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17 Spellbinding things to do in Stone Town, Zanzibar

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17 Spellbinding things to do in Stone Town, Zanzibar

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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. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a rich and storied past.

There are many fascinating things to do in Stone Town, Zanzibar!

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 – because 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.

An elaborate Zanzibari door in Stone Town

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, Zanzibar, is the old slave market and whipping post.

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.

Old slave quarters in Stone Town, Zanzibar

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 one of the best things to do in Stone Town, Zanzibar!

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.

Dried octopus at the Darajani Market in Stone Town, Zanzibar

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

The Old Fort of Zanzibar in Stone Town

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

Shopping in Stone Town, Zanzibar

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!

A shop in Stone Town, Zanzibar

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.

Rooftop views from 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.

They seem to be haunted by the fictional Scheherazade – and will have you dreaming of One Thousand and One Nights.

Zanzibar Palace Hotel, Stone Town

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

Sampling Indian food in Stone Town, Zanzibar

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

St. Joseph's Cathedral in Stone Town

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

Sunset dhow cruise in Stone Town, Zanzibar

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.

Bottom line?

What to do in Stone Town, Zanzibar? Stroll along the seaside.

Exploring Stone Town is one of the best things to do in Zanzibar. Don’t miss it!

Where to stay in Stone Town

We stayed at the Zanzibar Palace Hotel in Stone Town – and loved it.

A restored 9-room palace, it features Arabic-style arches, lattice woodwork, steep staircases, carved doors and huge four-poster beds with silk covers and cushions. 

Ultimate Africa guide

How to choose where to go on safari? What’s the best way to hike up Table Mountain in Cape Town? Where to stay in Victoria Falls?

Get the full scoop on planning a luxury trip to Africa, complete with fabulous itineraries, in our free Africa Travel Guide & Safari Planner.


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Top things to do in Stone Town, Zanzibar

Photo credits: 1, 3 to 5, 7, 8, 10 to 21, 24, 25, 32, 33 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 22 and 23 Emerson Spice Hotel | 26 to 28 Zanzibar Palace Hotel


Have you visited Stone Town, Zanzibar?


About the authors:

Janice and George Mucalov

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George are the owners and founders of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, luxury hotel reviews, insanely useful travel tips and more!

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Kathryn Burrington

Sunday 13th of November 2016

No, I have not visited Stone Town but would dearly love to. It has always sounded so mysterious and romantic. I long to walk through those streets, photograph those doors and palaces, and write about it all one day, present and past.

Nina

Wednesday 17th of August 2016

Love reading anything about Zanzibar. I think in total i spend some years on Zanzi in last 6 years and each time i am staying there I find something new. Its like a box with no bottom, always something fun to do and see.

Janice and George

Friday 19th of August 2016

Zanzibar was one of the most exotic places we've visited - so we can imagine that each time you visit, you'd discover new and different things to experience :-).

Cheryl Merrill

Monday 23rd of December 2013

Thanks for another fascinating visit to a place I'll never see - never enough time in one's life!

Janice and George

Tuesday 24th of December 2013

So true - so many wonderful places in the world to visit. And when you scratch the surface, even "ordinary" places often reveal fascinating sides.

Janice and George

Wednesday 18th of December 2013

We hadn't heard about Goree Island until we checked your post Memories of Goree Island, Senegal - very interesting...

Amy

Saturday 14th of December 2013

Gorgeous photos of a city with a very sad history. Thanks for showing so many sides!

Janice and George

Saturday 14th of December 2013

Glad you like the photos...

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