Step off the boat or plane onto the Zanzibar Archipelago and you’re transported through time and place. This is one of the world's great cultural crossroads, where Africa meets Arabia meets the Indian Ocean.
In Zanzibar Town, the narrow alleys of historic Stone Town meander between ancient buildings decorated with balconies and gigantic carved doors. Meanwhile, on the coast, fishing boats set sail, and in the countryside farmers tend fields of rice or the clove plantations that give Zanzibar its 'Spice Islands' moniker.
Beyond these little-changed traditions, visitors see a very different landscape. The idyllic beaches are dotted with hotels, and the ocean becomes a playground for diving, snorkelling and kitesurfing.
With its tropical tableau and unique culture, plus an active beach-party scene for those that want it, the Zanzibar Archipelago offers a fascinating and highly enjoyable East African Indian Ocean experience.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Zanzibar Archipelago.
An icon of Stone Town, the House of Wonders rises in impressive tiers of slender steel pillars and balconies overlooking the waterfront. Its enormous carved doors are said to be the largest in East Africa, fronted by two bronze cannon with Portuguese inscriptions dating them to the 16th century. Inside, the National Museum of History & Culture has exhibits on Swahili civilisation and the peoples of the Indian Ocean.
ZALA (Zanzibar Land Animals) Park was founded as a project to help local people appreciate the value of wildlife, with funds raised by tourist visits. The park itself appears forlorn today, as more energy and emphasis goes into tours exploring local woodland, mangrove shoreline and nearby villages, by foot, bike or kayak.
One of the best ways to ease into Zanzibar life is to stop by this waterfront public space. It's a social hub for tourists and locals alike; there's a large restaurant jutting into the sea, two small cafes with outside seating, benches under shady trees, a children's play park, and food stalls in the evening.
With its peppermint-green latticework balconies and sculpted clock tower, this 19th-century charitable dispensary is one of the most attractive landmarks on the waterfront. It was built by Tharia Topan, a prominent Ismaili Indian merchant who also acted as financial adviser to the sultan and as banker to Tippu Tip, Zanzibar’s most notorious slave trader. You’re free to wander through the interior, which now accommodates offices. In the airy courtyard on the ground floor is the Abyssinian's Steakhouse restaurant.
Carefully curated by the renowned historian Said al Gheithy, this delightful little museum tells the story of Princess Salme, a sultan's daughter who eloped with a German merchant in the late 19th century and later wrote Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar. If Said is on duty, his guided tour of the museum adds depth to the story.
Surrounded by crystal waters and stunning coral reefs, Misali offers some of the best diving in East Africa, while snorkelling is spectacular and easily reached from the beach. Around the island, nesting turtles favour beaches on the western side, while on the northeast coast is Baobab Beach, with fine sand and a small ranger centre (although information here is limited).
The tall spire and grey-yellow walls of the Anglican cathedral dominate the surrounding streets in this part of Stone Town, while the dark-wood pews and stained-glass windows will remind British visitors of churches back home. This was the first Anglican cathedral in East Africa, constructed in the 1870s by the Universities Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) on the site of the former slave market after slavery was officially abolished.
Occupying several large buildings along the waterfront, this was the palace of Sultan Seyyid Said from 1828 until it was largely destroyed by the British bombardment of 1896. It was then rebuilt and used until the 1964 revolution when the last sultan was overthrown. Remarkably, much of the royal paraphernalia – banqueting tables, portraits, thrones and water closets – survives to now provide the human-interest story in this museum dedicated to the sultanate in the 19th century.
With its pale-orange ramparts overlooking Forodhani Gardens and the ocean beyond, the fort was built by Omani Arabs when they seized the island from the Portuguese in 1698, and over the centuries it's had various uses, from prison to tennis club. Today the scale of the fortifications is still impressive, although there has been some modernisation inside, notably a line of souvenir shops and a pleasant cafe that turns into a bar in the evening.