Visit Stone Town, Zanzibar, and you’ll be gob-smacked by its twisted alleyways, crumbling limestone palaces, mosques and faded mansions.
Stone Town is the historic old part of the capital of Zanzibar.
While largely Islamic, it’s a melting pot of Indian, European, Arab and Swahili cultures.
Stone Town is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a rich and storied past.
We visited Zanzibar after a safari in Zambia, spending 4 nights in Stone Town.
You may be tempted to head straight to the beaches of Zanzibar.
But we’d highly recommend that you spend some time in this ancient city first.
There are many unique and fascinating things to do in Stone Town!
Things to do in Stone Town, Zanzibar
1) Get lost in Stone Town
Stone Town’s narrow winding lanes and alleys are wonderful to wander.
But trying to follow a map of Stone Town is impossible.
Even though our hotel gave us one, it was too frustrating to use.
Don’t worry though.
One of the best things to do in Stone Town is simply to let your feet follow your curiosity.
See locals shopping, vendors selling food on the streets, the devout going to pray at mosques…
And if you get lost – which you will – you’ll find your way again pretty soon. Stone Town isn’t that large, and it can easily be explored on foot.
Thankfully, we’d booked a guided morning walking tour for our first day in Stone Town, which helped orient us a bit.
You might want to do that too – your hotel can help set that up for you.
2) Marvel at the Zanzibari doors
When you’re out and about in Stone Town, be sure to make a point of looking at the elaborately carved Zanzibari doors.
Symbolic of Stone Town, these are no ordinary doors – they’re marvelous wooden masterpieces!
Some, reflecting an Indian influence, are decorated with rosettes or brass spikes (originally a defense against elephants).
Others feature geometric Arab designs, with carvings of lotuses and pineapples.
3) Learn about sultans at the Palace Museum
The huge white palace on the Stone Town waterfront was once the sultan’s palace in the 19th century.
Now the palace is a museum. Eye the opulent thrones, dining tables and portraits that offer a glimpse into the past privileged lives of the sultan’s family.
The section of the museum dedicated to Princess Salme, daughter of Sultan Seyyid Said, is especially intriguing.
A self-educated young woman and a bit of a feminist, she fell in love with a German merchant, got pregnant and fled Zanzibar with him to settle in Hamburg.
Sadly, her husband died in a tram accident a few years later.
She ended up writing Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar, the first known autobiography of an Arab woman, to help keep her financially afloat. (Originally published in 1886, it’s now available on Amazon.)
4) Weep at the old slave market
One of the saddest places to visit in Stone Town is the old slave market and whipping post.
Now the purposefully-chosen site of the Anglican Cathedral, it clobbered us with reminders of man’s cruelty.
Zanzibar was once the center for the East African slave and ivory trade.
At its height in the 18th and 19 centuries, some 45,000 slaves, captured on mainland Africa, were shipped from Zanzibar to Brazil, India and Arab countries.
One dank chamber we climbed down to see (smaller than a single car garage) reputedly imprisoned 50 slaves awaiting auction for days at a time.
Rusty shackles and chains are still attached to the stone walls as grisly artifacts.
5) Meander through Darajani Market
Browsing the Darajani Market is a must to put on your list when planning what to do in Stone Town.
To visit the market, we had to gingerly step across dirty wet floors, picking our way around toothless vendors squatting on the ground, weighing yellowfin tuna, ringed by local bidders.
Clouds of flies buzzed around bloody slabs of beef, liver and goat hanging from hooks.
But oh, how interesting!
We saw dried octopus and strange Durian fruits.
It was all very colorful and unchanged from days gone by – but not for the squeamish!
6) Visit the Old Fort of Zanzibar
Located on the seafront, the Old Fort of Zanzibar was built in 1700 by the Arabs from Oman after they kicked out the Portuguese.
Later, it was used as a prison, then a railway terminal and a ladies’ club.
It’s the oldest building in Stone Town – and it’s free to wander in and look around.
7) Browse Forodhani Garden’s night food market
Near the Old Fort is Forodhani Gardens.
At night, Forodhani Gardens comes alive, with strings of tiny overhead lights adding a certain charm.
This is when food sellers hawk their wares from small stalls and carts. Discover “Zanzibar” pizza, kebabs, roasted corn, freshly-squeezed sugar cane juice and more, geared to locals.
We didn’t eat or drink here – and we’d caution against trying the seafood. But it’s a fun place to check out!
8) Shop for souvenirs
There are dozens of little shops and stalls in Stone Town.
Look for handmade cinnamon-scented soaps, colorful sarongs, palm-leaf bags and coasters, beaded jewelry, hand-crafted wooden animals and spices.
Don’t forget to bargain!
9) Hamamni Persian Baths
It only takes a few minutes to look around the first public baths in Zanzibar (they’re also cheap to enter). They were built between 1870 and 1888 and used until 1920.
Use your imagination, and you can picture what a jewel this bathhouse must have been over a century ago!
10) Sip a sunset cocktail at Emerson Spice Tea House
What to do in Stone Town at sunset?
Climb a few flights of stairs, and you arrive at one of the most magical places to be at sunset – the Tea House at the Emerson Spice Hotel.
The rooftop views are incredible, and the cocktails go down easily too.
You might want to stay for a romantic dinner as well. (Reservations recommended.)
11) See the Freddie Mercury House
So you loved the 2018 film Bohemian Rhapsody about Freddie Mercury, the flamboyant lead singer of the rock band Queen. But did you know he came from Stone Town, Zanzibar?
The house where he was born (and where he and his family stayed until they moved to England in 1963) is now the small Freddie Mercury Museum.
The museum covers Freddie’s birth and childhood in Zanzibar, displaying photos of Freddie and his signature yellow jacket atop a piano.
12) Stay in an historic palace hotel
True, you can visit Stone Town for a day from a Zanzibar beach hotel.
But then you wouldn’t get to experience staying in one of town’s historic palaces that have been turned into atmospheric boutique hotels.
13) Check out the Old Dispensary
On the waterfront, the Old Dispensary is a finely decorated building, complete with wood-carved balconies and stained-glass decorations.
Formerly a charity hospital, it now exhibits handicrafts by local artists.
14) Sample Indian food
With a strong Indian influence, Stone Town is home to several excellent Indian restaurants.
Here’s your chance to try different, authentically-made, popular Indian dishes like samosas and butter chicken.
15) Visit St. Joseph’s Cathedral
If you’ve been to Marseilles, you might think St. Joseph’s Cathedral looks familiar.
That’s because it was designed by the same French architect behind the Notre Dame Basilica in Marseilles – sporting distinctive tall twin spires.
Dating back to the late 1800’s, St. Joseph’s Cathedral is especially worth popping into during mass, as the choir singers have heavenly voices!
16) People watch at Jaws Corner
Located near St. Josephs Cathedral, Jaws Corner is a mini square in Stone Town – said to be the “heart” of Stone Town – where men gather to sip coffee and play bao (an East African board game).
You’ll know you’re there when you see rows of red flags strung above, looking somewhat like Tibetan prayer flags.
17) Experience a sunset dhow cruise
So you’ve had sunset cocktails on a rooftop. Another way to catch the glorious pumpkin-orange sunset in Stone Town is to take a dhow cruise.
Traditional wooden sailing vessels, dhows were used by Arab traders to sail across the Indian Ocean to East Africa.
Sure, a sunset cruise is a bit touristy.
But then again, why not?
The boats are timeless, and listening to the white sails flap in the breeze, as you gaze at Stone Town from the sea, is something you won’t regret.
Exploring Stone Town is one of the best things to do in Zanzibar. Don’t miss it!
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Photo credits: 1 to 3, 6 to 19, 21, 22, 28, 29 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 20 Emerson Spice Hotel | 23, 24 Zanzibar Palace Hotel