mbweni Ruins.


Chumbe Island Coral Park

Chumbe Island is a 16 acre private island and ecological haven located 8 miles off the south-west coast of Zanzibar. The island is home to the Coral Park resort which boasts exclusive and secluded accommodation in the heart of a stunning natural wilderness and conservation area. The landscape is covered in natural forest, and the coast boasts beautifully preserved coral reefs, one of the finest in the world.


Snorkelling off the island is fantastic and one can also take tours of the coral rag forest to catch sight of some indigenous wildlife and climb the Chumbe Lighthouse.


Daytrips must be booked in advance (www.chumbeisland.com, +255 777 413 232 or +255 242 231 040) as strictly fourteen visitors per day are allowed to the island. The boat leaves Mbweni Ruins at 1000 daily and returns at 4pm (wear shorts as you may have to wade to the island). The trip costs USD 80 and includes snorkelling and lunch.


Mbweni


This coastal spot, 7 km south of Stone Town is a good place to escape the city to. Botanical gardens, historic ruins and a health spa and restaurant (run and owned by the Mbweni Ruins Hotel) make it a popular day-trip destination.


The ruins are of a freed-slave colony. The ruins of the Chapel and St Mary’s School (dating from c.1875) remain. The school’s first headmistress, Caroline Thackeray (cousin of the famous novelist William Thackeray) is buried in the neighbouring St John’s Church. St Mary’s was a school for the daughters of freed slaves and girls rescued from the slave boats. St John’s is a neo-gothic church and still used today.


The botanical gardens are well-cared for and one can catch sight of many indigenous birds and insects (don’t expect an awe-inspiring nature experience unless you are particularly interested in small wildlife). The gardens were founded by Sir John Kirk, a renowned botanist, during his term as the first British Consul General. Kirk introduced some 650 species of flora to the gardens and 150 palms.


Mangapwani Maruhubi and Mtoni Ruins

Along the coast to the north of Stone Town is where many of the sultan’s built there palaces. With only one exception they all burnt down long ago, but the ruins can be visited. Maruhubi and the older and more intriguing Mtoni are easily accessible from Stone Town on the number 502 daladala from the Creek Road or by taxi. They are open daily and cost around USD 3 just to look around.


Maruhubi was built by Sultan Barghash in 1882 as a home for his harem of 99 concubines and one wife. Not much remains of the charming wooden palace today though one can see a photo of it in its former glory in the House of Wonders. But a visit is relaxing escape from the Stone Town bustle and the gardens and the coastline are nice.


Mtoni, 1 km further north, is more exciting. The palace was built between 1828 and 1832 by Sultan Seyyid Saïd. It was his official residence and home to his three wives, forty-two children and hundreds of concubines. The ruins are reasonably large and include a colonnaded quadrangle. However, the main attraction of Mtoni is the Princess Salame tour. Her tale of love and elopement with a German merchant in 1866 is fascinating and wonderfully entertaining. The Princess tour is not cheap at USD 55-USD 70 but includes a ‘coffee ceremony’ and spice tour and lunch with a local family. Concerts are occasionally held in the ruins and these are worth asking about.


Mangapwani

For those who wish to escape Stone Town for a day at the beach Mangapwani is a good option. With a coral cavern and underground slave chambers that can be explored Mangapwani offers more than just some time on the beach. It can be reached from Stone Town by public transport on the number 102 “Bumbwini” daladala (most will drop you on the road leaving a 600m walk through the village to the coast). Alternatively you can book an afternoon there, including a buffet lunch at the Mangapwani Beach Club through the Serena Inn for USD 50. You can hire snorkelling gear from the club and dhow trips can also be arranged.



Accommodation in Stone Town


Hotels Near Stone Town’s Waterfront



Hotels in Central Stone Town



Hotels on Stone Town’s Outskirts



Hotels Out of Town




<< Overview of Zanzibar Hotels

Fumba Beach Lodge >>





Loading...