Zanzibar Island is a jewel in the ocean, surrounded by beaches that rate among the finest in the world. Here you can swim, snorkel or just lounge the hours away, while shoals of luminous fish graze over nearby coral gardens and pods of dolphins frolic offshore.
In the island's capital, Zanzibar Town, sits the historic quarter of Stone Town, with a mesmerising mix of influences from Africa, Arabia, India and Europe.
For these reasons and more, Zanzibar Island (officially called Unguja) is the archipelago's focal point, and the most popular destination for visitors, but choose your spot carefully. While it's easy to find tranquil beauty or party buzz (or both), increasing development threatens the island’s ineluctable magic and fragile community resources.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Zanzibar Island.
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.
In 1993 the villagers of Nungwi opened this turtle sanctuary in a large natural tidal pool near the lighthouse and since then these sea creatures have enjoyed a degree of protection from being hunted and eaten. You can see turtles of various species and sizes, and proceeds from entrance fees fund an education project for local children, hopefully demonstrating the benefits of turtle conservation.
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.
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.