On a morning walking tour through Stone Town’s twisted alleyways, we ogle crumbling limestone palaces, mosques and faded mansions.
Our guide also points out the elaborately carved Zanzibari doors, symbolic of Stone Town.
Some doors reflect an Indian influence. They’re decorated with rosettes or brass spikes (originally a defense against elephants). Others have geometric Arab designs.
Historic Stone Town, Zanzibar
Stone Town is the historic old part of the capital of Zanzibar. And it has a storied past.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s largely Islamic. But it’s also a fascinating melting pot of Indian, European, Arab and Swahili cultures.
It takes stamina, though, to keep walking when the sun starts to burn high in the sky. The muggy heat is oppressive. To visit the market, we must 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 buzz around bloody slabs of beef, liver and goat hanging from hooks.
Colorful and unchanged from days gone by, but not for the squeamish!
Dark slave history
The old slave market and whipping post (now the purposefully-chosen site of the Anglican Cathedral) also clobbers 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 19th centuries, some 45,000 slaves, captured on mainland Africa, were shipped from Zanzibar to Brazil, India and Arab countries. One dank chamber we climb down to see (smaller than a single car garage) reputedly imprisoned 50 slaves awaiting auction for days at a time.
Rusty shackles and chains, still attached to the stone walls, are grisly artifacts.
Historic palace hotels
Most visitors go to Zanzibar for its (hot!) beaches. And from your beach hotel, you can tour Stone Town on a day trip (up to a 90-minute drive away, depending on location).
But it’s worth staying in Stone Town for at least a night, if only to experience one of the historic palaces which have been turned into atmospheric boutique palace-hotels. They seem to be haunted by the fictional Scheherazade and will have you dreaming of One Thousand and One Nights.
Overnighting means you get to catch the glorious pumpkin-orange sunset in Stone Town too – its beauty a stark contrast to the rigors of the day.